Monday, October 31, 2011

What Frightens Players?

Jason's Grim Reaper
One of my neighbors puts up this massive grim reaper every year for Halloween. It is quite epic. He detailed the original construction on his blog, but he modifies it a bit each year. Thanks for bringing the Halloween spirit every year, Jason!

Driving or walking by the thing at night, lit by a blood-red floodlight, is a creepy experience. What would it be like as an adventurer to meet something on that scale? What scares you as a player? Large creatures? Supernatural beings? Atmospheric events? I’m always on the lookout for things that will scare players, but I feel like that is one realm of gaming at which I’ve rarely been successful.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. 
— H.P Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

As Lovecraft points out, there are a lot of black depths in our minds. Black depths that hold untold horrors. How do we tap those “dissociated “ horrors and bring them to “deadly light” at the gaming table?

For some players, terror comes in the form of the assassin in the dark. A near-mystical force of death that slays and vanishes without a trace. A couple of the characters in my Sunday group have quit their local thieves’ guild and begun freelancing as a security company. At first the guild sent one or two of the characters’ friends to remind them of their duties. Later, they sent a pair of enforcers in an attempt to strongarm the characters back into the guild. Finally, when it was clear the characters were done with the guild, the guildmaster hired an assassin to finish the business.

I rarely throw encounters at my players that include unbeatable monsters. But, the jester (assassin) that walked into the common room of the Slovenly Imp was quickly identified as a foe and attacked. It became apparent that even the best attacks of the party weren’t hitting. A critical hit actually did some damage, but it appeared minimal. There was some grumbling around the table, and awkward silences, and much shuffling of character sheets. (This is one of my gripes with 4e D&D, upon which my home-brew system is based. Players often look to their sheets first instead of consulting the evidence of the situation in front of them. But I digress.)

Were they afraid? Large chunks of hit points vanished quickly from characters that were hit. An NPC who had been hired to help (and who told them upfront that he would not fight the assassin, but only his henchmen) fled as soon as it was apparent that the assassin was alone, with no easy minions to aid him. But, did this scenario invoke terror? Not much, I think. The players grumbled a bit about it. I maintained that I had given plenty of clues about the coming bloodbath. And, when they engineered a creative escape plan, I allowed it to happen largely unhindered. Had the assassin failed, thus ruining his own reputation? Who knows what the repercussions of the encounter were, and as the party skulked in the sewers for the next few sessions, what happened above them on the streets is largely unknown. Are they afraid of what is to come? Hard to say.

So, at best, the overwhelming encounter had mixed success in frightening my players. Perhaps I need to rely on more atmospheric elements. I had a great time a while back with a take on the Feywild (or Faewild, as I prefer to call it in my campaign.) The idyllic scene was fractured by war. Imagery evoked by modern, mechanically-based combat such as detonations, overhead barrages, and the chaos of fleeing civilians mixed with skirmishers, was used to bring the horrors of war to their immediate awareness. This was not the orderly line of elves swinging their synchronous swords against a horde of orcs. It was the madness of war, and quick choices to be made: Help the refugees, or aid the soldiers at the strongpoint?

The atmosphere of the Faewild magnified everything, both the urgent surge of life to remain living, and the elemental forces of destruction seeking to end it. Scary in a different way, I suppose.

Finally, for one of my groups I’ve drawn on the creeping horrors that H.P. Lovecraft brought to un-life so well. I’ve hinted at a “terrifying vista”, a reality twisted from our own, yet invading with some as-yet-unknown purpose. Slithering in through the dark recesses below our cities and wastelands. My hope is that, as the scope of this story unfolds, my players will learn to fear it. But I’m wary of lingering too long with one source of fear. A few years ago I ran a campaign that was designed to be an epic struggle between my players and the drow in a megadungeon that was described as the sunken library of Alexandria, hidden beneath the streets of an alternative-history version of that city. What I thought was frightening, the dark and twisted culture of the drow, my players just found annoying. They grew weary of it all and the campaign eventually collapsed.

What I learned from that is to vary my sources more. A single monolithic evil such as Sauron in the Lord of the Rings is all but invincible to most PCs, and therefore does little to generate fear directly. But smaller horrors, in varied forms, seem more likely to frighten my players.

I’d love to hear what other players and GMs have found frightening. Share your stories here, if you will. Happy Halloween, all!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Delves: Castelo dos Mouros, Portugal

Flags over the ramparts of Castelo dos Mouros

Located near Sintra (north of Lisbon) in Portugal, this castle and the surrounding forest was an inspiring location to explore and to imagine as a location for gaming. Castelo dos Mouros is the "Castle of the Moors".
Ruins in the forest

The extensive ramparts of Castelo dos Mouros

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Are You Playing a Game, or a Role?

I’ve read several blog posts recently about character generation in RPGs that discuss the virtues and failings of various rules systems and/or generations of rules systems. There are some enthusiastic discussions in the comments with great insights and ideas.

-C, talking about the problem with rules over at Hack & Slash said:

Comprehensive robust rule sets lead players to think that the only performable actions are ones that the rules cover. Play ceases to become about 'what can I think of to get myself out of this situation' and instead becomes about 'did I place my points correctly at character creation or level up'.

My experiences running weekly sessions at my FLGS confirm this observation. Players are more likely to look at their character sheets to determine what they can and cannot do, than to propose an action to the GM, and react to the result.

Further development of this discussion in related blog posts puts the blame on the character generation system itself. The requirements of abbreviated chargen systems are contrasted with those of other (usually more modern) systems:

The first [character generation method] has a new player rolling dice in seconds, and a complete character in about 5 minutes, and then playing, using their own life experiences and skill for success.

What I find myself disagreeing with is the idea that the character generation systems, or the rule systems, are the primary fault. At what point did players adopt the tendency to self-limit their actions in the game based on their character stats? Is this a result of the modern idea of character builds, or do players self limit for some other reason? It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

Playing from the character sheet, and describing actions in terms of game mechanics, can lessen the sense of immersion in the game. It becomes less a role-playing game, and more of a cards/dice/miniatures board game ruled by strategies and tactics designed to maximize performance within the context of those rules. As Runeslinger said in a recent blog post:

a few players – particularly those with a disproportionate amount of experience in “the one true game” – tended to make and announce rolls rather than describe intentions and actions. In Call of Cthulhu this would manifest as an interruption of a setting description with the announcement of “I roll Spot Hidden and get a… *dice clatter* 24,” or “My character has a Track of 25%… who has a higher Track score?”

But, are such examples of play the result of the rules or the players? In Runeslinger’sThe Skill of Immersion” post I linked above, he outlines several methods that players and GMs can use to move away from this metagame level of play. These are play skills that can be encouraged, and practiced at the table. Play skills that, like characters leveling up that some systems include, are the result of experience. Time and experimentation are the keys.

As a GM, when my players drop a foe I often ask them to describe the killing blow. “What happens to the goblin when your Orb of Force hits it?” or, “You swing your axe at the bloodied Beholder, what happens when it connects?” When they tell me, “I want to use Intimidate on him.” I ask, “What do you say and/or do that might be considered intimidating?” Players want to imagine successful actions, and to perform tasks in heroic ways. If it serves the story, I let them perform tasks free of game-mechanical interference, using what Phil, the Chatty DM promoted: The Rule of Cool.

If it serves the story, you don’t need to rely on game mechanics to resolve it. Weaning players from over-reliance on game mechanics can help get their heads up from the character sheet, and focused on the players and action around them. While it is true that extensive rules will tend to encourage usage of the same, role-playing games are still about stories, characters, and the people who play them.

On the chargen front, what this translates to is the idea that there are no “bad” character builds, or character concepts. Players and GMs should focus on developing characters through the run of play. This gets players into the game more quickly, and encourages them to experiment with options they might not otherwise try.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: The New Death and others

Short stories and poems by James Hutchings

I was recently referred to a collection of poems and short stories by James Hutchings called The New Death and others. The work is available as an Ebook from Smashwords for $0.99 USD. It is a distinctive collection of (very) short stories and poems with some thematic links, infused with a sort of macabre irony. Hutchings turns of phrase can often be lyrical, but sometimes it feels as if he’s working too hard:

No one said anything about his shirt. Well, no one other than the pretzels. But they had to. They were complimentary snacks.
— Singles Bar

The wry tone is mostly confined to the short stories, some of which read a bit like jokes. They are often quite funny, and Hutchings is not shy about playing with words. Sly asides to the reader, and meta-level digressions punctuate the humorous bits. They can be a bit like elbows to the ribs. Not-so-subtle nudges, accompanied by broad winks. In my mind they recalled the poetry of Shel Silverstein with a dash of Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales From The “White Hart”, a collection of short stories with ironic-twist endings narrated in a club/pub setting by a credulity-straining narrator name Harry Purvis.

That said, I thought the punch line for Hutchings' The Doom That Was Laid Upon Fame was hilarious. So, in the humorous vein there is also much to like here.

When he’s focused on the darker side, Hutchings inspirations are more clearly from the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the gothic sensibilities of classic horror and fantasy. Both poems and stories — usually told in the fairy-tale cadences of the Brothers Grimm or Perrault — contain haunting imagery and phrases. In a poem about the moon mourning the decline of her cult he finishes with:

She heard a howl from jaws still hot
and dripping from the kill.
The wolves that ruled the lightless woods
were faithful to her still.
— The Moon Sailed Sadly Through the Sky

Two of the poems in the volume are derived from stories by Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft. The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, and Under the Pyramids, respectively. Hutchings does a fine job in particular of condensing the despair in Lovecraft’s work:

Down in the dark, down in the dark
Down through the rock and slime
away from light and human sight
and sanity and time. 
— Under the Pyramids

Several of the stories are set in the city, island, or world of Telelee. Each had the feel of being part of a rich history. Extensive myths, cults and complex societies form the backdrop. These stories range from humorous (The Construction Workers of Telelee) to the grim tale (How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name) of the sorceress Abi-simti, who chose the wrong instrument in her quest for power:

As Abi-simti wandered the streets of Telelee, too fretful to sit still, a cat crossed her path. It was a moggy with white fur, and a black patch on one eye. This cat rubbed itself against her leg, as cats do to mark their territory. To be precise, it chose her left leg, which ended in a hoof, and thus stood as proof that even her powers had limits. Abi-simti was not minded to receive this lesson. In fury she cried,

“May the Crone turn the water of your bowels to ice, O cat! Your lordly self-satisfaction shall not go unchallenged. You who have claimed territory shall instead be both conquered, and the means of greater conquest.” 
— How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name

I am fond of fairy tales, and funny stories, and clever puns and wordplay. So I found The New Death and others quite enjoyable. I would love to read more tales from Telelee, or expansions of some of the ideas here. For the price, any fan of the fantasy or horror genres will find this Ebook to be a rich bargain, and I recommend it. In the words of the robots of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, Share and Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Legacy of the Red Dragon Inn

In the early- to mid-nineties I spent a fair amount of time on AOL’s Free-Form Gaming Forum. In particular in a group of chat rooms known as the Red Dragon Inn, and its environs (one of which, colloquially known as the “Basement”, housed a chat room for a game called Duel of Swords.) I participated as a player under several screen names, and as a moderator with the handle RDI DarkElf. The chat rooms and associated forum threads were a lot of fun, and included a great group of creative writers and role-players. Online role-play was often high-caliber, and the writing in some of the cooperative threads held its own with some of the best fan-fiction I’ve seen on the interwebs today. In fact, several of the participants from those days have gone on to be published writers.

One of the beauties of free-form, chat-based role playing is that it is based on cooperative respect. In order to communicate the details of your character, you needed to establish communication with other players. Unlike a tabletop RPG, there is no game master to set scenes or provide background. The shared venue of the Red Dragon Inn formed the backdrop for exchanges, and a lively common room for meeting interesting characters. As you spent time in the chat room you discovered that the moderator served as “bartender”, usually role-playing right along with everyone else. And, at least in the time I was playing, there wasn’t much need to deal out disciplinary reprimands to unruly chatters. As AOL membership increased dramatically, this unfortunately became more of an issue.

The techniques for communicating aspects of appearance and character were imaginative and efficient. In order to keep the chat flowing smoothly, players were encouraged not to spam the room with macro-sourced text blocks. But most players had macros on hand for stock phrases, like their entrance into the room.

Some of these techniques would be useful in a tabletop environment. Identifying some stock descriptive components, turns-of-phrase, or habits of your character that can be employed in game (hopefully timed right, so as not to detract from the flow of play) to help paint a picture of your character for other players.

Another aspect of character development that the forums encouraged was cooperative storytelling. Each player would post a brief scene, and others would post in response, playing off one another and building a story. I wrote the following scene to explain my character’s arrival in Rhydin, the realm that housed the Red Dragon Inn. The scene is overwrought, and the theme of “anguished exile seeking solace and redemption in Rhydin” is hackneyed, but it was a theme that many of the characters in the forum had in common, and so we played well together.

The icy mist faded from around the Dark Elf and he was once more alone upon the desolate moor. The moon had sunk into the distant trees, it's silvery light winking through branches stirred by distant breezes.

Hurling the black-bladed tachi to the ground, Feadur wept openly. He knelt and cursed his foolish pride. Pride that had led him to the edge of the pit over which he now stood. In Naryathrond his whole being had been the honorable quest for power. The pride of the  Ruling House. That would be his if the Feamegil could be returned to the Citadel. His brother had forsaken their House, calling House Feamegil 'too weak' to hold the Citadel. House Eldacar, he had said, combined sorcerous power with her military might. He would be their battle-champion, the SwordHand of House Eldacar. Feadur had cursed him that day and called him a traitor. Later, Kuluvinar had returned the 'favor'.

And now he stood trapped between two worlds. The glorious dark of Naryathrond and the warm light of Rhydin. Between the honor of rulership and the freedom of friendship. He felt the bindings as if they were the webs of the Demon Queen herself.

Nearby, the flickering radiance that ever danced along the edge of the black sword flared brightly. In his mind he heard the voice of the blade again, alien and metallic.

"Consider your choice, SwordBrother. We are one. We are joined that we may rule. Return to Naryathrond and reclaim the heritage of our beloved House. Return to her her lost glory."

Feadur gnashed his teeth and bit back the reply he longed to shout. Blinded by tears he stood and staggered away from the blade. It howled in anger. The Dark Elf collapsed not far from the raging blade and lay as if dead.
"You cannot simply walk away, SwordBrother! Were I to be lost, so would you be!" The voice of the sword laughed in his mind. He lay upon the cold moor and thought of his life. For two centuries had he dwelt in the Underworld of Naryathrond, while above him in the world of light all that he had now come to love was forming, evolving and growing. For two centuries he had had but one thought: Power. The power of rule. Of mastery over the lesser Houses. Why did it now feel so wrong? What had changed his heart?

"Answer me this, oh Spirit-Blade; What can you possibly hope to gain if House Feamegil again rules in Naryathrond?" Feadur cried.
"Know, SwordBrother, that our Mother-House was meant to rule!"

"And if I say I no longer care for my 'Mother-House'?"
"That is blasphemy, Brother," The sword hissed.

"I say it none the less! And aloud that all may hear! I renounce my House. I renounce my pact with Hel. I renounce our joining!" The Dark Elf gasped, his voice trembling with emotion.
"So you say, Feadur. So shall it be." The voice of the sword grated painfully in the Dark Elf's mind, the words twisting like knives. "I have existed for a millenium, as the Spirit of your House. You are the first to deny me Feadur. I curse you now, and I call upon that dark goddess of death, Hel, to wreak her vengeance upon you for betraying us!" The sword rose into the air and hung hovering before him. It screamed its call to the ether. "Hel! Know that this Elf has renounced us! Aid me now, that I may slay him and rid this earth of the stain of his disgrace!"
I used this scene to introduce aspects of my character’s backstory. I hinted at some things, trying not to over-explain. The idea being that, over time, other players would participate and share their stories while I did the same.

One of the powerful aspects of the interwebs today is the readily available space for creating these kinds of dialogs. There are a lot of forums and wikis ranging from free of cost to minor fees that can host elements of your game. Obsidian Portal is one of my favorite wikis and I use it for my campaign. Providing space for campaign details means that you have a ready place for players to play in between sessions, or to expand on the details of their characters. Whether it is through art or writing, it’s a great opportunity.

The second aspect of the AOL forums that I enjoyed, the game Duel of Swords, lives on at a website called Rings of Honor. It consists of two duelists and a game master. The duelists choose from a menu of maneuvers and submit one to the game master. The game master compares the choices and announces the result from a pre-determined grid of resolutions. Think of it as an expanded form of rock-paper-scissors. Duel of Swords included an elaborate table of rankings and titles, as well as traditional methods for formalizing challenges. To fight for the position of Overlord, at the top of the table, was a great event. It prompted a lot of major gatherings and great role-playing in addition to the keen competition of the game itself.

Having a game subsystem within an RPG can be fun for players on occasion. Whether it is a card game in a tavern, a test of some skill, or a race mechanic, any of these options can create a lively session. In my Dominium campaign, I borrowed the idea of a race (and the source for the race mechanics) from a fellow game master, and created a festival in the hillside village of Old Sarum that featured a race involving wheels of cheese. Inspired by the Cooper’s Hill cheese-rolling race near Gloucester in the Cotswolds region of England, and the Formula D board game, I created a race through the serpentine cobbled streets. Players had to set their movement speeds, negotiate corners, and fend off other participants. Great fun was had by all.

Each player at the table has different strengths and levels of interest in role-playing. Finding ways to involve as many players as possible can mean thinking beyond your rulebooks and the roles they define, and looking for creative ways to inspire players to participate. Whether it’s cooperative storytelling, or sub-system games during your session, or some other avenue, there are many sources of inspiration to be mined.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dominium Campaign: Combat System Changes

I’m an art guy, with enough technical savvy that I’ve dabbled in IT for small, creative boutique design shops and advertising agencies. I like systems and taking things apart to see how they work. Sometimes when I put things back together, I don’t get all the parts in the right places. Case in point, my home-brew game rules.

I ran my two groups of monthly players through sessions on Friday night and Sunday morning this past weekend. This is their second session with the latest installment of the rules and there were a lot of questions, and a few misunderstandings. I got some good input from several players as well. It’s hard for me to take input sometimes. Despite the critical rigors of working in the design and advertising industry, I have a tendency to interpret input as criticism, and criticism is then internalized as me being stupid.

But I’m not here to complain. We’re taking about RPGs. I’m using this as an opportunity to learn healthier habits for taking input, and making better games (or whatever I happen to be producing at the time.)

One of the subsystems of my rules replaces the at-will, encounter, and daily powers of 4e D&D with point cards in various denominations. Players may then spend the points to turn their attacks into the equivalent of a fancy at-will, daily or encounter power by “purchasing” effects and/or damage. It sounds like it would take more time than 4e powers in combat, but it seems to go faster because players are able to apply their choice of conditions (usually ones that are tactically appropriate based on the immediate situation), or just heap on the damage when they want to speed up the game. The cards model fatigue and heroic effort in a way I find more fun and flexible than 4e powers.

As characters level up, they add new cards, either larger denominations, or multiples of existing denominations. When I first implemented this system, I allowed players to “make change” from cards already spent. Then I imposed a limit on playing with cards in hand only, and added a maximum-per-attack limit. One of my players noted that, for various reasons, the denominations were adding complexity without providing tangible game benefits. Not a good thing considering my desire to make a system that had perks for power gamers, yet remained easy to play for casual gamers.

He proposed that players be limited to playing one card per attack. Thus, if a player had one 4-point card, two 3-point cards, three 2-point cards, and four 1-point cards, they would be able to choose (upon rolling a successful hit) to make a big 4-point attack out of it (equivalent to a daily), or a more mundane 1-point attack. Or, something in-between. Once the player had used that big attack, they’d effectively be fatigued and unable to do that again until they had rested. (I’ll talk about recovery of the points in another post.)

This seemed like a good compromise. Most of my players were spending their maximum attack points with each attack whenever they were confronted with non-minion (low hit point) opponents. This was fine, but there was effectively no reason for the multiple denominations of cards. My original intention was to duplicate the intent of at-will, daily, and encounter attacks without the rigidity of having the effects of such attacks limited to singular occurrences.  For example, if a rogue was good at blinding foes with a barrage of thrown weapons, why wouldn’t they be able to do that repeatedly (as long as they had enough ammunition)?

As an added wrinkle, the combat options I’ve adopted from my friend’s Lords of Chaos rules include full and partial attacks. A full attack is a carefully planned and executed blow. It takes more time to analyze defenses, set up the attack, and deliver it. The benefit is that the damage includes all available modifiers (e.g., ability, magic, etc.) A partial attack is executed in haste. It is an attempt to strike as quickly as possible to keep a foe off balance, or to deal with multiple smaller threats. It gains no modifiers to damage, using only the base die determined by the type of weapon.

The system is timing based. A full attack takes longer to deliver than a partial. In my initial design, players could spend card points up to their per-attack maximum for effects and damage. On a partial attack, they were limited to just a few points. This turned out to make the partial attack relatively better than the full attack, and in testing, many players didn’t bother waiting for a full attack. In response to that, we’re updating the rules to specify that points for additional dice of damage and/or effects can only be spent on full attacks.

In practice, I think the system is proving to be fun and versatile. Combat is quicker as players tend to do more damage. To balance that, I’ve been using high damage-model creatures from the more recent WotC collections to keep combat feeling dangerous to players. When a 7th-level rogue dropped after three hits on Sunday, everyone agreed that the system was edgy enough to make it exciting (he survived thanks to a promptly-applied healing potion.)

There are other portions of my home rules that will be evolving over the next few months. Both groups of players include members who are systems experts, engineering types with a penchant for analyzing how things work and getting the most out of the systems they use. It’s daunting to design for them, and (as I said at the outset) challenging to hear that things need fixing. In the end though, the system will improve and be more fun for all involved. A big shout out to my players. The game wouldn’t be a game without you!

Friday, October 21, 2011

In Character: Denar

Denar Valravn by anarkeith
Beneath the Mournland
The Vault-master shifted the lamp, a bowl of omphalotus, to cast more light on the spidery script that crabbed the face of the scroll before him. The bilious glow of the fungi, redoubled by the multi-faceted lenses of the lamp, wavered as the tottering mushrooms reacted to the movement. The script so enthralled him that he didn’t bother to glance up when the door of his study was flung open and an armored figure noisily strode across the room to slump into the chair opposite.

The War-master coughed unceremoniously.  “You’ve a long list there. Would that I were so fortunate.”

“Many of the candidates are unsuitable,” said the Vault-master. He picked at the scroll with a talon-like nail. “This De’nar’hethi, for example. Her clan has always served the blada d'thalack, yet she appears on my list?”

“Too small. And a Disciple of Vice, to add insult to injury. Always ordering everyone about.”

The Vault-master grinned. “I thought that to be an ideal qualification for the Council of War.”

“Hardly. I want those who follow orders. I will do the ordering about myself.”

“And how am I supposed to use her then?”

“Make her a guard,” the War-master shrugged. “Umbra knows she can fight better than most of the scavengers in the mist-above. She’ll keep your beady-eyed scholars alive long enough maybe they’ll even find something we can use down here.”

The Vault-master sighed. “It may appear a long list to you. But the har'ol d'veldrin grow fewer each day. The surface is near as perilous as the Khyberic depths, it seems.”

“All the better reason to make De’nar’hethi har'ol d'veldrin, then. Find me a weapon to win this war, or we’ll all be living on your ‘perilous’ surface with its pox-ridden mist.”

It was the Vault-master’s turn to shrug. “What of her clan, will the Veldrin d'avuna not seek to avenge the slight?”

“Valravn is out of favor with the Council at the moment. Denar’s penchant for officiousness is a clan trait. And they’ve bristled the spines of more than a few great Houses.”

“If she finds a weapon to wield against the daelkyr, Valravn will see their fortunes restored.”

“And how likely is that, oh master of the har'ol d'veldrin?” the War-master asked with an acid laugh.

“She will have to search the length and breadth of Khorvaire, I fear,” the Vault-master replied. “And possibly beyond. I cannot imagine a weapon mighty enough to stay the aberrant horde.”

Iblith! Imagine it. Forge it. Pull it out of your puckered arse. But find me a weapon and soon, or we’ll be just another band of scavengers picking at the corpse of Cyre above until the daelkyr decide to take that too!”

“I’ll send Denar up then. Perhaps she can ‘order’ the light-dwellers to re-fire one of their Creation Forges, or beat the secrets out of one of their great Houses?”

“She’s too short. She’ll be killed. But at least I won’t have to listen to my officers complain about her.”

“I’m sure the masters of the Vault will make their feelings about her known to me, once they’ve had the pleasure of meeting her.”

“She’s your problem now, master. I’ve got bigger lights to snuff.”

Nindol zhah l' fa'la zatoast
"This is the bastard." De’nar’hethi Veldrin d’avuna introduces her sword to a foe.
Drow society rewards passion and authority. The ability to amass and retain personal power is the only measure of any drow’s worth. Therefore, drow settlements are full of internal struggles for dominance barely concealed under a veneer of normalcy.
— Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide
Denar is short. And short-tempered. And not above hamstringing an unsuspecting foe from behind. She is also fond of explosives, corrosives, and any device that burns, cuts, or maims.

Mannerisms and Appearance
Denar speaks bluntly, and has little patience for (or understanding of) complex matters. She often draws the edge of her sword across the exposed portion of her shield arm before striking, and has numerous scars there as proof of the habit.

De’nar’hethi Veldrin d’avuna, or Denar Valravn in common, is an agent of the har'ol d'veldrin — the Vault of Shadows, an organization devoted to the search for ways to increase the mystical power of her race, and to preserve it against the rising tide of aberrations that threaten them. She aspired to be a part of the blada d'thalack — the Council of War, and to fight against the aberrations. However, due to her slight stature, the Council instead assigned her to the Vault of Shadows.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Character: Saraneth

Saraneth by anarkeith
Overheard in a shadowy corner of the Notched Dirk, one of Irongate's less-reputable drinking establishments:

"So, what's with the girlie I seen shadowing your boys?"

"She's my good luck charm, she is."

"Bit young. Next you'll be escorting young boys about."

"That's not what I've had her about for."

"Do tell. Good luck?"

"Other night, an officer of the watch, Len d'Garlim it was — well-to-do family the d'Garlim — was off duty with a few mates and in his cups pretty deep."

"Rolling officers will lead to trouble. And even in his cups, d'Garlim knows his work."

"That's the curious bit, see?"

"Don't. What's the catch?"

"The girlie looks d'Garlim in the eye and says, 'Backwash Alley leads to Cartwright, you should flee.' And ol' Len turns to his boys and waves them into Crook's Bush."

"Crook's Bush is a dead end. What did he go there for? He'd know it from Backwash."

"My thoughts exactly, friend."

"So you cornered them in a nice dark hole?"

"That we did."

"He was drunk."

"Not that drunk."

"He got his cleaver out then, I bet."

"You'd win that bet, though I'd never have bet against it."

"So, how'd you take him?"

"She looks at him again, all funny-like, and says, 'Piercing their heavy armor will take mighty strokes. Swing with care and force."

"And he does it? Your lads aren't exactly ironclads."

"Not a bit of metal on my boys other than pointy stuff. So while he's winding up to kill a troll, we poke him full of holes. He's not wearing nothing but his fancy blue officer's coat with brass buttons, and he goes down right quick. Fair bit of gold on him and his boys too."

"Swift. She's a sorceress, eh?"

"Or something."

"Magic costs dear, what'd you have to pay her?"

"That's the funny bit. All she wanted was d'Garlim's coat."

"Oh, that's trouble. How's a girl going to explain that?"

"I've no idea. And she took off after that business. No idea where she went."

"She'll turn up dead, most like. Or in the stocks."

"Most like. But I'll hire her again in a minute if I see her. She's good luck enough for me to buy you a drink."

"You never bought me a drink in my life, and you won't start now."

"Here's a piece of gold says I will."

"Let me see that, you scoundrel. This one of the Midge's fakes?"

"No such thing. That's d'Garlim gold right there. But say it soft. As you said, rolling officers can lead to trouble."

Saraneth, an Illusionist of Sorts
Saraneth is a specialist in illusion and deceit.  Her parents were thralls of a mindflayer who quickly recognized the girl's intelligence and decided she'd make a better apprentice than a slave. Eventually the mindflayer was hunted down by a band of adventurers willing to brave the sewers and crypts beneath the city. The girl was "rescued" and turned over to an order of monks who put her to work in their scriptorium. She quickly grew bored there, and her moral sense — informed by the mindflayer's "parenting" — led her to embark on a career of underhanded pursuits and elaborate deceptions.

In Her Own Words
Dreams, bad dreams, are the kinds of things where you can never hit your assailant, or get away. You thrash, you run. None of it works. I should know, I spend most of my waking hours planting bad dreams in other people’s heads. That’s where the real damage gets done. Only yesterday it was me that was living a bad dream...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dominium Campaign: Evolving Rules

An ongoing goal of my campaign has been that it be approachable by casual players, while still presenting challenges to experienced players. I had abandoned D&D after about a year with 3.5, suffering from a bit of game-master burnout and frustration with the amount of prep work that was going into my sessions. After nearly a year hiatus I had an opportunity to run a one-off game for a group of kids “trapped” in a cabin by bad weather on vacation. We had a d6, a pad of paper, and a couple of pencils. I asked each of the kids to tell me about their character, including one (amazing) ability that they had. Needless to say the kids were creative, the session was chaotic, and we all had a blast. Four hours went by in a flash, the weather cleared and the kids hit the beach again.

That experience rekindled my interest in campaigning. But I wanted to do it on my own terms, so I formulated a very simple d20-based ruleset I called “Primitive D&D”. I called my old players and invited them back to the table and off we went.  The rules quickly showed that my hybrid-casual approach needed some polish. With a big group in a campaign, I couldn’t afford to let things fly quite as much as I had with the kids (the adults were much quicker to exploit weaknesses in the system, and worked it over pretty hard, whereas the kids had been happy just to play.)

Fourth Edition D&D had been introduced at this point, so I engineered a transition to that (maintaining all the characters’ basic feel.) We played in 4e form for a while before some of the elements of its design began to grate on the sensibilities of some of the more avid players and their beleaguered game master. I joined a couple of new gaming groups, seeking to get new ideas and perspectives on gaming. From there, I developed a hybrid version of 4e. Powers were assigned a point value, and characters got points that they could spend to do dice of damage, or apply conditions from a menu of options. The point-buy system was applied to both weapon-based combat and magic-use. My players were patient with my tinkering, and happily explored the system. They were able to do more damage than with straight 4e, and so combats went faster. To compensate for more deadly PCs, I used only the “upgraded” monsters from the third Monster Manual, the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, and newer WotC publications. With everyone doing more damage, combats got a little edgier as well. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Not content to leave well enough alone, I decided to step further away from 4e in a quest to provide a system that gave players maximum control over the types of characters they could create. A good friend had just initiated a new campaign using his home-brewed rules and I enjoyed the character creation process so much, I toyed with the idea of adopting the system wholesale for my campaign. His Lords of Chaos rules were well thought-out, flexible (it’s a classless system, using point-buy skills to determine a character’s capabilities), and familiar to me and a number of the players at my table who also played in his campaign. However, they were also fiercely-detailed in their simulation of combat and the encounter construction and game mastering aspects of it seemed daunting to me.

So, I again opted to modify 4e rules, incorporating Lords of Chaos combat timing, non-combat skills, and modifying combat skills and the magic-use system to incorporate the point-based system I had used to append 4e earlier. I maintained a 4e backbone of Essentials feats, conditions, and position and maneuver rules in addition to a lot of 4e terminology to keep the game feel as familiar as possible to my players. I expect the whole system to evolve as we play. And, as long as the changes keep their evolutionary feel, I hope my players will continue to enjoy the ride.

You can find the complete (but still evolving) house rules at the Dominium campaign wiki at Obsidian Portal.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Mob Rules

Close the city and tell the people
That something's coming to call
Death and darkness are rushing forward
To stamp light from the wall!

Oh! You've nothing to say
They'll drag you away!
If you listen to fools,
The mob rules, the mob rules

—The Mob Rules, Black Sabbath

On Saturday night I attended the final regular-season home game for the Seattle Sounders FC, our local football club. Our seats are next to the section granted to fans of the visiting club. Needless to say there is a high potential for trash talk across the aisle. Since the advent of fan hooliganism, brought to light (at least as far as mass media is concerned) by European football fans brawling and worse in the stands in the last decade or so, there has occurred this sort of glamorization of fiercely-loyal tifosi, and their penchant for drinking, chanting, singing and brawling their way through an afternoon at the stadium. Some intense groupthink and crowd psychology is going on.

The game at hand becomes secondary (or even tertiary) to the activities of the group. So, I found myself wondering, what exactly are these folks getting out of the event? And further, do any of the dynamics of groups like this appear at my gaming table, or in the gaming community at large?

Well, I don’t have players chanting, singing, or hurling insults at one another across my table. Yes, we sometimes toss back a beer or two (wine for some) while playing. But no one is getting drunk or disorderly (amongst the players, anyway. Characters can be another matter.)

Groupthink is one of the behaviors that groups exhibit when they start to try to solve problems while being focused on group harmony at the expense of entertaining a wide variety of possible solutions. (I’m paraphrasing from things I’ve read online, for purposes of discussing it in a gaming context.) When RPG design becomes focused on group harmony and balance, I think some creative, alternative elements get left behind.

Gamers tend to be a relatively homogenous community. This, among other factors, can lend itself to groupthink. As a “crowd” we gamers take positions on our sides of the aisle, just like the tifosi at a football game. We start hurling insults at one another, and generally behaving boorishly. Individuals who express different opinions are quickly labeled and derided by the group. The focus shifts from the action at the table (the reason we all showed up in the first place) to the politics of who is with what group, and how best to bait or flame them into submission. Just like the football fans, we gamers draw up cool logos to advertise our allegiances and stamp them on our blogs like they were gang tats.

I’m generalizing of course — to a point that could be considered inflammatory — which sort of defeats the point that I was trying to make. Essentially, what I’m advocating is critical thinking about the games we play, and how we represent those to our fellow gamers. What kind of respect, or disrespect, do we offer one another to reflect our standing in the gaming community?

In addition, I’d encourage you to take a look at the rules you’re using in your game, and how they’re working or not working for the gamers at your table. Do the rules you use encourage groupthink, or do they encourage individuals to come up with creative solutions to the problems the game master presents?

Most RPG rules tend to acknowledge that people prefer different styles of play. In 4e D&D these different play styles are formalized as roles; Defender, striker, controller, etc. The idea, as I understand it, was to give everyone at the table something to do. A game-mechanical “button” that they could push to participate. I think the game mechanics and the presentation are very well done. However, what I’ve observed in play is that players tend to self-limit to the mechanics of that role or character. Given the “defender” button, that’s all they push.

Class-based RPG rules tend to encourage similar player thinking. Of course classes are one of the major tropes of fantasy RPGs, and they can be an integral first step in the definition of a character. We, the gaming community, go along with class-based systems because they’re part of FRPG tradition. But, are we becoming too insular in our thinking? Are there other ways to define our characters that might encourage more creative play? Or, is the “role” you’re playing strictly defined by the profession of your character?

The Dragon Age RPG says:
When coming up with a character concept, remember that one of the conceits of the game is that your character begins as an unknown and struggling adventurer. You don’t get to start play as the crown prince or an archmage. You have to earn your honors with deeds, and you can be sure there will be a price. So start thinking about who your character is and how he became an adventurer. Here are some example character concepts:

•    A guttersnipe raised on the streets who’ll do anything to survive.
•    A free spirit who fled from an arranged marriage for a life of adventure.
•    A naïve farmer who wants to travel farther than 5 miles from where he was born.
•    The child of a disgraced knight who wants to return honor to the family name.
•    A cynical mercenary who trusts little but coin.
•    A seeker of forbidden knowledge who often acts before thinking.
•    An artist seeking inspiration in dark and dangerous places.
A key element of character creation in the Mouse Guard RPG is the character’s belief:
A Belief is a code or ethical stance. It’s a snapshot view of how your character thinks. Sometimes you’ll act in accordance with your Belief, sometimes you’ll act against it.
Savage Worlds RPG says:
Great heroes are far more than a collection of skills and attributes. It’s their unique gifts, special powers, and tragic flaws that truly make them interesting characters. Characters can take Edges by balancing them out with Hindrances.
The FATE system invokes and compels aspects, which are, “relationships, beliefs, catchphrases, descriptors, items or pretty much anything else that paints a picture of the character.”  An aspect is invoked by a player for a game-mechanical advantage, and compelled by a player to allow the game master to add a complication to an encounter (e.g., a “stubborn” character might have trouble negotiating a diplomatic resolution to a conflict.)

Those are just a few examples of other ways to differentiate and define your character. They could be adopted into almost any existing set of rules with little effort, and may be useful to some players in defining their characters.  By customizing your rules to suit your game and group, you can expand the options your players have to define their characters. In turn, this may encourage more creative play and a richer experience at the game table for everyone.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Unreliable Word

My Friday night (once-a-month) gaming group is sometimes ten-players large, and focused on having an evening of relaxing fun. Their characters have names like “Bob the Bold”, “Gunga Din”, and “Damek the Unpleasant”. I found that a few of them were interested in some more in-depth role-playing, and I had a number of people I wanted to play with, but couldn’t fit into the big Friday group. So I started a Sunday group. Four players. With an emphasis on character development and role-playing. I employed a background questionnaire, and encouraged the players to take ownership of an area of my game world, with the understanding that we’d be starting in a big city environment.

I got some really creative responses. From those I developed five story arcs. I followed the guidelines articulated by Dave the Game over at Critical Hits for the 5x5 Method of campaign development. I left these arcs open and approachable so that my players were free to choose which story they wanted to engage with, and allowed them the flexibility to switch between them when “crossover” events piqued their interest.

These stories and others that have arisen from the choices the players made have driven the monthly campaign for nearly two years. None of that mattered as much as Cordroy, the simple Goliath that one of my players brought to the game as his character. His characterization was brilliant. He knew the game rules, and played well. The other players (and their characters) rallied around him.

One of my favorite interactions was between the party and a pair of guards at the gates of the Liosia Mansion. The party was investigating a series of grave robberies and wanted to speak with the scion of the Liosia family about what might have motivated the thieves to raid the family crypt. The party told the guards that they were with “Cordroy’s Security Services”, here to discuss business with Ano Liosia, head of the powerful  Golden Lion Trading Company. Looking at the party: two rogues, a Goliath, and a warlock from the hinterlands convinced he was a shaman, the guards were skeptical. But, they agreed to send word up to the manor. One of the guards departed the gate to do just that.

After a long delay, the party was told that Liosia was unavailable and would contact them if he needed their services.

Temporarily thwarted, they pressed on to their next lead. At another gate, in front of another mansion, they were told that “word would be sent” to the nobles of the house. Cordroy abruptly spoke up.

“Word? Just a minute. He went last time, and we didn’t get in. I don’t think this ‘Word’ is a very reliable fellow.” A moment of confusion passed for the guards and then Cordroy continued. “Why don’t you go up instead? Tell your boss that Cordroy’s Security Service is here.”

We all fell about the place laughing as these lines were delivered. Cordroy kept muttering about “that fellow, Word”. An instant and lasting gag was added to our gaming group. I still laugh when I think about it.

Unfortunately, Cordroy’s player has not been able to continue with us. Parenthood, entrepreneurial aspirations, and other conflicts have drawn him away. Cordroy however lives on as a non-player character. He’s the beloved core of the party, and has become an integral part of the character development for at least one of the original PCs. Cordroy’s Security Service owns an Inn, and is responsible for the safety and well-being of the halflings that work there.

As a GM, I can plot and plan as much as I like. But the true magic of the story is in the actions, choices, and ‘words’ of the players and their characters. Leaving room for characters like Cordroy and conversations like those at the gates of the mansions of the city’s nobility is as big a part of the game as any well-crafted combat encounter.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Delves: Hrad Kašperk, Czech Republic

Hrad (Castle) Kašperk, exterior view
More sights to inspire for fantasy RPGs. Hrad Kašperk is in Bohemia, south of Pilsen in the Czech Republic. While we visited only a portion of the country, it was full of fantastic castles and other interesting "delves".

You can find out more about the castle, and see more images at the official site.

View from the east tower

Friday, October 14, 2011


Recently a friend with a flair for game design was talking about a game-mastering concept for role-playing games. He called it “Pillars”. (I’ll paraphrase in the hopes of doing this great idea justice, and in the hopes that I don’t cut into game sales when he decides to market his ideas.) The idea is that any component of a campaign world has pillars that support it. They are plot elements that may be addressed by the players when dealing with the component. They can have almost any scale.

A world might have pillars like:
  • Magic use has a destructive effect on life and the environment in this world.
  • The world has been devastated by abuse of magic, and so society reviles spellcasters.
  • The world is ruled by a select caste of elites who have mastered magic in spite of the consequences, and work to ensure that they retain exclusive rights to its practice.
  • The world has been abandoned by divine powers that might intercede on behalf the beleaguered populace.
  • Resources are scarce and the inhabitants of the world spend much of their time and energy on simple survival.
A non-player character might have pillars like:
  • This character was threatened with an edged weapon as a child and developed a near-superstitious fear of such weapons.
  • This character has devoted much of his life and energy towards the accumulation of book-based lore. He regards books as the greatest of treasures.
  • This character has developed a love of animals, and a knack for handling them, even when they are loathsome and/or dangerous in the extreme.
  • This character avoids centers of civilization, and any large gathering of people (of any kind) is something he avoids at all costs.
A dungeon might have these pillars:
  • Because of the moisture levels in the native rock, all the wood used in doors, containers and support structures is subject to rot.
  • Torrents of water travel down most of the vertical passageways of this dungeon, draining out of the artificial lake that hides its entrance.
  • The underground river that has its source in the artificial lake emerges at the base of a nearby cliff. The cliff hides the dam that formed the lake, built across a narrow canyon.
  • Many of the deeper chambers of the dungeon, sealed off by the underground torrents and pools, have existed in a sort of stasis for many years. Preserving their contents in strange ways.
Pillars are the strengths (and weaknesses) that “hold up” a component of the story. Rather than confront the component directly, players may instead choose to discover and/or exploit the alternative solutions or opportunities that pillars represent. They provide a GM with story hooks that lead the players into more immersive experiences. And, in some cases, represent alternative paths towards earning experience point rewards than traditional combat encounters or skill challenges.

One of the challenges when creating a campaign is giving the world something like real depth. Modules and other published materials are sometimes criticized for “railroading” players. This usually occurs because the author envisioned one specific path through the events and encounters of the planned session. Pillars will help a GM sketch out some alternative paths. As players explore, they may discover pillars in the game. Pillars give players choices when they’re deciding how to deal with obstacles. A direct route, or perhaps they want to undermine one of the pillars? Choices add depth to the world the players are exploring, and create a greater sense of immersion.

Think about that when you’re plotting out your next gaming session. What are the pillars for the different components of your session? What would happen if, instead of attacking the troll guarding the magical gate, your players decided to convince the troll they were a maintenance team sent to verify that the gate was intact? Perhaps you included some pillars in your notes about the troll? For instance, what if the troll held more intelligent beings in awe, assuming that folk who used big words must be in charge? Sure, you can play through such events on the fly. But a few pillars, sketched out in your notes, give you some fuel for the creative fire of improvisation.

I’m intrigued by the potential for calculating experience awards based on pillars toppled or identified. Then it becomes an integral, game-mechanical component. Looking for metrics to figure out how far your players have progressed? Want to know when player choices might set off a reaction? How many pillars are left? When events in the world occur as a result of cumulative choices (rather than just as immediate responses), that makes the world seem more real as well.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Delves: Cēsis, Latvia

Exploring Cēsis Castle, Latvia 2008
Periodically I'll post found or original images that capture elements of the fantastic, or photos from travels with my family. I've dragged them into ruins, tunnels, dungeons, and anything with a medieval sense about it all over Europe. I appreciate their willingness to tag along, or carry the lantern when the going gets really dark.


Immersion in role-playing games takes many forms. For the game master, immersion might occur most during the process of crafting worlds, adventures, or encounters. Or, it might occur in a play session, when the players bring it all to life (or dash it all by racing off to explore some yet-to-be-described portion of the map!) For players it can be anything from the game mechanics of character generation or combat, the establishment of a business for their character, a re-enactment of a favorite character from a novel, to an exploration of their own heroic leadership capabilities in the (relatively) safe environs around the gaming table.

As a GM, I tend to get immersed in world building. While I pilfer whole-heartedly from any and all published materials at hand, I call it all my own (and try mightily to make it nigh impossible to determine the source.) When I’m running the game, sessions zip past and are over quickly enough that I wring my hands in anguish that I’ve provided enough entertainment for my players. For the most part I needn’t be worried. My experiences as a player are enough to put my mind at ease.

Players aren’t typically worried about the GM’s agenda, or the “big picture”. When I’m playing I could be immersed in the process of making my character more effective through character generation, or by acquiring specific equipment or training. Or maybe I’m immersed in the action of the moment, looking for an opportunity to display a quirk or talent to the rest of the party. I might be frantically seeking ways to survive an encounter. Or banishing a particularly traitorous set of dice to the bottom of my backpack, with promises that their fate awaits them at home, ground to powder in the grip of the vise clamped to the workbench.

And that’s all just me. Others, both GMs and players, have their own points of immersion. Lately, I’ve had a lot of fun observing what those are, and making mental notes about what involves certain players, and what I can do as a GM to feed that involvement and immersion.

In my home game, we’re using a hybrid rule set that draws from various sources. It has some 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons under the hood. I’m immersed in the process of writing, editing and evolving the rules, as well as in the creation of the campaign setting. My patient players have immersed themselves enough in the game that they’ve played through several iterations of rules with the same characters. A few of them even enjoy the evolving-rules process! The bottom line is that they come back each month to play. Between us, we are creating enough immersion that people want to continue.

I also run weekly 4e D&D Encounters sessions at CardKingdom, one of my friendly local game stores. This has given me some tremendous insights into what hooks players. The people at my Encounters table are new to me, and I’m new to them. We don’t have a history of inside jokes and gaming stories to share. What we have in common is the game. Some of them are brilliantly proficient with 4e rules. Others are completely new to RPGs. We have a limited two-hour session. We have a pre-defined story, unfolding over something like 14 weeks. Most sessions have a little bit of role-playing, and at least one combat encounter.

Some nights the table includes an RPG veteran or two. The type that wants to go off the beaten track to solve a problem. Their choices and actions could easily derail the fairly linear adventures I’m tasked with presenting. I’ve got to juggle the consequences of their choices, and find ways to steer the resulting action in the general direction the writer of the session intended. But I’ve got to let them choose. That’s what keeps them immersed. The combat hound rattling dice impatiently in the corner needs feeding too. I know I’ll be able to feed that need. But what about the role-player? The person who wants to chat up the non-player characters over a pint of frothy and some rat-on-a-stick?

There’s room for them too. One technique I’ve used is to name the opponents in a combat encounter (where applicable.) Throw some dialog into the battle. A tiefling band whose guard drakes are beloved pets that they’ve named? They’re furious when the PCs have the gall to kill the drakes! (Of course, it doesn’t take much to raise the infernal ire of a tiefling.)

I’d love to hear what other GMs and players find immersive about their favorite RPGs. Share ‘em here, if you’re so inclined!