Thursday, January 10, 2019

How to Describe Your Setting

So yeah, I'm on a bit of a Conan kick. The game made it worse, it didn't start it. I've been re-reading the Howard stuff and Conan really feels like REH at the top of his game.

In fiction writing, especially for short stories, much is made of the vital importance of the opening sentence. It has to ground the reader in the story, explain what sort of story it is, and, most importantly of all, hook the reader into reading the whole thing.

The very first sentence of the very first Conan story published is this:

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

How's that for an intro to a D&D campaign?

Ok, I cheated; that's two sentences. If you used them, you'd absolutely need to start the campaign in Aquilonia (as Howard sets his story there). The second sentence is the jewel riding atop the ring of the first. Your players will expect Aquilonia to figure importantly in the campaign early on with a set-up like that.

It tells the players that history will be important to this story; they'll expect at some point to come across the relics or even the ruins of "Atlantis and the gleaming cities." Likewise, they'll expect to plunder at least one spider-haunted tower of Zamora and a "shadow-guarded" tomb of Stygia.

The player who wants a paladin or knight already has an idea that Zingara might be a good homeland for their character. Likewise, the halflings and druids most likely come for Koth or Shem. For your own campaign setting, you'd probably want to touch on individual places that cater to specific fantasy archetypes, if not the character classes and races you'll be using.

You'll be sorely tempted to expand on things. The goal is a phrase for each kingdom, and the whole under 300 words. Howard only uses 104 here. Short, pithy, punchy, and hooky.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Conan: Exiles for cRPG of the Decade

So yeah, to my utter surprise, I’m finding Conan: Exiles to be the best computer RPG I’ve played since Ultima V. Granted, I should point out that I’ve not yet tried Divinity: Original Sin II, Planescape: Torment, or any of the Witcher games. The problem is, I’m not very likely to, either.

Oh, I may give them a shake, but I suspect I’ll have a similar experience to Dragon Age; the fights will get monotonous, the quests will shatter my suspension of disbelief, and the interactions will feel wooden and limited.

Not that interactions with NPCs are much to write home about in C:E; most just shout a battle cry and charge. But your interactions with the environment more than make up for the lack.

C:E isn’t officially an RPG; technically, it’s billed as a “survival game.” This is a new flavor of computer game where you’re dumped in a wilderness and must use the environment around you to survive. Being a Conan game, this means you start the game buck-naked and crucified. You’re rescued by the eponymous Cimmarian himself, and you start the game ripping apart bushes for plant material you’ll knot and weave into makeshift clothing before binding rocks to sticks to make tools and weapons.

The thing that makes C:E for me is the little details; kill a crocodile or a rabbit or a subhuman “imp” and it doesn’t drop a chest full of gold. Instead, you’ll get hide and bones and meat that you can turn into armour or arrows or a meal. Human foes might carry better stuff (though, alas, they rarely carry the weapons they’re wielding against you), but not always. And yes, you can totally butcher humans for meat as well.

Which is another thing I appreciate about this game. There’s no good-evil slider that moves because you picked the impolite conversation option. You can totally eat human flesh, or build an altar to Set and sacrifice human hearts to it, or club humans over the head and break their wills on the “wheel of pain” to turn them into your slaves. Or not, if you want to be all goody-two-shoes about it. You can instead build an altar to Mitra and craft healing ambrosia (though the manner in which that’s done doesn’t exactly promote being all peaceful and not-killy; Mitra is not a god for pacifists). Or go completely off the deep end and worship Yog to acquire greater strength from eating human flesh.

(Hard mode is, of course, worshipping Crom who gives you nothing but the opportunity to grow strong through adversity. He’s the honeybadger of C:E deities.)

There are stats you can improve, as you’d expect in a cRPG, but they’re not the usual D&D-esque basic physical and mental attributes. Instead they’re vague amalgamations of skill and attributes; the Strength stat encompasses both your muscles and your skill with melee weapons, while Survival is both your hardiness and your bushcraft.

But what really counts is your gear. You’ll start the game naked and alone in the desert, and “advance” largely by crafting better gear, building a hovel that you’ll likely expand into a castle staffed with numerous slaves, and wearing weapons and armour forged with secrets of the ancient races that ruled the world in previous epochs. And this feels incredibly organic to me. Here we have a game that’s not all about the magical ding that grants you more hit points. Instead, you get more powerful by expanding your influence and acquiring followers and crafting infrastructure like castles and forges and altars to the gods. You don't slaughter monsters and acquire insane (and largely useless) amounts of gold coins, but quarry stone and chop trees for lumber and build a smithy capable of forging supernatural elements into axes and breastplates.

Conan: Exiles is a game about exploring wilderness and ruins, uncovering lost ancient secrets, building a base (or multiple bases) of operations. There are fights, but they feel more organic as mostly it’s wilderness critters who are as happy to hunt other critters as they are you. And they’re not the end-all be-all of the game.

And finally, it feels like a Conan story. You’ll climb up a tree to escape a hungry crocodile. You’ll be stalking a rabbit or gathering wood when you’ll stumble across an enchanted monolith or ghostly apparition. You’ll fret over the state of your waterskin when you’re not gorging yourself on roasted meat. And when you do fight, you’ll hurl yourself amidst your foes, laying about you on all sides with your club or axe or sword, scattering blood and limbs all about. It’s a game that’s full of what feel like organic surprises, events that both fit with the game, the setting, and the source material. It feels like being inside a Conan story, and that’s about as high praise as I think I can give a game.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Brave New Thawed Out World.

DM David is wondering about different styles of DMing, and he’s especially interested in the dichotomy between the “classic” impartial referee and the more modern “collaborative storyteller.” On Twitter (seriously, that’s still a thing?) he posed the question:

How do you feel about GMs who eavesdrop on your conversations, and then incorporate your speculations in the game?

  • Love it. Let’s tell stories together.
  • Hate it. The DM shouldn’t steal my ideas to complicate my character’s life.

And, to his surprise, the lovers far outnumbered the haters. He thinks the lovers might not be thinking it all the way through, however:

…my sense of the answers is that folks don’t often imagine their DM overhearing a worst-case scenario, and then wielding it against characters. If players only wanted compelling stories, DMs should sometimes adopt players’ cruelest ideas and use them. Stories feature characters facing obstacles. Countless sources of writing advice tell writers to torture their beloved characters. But how many players want to participate in the torture of their alter egos?

There are more folks like that than I suspect DM David realizes. There are players who love random character generation because they enjoy compensating for the handicaps, or playing those handicaps. There are players out there that relish getting their characters into trouble and (hopefully) getting them back out again. There are players who love to toss the dice and see what happens, daring a carousing table, a table of Death & Dismemberment, or a Deck of Many Things to do its worst. There are players out there who love it when their character collects a cool scar. Hell, the warlock class is basically built around the idea that something horrible has already happened to a character before the game even starts!

Now, in my (extremely limited and unscientific) experience, these players do want an interesting story around the tortures a sadistic DM tosses at their PCs. They don’t want an endless parade of misery and degradation. But they do want to know that the bad can happen. They want either the challenge that comes with knowing that failure is, in fact, an option, or the drama that comes with both highs and lows. Sometimes both.

And then there are the true masochists… But that’s a tale for another day.

Suffice it to say, there are lots of ways to play RPGs, and nearly as many ways to play D&D. Getting the right mix of players is paramount, as is not assuming you know what everyone at the table is after. Asking and knowing beats guessing and being wrong.

Art by John Martin.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Leveraging Warlocks for Campaign Greatness

Warlocks are one of the great post-TSR additions to D&D. Their relationship with their patron is much closer than that of a cleric's deity, and yet they can't take a direct hand in the campaign. Even better, they can be awesome frenimies for the PCs, power they know they shouldn't use but hey, one of them has already taken a big bite out of that forbidden fruit, so how bad can it get, right?

Someone over on Quora asked about what an Archfey could want from their warlock. And that inspired the following thoughts:

1. Why did the Archfey take the warlock on?
Maybe it was a whim of a moment, maybe it was an accident. But maybe there was something about this character that drew the attention of the Archfey. If so, that may dictate what the Archfey wants.

For a new PC, this can be the hardest way to go, because neither you nor the player may yet know what makes this actual character tick. Or, even worse, you might have a solid idea, only to see it morph and mutate when the character starts interacting with the other PCs and the world.

Still, the key to an awesome warlock experience is to make it personal, so if you think you can pull this off, do it! Look for something that capitalizes on a trait that makes this character unique, whether it’s something in their background or personality, or the people they know.

If the warlock is a PC, like all PCs they’re bound to have interesting adventures, almost as if they are fated to happen. Legend says King Arthur would not begin his New Year’s Day feast unless he’d heard of or seen some marvel. Perhaps, like Arthur, what the Archfey wants is an account of the warlock’s amazing adventures. And, if they are deemed not quite amazing enough, the Archfey will take matters into their own hands, perhaps by bribing the PCs to take on certain adventures, and then offering the PCs' adversaries some help so the warlock’s eventual triumph will be all the more exciting!

2. What does the campaign need from the Archfey?
You’ve got your world, you’ve got your villain-types and their victims, you’ve got your starting location. How are you going to put your PCs in the path of the villains? Your Archfey can help here. Maybe they want the same thing the villains want. Maybe they want something else entirely, but two things are mutually exclusive somehow. Maybe they’re just in the same neighborhood.

The nice thing about Archfey is how flexible they are. Need the PCs to focus more on the quest? The Archfey wants something related to the quest. Want to mix some romance into things? Archfey wants to help a pair of star-crossed lovers. Things getting to heavy and dramatic? Archfey wants a pig dressed up to look like the Queen of Dramatopia. An Archfey can work like a safety valve, releasing or storing up pressure as needed.

3. Being Fun-fun Silly-willy Absurd
As others have pointed out, the desires of the Archfey can at times seem a bit… off. Not quite sane. Certainly not understandable by mere mortals. To help with this, make three lists of 20 items each, one of verbs, one of adjectives, and one of nouns. Then roll on all three lists. The Archfey now wants their warlock to verb the adjective noun. The more ridiculous it sounds, the better.

Art by Sophie Anderson.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Death & Dismemberment for 5e

Yes, I'm still alive! ;p

In addition to the Stars Are Right table I posted last time, I also created a new Table of Death & Dismemberment table for the new 5e game. Like the previous versions, this stops hit point loss at 0; further successful hits just cause additional rolls on the table. When a PC is dropped to 0 hit points, roll 3d6 and consult the table.

What makes this table different? I've added psychological effects and taken some advantage of 5e's status rules. Let's check it out:

3 or less: Your character is dead!

4: Your character has lost their leg. Move at half-speed until it is replaced; a wooden peg-leg allows you to move at your normal speed -5’. Your character is unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

5: Your character has lost a hand. They are unconscious until restored to positive hit points. So long as they still retain one hand, they can still cast spells and wield weapons.

6: Your character is grievously wounded. If they are not stabilized within 3 rounds, they will die. It takes one action to stabilize; any magical healing that brings the character’s HP total to at least 1 also stabilizes the character.

7: Your character loses an eye. They have -1 on all ranged attacks until the eye is restored. However, their scarred visage also gives them +1 on intimidation checks. They remain unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

8: Your character is physically scarred beyond the ability of healing magics less than Regeneration to remove. This will effect your use of social skills, but exactly how will depend on the situation. This character will remain unconscious until restored to positive hit points.

9: Your character is emotionally scarred by their near-death experience. They are now frightened (PHB page 290) by the creature/spell/type of person who dealt the near-mortal blow. This fear can be removed by a Greater Restoration spell or other magics or special abilities that remove or negate fear effects. The character is also unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

10: Your character is knocked out and will remain unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

11: The weapon your character is wielding is shattered! They remain at 1 hit point and can stay in the fight… for now. If your character isn’t weilding a weapon or that weapon is magical, they are instead knocked out (see 10 above).

12: Your character takes a grievous wound to the leg. They are still conscious, but at 1 hit point and can only move at a speed of 5’. Any healing magic restores normal movement.

13: Your character’s armour is battered by the attack. Your AC suffers a -2 penalty and will take one day and 10% of the cost of a new set of armor to repair. Your character is still in the fight with 1d4 hit points. If your character is not wearing armor, they are at 0 hit points and unconscious until restored to positive hit points.

14: Your character takes a nasty blow to the head. They remain in the fight with 1d4 hit points, but they lose one spell slot (player’s choice). Spell slots are regained after a long rest (or a short rest for warlocks) as normal.

15: The attack leaves your character stunned until the end of their next turn (PHB page 292). They otherwise stay in the fight; roll a single hit die to see how many hit points they have.

16: The brunt of the attack is absorbed by your gear. Lose one potion. If you have no potions, lose 1d4 pieces of mundane equipment. You stay in the fight with 4 + your CON bonus hit points. (If you have no gear at all, roll 2d6 on this table.)

17: You get blood, mud, or some other icky fluid in your eyes. You are blinded until the end of your next turn (PHB page 290). Stay in the fight with 4 + your CON bonus hit points.

18: You experience a surge of adrenaline! Roll half your max hit dice and regain that many hit points. If you’ve already rolled this result in this fight, then you are unconscious at 0 hit points.

First off, yeah, this is an insanely forgiving table. It's far easier to die using the RAW of 5e than it is on this table. (Though you can die from just a single roll, which you can't do in the RAW.) And yet, I had one player voice misgivings about it; the Table of Death & Dismemberment continues to work it's old black magic. ;)

This table interacts more with the rules than previous versions and also creates more ongoing effects (for low-to-mid level characters; high-level characters will almost certainly have the spells needed to banish long-term effects, but they also have the spells necessary to mitigate death, so...)

It hasn't been used "in the field" yet, but I'm looking forward to how this shakes things up. If I change it, I may add more ongoing psychological effects a la Darkest Dungeons. If you've got some suggestions for sexy-ing this up, don't hesitate to let me know.

Art is The Wounded Gaul in the Musei Capitolini.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Stars are Right!

Had a character-building session for the new campaign last night. After we worked out who the characters were going to be, I dropped just over a thousand words on them of house rules (though much of that was a Table of Death & Dismemberment; more on that later). As the setting has an ancient-word vibe, I wanted to include some sort of astrological connection to things. At first, that was largely going to be supplied by the hidden enemies of civilization lurking in the perfumed, flower-laden jungles of Kiru and the various uncharted islands of Zob. But then Jeff Rients posted this bit of awesomeness and I had to do my own.

Alas, my dice have gone through multiple purges, and I don’t have so many ugly ones left. But by mixing some of my few older dice with some acquisitions from GenCons recent and past, I was able to find seven dice that would fit the bill nicely. I’m also far lazier than Jeff; I was not about to come up with a massive list of correspondences like he did. Instead, I limited myself to pairs plus groups of three or larger where what matters is the die with the most sides. This makes the list far more manageable, in my opinion.

Like Jeff, I only put good things on the table, and for the same reason; enlisting the players to keep track of this sort of thing makes it a lot easier to enjoy. At the start of most sessions (or in the middle of a session if at least a week passes), I’ll roll a d6, a d8, 2d10, a d12, and a d20. If any of those dice come up with matching numbers, those stars are said to be in conjunction. Consult the chart to find out what benefit is available while the conjunction lasts. To use the benefit, everyone in the group must agree.

The benefits of most conjunctions involving just two stars can only be used once per conjunction. The benefits of more than two stars in conjunction are dictated by the largest star (highest number of sides) in the conjunction and remain in effect for at least one day.

Monday, August 13, 2018

PC Complexity in 5e

So one of my players asked, "What's a good class for beginners?" This is 5e, with lots of classes, so the game ramps slowly to keep you from being swamped with options. That said:

Fighters are still the best if you want simplicity. You'll have a few bonuses to keep track of that apply under certain conditions, but mostly what you get is lots of hit points.

Monks probably come next in complexity. You'll acquire points that you can spend on one-shot cool abilities, like making extra attacks or movement.

Rogues are probably next in complexity. Rogues have the ability to take extra actions and get bonuses to their attacks under certain conditions. If you're prone to analysis paralysis, you might find rogues easier than monks. On the other hand, if you have trouble keeping track of what's going on around your character, or remembering that under certain conditions you get special goodies, you might find the monk simpler.

Barbarians have a few abilities, like rage, that trigger a number of bonuses all at once. They also have some cool abilities that, like rogue abilities, only trigger under certain circumstances. That said, if you can keep on top of range of things that change when you turn you abilities off and on, the barbarian class can feel pretty simple to play. For organized people they can be even simpler than the monk and rogue.

Rangers, like rogues and barbarians, have conditional powers that kick in when the situation is right (like when facing a favored enemy or in a favored terrain). They also have a few spells.

Warlocks are probably the simplest of the spell-slinging classes to play, especially if you build them right. It's easy to create a warlock whose abilities are always on (for instance, always being able to read any writing, or always being able to detect the presence of magic). They also have much shorter spell lists. You might even be able to build a warlock who's less complex than a barbarian.

Paladins are more complex than warlocks. You've got your martial abilities, your spells, your divine powers, plus abilities that are always on. Since some powers are just like others with small tweaks, paladins are not for people who hate paying attention to details.

Sorcerers are a big jump up in complexity. They have shorter spell lists, but they also have points they can use to modify their spells; increasing the range and duration, for instance.

I think bards come next. Bards come with lots of options for cool things they can do. Do you inspire your friends, cast a spell, distract the enemy, or heal the wounded? On the other hand, you'll always have something cool you can do. Not recommended for folks who suffer from analysis paralysis, they are perfect for people who like a wide menu of options to pick from.

Wizards are technically less complex mechanically than paladins, in my estimation, but the range of spells you can cast is the broadest of any class. Wizards are a great choice for players who have excellent memories or who don't mind flipping through the books to check on the details of a spell.

Finally, the class I consider the most complex is the cleric. You've got the largest number of spells to pick from (especially at lower levels), plus additional abilities dictated by your pantheon. There's a lot of accounting with the cleric since you're tracking not just your spells but also your "channel divinity" powers. And your more likely to run across spells that are cast as reactions or bonus actions.

The druid is like unto the cleric, especially once you start picking from among the various beasts you can turn into. Do you want the wolf who gets a bonus to attack when beside an ally, or giant spider who can climb walls, or the tiger who gets a special pounce attack?

All that said, one of 5e's virtues is that it ramps up slowly. It dribbles out the complexity over time, allowing you to digest each piece before adding another. So if you really want to play one of the more complicated classes, I say go for it. It might require a bit more effort on your part to create tools to help you get the most out of your PC, but better that, I think, than a character that bores you. :)