Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Supernatural Evil

On Monday, James Edward Raggi IV (who still has the coolest name to say in gamerdom) tackled the question of supernatural evil. Faced with the broad panoply of evil perpetrated by humanity, he asked how anyone could really get their mind around an evil worthy of demons, fey, or other supernatural wickedness?

There have been some particularly creative and horrible ways people have devised to inflict pain on each other. These, however, have always been limited by the laws of physics and our own poor understanding of them. Is it more evil, for instance, to kill a person or, as Circe did, to transform them into a pig? Is it more evil to shoot a man's children in front of him, or to inflict him with lycanthropy so that he tears them to pieces himself? Once you introduce magic, the possibilities for evil expand to include what was once only imaginable.

I mentioned before the deal with the devil, where evil is embraced in order to achieve good (something which I think has some bearing on Mr. Raggi's example of the Normandy landings in his discussion of good today). There's also the evil that comes from granting a wish. The appearance of doing a good thing that is, in fact, evil (and possibly in order to promote a good outcome, just to add another twist to the braid) is something that fits my concept of the fey very well. Things like Stephen King's Thinner or the Midas touch, where a wish is granted, but in such a way that it becomes a curse.

There are deeper evils, I think, that go beyond the evils of the flesh and afflict the spirit. And this is where we get to the realm of demons and devils. Inflicting horrendous pain is certainly evil, but getting other people to simply not care that it's happening, or, even worse, to actively take part, seems even worse to me. The viral power of evil to spread itself to others, to expand simply by creating fear, apathy, or even more willing accomplices seems its most horrific aspect. This is why the succubus remains my favorite demon. Yeah, kinky sex is fun, but more than that, the ability of the succubus to appear to be anyone makes her the best tool to create a situation where the forces of good embrace the “necessity” of evil or despair, either through deceptive information or extreme emotions.

The triumph of evil in “Revenge of the Sith” wasn't the slaughter of the Jedi children, but that a champion of good was corrupted to the point where he would do such a thing without question. (I don't buy the journey that Anakin took to get there, but that's beside the point.) Granted, we see that in the real world, where mothers actively participate in the torture and murder of daughters who dare to date the wrong sort of boy. But if you want to get at the essence of supernatural evil, I think this is the heart of it. Pain and physical torment are only means to an end, and that end is the despair and hate necessary to corrupt a soul into embracing evil.

Photo Credit: Frau Bucher, and CobraVerde.

More D&D Advice from PvP

Say "yes" and then...

Monday, June 29, 2009

ApolloCon 2009

Lots of neat stuff to riff on in the gaming blogosphere lately. An embarrassment of riches I'm going to have to make the time to dive into soon.

I'm a bit behind on my blog reading because I spent the weekend in Houston, attending ApolloCon. It's a fun convention, with the usual convention goodies like a screening room showing geek favorites. This year, I think almost all of them were amateur offerings like “The Hunt for Gollum” and “Troops”, the Star Wars spoof of “Cops”. The tools available to amateur filmmakers is just amazing these days. I'm tempted every time I look at things like these, and remember the old Blake's 7 or Dr. Who from the '70s and '80s to grab a group of friends and try to make something of my own along similar lines.

While I did make a few panels, I spent most of my time chatting with fellow fans and writers about all those things we talk about when we find like-minded, thoughtful, intelligent folks who share our passions. Really, that's the great thing about cons.

There were some fun costumes at this one, my favorite being the Dalek Queen at the Wholigans party. There was also a Firefly LARP with some neat costumes as well, and a group selling some awesome gothy hats in the dealers room.

The gaming room always had at least two large groups going with fun stuff whenever I poked my head in, including a “table-top LEGO first-person shooter”, lots of Munchkin, and other fun stuff. I even saw one group of folks playing Torg in the hotel lobby.

The folks who have taken on the challenge of organizing AggieCon this year seem to be doing a decent job of shouldering the challenge. I'll be watching to see how things shake out over the coming months.

In the dealer's room I picked up a copy of some of the Flinx stories I've missed, plus a copy of Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen. Yeah, some of you who know my tastes are going to be shocked, but no, I haven't read it yet. It's an intriguing read so far, and I'm going to look forward to meeting her at ArmadilloCon in August.

Yep, that's a blatant plug, and having had the chance to chat with the folks putting together ArmadilloCon's Writers' Workshop this year, I'm seriously considering submitting some writing. The deadline, however, is July 1st, so if that's something you're interested in, you'll need to move fast.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Announcing Weird Enclaves and Black Pits

Announcing Weird Enclaves and Black Pits

A Swords and Sorcery Anthology produced by the staff of Fight On!

Fight On! (www.fightonmagazine.com) seeks tales of adventure for their first foray into fantasy fiction! Heroic fantasy, S&S, dark fantasy, historical fantasy, sword & sandal, sword & planet, post-apoc and old-school weird are all welcome, as are innovative variations on same. Max. length 10,000 words; all queries and subs in word, pdf, or rtf to iggyumlaut@gmail.com. Work that has already been published elsewhere is welcome if you own the rights to it, as are first-time submissions. All stories due for review by the staff of Fight On! by Halloween 2009; multiple subs welcome.

First prize is $100; second prize is $60; third prize is $30; all prizewinners plus all honorable mentions will receive publication in and a free copy of the anthology. All authors whose submissions are selected retain ownership and all publishing rights to their own submissions, except the right for their story to be published in Weird Enclaves and Black Pits in perpetuity. All selected authors will also receive a complimentary print copy of the anthology. Fight on!

"There's no sex in D&D!"

The title is a link. :p

Here it is again, just in case.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Catching Up to the 21st Century

Yes, I finally upgraded this blog to the latest version of Blogger. This means you can link to individual posts just by clicking on their titles, and it should be easier to search through the history to find old stories. I'll be going back and adding labels to my posts as well.

I really need to name by LL campaign, so it has an easily searchable title, too. Probably name it after one of the Eldest, unless someone has a better idea.

It went fairly smoothly. I didn't lose my links, but I did lose my StatCounter code, and Blogger thought I was running a spam blog for a while. Thankfully, I was able to get the code back in, and my status as a truly useful and worthwhile waste of your time established quickly and easily. ;)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Neo-classical Tactics: Alpha Strike

There have been some very cool posts lately about using extremely dangerous and overpowered monsters in neo-classical and modern gaming lately. I'd like to sound a cautionary note. First, understand that I agree with just about everything I've read about these sorts of encounters and how cool they can be. However, before you include them in your game, you have to keep in mind just how dangerous, and anti-climactic, they can be.

The alpha strike is a tried-and-true tactic from the earliest days of D&D. The name is stolen from Star Trek wargaming. In the game Starfleet Battles, a player launches an alpha strike by maneuvering into the optimal range (usually point-blank) and then cutting loose with every weapon on the ship. It perfectly recreates those moments in TV and movies where the ships crawl towards each other, and one is blasting, blasting, blasting while the camera shakes with every hit and someone is calling out in tones of escalating concern the worsening condition of the shields, the soundtrack rises to a tense pitch, and the captain yells, “FIRE!”

In D&D and similar games, the alpha strike usually doesn't involve that slow buildup. The PCs immediately unleash their most devastating attacks upon a single target. This makes sense, if you think about it, because a critter with only 1 hit point left is almost always as dangerous on it's turn to attack as a critter that still has all of its hit points. Focusing on one target at a time is usually the most efficient way to remove the monsters' offensive power.

Even in cases where the monsters do get weaker, players are encouraged to launch an alpha strike. The damage from most breath weapons in early versions of D&D is usually equal to that monster's current hit points. The quicker you whittle those away, the more likely you are to survive the blast. This is why, when you put together an encounter of a bunch of goblins and a hellhound, the players will likely ignore the goblins as much as possible until the hellhound is dead.

This can be annoying for the DM, because it's the reverse of a good cinematic fight. Instead of the danger ramping up as the players wade through the minions, you get a brief moment of tension, followed by a drawn-out mopping up phase. (You might be tempted to save your villain by declaring that he survives or even shrugs off this attack. But now the players are looking at a foe who hasn't been noticeably weakened and they've likely burned resources in their alpha strike that they can't get back without resting up. The players will probably retreat in this case, in order to come up with a better, more certain one-shot kill.)

Here's something else to keep in mind about alpha strikes: magic-users use 4-sided dice to roll their hit points, and usually 6-sided dice to roll damage. Your typical 6th level magic user has 15 hit points and her average fireball or lightning bolt will do 21 points of damage (10 if you roll your save). Magic-users are both scary and fragile. They usually end up on the receiving end of an alpha strike, because if you don't do unto them first, they will almost certainly do unto you.

(This also means that wizard duels in D&D-land are not drawn out battles of wits, or back-and-forth exchanges of spells. They look more like the gunslinger showdowns of the Wild West, where the fastest draw, er, I mean, incantation, usually wins.)

Keep this in mind when using magic-users in your adventures. The first time the players see how effective sleep is as a spell, it's going to make an impression on them. They absolutely do not want to go out to a coup de grace like those goblins in their first adventure. If they see a spell-slinger, they are going to pile on the hurt. This is why the guy in the pointy hat dies first, and usually with extreme prejudice.

Often, the best way to protect your magic-users, either as a player or a DM, is to make sure they don't look like magic-users. Obviously, once they start slinging spells, the jig is up, but by making the magic-users look innocuous, they might actually survive long enough to get off that first spell. Generally, the first and best magical protection that isn't armour goes the magic-users as well. They also usually carry at least one healing potion, since any hit they take is likely to be catastrophic. It's also common to give the magic-user a bodyguard of some sort, just in case somebody rushes in and tries to stick something sharp and pointy into his or her face.

Photo credits: Focal Intent, Benimoto, and seanmcgrath.

Monday, June 15, 2009

More Fun With Un-Level-Appropriate Encounters

It sounds like Oddysey and her crew had a fun time with an overpowered foe that was far beyond the the usual limits of level-appropriate encounters. I'm no fan of level-appropriate foes. Enemies you can expect to defeat don't inspire good gaming. They just encourage bare-bones grinding combat.

Pulling off a successful above-level-appropriate encounter requires you to be flexible and to give the players a chance to understand just how deep in over their heads they are before the hammer falls. Those are what separate a good DM from a killer DM in old school and neo-classical gaming. The PCs should have multiple avenues of survival, if not actual victory.

Once you've got that down, however, there's all sorts of variations on the theme of the portal guardian Odyssey used. Here are two of my favorites:

Things in the Walls
The PCs know there's something nasty stalking them. They know they can't take it (them?) in a fair fight. And they can't see it.

That last is key. You're playing on popular horror movie tropes here. The thing is nearby, but you can't see it. You can sense it, though. You can feel the chill in the air that happens whenever they are close, or the distinctive smell, or you can hear them scratch-scratch-scratching in the walls.

This works best in a complex terrain that allows lots of movement, chasing, doubling back, and maneuver. Places like haunted houses, warehouses, mazes, and catacombs. I prefer to use just one big monster for this sort of thing, as using lots of little guys can devolve into a drawn-out cat-and-mouse thing where the PCs work to isolate them in small enough groups to defeat. That looks cool on paper, but can easily eat up an entire evening's worth of gaming. Having just one or two big nasties is much more manageable.

Deal with the Devil
The players know the guardian is nasty. So nasty that even using their best tricks, the odds say at least one hero will die to defeat it. The guardian must be defeated or the quest is lost. However, there is a way to neutralize the guardian that doesn't require anyone dying. And it'll only cost you...

This one's great for the roleplaying value, but can be difficult to pull off. The players will look, and look hard, for another way around, and if you're too blatant about shutting down their attempts, they'll get justifiably annoyed at your railroading. The way I usually set this up is to make the offer non-event specific. That is, I have a powerful but scary NPC tell one or more of the PCs, “Hey, if you ever run into something you can't defeat, or a problem you can't crack, you can buy this get-out-of-jail-free card. And it'll only cost you...”

And I leave it there on the table, tempting them. Eventually, they'll face a problem that their collective ingenuity isn't overcoming. And there the offer will be, tempting them.

Photo credits: vintagedept, geishaboy500.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Tomb of Song

"Tomb of Song," my entry into the One Page Dungeon Contest, is available for download as a pdf.

There's a whole mess of One Page Dungeon entries there as well.

Trollsmyth vs. the Volcano

Player: Are you planning on doing anything with the Volcanoe in the game?

Trollsmyth: Dude, you know the rule about showing a gun in act 1, right?

If, at some point in the game, somebody doesn't end up in a climactic duel with their arch-nemesis on the edge of the volcano as it bubbles and boils and threatens to erupt, with the fate of the world and their one true love in the balance, while dragons and ki-rin engage in dizzying aerial combat in the skies above and an army of mutant, four-armed white apes surrounds a regiment of holy warrior nuns engaged in a last-ditch and desperate defensive action on the slopes below, Jeff Rients, James Raggi, and the freakin' ghosts of Gygax and Arneson will all personally show up at my home and kick my ass.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

There's No Wrong Answer

And no right one, either.

This great post over at Standard Hirelings about improv and good DMing, as well as recent events in my Labyrinth Lord game, inspired this post. Yeah, I know what it's like on the picture-side of the DM's screen. Every choice is fraught with peril and possibility. Even the most innocuous options seem pregnant with possibilities. And to make things worse, sometimes the things you assume are harmless are not. Every door is a potential deathtrap, and every NPC is a potential polymorphed villain.

So yeah, I can understand the hesitation, the deep thought, and I'll never speak against caution. On the other hand, I cannot be emphatic enough when I say there is no right answer. The game isn't a test (unless some NPC has set something like that up, and even then...). There's never one right answer I'm looking for. Some locks only have one key, yes, but there's almost always some other way to get past the door if you look hard and long enough.

I had a friend who went on to study physics in college. He loved puzzle-dungeons that reminded me very much of the old Infocom, text-based “adventure” games, like Zork. Every one of his puzzles had a right answer. We kinda enjoyed playing with each other and kinda didn't. Beyond the way the game would grind to a halt when we were stopped by another of his puzzles, I found his insistence on there being a right answer annoying. I was always looking for ways to slice through his Gordian knots and flood out his Augean stables.

So if I'm GMing a roleplaying game and you want to slay the dragon and rescue the princess, great. If you want to cut a deal with the dragon where you split the reward for rescuing the princess, that's cool too. And if you want to steal the princess, convince the dragon it was the king's men who were the thieves so the dragon burns down half the kingdom and keeps everyone too busy to stop you from sacrificing the princess in order to summon and command Nyarlathotep, well, ok, that's a bit extreme, but sure, why the heck not?

Photo credits: Big C Harvey, clairit.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Neoclassical RPGs

From Twitter:

@RobertsonGames: Since 1e #dnd is often called "Classic" D&D, does that make Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord "Neoclassical" RPGs? :)

Yes! That is perfect, since most of us aren't exactly playing these games the same way they were back when. It's a reinvention, a new style, based on studying those games, tweaking them, exploring what those structures and styles mean.

We can't go back to the '70s, even if we wanted to. But we can take what was best in the classical roleplaying games and imagine the heck out of 'em.

UPDATE: more here.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wandering Monster Wrangling

I mentioned last time how so many things in the older versions of D&D just aren't explained. One of these that sometimes causes people angst and frustration is wandering monsters. First off, at their most basic level, wandering monsters are a strategic spoiler. They prevent the PCs from just holing up in the dungeon or the wilderness for as long as they need to heal up, rememorize spells, or whatever. They're a spur to prevent too much caution, since the longer you spend in the dungeon or the wilderness, the more wandering monsters you're likely to find. In the older versions of the game where you get most of your experience points from treasure, and wandering monsters rarely have any, wandering monsters are an annoyance rather than a prize.

That's only half the story. For the DM, wandering monsters are like the props they hand out at improv. As Chgowiz shows, they are spurs for your imagination, the seeds of new angles on the plot and fresh adventures. Most importantly, when the players zig when you expected them to zag, wandering monsters give you something to fill in the blanks. What's in that unmapped hex? The dice say: bandits. Are they a wandering band that infiltrates pilgrim caravans like the Thuggee Cult of India? Or are they unemployed mercenaries who have turned brigand? Maybe they're a military force from a neighboring kingdom come to infiltrate in preparation for... what? Invasion? Assassination? Cattle raiding? Or are they terrorizing simple peasant farmers like in “The Seven Samurai”?

The lists in the rulebooks are fine starting points, but you're probably going to want to make your own. If you do, don't feel constrained by the formats you've seen, especially if the whole improv idea leaves you cold. There's no reason you can't put more detail in your wandering monster charts. A group of six orcs might be the hapless minions of the evil sorcerer, busy screwing up yet another simple task given to them, or they might be a hunting party returning with fresh game for the stewpot, or gamblers looking for a quiet place to roll the bones and win or lose a few coin. In the wandering monster tables from D3: Vault of the Drow, Gygax tells us:

  • the bugbears are “going about the businesses of one of the merchant clans, and they will bear a distinctive broach”

  • pack lizards are docile grazers of edible fungus, if left alone

  • trolls are “employed by the Drow to maintain discipline amongst their other servants”

  • the edible fungus “ripens rapidly, and crews of workers must harvest the stuff for food (the tough outer skin being used for many other purposes)”.

If you need to define just why those orcs are wandering through when they bump into the PCs, go ahead. If you're fine with just jotting down “some sorta monster with 3 HD that flies”, that's cool too. These are your charts for you to use when you're playing, so do whatever's most helpful for you.

It's probably a good idea to weight your tables towards certain encounters. You can do this either by spreading single sort of encounter across multiple numbers (the orc hunters are encountered on a roll of 2,3, or 4 on a d8) or by using probability curves (the orc hunters are encountered on a roll of 10 or 11 on 3d6). That way your wandering monsters are more likely to express the makeup of your dungeon, and your players can use that information to guess something about the sorts of creatures they're likely to encounter.

Photo credit: bobster855.