Friday, May 24, 2019

Retail Déjà Vu

This is going to look familiar to those of you over 30. You may remember when D&D was sold in Sears stores. I actually never got any of my stuff from Sears, but I did buy the Sear's exclusive poster from Larry Elmore last year at GenCon.

If you needed any further proof that D&D is experiencing a Renaissance, I think this Target exclusive boxed set is another hefty data-point to consider. This, on top of the Stranger Things box, means there are now three different "beginner" boxed sets to get you into D&D. I'm wondering if we're going to see a Critical Role boxed set soon?

I'm also curious if the rules are different from the Basic pdf. The ad copy implies that they've been re-written from the other boxed sets to now "on-boards players by teaching them how to make characters". And that implies that it doesn't use pre-gens. If you've got more info on this box, I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Oh, the '80s!

I just cut this from an article I wrote for dlair/net about the Tales From the Loop RPG. It was extraneous there, but I liked it so much, I'm dropping it here:

Being a child in the ‘80s was something of a surreal experience. This was due, I think, to so many things no being what they were supposed to be.

Europe experienced a long run of peace thanks to the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nuclear power went from the salvation of civilization to a curse. We stopped talking about the impending new ice age and started talking about the greenhouse effect. Future Shock transformed into VCRs, digital watches and Teddy Ruxpin. “Wholesome” Afterschool Specials taught us to question the authority of our teachers while children’s entertainment turned gory with Gremlins and Watership Down. Rated R movies like Robocop had action figures in the toy aisle. Iron Maiden became the most amazing false-flag educational program in the history of ever. (Seriously, check out the lyrics to their song Alexander the Great and tell me that’s not AP test prep disguised as popular entertainment.)

People on TV said D&D was satanic.

So the nostalgia of GenXers tends to be laced with weirdness. Whether it’s the bittersweet psychodrama of emotional issues we didn’t have names for in Ready Player One or the nostalgia and paranoia mix strained through Stephen King that is Stranger Things, ‘80s nostalgia tends to be, well, surreal and fantastical. And before there was Stranger Things, there was the art of Stålenhag.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Dice of Generations

Back when G+ was still a thing, this is the sort of stuff I'd post on it. I really don't have much to say about this piece, but it's sweet and useful and interesting:

The Dice of Generations

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

What the Arkenstone Can Do For You

The PCs are finally geared up (or angry enough) to take on the dragon! It's gonna be a big event in your campaign (because: DRAGON!!!) and you want the treasure hoard to be worthy of it. How do you make it something truly special without making it stupidly huge? How can you make quality compensate for the fact that you're not actually giving your players literal hillocks and ravines of coinage?

 Here are some suggestions for things that have served me well over the years:


The dragon hoard par excellence is probably still Smaug’s, and it’s heaped with the story of the dwarvish kingdoms and their alliances and rivalries with their neighbors. Describing the treasure is one of the few times you have the undivided attention of everyone at the table, so it’s a great time to sprinkle (not dump) some exposition on your players. Coins bearing the face and name of the second Warlock-emperor of the Melechan dynasty (worth ten times their mere weight value to collectors), arrows crafted by elven fletchers to slay the Arch-lich Kazshet, or the gilded toe-bone of the poet-scholar St. Gweniach will draw a lot more attention to the history of your setting than any dry dissertation by long-bearded scholars or sleepy ents. Focus on bits of history that are or will be important to your campaign’s current events, and especially the active interests of your players and their PCs.


Smaug’s hoard contains the Arkenstone, a wondrous gemstone that bears more than a passing resemblance to the doom-fraught Sillmarils. Perhaps the Temple of the Risen Sun doesn’t think a reliquary of St. Gweniach belongs in the hands of murderhobos. Perhaps Kazshet’s agents infiltrated the circle of elven fletchers to add a curse to the enchanted arrows. Perhaps, as with the Arkenstone, there are cultural or personal or political ramifications to the ownership of some of that treasure. One of the things that makes The Hobbit stand out from generic fantasy fare is that there are exciting and fascinating consequences to the slaying of Smaug. So it can be with the dragons in your campaign.

Something Personal

This is a great time to make callbacks to the backgrounds of the PCs or events that happened earlier in the campaign. The paladin’s great-grandfather’s sword doesn’t need to be in the hoard, but there might be a sword that’s marked with the rune of a company of knights he once rode with, or the champion’s prize from a tourney the great-grandfather competed in. There might be a treatise on abjuration magic written by the wizard who was a mentor to the wizard PC’s teacher. There might be some piece of jewelry or other objet d’art that a villain vanquished by the PCs early in their careers sent as tribute or bribe to the dragon. Callbacks like this are a great way to make the players feel like their characters fit into the setting.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

D&D Movie Musings

Yep, they’re making another one. And Paramount could use a successful franchise now that Star Trek is (at least in movie theaters) wallowing in face-plant.

According to The Hashtag Show, things have been off to a bumpy start. They still don’t have a director, though they do appear to have a script they’re happy with. Michael Gilio’s other screenwriting credits pretty much begin and end with Kwik Stop, a quirky little indie film that garnered rave reviews and some awards, apparently. Gilio was called in to “rewrite” a script by David Leslie Johnson whose credits include multiple episodes of The Walking Dead, Wrath of the Titans, and Aquaman.

That implies to me that the script is fairly safe B-list fare (though I haven’t seen Aquaman yet and may be selling it short). This doesn’t exactly change that equation:

Once things get rolling, Paramount hopes to land an actor from the following list of talent: Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Matthew McConaughey, Jamie Foxx, Joel Edgerton, Dave Bautista, Jeremy Renner and Johnny Depp.

Seriously?!? No, I don’t think it’s serious; I think they’re trying to raise buzz for the project because about the only thing those actors have in common is that they’re male. Imagine a role you’ve ever seen one of these actors in and try swapping them out. Either the lead is a complete cypher (which doesn’t speak well of the script) or they’re not serious about this list.

If they’re still aiming for a ’21 release, that probably nixes Brolin and Bautista (who will be filming Dune), and, as much as I’d love to see him in this, Vin Diesel (who has a whole slew of projects listed on his IMDB page, including F&F9 and xXx4). Pratt is probably on this list because he’s hot in nerd media right now. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around McConaughey (as much as I loved him in Sahara) or Depp in the lead for this movie. Put a gun to my head and I’d guess that, if this is an actual list of actors they’re looking at, it’ll most likely be Edgerton or Renner, and I’ll bet you Edgerton’s cheaper, so…

(Smith and Foxx would be interesting choices, but if this is a B-list movie, they’d almost certainly be the only non-white character with a name. The script clearly isn’t written to explain who this character is as an outsider in the local dominant culture or we’d see fewer gringos on this list. So yeah, wouldn’t hold my breath for either of those, though they would be interesting choices.)

So, what does that tell us? Well, none of these guys are exactly young; we won’t see some young man in a coming-of-age story here. Most likely, that means our lead is a grizzled human warrior. His primary weapon will be a sword. We’ll probably get a five-man band that includes a comic-relief axe-wielding dwarf as “the Big Guy,” a brash and blond Viking-esque dude with a massive sword who’s an old friend of our hero from way back as “the Lancer,” and a spell-slinger who won’t cast any spells you recognize out of the PHB who will supply exposition as needed in the role as the “Smart Guy” (salt-and-pepper or grey-haired if it is a guy, or a bland, dark-haired ice queen if female).

If the writers know much about D&D and wrote an actual D&D movie, the “Heart” will be a cleric (and the “Lancer” will be an effete warlock who always seems to be on the verge of betraying the party, and you’ll probably replace the dwarf with a half-orc or, if the budget can support it, a dragonborn). That said, it’s probably more reasonable to expect a sword-wielding princess who constantly reminds us that she’s as tough as any man and is also in constant need of rescuing (think Kate Beckinsale in Van Helsing).

Of course, this is the Marvel Age, where LotR and The Hobbit each got green-lighted for their own three-movie deals and comic book movies are both good and summer tent-pole events. So it’s possible I’m completely wrong (possibly even likely), and we’ll end up with something decent. If so, I’ll happily eat crow on this. But, right now, I’m thinking Critical Role’s half-hour cartoon is a much safer bet for a fun D&D movie.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

War and Remembrance

On this day, 11 years ago, the 2008 Fantasy RPG Wars began. And we won.

By “we” of course I mean everyone who plays RPGs. Paizo shocked WotC into going back to basic principles and discovering that their fans don’t want 80 lbs of rules, nor is a new giant stack of character classes, etc. every few months or even every year a good way to support an RPG.

And now D&D has shocked Paizo into improving their games further, seeking to be the more mechanically complex game, but streamlining it to make it accessible to new players. At the Paizo booth at the GAMA Trade Show, one of the Paizo folks said, “We want Pathfinder to be the game you graduate to.” That sounds like a good place for them to be.

I used to think that WotC would eventually sell the license to D&D in order to keep the IP alive and save themselves the expense of making the game. I no longer feel that way. D&D is healthier than ever, and this rising tide appears to be lifting most, if not all, the boats.

Make the most of it, folks.

Art by Wayne Reynolds.  The genesis of Pathfinders goblins can be read here.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Let the Good Times Roll

Just got back from the GAMA Trade show, and the big news this year is… that there’s really no big news. Certainly nothing on par with the bombshells dropped by WotC and others on the state of the RPG industry last year. WotC told us that ’17 was the best year for D&D in its entire history and that ’18 was even better, but beyond that didn’t give us anything new in terms of details. We’ll be seeing more alternative covers. They appear to be sticking with the take-it-slow publishing strategy.

What about the influence of the OSR? Well, in addition to The Forbidden Lands (more on that very soon, but maybe not until next week), everybody’s gotta have a boxed set. Most of these are intro starter sets, but even these are getting beefier and beefier; the one coming for Cubicle 7’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (itself very much a call-back to the original version of the Warhammer RPG) sports more than 100 pages of rules and campaign material, suitable for running as an entire campaign or using as a segue into their (very OSR) The Enemy Within “director’s cut.”

R. Talsorian is back. They’ve got The Witcher tabletop RPG and are working with CD Projekt Red on their new Cyberpunk 2077 (based on Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk 2020) as well as the “Cyberpunk Red” tabletop RPG which Pondsmith is crafting to bridge the timeline between the two.

Production values continue to inch upwards. Cubicle 7’s new boxed sets promise lots of neat handouts. We’re seeing the design decisions of the OSR/DIY bunch leaking into the mainstream, things like maps on the endpapers. They haven’t quite embraced the focus on ease-of-use-at-the-table, but they’re sliding that direction.

And we’re seeing a lot more openness in mechanics. I think that’s coming from a strong interest in making the games textured but simple. By “textured” I mean delivering more than just a core mechanic, an equipment list, a spell list, and a bestiary. Mechanics that serve to deliver an experience or tactical flexibility at the table. Things like rolling for depletion of consumables in The Forbidden Lands or Pathfinder 2.0’s new action economy and how it interacts with the spells. (For those not keeping up with it, you get three actions every round. Many spells now come in three flavors: a one-action version, a two-actions version, and a three-actions version. So you get to decide when you cast a healing spell if you want to heal yourself with the single-action version, someone you can touch with the two-action version, or send out a wave of healing energy to everyone in 10’ with the three-action version.)

We’re seeing a lot more variability on ICv2’s list of top five best-selling RPGs. (The Autumn 2018 list replaces Pathfinder with Lot5R. Yes, I’m serious.) They say that RPGs are selling well. Renegade Games, a relative newcomer to the RPG scene, sold through their original printing of Overlight, a very high-concept RPG.

So no big news, just lots and lots of good news. Our hobby appears to be doing quite well. There appears to be lots of room for big and flashy projects like Invisible Sun and little experimental things like Mothership. The Golden Age is rolling along apace. Make the most of it!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Rolling Dice is NOT Playing the Game

I'm going through a review of a sci-fi RPG and the reviewer alluded to something I see a LOT in Space Opera RPGs. (I'm not going to mention the name of the game here because first, the way the reviewer mentioned this implies but does not state outright that this game is guilty of this sin; and second, I don't know this reviewer so I'm not sure how much I can trust there statements yet.)

The problem is starship combat. Designers want everyone to have something to do during the starship fight, so they try fall back on Star Trek bridge stations and try to come up with something everyone can do every round. What usually results is something extremely uneven.

If you're using minis and some sort of hex grid or the like, usually the most avid wargamers will pick the ship's course and speed. Then everyone rolls dice to see if their character's station succeeded that round.

If there's no grid and you're playing theater-of-the-mind, the course of action is usually pretty obvious: flee, chase, whatever. The group might decide together at the beginning of the encounter what they want to do, and they might revisit that choice as the situation changes, but generally that's the last important decision made. After that, everyone rolls dice to see if their station performs a function that contributes to the goal.


I suppose rolling a die to see if you can squeeze extra speed out of the engines or get a better targeting lock or put a torpedo up someone's tailpipe is better than nothing, but lets not fool ourselves into thinking that this is fun. If the player isn't making an interesting choice, they're not engaged with the game. If the choice of group goal dictates their action for every round until the goal is achieved or changed, all the player does is roll the dice and note the (usually marginal) adjustment this causes to the situation. You don't even get much of a gambling thrill since the stakes are watered down by being spread across four to six stations.

I realize that the starship duel presents a serious challenge to RPG designers. You want this to be an epic moment, you want everyone involved and sitting on the edge of their seats. But you've got to actively engage the players if you want that to be the case. You have to stop falling back on Star Trek as your model. If the gunner's only interesting choice is between "shoot" and "don't shoot," what the hell kind of choice is that? Make it interesting, or it's dictated by circumstances. Give your GMs help crafting interesting starship duels that require players to do something more interesting than just roll dice, that allow the players to be clever, that invite them to use their skills and tools in creative ways.

And don't give me another cockamamy attempt to make the communication station important and "exciting" in combat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

And the (Spam) Hits Keep on Hittin'

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Monday, February 18, 2019

Are You Tired of Being Human and Good Posture?

Pruning spam from the comments is damn near a daily thing. It's not unusual to wake and find some ad for Australian limos or alternative utility companies speckled through my posts.

On occasion, however, I get a real doozy. This one combines poor English skills with an insane, whack-a-doodle premise to rise above the rest:

Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture.

I will admit, I am intrigued by the idea of posture as integral to being a vampire.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Daniel Horne Looking to Return to Fantasy Art

And he's started a gofundme towards that end:

Although I feel that my skills as a classically trained and apprenticed Brandywine School artist are sharper than they have ever been, I've found that there is little engagement among art directors to work with me and thus the ability to inspire fantasy enthusiasts has become nearly impossible. It is my hope that with the support of the fans of fantasy art that I've built up over the past four decades, I can have the opportunity to paint a piece, or even pieces, of art that might reopen doors to various publishing houses. But as I live paycheck to paycheck, like most artists, having the time and piece of mind to take on an inspirational cover isn't something I'm allowed.

This isn't a Patreon or anything like that, nor is it kickstarter with a specific product at the far end; it does appear, however, to be an excellent opportunity to say "Thank you!" to a great of the you-are-there school of fantasy art and hopefully get him back in that game.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Patrick Reviews the Memoirs of Usama Ibn-Munqidh

In days just recently gone by, I would have posted this to G+. Not quite sure what to do with this now, so it goes here.

This sounds like an utterly fascinating read:

The cultural situation is equally incoherent. It is a time of cosmopolitan prejudice and cultural-exchange murder-fests. If you picked out one half of these stories you could have a nice low-rent twitter link about how the period of the Crusades was a time of "wonderful diversity and cultural growth", which is true, so far as it goes. If you picked out the other half you could have a nice alt-right article about how Muslims and Christians are destined to endlessly muerderise each other. But all of these things are happening at once, all the time.

To me the randomness is baffling, strange and frightening. It feels very realistic and it makes it seem to me as if the world is a stupid place...

This is simply a great book for anyone who wants to spend an few days with a crazy Islamic grandad. I would strongly recommend it.

The past is a foreign country, and the Middle Ages is, quite frankly, an alien world at times, even if you're reading about the western parts of it our culture descended from. A deep, day-in-the-life sort of read like this can only boggle the modern mind, but it's a fascinating boggling all the same.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Encouraging Exploration

I somehow managed to poison myself with food. I feel like crap but you win because now I've got nothing better to do than make posts on my blog. Yay!

This question came from Facebook:
DMs: how do you inspire exploration in your games?

Again, a question that wouldn't even occur to me since D&D has always been about exploration when I played. This is the principle reason why 4e fell flat with me. But if you only started playing after 2000 (or, heck, possibly even after DUNGEON magazine started to become a bunch of stories the PCs were lead through by the hand, somewhere in the mid '90s) this might not be an obvious thing for you. So here are my suggestions for making exploration a central pillar of the game:

  1. Mysteries: I give the PCs incomplete information, teases, or just straight up have an NPC tell them, "This is the way it is, and it doesn't make sense." Mysteries are an invitation to look for clues, and if they're compelling enough, become more important than levelling up.
  2. Meaningful Options: it's not enough to just "Jaquay the dungeon". When you give players a choice, whether it's left or right, vanilla or chocolate, Zhent or Harper, make it immediately meaningful. By that I mean, in the passage to the left, you can feel a hint of a fresh breeze while the passage t the right has marks in the slime and dust of the floor that show something heavy was dragged that way recently. That gives you a mystery *and* a meaningful choice right there together.
  3. Context: I'm very, very generous when giving information. Even when the players botch the knowledge skill rolls, I tell them something useful. To make decisions, players need information to base their decisions on, to gnaw on and argue about. There are almost always NPCs available that they can ask questions of.
  4. Rewards: by the numbers, they might not be able to slay the rakshasa grand vizier, but if they know his weakness for smoked salmon, they might be able to bribe or distract him long enough to accomplish their goals. Getting an audience with the king is impossible, until you know his daughter has a collection of knives by one particular school of dwarven smiths. There's no way they can get to the Golden Mask of Zom by going across the volcano's open mouth, but if they explore some they'll find a way around, or a wounded aracokra who might fetch it for them once healed.
  5. EXP: yeah, you can do this too. The earliest versions of D&D did this, for instance. It will mean contemplating what the PCs are going to do with the massive treasures they acquire (especially if you go with 1 gp = 1 EXP system but keep the EXP numbers as they are in the books). Traditional solutions include building and staffing strongholds, and carousing tables.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Recognizing the Best of the Best

Hanging out on Quora has been an interesting experience. I generally assume that most of you readers here are experienced RPGers with more than a few campaigns under your belt. I’m not entirely sure why I assume that; many of my players these days are brand new to D&D, and that doesn’t appear to be an unusual thing. Over on Quora, I see a lot of topics asked about that it would never occur to me to write about. Like a recent one asking, “What does a mature tabletop players character look like?”

Of course, the answer is: the character looks like exactly what the campaign needs.

Playing an old-school game where life is cheap, survival is difficult, and death likely? The mature tabletop player’s character fits on a 3x5 index card, and there’s probably two or three in reserve.

Playing a storygame where the bulk of the action is supposed to be about the interactions of the PCs, including conflict, reconciliation, and relationship growth? The mature player’s PC is going to be built with ties to all the other PCs, or with a personality trait specifically chosen to create drama with at least one of the other PCs (and probably crafted with the help of those PCs’ players for ultimate buy-in and effectiveness).

Playing a game of 4th edition D&D where most of the action takes place on a battlemat? The mature player’s character has a specific role it’s designed to fill to help the PC team achieve victory. Most often, they’re going to be playing a support role that requires them to be in the thick of things, creating synergies that make the actions of the other PCs more effective.

If you’re playing a “standard” game of 5th edition D&D and you’re wondering who the mature, AAA player at the table is, here are some hints:

  1. They worked with the DM to create a character that is deeply tied to the setting from day one. They’ve got a background that invokes the setting; that is, they’re not just a scholar, they’re a scholar from Candlekeep, or they were a soldier during the Northern Troll Wars. There are specific names in their background that can be invoked during play to provide contacts for the PCs or hooks for the DM.
  2. They worked with the other players to create a character that will play off and with the other characters in fun ways. If you’re playing a dwarf who’s biased against orcs, they’re playing the half-orc paladin. If your character has the street urchin background, they’re playing the character who helped yours escape from the guard way back when, or possibly even got your character off the streets. If you’re playing the noble paladin who’s always first into the fray, they’re playing the scoundrel rogue with a heart of gold who is always talking like a self-interested jerk but just can’t bring themselves to abandon your character in a fight.
  3. They’re not afraid of their DM. They have a sweetheart in town, a younger sibling who’s always getting into trouble, and a pile of similar hooks the DM can use to create drama for their character.
  4. The DM isn’t afraid of them. The DM is happy to make the character a relative of some reigning noble, the (apparent) focus of a prophecy, or the grandchild of the ancient hero of legend. The DM considers letting them play that weird homebrew race or proposed subclass from Unearthed Arcana.
  5. They’re looking for ways to push the other characters into the limelight, or share the spotlight when it’s on them.

We’re all there to have and share fun. The mature player keeps that in mind and tries to be a force multiplier for that fun, so that everyone at the table has a great time. What makes RPGs so awesome is that they’re shared make-believe; getting the most from the shared part means actively engaging as many folks at the table as possible. And that’s what the best of the best do. I’ve been very blessed to play with many folks who deserve to be called the best of the best.

Monday, January 21, 2019

How I Include Magic Items in My Campaigns

This grew out of a Quora question on how "generous" DMs should be about handing out magic items. The answer, of course, depends on the sort of campaign you want. But I strongly err on the side of caution (or "tight-fisted stinginess" according to some of my players).

While I’m notorious for not giving away magical items, but the truth is, I give out lots of magic items. It’s just that most are one-use get-out-of-jail-maybe-not-so free things. Like a shield fashioned of rowan wood that can nullify a single spell of third level or lower, but shatters when it does so. That works well for me, but not for thee. So keeping in mind the needs of your own campaign and what brings the fun for you and yours, here are some suggestions about how to give out magic items:

What do you want the PCs to be able to do?

You might love werewolves and want to get lycanthropes into the campaign as quickly as possible. Or maybe you’ve got some great ideas for undersea adventures and don’t want the PCs too hampered with not being able to breath down there. Or maybe you think dragons are the bee’s knees but don’t want the PCs to flee in terror due to their fearsome aura. Maybe you want a jet-setting campaign that has the PCs chasing clues from one end of the world to another (cue the red-like map from Raiders of the Lost Ark). Or you want them to encounter lots of unique and alien cultures but don’t want their interactions bogged down by language barriers.

Magic items that remove hurdles that impede everyone getting to the fun are the first things you should think about giving out. Just make sure you’re not squashing someone’s character concept (a lie-detector when one of the players wants to play an Inquisitive), or short-circuiting what is the fun for you (like removing logistics as a concern when you really want a big, long-distance hex crawl).

Like unto this are…

What can’t the PCs do that might be important?

5e assumes the average group to be four players and a DM. Even with the game spreading around abilities like healing, that can mean that something gets left out. If the PCs are woefully lacking in stealth, or tanking, or healing, or intelligence-gathering, give them some magic to fill that gap.

Once you’ve got these bases covered, you may want to…

Take it slow.

It’s easier to give additional magical goodies than it is to take them away. So be stingy at first. If you’re not sure if you should give them a particular ability, make the item have limited uses (like a wand or potion).

Also, keep in mind that 5e is built around bounded accuracy. You can blow that up if you give away lots of things that improve AC. Avoid giving away magic items that raise ACs at all, and try to keep ACs below 24 if at all possible.

But if you’re going to do all that, you’ll probably also want to…

Make it cool!

If you give out fewer items, that means you can spend more time on the items you do give out. Give them names and histories. Who else used this item in the past, and what did they do with it? Are there those who particularly hate the item due to how it was used in the past, or who might feel it rightfully belongs to them? Will people recognize the item and admire the PCs for having it?
Does this item have cosmetic effects (cool lights or veiled in a bloody mist) that make it stand out? Are there side effects to calling upon its most potent powers? Does the item need special care or recharging?

Taking the time for even cosmetic changes can make the magic in your campaign unique. This is one of those areas where a little extra work will go a long way, especially as players realize that their treasured magic weapon isn't from a generic list in the DMG, but something special, made just for their campaign. You also have the players' undivided attention when you talk about treasure, so here's your best opportunity to include exposition you want remembered.

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.