Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars: the Limits of Efficiency

More than any previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is a sharply efficient movie. That's not entirely a good thing. Maybe it's just me, and I'm more aware of this stuff now, but it seems like there's nothing in this movie that doesn't exist to set up a scene, and some things clearly only exist to set up a scene.

In the Force Awakens, what's interesting about the planets isn't so much the environments as what the movie can do with them. Jakku is pretty much Tatooine with the serial numbers filed off, except for the graveyard of military hardware that gives Rey a craptacular job and provides some neat scenery for a starship chase. The Starkiller Base planet doesn't even seem to have a name; all that matters about it is the giant weapon inside.

The most egregious example is Solo's new ship. It possesses only two distinguishing features:

  1. a maw-like hangar to ominously swallow the Falcon in.
  2. a maze of corridors whose only clear purpose is to set an action scene in which heroes, gangsters, and hungry monsters run about chaotically.

Beyond that, no only do we not know anything about it, nothing is even hinted. The ship has no name, no type, and (in what may be a first for a Star Wars ship) we don't even get to see the entire exterior. And thus it feels fake. It feels like a movie set.

Compare that to Mos Eisley in New Hope. Even before Mr. Lucas went in and riddled the thing with extra CGI, it felt like things were going on around the corner that you couldn't see. If the camera had turned left when Luke and Ben had gone right, you'd have seen a used speeder lot (“Since the XP-38 came out, they're just not in demand.”) or a drunk getting mugged by some thugs or a dude getting his kneecaps broken over gambling debts he owes Jabba.

At no point do I feel there's more to Han's new ship than its maw-like hangar and the bizarre maze of tunnels inside.

This is a big deal for Star Wars. The toys, the games, the books are all predicated on the idea that the stories of the Skywalker clan take place in a bigger universe. The first movie made that obvious.

Another example: stormtroopers. Each movie gave us a new flavor of stormtrooper. In the first one, we had the dudes in white armor and the fighter pilots in black (a nice contrast to the rebels' safety-orange suits that said so much about how much both sides valued life and their own people). We got the snow troopers at the Battle of Hoth, and then the scouts in Return of the Jedi. In all four cases, it was obvious what you were looking at. The hows might not have been obvious (what, exactly, is special about the snow trooper's kit, for instance) but the why and the who was obvious.

In Awakens, we have a trooper call Finn a traitor and attack him with a pair of shock batons strapped to his arm. Why does a trooper have a big, clunky double-shock-baton weapon? The obvious answer is they wanted Finn in a hand-to-hand fight with a trooper who was an actual threat. But the in-world answer is never even hinted at. At no other point in the movie do we see someone with such a weapon strapped to their arm. At no other point in the movie do we see someone use such a weapon in a fight. It feels like the weapon only ever existed to be used in this fight, and it feels like we'll probably never see one again (unless, again, we need someone to hack at with a lightsaber).

The lack of verisimilitude in another sci-fi movie would be annoying. In a Star Wars movie, it's downright shocking and perplexing. So much of this franchise lives and breaths to invite people to come play in it. The toys, the games, the spin-offs all thrive on the notion that the Star Wars galaxy is big enough for a million stories. There are so many things hinted at, elegantly, that imply this: the XP-38, nerf herders, bulls-eyeing womp rats in a T-16.

I am not, by any stretch, suggesting that Force Awakens does anything to rehabilitate the prequels. Far from it; I think Abrams movie shows just how much Lucas stumbled in making his new films. However, Abrams' own shortcomings as a filmmaker do highlight Lucas' strengths. Chief among those strengths was creating what feels like a living, breathing larger universe.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens Review

Spoiler-free version: go see it. It's fun!

But you'll have “refrigerator door” questions hitting you before you've left your seat.

Below, there be spoilers. And you want to see this spoiler-free. The tension through this film is part of the fun. You know people isa gonna die, but who?!?

The biggest thing I learned from Episode VII is this: I want to play cards with Daisy Ridley. That woman's face is amazing. You can see everything that's going on in her head and her heart on her face. Rey's emotional landscape is vital to this film, and she makes emoting through facial expression look easy. In the final scene, she conveys so damn much with her face dialogue would ruin it.

Boyega and Isaac, on the other hand, know they're in a freakin' Star Wars film and they're loving every minute of it. It's so much fun when they're on the screen together, and I hope we get to see a lot more of that.

The biggest thing I love about this film is the emotional heft it has. Part of that is born of fear; you know just about everyone on screen is vulnerable and very few enjoy dramatic immunity to death. And, since this is Star Wars, nobody is immune to fates-worse-than-death. The story really focuses in on those relationships we already have with the old characters. While it has echoes of the original trilogy, it has no carbon-copy characters; Rey is nothing like Luke or any of the frustrated farm boys and suburban kids he was clearly modeled on. When Rey does the “strong woman” thing we buy it, because strength and resilience are baked into her character. And that allows her to be vulnerable which allows us to invest in Rey.

Boyega's character is a bit all over the place, but that really works. You can see Finn attempting to construct himself for the first time outside the whole stormtrooper thing. Some of the warmest moments in the film are comic-relief bits between Finn and Han, and they really work in an old-man-mentoring-a-young-hot-shot way.

Anyone else get a weird vibe between Han and Rey? What was that about? There's respect there, but Han's also clearly trying to hold her at arm's length the whole time. That have something to do with her past? There were more than a few hints that he knows who she is.

Maz Kanata is awesome! She used to be a pirate? Please, give us more like that!

My biggest peeve with this movie is how small and jumbled the universe is. It's like one of those French novels where, no matter how far any of the characters travel, they keep bumping into the same people. I was half expecting to learn that Finn was Lando's son or something equally unnecessary like that.

Even worse, I know nothing about how this universe works. There doesn't appear to be an Empire anymore, but the First Order is clearly well-supplied. And yet it recruits by yanking people out of their families and raising them from infancy? That seems more than a little odd. And what exactly is the place of the First Order in this universe? They apparently have some legitimacy because the Galactic Senate can't openly defy them and must secretly support the Resistance. Is this a territorial thing? It's made to look like Takodana is in the same system as the home of the Senate and the Republic's fleet. The Republic keeps its entire fleet in a single system, in orbit around a single world? Sure, the background is probably described in the novels and whatnot, but the movie itself does very little to explain the universe, and in the end makes it feel extremely tiny. The First Order appears to have a single Star Destroyer that does next to nothing besides act as a giant taxi service for the bad guys. Both the Resistance and the First Order have only a single class of fighter these days (that will annoy the game and toy companies no end). Part of what made the original Star Wars work so well is how big and real the universe felt. The universe of episode VII feels tiny, almost cramped. It feels like it was made for TV, rather than a movie.

John Williams has also dialed it back. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the music, and when it invokes old, familiar themes, it works. When it's not doing that, it's perfectly evoking the right emotional flavor for the moment. But there's no Imperial March or Duel of Fates that you'll be humming to yourself as you leave the theater. If Finn or Rey has a theme, it didn't stick in my head.

All-in-all: fun and emotional, but cramped. Like a really good anime, it's the characters who draw you in and keep you invested. There's no thrill of exploration in this movie except for a brief breath of fresh air at Maz Kanata's place, where, ever so briefly, the galaxy feels large and sprawling and full of possibility again. The rest of the time, it's set-dressing for intimate character drama, derring-do, and thrilling action beats.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Review: The Expanse on Syfy

Watching the opening credits and seeing the ads online,but most especially after watching the opening credits sequence, you'd be excused for mistaking The Expanse for a sci-fi knock-off of Game of Thrones. Heck, it's pretty clear SyFy wants you to mistake it for a Game of Thrones knock-off. The first episode doesn't really live up to that bill, though.

First, there are way too few characters. It becomes fairly obvious that we've got three main characters. Miller is a “cop” who actually works for a private security firm that does the cop-like work on the colonized asteroid Ceres. He's all noir, with his hat and clothes, his tough-guy demeanor and his dialogue that feels like a washed-out imitation of Dashiell Hammett. He's a “dirty cop,” though the implication is that, being a private corporation rather than a public service, the entire organization is on-the-take. We're also supposed to get that he has a heart of gold because he feels guilty about things and then gets ugly-violent about it later.

Jim Holden is one of those characters who's supposed to be mysterious. He's clearly running from something, clearly inhabiting a social and professional level below his actual birth and abilities, and clearly wallowing in (rather tame and mild) hedonistic delights to distract himself from the previous two aspects of his character. He also holds a vague position of authority on an ice-mining ship, doesn't want to advance in rank, and is banging the navigator who is the only other person on the ship who grooms and talks like lawyer instead of a factory worker. He's so generically mysterious he's boring, because you know you can't invest in his character. Luckily, he's surrounded by far more interesting people, and being “mysterious” means he can engage in broad swings in style and tone, allowing him to take plot-necessary actions nobody else in his position would sanely entertain.

Finally, we have Chrisjen Avasarala, an Indian grandmother who wears elegant saris, tickles her grandson, and, as Undersecretary of the United Nations, tortures political dissidents, possibly to death. Like Jim, she's such a different person from one moment to the next that it's impossible to invest in her, but unlike Jim, she's not surrounded by more interesting people. What you'll be paying attention to when she's on the screen is the spectacle of wealth and power and future Earth around her, and the vaguely Tarantino-esque threat of sudden, explosive violence that seems to linger in the background of every scene she's in.

The show owes a lot more to Babylon 5 than it does to Game of Thrones, from its grungy blue-collar focus to its Cold War themes and hidden motivations. You'll also see a lot of Babylon 5 in the space scenes, where ships move like physical bodies in a Newtonian universe but we still hear the rumble of engines as they pass by the camera. The sex is fairly tame (there's a single scene of gratuitous zero-g sex between a man and a woman), the violence isn't very graphic (though it does aim for a certain emotional impact that it doesn't always reach), and the spectacle is a bit too industrial grunge to really pull off the whole GoT-in-space vibe the marketing team would like you to assume.

It's also very much a modern serial show. You can tell they've got stuff plotted out pretty concretely (the story is based on a novel series) and look forward to a slow, leisurely reveal. Also like modern serial shows (and again, very much in the vein of Babylon 5) they love to set up your expectations and then pull the rug out from under you. They do a fairly masterful job of that right up near the end of the first episode.

Unfortunately, our three main leads do such a bang-up job of being mysterious and unpinnable that its really hard to invest in them as a viewer. (There's actually a fourth key character, but you see so little of her that you'd be forgiven for having entirely forgotten about her as the closing credits roll.) If the show is easy to watch (I don't have cable, so that means episodes posted online) and I have time, I'll probably catch the next few episodes to see if it grows on me; I'm at least that intrigued. But I've not seen anything yet worth rearranging my schedule for. On a scale of one-to-five stars, I give it a tentative three stars.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Disadvantages, Disadvantage, and EXP

In an attempt to make RPG characters mechanically unique, there was a trend in the early years to include lists of disadvantages you could take for your characters. The first game I came across that did this was GURPS in the mid ‘80s but I can’t say another game didn’t do it first.

Typically, these gave you additional points to buy better stats, abilities, or advantages during character creation. After that, it was up to the GM, largely, to keep track of your disadvantages and apply them during play.

This is, obviously, a clunky system, adding extra burdens on the GM to not only be certain to apply the disadvantages but to do so fairly. Certain disadvantages might not show up much at all because of the nature of the campaign (for instance, being unable to swim in a campaign set in deep space) while others might cripple a PC due to the themes and preferences of the GM (like arachnophobia in a campaign where the principle villains are drow).

More recently, people have been experimenting with flaws that reward the player when they penalize the character. You can see this kinda-sorta in Numenera with its GM intrusions mechanic.

I’m thinking of adding it to my D&D toolbox as follows: every time a flaw is invoked to cause serious disadvantage to the PC and most especially if it actually causes them to roll with disadvantage (roll two d20s and take the lower roll, as per 5e), the PC gets EXP equal to 2% of the difference between the amount needed for next level and the minimum they needed for their current level.

Now, I haven’t playtested this at all yet. I’m guessing that a flaw that comes up more than 5 times per hour (or 20 times per session) probably needs a serious looking-at. But this puts the burden of using it largely on the player, and incentivizes them to invoke it.

That said, I’m not sure I’d use it during character creation. Instead, I’d probably use it in conjunction with something like a Table of Death & Dismemberment (such as losing an eye causing disadvantage in to-hit with missile weapons) or mutation tables. I could also see using a system like that in conjunction with mental instabilities like those found in Wrath of Demons or Kingdom Death.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Steve Wieck Sows the Wind

Ok, yeah, I think I understand. Controversy is scary, and I can’t imagine that OneBookShelf isn’t living close to the bone. Still...

First, this is just opening the door to more controversy and fights. If you think the proposed tool isn’t going to be abused next time the RPG world has another slap-fight, you’re living in a fantasy world. Mr. Wieck is in for a world of busy-work, staying on top of this.

Second, Mr. Wieck has suddenly made his opinions important. Before now, nobody needed to care what Mr. Wieck felt about the divisive issues of the day. Now? You’d better believe Green Ronin cares what Mr. Wieck’s opinions on homosexuality are. What about furries? What about tentacle monsters?

By declaring himself the arbiter of “offensive,” Mr. Wieck has painted a big, giant bull’s eye on his back. This will mean more controversy, more Twitter fights, and more heat on Mr. Wieck personally. If he’d endured whatever boycott the offended could have mustered, he’d have found smoother sailing after the storm. As it is, he’ll be dealing with this issue frequently and personally, for as long as he’s at OneBookShelf, if not longer.

Then there’s the issues with publishers, which Mr. Wieck summarizes quite succinctly himself:
Publishers who offer content on our marketplaces will understandably say to us, "We can't invest in creating RPG titles only to have DriveThru arbitrarily ban them, so if you're now banning titles for offensive content, give us guidelines for what titles you will and will not ban."

To which, I have to say, "I hear you, but I don't know any better way." A work often has to be considered as a gestalt to know if it is offensive or not.

Really? That’s the best you can do?

Moving forward, we’ll probably see a chain of events we’ve seen before. We’ll see Mr. Wieck beg publishers to pull stuff that causes scandal and hope they voluntarily choose to do so, as happened with “Tournament of Rapists.” I suspect that will be Mr. Wieck’s go-to maneuver for now. It allows him to have his cake and eat it too; he says he found nothing personally offensive in “Tournament of Rapists” beyond the title and blurb, and in the end he’s not responsible for pulling the title off OneBookShelf. Win-win for him.

Until someone fingers one of Raggi’s titles, or another publisher tells him to man up or shut up.

Before that even happens, I suspect we’ll see a two-tier approach to issues of “offense.” Big publishers will be immune; no matter how much someone complains about a WotC, Pathfinder, or FFG, we won’t see their titles pulled. (And don’t think it couldn’t happen. Remember all the fuss-and-bluster over Hook Mountain Massacre?) Green Ronin is probably safe, as is White Wolf. Probably…

But the small-time and one-shot publishers will be easy prey for folks looking for someone to abuse, or those who don’t want the competition. How many flags will it take before Mr. Wieck has one of these talks? And if a publisher wants to be able to list future titles on OneBookShelf, well, that means “voluntarily” pulling the title.

And that might have been how things shook out. Except, while Mr. Wieck might not be willing to invoke any bright line rules, James Edward Raggi IV is:
If one of my products gets pulled, or if the products of my peers are pulled without their consent, I am taking every LotFP product off of that site, which will be something of an economic armageddon for me and a hardship from everyone on my roster getting royalties from sales.

It’s not an entirely one-sided Armageddon, either. As Raggi points out, he’s a top 2% seller on OBS with “over $100,000 gross sales over the six years [he’s] sold through the site…”

It’s only a matter of time before the mob is howling for Raggi’s blood (and probably Zak S’s or Jeff’s or any of the many others he publishes). So we’ll see how it goes. Raggi’s gone out of his way to offend before. Hell, his marketing relies on it, so I’m sure we’ll see the policies put to the test sooner or later.

Dyson Logos, someone I have a lot of respect for, himself has much respect for Mr. Wieck. By putting himself directly in the crosshairs, Mr. Wieck is clearly attempting to get ahead of this issue. I’m sure he’s got his heart in the right place, but when good intentions are your paving material, your road usually ends up only one place. Whatever he intends to have happen, people will attempt to abuse the system. Whether or not they succeed is entirely on Mr. Wieck’s shoulders. Maybe he had no choice; maybe he had to step into the middle of this. I do give Mr. Wieck props for not hiding behind passive-voice corp speak; he painted this target on himself. I just don't see how he did himself or OneBookShelf any favors by doing so. As he's sown, so shall he reap.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Success Guaranteed!

Are you familiar with the Garden of Eden trap?

It’s a way to short-circuit adventures before they really begin. Basically, it works like this: the PCs need to do a thing or the adventure stops. This can take all sorts of forms:
  • The PCs must surrender to the “obviously” overpowering forces of the enemy.
  • The PCs must solve the puzzle to get through to the next room.
  • The PCs must put these clues together in just the right way to figure out where to go next.
  • The PCs must put Tab A into Slot B (usually meaning bring a portable magic item to a fixed magic item, but it can be even worse when both items are portable).

But the absolute worst is: the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue with the adventure.

You see that last one ALL THE TIME and it annoys me every time I see it. To find the hidden enemy, the PCs must find a secret door. To secure the McGuffin you must solve the puzzle. Heck, to even start the adventure you must pass a lore or intimidation or whatever check just to even learn about the dungeon’s existence!

If the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue, what are you going to do when they fail?

And having three options isn’t enough. What if they entirely miss that one exists and flub the remaining two somehow? What will you do?

This is called the Garden of Eden trap because if Adam and Eve don’t eat the forbidden fruit, nothing changes; they stay in paradise and there’s no rest of the Bible.

Note that this isn’t the same as combat. Even if you get a TPK in combat, the adventure can continue; it just might be with different characters. But nobody wants to build entirely new characters just because the dice are ornery and nobody can pass a Lore check or something equally inane.

Secret doors and secret passages are cool, but they should be built with the idea that they are bonus material. If the PCs find the secret door, they should get extra loot. Or they offer a way around a nasty monster they’d have to fight otherwise. Or maybe they provide a safe space to rest and recuperate.

Ditto for puzzles. Either they can be solved by brute-force or simply going through every available option (taking the time to do so, of course), or they again offer access to bonus material: extra treasure, a sub-level of your dungeon, stuff like that.

If there is something the players must know so the adventure can continue (like, say, the actual location of the dungeon), then give it to them for free. If you want them to roll a die, then let them, and then tell them what they need to know regardless of how the roll came out. If they roll really well, you might also give them something extra (like that the dungeon is inhabited by lycanthropes or something equally useful). If they roll really poorly, tell them two things, one of which is true and the other of which is a lie.

But for the love of Pete, don’t force the players to succeed at a roll to continue or finish the adventure. If you do, you’d damned well better have more material for play that evening, because it won’t be the players’ fault if gaming ends early.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Year of 5e

As Venger Satanis has pointed out, we're a now a year on from the release of 5e's PHB. He's curious to hear how people feel about it now.

I've been playing a lot of 5e lately, more, in fact, than I've been playing any other system. I have one face-to-face game that meets at least twice (and sometimes three times per month) with a huge group (seven players fairly consistently, making the largest group I've played with regularly) and a single one-on-one game that meets nearly weekly. The game is fun.

The first thing I'll note about it is how solidly designed it is. The action economy is subtle, low-key, and the solution to issues that have plagued every single version of the game that has come before. The complexity ramps up slowly (though I have players who are still not sure what a proficiency bonus is and what you apply it to). The classes are nicely delineated. The races do what they do and then get out of the way. Backgrounds, on the other hand, remain fun up through at least the mid levels.

I've not played with any characters beyond 7th level so far, so I've not been able to see what breaks down at later levels. Nothing feels broken, but when the PCs start dishing out damage in the triple digits it'll make you pause for a moment to catch your breath. (Yes, a group of 7 PCs focused on a single target can drop three-digits worth of damage around 3rd level without breaking a sweat.) HP inflation is everywhere you look, but it actually leads to AC being less important which means low-level monsters can still be interesting threats to mid-living characters.

Magic is badly nerfed. Yes, that flattens the power curves, but I keep wanting to do things with cool spells like charm person that would have been perfectly feasible in TSR-era D&D that are now a lot tougher. Likewise, monsters are a lot more focused. The maralith is a choppy-choppy melee monster, and she really doesn't have much else in the way of interesting combat abilities. She's really, really good at chopping things up, but...

The biggest issue I have with 5e, however, is that, at its core, it doesn't really know what it wants to be. (Thanks to Natalie Bennett for much of these insights, inspired by my frustration with 5e's succubus.) EXP is principally awarded for killing things, implying that combat remains the focus as it has for WotC's entire range of D&D versions. And yet there are monsters that feel confused as to their purpose, like the succubus who's clearly fallen in the gap between plot-instigator and melee-bruiser. It's not a game about exploration (though bits of it kinda want to be), while, at times, it wants to be a game about plots and stories.

So every now and then 5e will do something to frustrate your expectations. And after you get over the shock you'll be annoyed, largely because most of the time it's such a well-behaved rules set that plays well with everyone at the table, including (and possibly especially) the DM.

It's not an OSR game, but it isn't OSR-unfriendly, and it certainly fixes some of the issues you run into with TSR-era D&D. If you're a fan of the OSR and you're thinking about running 5e, the first thing I'd suggest houseruling is EXP. EXP-for-gold fixes a lot of 5e's more obnoxious issues. Pay very close attention to the rules for bonus actions and concentration; neither work the way you might assume and both make the game a lot more manageable at the table.

I haven't bought anything for 5e yet beyond the core books. I'll probably pick up the Rage of Demons adventure book just to see what they do with it, and how they do things like stat blocks and the like. So far, it's been very friendly towards updating old works and I've not felt any lack of cool things to throw at my players. We'll see if that continues to the be case as their current PCs rise in level, retire, and we start new campaigns.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

5e Licensing: the Plot Thickens?

If you listen to this interview with Mike Mearls at GenCon, you’ll hear the latest on third-party licensing for D&D 5e. The fun starts just after 45 minutes into the interview. Most specifically, Mearls says:

The plans we had grew bigger, and more complicated… what we have might not be exactly what people expect, but I think it’s just going to be seen as objectively better.

So what does that mean?

No idea, honestly. I think, however, we can safely rule out a blanket open license a la 3e’s OGL.

One thing I picked up from an interview with Ryan Dancey (I think on the Fear the Boot podcast) was that the OGL didn’t quite work the way they expected. Dancey and Co. had assumed that DMs would use the OGL to publish their homebrew adventures. (Keep in mind that, at this time, adventures were seen as loss-leaders; necessary support to grow an RPG, but individually unprofitable.) Instead, what they got was a flood of splatbooks.

And a flood of new character options is absolutely not what WotC wants to see for 5e. If you got back to Mearls’ comments from GAMA or the early part of the Tome Show interview, you’ll hear him talk about how important it is to keep the game lean, to not drown players (and especially DMs) with lots of new options, special cases, and new mechanics.

So I’m predicting a license that discourages character options, alternate games (i.e. True20 or Fading Suns d20), and the like, but encourages publishing adventures, settings, backgrounds, monsters and treasure. The push will be to use backgrounds, and not new classes or class paths, to make characters better fit the setting. Maybe races. Races could go either way, but I suspect they’ll be discouraged as well. And spells? Probably allowed, but that’s a grey area that might fall too close to making new classes and class variants.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is Interesting?

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque has tackled the question, “What makes a monster interesting?” The answer provided is the old standby of solutions to the been-there-done-that doldrums: reskinning.

With apologies to our good host at G&D, I've always been meh about reskinning. Call an ork a “bizak” and it's still an orc. Sure, describing goblins as "diminutive, wizened, man-like fey, each wearing a cloth cap that appears to be dipped in blood" is awesome the first time the PCs run into them. (And I love that description, by the way. Makes them sound like something from an Alan Lee illustration.) The second time, they'll just be “more of those wizened man-fey” and the third time they'll be “goblins” (or, possibly, “red-caps.”)

The problem with reskinning is that it's just kicking the can down the road. You've made a boring monster more interesting for a single encounter. What about the next time? And the time after that? You could just use different monsters every time, though if you're going to do that, why not just use different monsters before resorting to reskinning? There's almost certainly a goblin-analogue in Fiend Folio you haven't used yet, like xvarts or dark creepers.

What really makes a monster interesting is what the players can do with it. If your “wizened, man-like fey” are just another EXP-piƱata, well, ok, the PCs attack, dice are rolled, moving along. On the other hand, if the PCs can confound them by wearing their clothes inside out, that's a bit more interesting. Goblins you can trade with are more interesting yet, especially if they allow you to push deeper into the hex-crawl or are the only source for certain goods.

I want to return to that “inside-out” thing, though. Monsters that invoke fairy-tale logic are some of the best because they prod the players to interact with the world in non-standard ways. Vampires are awesome for this because they're nearly impossible to kill otherwise. But everyone knows how vulnerable they are if you expose them to sunlight or find their coffins. Now, suddenly, all sorts of things about the adventure are important: where is the nearest holy ground, what time of day is it, do the PCs encounter the vampire deep underground or in a tottering ruin or at a public event where exposure could thwart its plans? Players who couldn't care less about the campaign's calendar are suddenly very interested in the phases of the moon when they know they're up against lycanthropes.

Finally, monsters are interesting when they have a noticeable impact on the world. Goblins hiding up in their caves are not terribly interesting. Goblins who are raiding merchant caravans and driving up prices are a lot more interesting. Goblins who have infiltrated a walled city's sewers and are stealing babies for some nefarious purpose are more interesting yet. And they get even more interesting when they're feeding those babies to a black dragon who will rise from the sewers and wreak havoc should the flow of babies be interrupted by, say, a group of do-gooding adventurers. When slaying the monster doesn't mean just additional EXP, but also affects the world around them (lower prices at the blacksmith or the gratitude of a city no longer on the verge of riots), that makes the whole world more interesting. That's one of the cool things about dragons in the old stories. Slaying a dragon wasn't just an extra notch on the knight's sword hilt. It meant a new lease on life for the entire community the dragon was preying upon, it meant a happy reunion for the princess and her family, it unleashed a flood of lost wealth returned to the local economy. 5e kinda gets at that with their regional effects for “mythic” monsters, one of the things I very much appreciate about the new edition.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Blue Rose: the Kickstarting

Blue Rose is now a-Kickstarter-ing. As promised, they've dropped the (justly praised) True20 mechanics for their new AGE rule set. I can certainly understand how that makes sense from a business standpoint, and while AGE isn't the rules I'd go to for this project, I can also see how this will nicely expand what they've built for their Dragon Age pen-and-paper RPG.

There's a bit of blah-blah about how brave and edgy the game was. Of course, I don't read Green Ronin's hate-mail, but I was pretty active on Big Purple in those days. Mostly what I remember were complaints about how the humans of Aldis were slaves to some bizarre magical deer who picked their rulers. Even worse, in the eyes of many, was the fact that this magical deer supposedly rooted out treachery and corruption. In the “perfect” kingdom of Aldis, what was there for heroes to do?

I was generally of the opinion that these complaints were a bit overblown, since the setting seemed a perfectly playable version of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar with the serial numbers filed off. Still, it looks like they've tackled that issue with their “framework” stretch goals. Even if they don't get published, they should give DMs ideas on what sorts of things you can do with the setting.

And I suspect at least a few of the stretch-goals will be hit, considering they're more than halfway to their original goal now, on the first day of the Kickstarter. Here's hoping we get a fun game that takes a slightly different perspective on the whole High Fantasy genre. I'm not sure I want them to bother selling it to the uninitiated or not, but I certainly don't want them to sell out the genre they're aiming to emulate. There's a lot more to “Romantic Fantasy” than just talking animals and gay characters.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Retro-stupid Refuel - Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in spite of all the hoopla to the contrary, exactly what it says it is on the tin, and lots of it. Intense car chases, brutal action, and over-the-top spectacle are all over the place in this one, all laced together with a barely-there revenge plot thinly layered over a pastiche of the entire plot to Road Warrior melded with the kids’ plotline from Thunderdome. Everything that’s original here is in the visuals.

And what epic visuals they are. Everything here is bigger and nastier and more chromed-up and over-the-top than ever before. The dune-buggies of yesteryear are gone, replaced with monster-trucks, tank-treaded muscle cars, and sedans bristling with insanely huge rusty spikes. Forget all that nonsense about gas being rare after the apocalypse; in Fury Road, every vehicle is covered in so much armor plate, spikey-bits, and iconography that none of them can be doing better than five miles to the gallon.

I do love the way the cultures of post-apocalyptic Australia have evolved in this franchise. In Mad Max, they were barely different from present-day suburbia, struggling to maintain a pocket of normality. In the Road Warrior, that normality was gone, but most of the people were still everyday Joes and Janes, struggling to find safety in a world gone mad. The inhabitants of Barter Town had made peace with their post-apocalyptic existence, trading the last bits and bobs of their lives from before in exchange for water, food, and barbaric spectacle.

The people of Fury Road, however, come off like the descendants of the airplane kids. They inhabit bizarre cultures built around survival and apocalypse-shaped religion. Life is cheap, except when it’s pure, untouched by the ravages of the apocalypse, at which point it becomes more precious than gold and gasoline and bullets. The pre-apocalypse world isn’t a memory but a myth, and its death is a point of theological contention.

This only adds to the impossibility of placing this movie in chronological order with the others. The opening implies it belongs between Mad Max and Road Warrior. Things happen to Max that make it impossible for this movie to have happened before Thunderdome. More than that, however, this Max is clearly the post-Thunderdome Max. Where the Road Warrior didn’t give much of a crap about the settlers until (maybe) the very end (and I’m not sure he really cared more about them than he did about his vengeance), but then goes out of his way to save the kids at the end of Thunderdome, Fury Road’s Max signs on pretty quickly to doing what he can for the helpless innocents of this film.

And yes, in spite of all the politically-fueled nonsense you’ve probably seen surrounding this film, there are helpless innocents in need of being saved by Max here. Frankly, it’s hard for me to see how this film is all that much more feminist than the very-similar Road Warrior. Yes, there's no rape scene like in the beginning of The Road Warrior. Instead, we get a scene of women with the bodies of fertility goddesses being milked like cows. It's not quite as kinky-erotic as a similar scene in Pink's “Raise Your Glass” video only because the women are bovine-docile instead of writhing about in restraints. These gals and their milk kinda-sorta pay off at the end of the movie metaphorically, but it's so heavy-handed it feels gratuitous.

Charlize Theron is great in this movie, and her Furiosa character does have a more interesting arc than Max does, but that's not saying much. To praise anyone for their acting in this flick seems a bit much. It's all perfect for what it is, but make no mistake: this is a car-chase movie punctuated by bits of dialogue. It's an awesome car-chase movie, but it's no Casablanca, or Princess Bride, or hell, Star Wars.

So Theron's acting primarily involves closeups of her face with one of two emotions on it: either some-asshole's-gonna-pay or oh-shit-the-only-choice-we-have-is-to-crash-straight-through-this. Grim, vengeance-fueled determination or edge-of-your-seat, hope-we-make-it-through-this-too-late-to-swerve-aside-now. Both are picture-perfect and entirely in service to the film's actions beats, giving them the drama-nitro they need to rev up beyond the potential of mere cars crashing about in the desert.

And sure Furiosa's an awesome kick-ass character, and the way she and Max come to understand one another very much echoes a similar relationship in the last Riddick movie. The atonement thing is cool, and it's a thread they share. But this movie also comes with a literal truckload of defenseless damsels in distress. The Vulvalini are bad-asses... so long as they avoid fist-fights. When it comes to mano-a-mano action, the guys with their massive chests and thick fists dominate the action with all the thuggish brutality of jungle beasts. The Vulvalini are outlaw banditas and ace shots with a gun, but they're also victims to be literally crushed under the wheels of a big-bad's monster truck. If there's a political message in this film, honestly, it's the same message you get from an NRA poster of a smiling 12-year-old girl holding a bright pink AR-15 and captioned "God Made All Men, But Smith & Wesson Made Us Equal."

So leave your pretentious at home, bring your 12-year-old self that thrills to car-crashes and revenge-fueled power fantasies, and come get your retro-stupid refuel. This insane film is chock-full of adventure seeds and crazy ideas to inspire the DM in you, from bullet farms to chrome-worshipping neo-viking suicide bombers, to stone-column citadels carved with crazy skull symbols and topped with garden paradises and pleasure domes.  The murder-hobos in your life will thank you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Feast of the Unicorn

So, Blue Rose is possibly returning. I suspect it will make its Kickstarter target. This isn't Green Ronin's first rodeo, after all.

Blue Rose is an RPG modeled on what the designers termed “romantic fantasy.” We're talking about authors like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Barbara Hambly, Anne Bishop, Jacqueline Carey, and many more similar authors. I'd also include Wendy and Richard Pini and the Foglio's for “Girl Genius” among them.

I do still encounter, on occasion, comments that equate this sort of fiction with stuff like “My Little Pony.” Folks wonder why a mechanic (d20 in the original Blue Rose) built around combat would be used for a game about making friends over tea parties and resolving conflicts through mediation and...

And I have to wonder what books these people are reading.

Actually, no I don't. I know they haven't read any romantic fantasy. They look at the pastel covers with the prancing horses, manes blowing in the wind, and the heroine gazing mistily into the distance, and assume.

Well, neighbor, if that's your assumption, reality's ringing your doorbell and has a whole case of bitch-slap to deliver.

Let's start with a classic of the genre: the prologue to Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood.

Very, very NSFW. Also, if you require trigger warnings, romantic fantasy is not the genre for you.

Want more? Try the prologue to C.S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising.

Keep in mind, these are not the meat of the stories. These are the prologues. They're just the hooks (though, like good hooks, they're short, sharp, and dig into your flesh).

And this stuff isn't unusual. Jacqueline Carey's original Kushiel trilogy starred a masochistic sacred prostitute. Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince pivots around the rape of a male character by a female villain. Mercedes Lackey's Arrow's Fall (sporting one of the most pastel-and-merry-go-round-pony covers ever) includes fratricide, rape, torture, and attempted suicide. The conclusion includes a violent execution and a pitched battle between two armies.

Sure, there are talking animals, gorgeous clothes, weddings, friendly dragons, and the occasional unicorn or gryphon. Why not? The target audience has proven through their buying habits that they love that stuff.

And yes, there are openly gay characters and bouts of polyamory now and then. But the sex isn't always the happy-happy hippy-trippy lovefest some would lead you to expect. Because the minds of teenage girls are full of monsters, and, as Ursula Vernon says, sex is “the mommy monster at the bottom of the well, with fifty lazily blinking eyes and muck settling across its back” and they want to drag those monsters into the light, see them, be terrified by them, and then toss them back into the well.

The truth is, all good writing is vicious. An author lulls you into caring for a character or three and then spends the next handful-hundred pages abusing them terribly. If the misfortunes of the characters resonate with your own life, the book will be all the more powerful for it. Nobody enjoys pre-chewed pablum. Most will enjoy a vicarious and dangerous thrill that flirts with the monsters lurking inside their own skulls.

Now, having said all that, if you want to argue about how well the Blue Rose game communicates and invokes that sort of thing, then we'll have something to talk about. :)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Thoughts After My First GAMA Trade Show

Nobody in this industry has any idea how to do this.

This isn't the condemnation it might seem at first. Yes, there appears to be way too much “amateur hour” at nearly every level of the industry, but if you think that's unique to hobby games, then you didn't work in the internet during the '90s. (And I'd be shocked to learn it's much better than it was; today it appears more people have credentials to hide behind, but...)

Rather, I'm talking about how hard it is to even define what the professionals try to talk about. On the obvious end, questions bedevil attempts to quantify the industry. Is Cool Mini or Not's Zombicide a boardgame or a miniatures game? Should Monopoly be counted as a “hobby game?” What about Star Wars reskins of Monopoly?

And then there's the dance of trying to figure out just what's happening. Did D&D steal some wind from Pathfinder? Scuttlebutt in the halls was that Pathfinder's appeal appears to be weakening. However, the folks who make their money attempting to guesstimate actual market activity say that D&D's 5e mostly grew the market with Pathfinder staying fundamentally strong.

(And keep in mind, please, as I talk here, that the GAMA trade show is heavily tilted towards the interests and concerns of your FLGS. How many people play a particular game isn't nearly as important as what people actually buy. Unless they're lining up to buy A Red and Pleasant Land, people playing 1e D&D or the like are completely invisible to most of GAMA's members. And they're only a shadowy mass in the mists if they're buying online.)

What everyone agrees on is that things are good now. The best guesstimates I saw (again, by the pros who get paid to guesstimate, largely based on interviews since everyone plays their cards close to their vests), is 15% to 20% growth across the hobby games market in North America every year for the last four years. Things are good and 2015 looks to continue the trend.

China rules in manufacturing. If your game is all paper, there are North American sources that have become competitive, but if your game includes plastic or wooden pieces, nobody right now can compete with the Chinese. However, Chinese manufacturing, while cheap, may not be as big as you think. When WizKids needed a big order of dice for their Marvel's Dice Masters game, they pretty much took up all of China's dice-making capacity. There's also a six-month delay between placing an order in China and delivery to stores in the US. Delays, quality issues, and inventory headaches were all big topics. Those of you who are fans of Fantasy Flight's x-wing game probably know all about this.

Want to start an argument at GAMA? Ask people about Kickstarter. While the manufacturers and publishers are almost universally fans, retailers tend to blow hot or cold on it. Retailers can also be very thin-skinned when it comes to the topic of online shopping. Many feel like they're being taken advantage of by shoppers who will try a game out in a store and ask the store staff for advice, but then buy the game online.

Fate is a serious contender in RPGs, frequently showing up in the top 5 in terms of sales, but usually at number 5. That may not seem impressive, but keep in mind that it beats GURPS, Savage Worlds, Cubicle 7's Tolkien-based The One Ring, and Mutants & Masterminds. And sometimes Shadowrun. FF is also a serious contender, especially if you combine all their Warhammer 40k and Star Wars lines.

Collectable card games make up more than 60% of sales in terms of dollars spent by gamers. Blind packaging leads to more sales; make it collectable and you'll see an easily measurable jump in sales. Miniature games (mostly Games Workshop) make up roughly 20%. Board games, non-collectible dice and card games, and RPGs combined make up something just less than 20%. While everyone recognizes that RPGs gave birth to the modern hobby gamer market, it's now a sliver of a niche.

Again, do keep in mind that all of these are at best guesstimates, only apply to North America, and are measured in terms of sales in dollars; who's buying what rather than who's playing what. Raggi's almost completely invisible to this crowd and Mearls stated he thinks the numbers given for RPGs are too low.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Variations on a Theme by Mearls

Part of Mearls’ talk at GAMA was supposed to be about the future of RPGs. He ended up not having a lot of time to get into that (and I’d forgotten about it when I had an opportunity to speak with him, so I utterly failed to follow up on it). Still, he did touch briefly on where he saw the hobby going.

And that is toward simplicity in mechanics. He constantly mentioned Numenera and Fate. Numenera, I think, is the better example. It’s got a crazy, wahoo, Saturday-morning-cartoon meets ‘60s post-apocalyptic fiction meets Dying Earth meets Gamma World as illustrated by Deviant Art setting. It can get pretty dense in sections.

The mechanics, however, are bog-simple. Want to spend points from three stat-pools to boost your roll? Decide, roll, rinse, repeat.
There’s little in the way of tactical minutia to occupy the GM’s frontal lobes. Heck, if you’re playing the game RAW, the GM doesn’t touch the dice during combat. The GM’s principle job is to watch for good points for intrusions, giving the fight context, and creating fun at the table, not adjudicating bonuses, facing, or distance.

Now, this is old hat to the OSR crowd. We’ve been crowing about this for over seven years now. Grognardia launched on March 30, 2008. That’s the same year the Old School Primer was published. And, as some demonstrated to my previous post about what Mearls had to say, a common response ‘round these parts can be largely summed up thusly: “Duh!”

But it’s interesting how slowly but strongly this idea is percolating through the collective consciousness of RPGing. I’m not sure most folks even recognize it yet in D&D. They’re still expecting to find rules for every situation. If it’s not out yet, it’ll be released in a supplement, right?

Only Mearls has said, there won’t be that many supplements. So maybe a free-to-the-web pdf or something?

Or maybe not at all.

Mearls pointed out that, for many designers, D&D sets the tempo. It’s assumed that players have played D&D, so D&D is your baseline for expectations, especially in terms of complexity. People see the rule-for-everything of 3.x or the giant-wall-o’-combat-options from 4e and assume that people coming to their game bring expectations shaped by that sort of thing. And thus you get monstrosities like Shadowrun 5e.

This stuff we’ve been raving about for seven years now is starting to seep out, but kinda below the surface. Have people noticed what’s happened to D&D in 5e? Will it still be seen as a success next year when there aren’t three brand-new core books everyone wants? If it is, will they recognize the value of simplicity? Or are the punch-clock designers too set in their ways, and too deep in their bubble, to notice?

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any RPGs ripe for a new edition. When we start seeing new editions of games, it’ll be interesting to note if this move toward simplicity is found in them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mearls at GAMA

Mike Mearls gave a talk on RPG design at the GAMA trade show on Tuesday afternoon. Much of it was based on the playtest for 5e, so keep that in mind as I delve into the meat of his discussion.

He started by discussing the perception that RPGs are in decline. This was something of a shock to me and with the retailers I mentioned this to. While RPGs are not the tent pole products FF miniatures games or M:tG are, they don’t seem to be in decline to us. Nor to Mearls.

Granted, the man certainly doesn’t want to come to a show like GAMA and say something like his industry is fading fast. And he wasn’t willing to risk his job by releasing WotC sales numbers.

That said, he reported that internal numbers show peaks and valleys, but overall slow but steady growth. Organized play has grown with each edition of D&D since 3rd. He also said that the numbers they had showed a skew towards younger gamers. The assumption that the kids are playing MMOGs and old farts are playing pen-and-paper games is the opposite of reality. The average age of D&D players appears to be around 30 years of age; the average age of MMOGers is 35.

After that, he got into some details from the 5e play test. One thing he thinks the industry as a whole has gotten wrong is the desire for complexity. When 3e was released, lots of people just assumed their audience had played it and that was the benchmark for complexity. The result has been much denser games with rules for everything.

But players don’t appear to want that. He described watching people play 4e from behind a one-way mirror and just grinding his teeth at how everyone got the rules wrong. Yet, while the designers were squirming in frustration at everything going awry, the people playing were almost always having a great time. In short, the rules mattered much less than the group.

Even more, as they play-tested 5e, while the designers squirmed at the lack of rules to cover edge-cases, the players seemed thrilled with a simpler game. They found that players actively disliked complexity during combat. (Mearls assumes this is due in some part to the bad side of spotlight time; if everyone’s staring at you, waiting for you to take your turn, you really, really don’t want to screw up. The pressure to “get it right” makes more options less fun. Not entirely sure that’s what’s going on there, but I can see where Mearls is coming from.)

While complexity outside of combat is appreciated, Mearls firmly believes that adding to that complexity is a Red Queen’s race the publisher can only lose. Keeping something new constantly on store shelves may be great in the short run, but it leads to quicker burn-out. A smaller core-rules footprint, in short, is better for the longevity of the game.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

What's Up at WotC?

Joe Kushner of the blog Appendix N isn't happy with the support WotC has given 5e:

Wizards of the Coast just released something called "Unearthed Arcana". A few pages with no illustrations and no page design to them. It looks like something that fell off of some designer's desk that WoTC said, "Yeah, put that up online."

This is terrible. People, well, me, I expect some professionalism from WoTC. With all of the stock art they have, with all of the templates for designed books they have, with all of the trade dress they have, the best they could do is this? This half-baked mess? Well, you get what you pay for here.

Just how bad does Mr. Kushner think it is? “My opinion hasn't changed much from my earlier musings on the subject. Unless WoTC somehow surprises me, 5th edition will be the last print edition of the game.”

So what is going on? I think, I honestly do think, that WotC has no idea what they want to do with D&D.

Over at ENWorld, we have this quote from Mike Mearls on the non-publishing of the Adventurer's Handbook:

we've played things close to the vest is that it's a huge, open question on what support for the RPG should look like... we do a lot of stuff that may or may not end up as a released product. For instance, we now know that the high volume release schedule for 3e and 4e turned out to be bad for D&D. It wasn't too many settings that hurt TSR, but too many D&D books of any kind. lots of experiments ahead...

Ever get the feeling that, so far as Hasbro is concerned, WotC can do what they like with D&D just so long as they keep the IP alive and don't fumble the glorious gravy-train that is Magic: the Gathering?

Seriously, it very much feels like D&D is this tiny department whose directive from on-high is, “Don't go over-budget, but keep the name alive until somebody figures out how to make real money with this thing.”

Frankly, if that's true, it's very exciting.

The truth is, lots of supplements are bad for a game. Paizo recently launched a “core rules” version of their organized play. Why? Because, in spite of Paizo's slow-drip release schedule for rules, there's simply too much there for new players to master, and if you don't master it, you're going to get overshadowed and steamrollered by the veterans. Also, their original adventures crumble when you toss the new character options at them.

This sort of thing is bad for the an RPG. It inhibits growth, it alienates existing fans that don't want to always have to scramble to keep up with the latest-and-greatest, and, if you read between the lines, it looks a bit like some of the original classes may now be obsolete next to the new sexy hotness. That's not going to sit well with fans of the old classes.

The last thing Paizo wants to do is release a new edition of their game. Helping people keep playing 3.x D&D is how they got started. It's the very foundation of their success.

The last thing WotC wants is to be where Paizo is and be forced to shatter their fanbase by releasing 6e in four years.

So what to do?

This is pretty uncharted territory. Chaosium's really the only outfit I can think of off the top of my head to pull off a long-running RPG business without seriously mucking with their core rules. And they're not exactly know for a hot-and-heavy publishing schedule. Their big seller support product still appears to be “Horror on the Orient Express” which was first released in '91. And they've just kickstarted a new edition of the game.

Tori Bergquist thinks Green Ronin's go this thing down, able to keep a strong publication schedule rolling in spite of the current environment. Sure, they've got a robust schedule for 2015. But what's Green Ronin's flagship game? M&M? Only one dead-tree release is scheduled for 2015. Their Dragon Age RPG is getting what amounts to a new edition, replacing the boxed sets with a book, a revised DM's screen, and a dead-tree, expanded version of an old PDF adventure. You can maybe-sorta count the release of the Dragon Age mechanics in their own book with the setting stripped out as another book in that series, but that's kinda stretching it.

And the story is the same for their SoIaF RPG: one big adventure book, one rules supplement, and some PDFs. In short, while Green Ronin's publishing schedule may look robust, for each individual game it's a rulebook, an adventure that may or may not be in dead-tree form, and maybe some PDFs.

It sounds like Mearls wants to do something different. That sounds very cool to me. It also sounds like they're still figuring out exactly what that is. Here's hoping for something innovative and sock-blowing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Succubi Suck!

The succubus of 1e AD&D is the stuff of jokes because of the picture. Still, she was a classic femme fatale, able to lure the innocent to their doom with a come-hither gaze, copious charm spells, and a deadly kiss. She suffered from being rather fragile in a toe-to-toe fight (unless she could summon in some help), was yet another good reason for PCs to be constantly paranoid, and, honestly, was eclipsed by the more flexible and dangerous lamia.

When WotC took over,the succubus’ repertoire got broadened. She became the ultimate spy, an expert in such skills as bluffing, intimidation, impersonation, and investigation. Toss in her magical powers and she could become the true power behind the throne, a sort of Grima Wormtongue with more sex appeal.

So, what did WotC do with the succubus in 5e?

Frankly, I’m not sure.

Oh, I have the MM. She (and the incubus) are on pages 284 and 285. The flavor text talks about the succubus infiltrating the dreams of a chosen victim in order to weaken their moral resolve. That might be a fun thing to play, or a neat little side-plot to a more developed adventure (“Why is Brother Anselm always looking so tired these days? And why is he so cranky?”). It’s not, however, the sort of thing D&D adventures are typically made of. Nor is her sleep-invading power defined in any way, so exactly how you thwart it is really up to the DM.

She’s got great Deception and Persuasion skill bonuses (+9) and a good Insight bonus (+5) to back them up. But while those skills are exceptional, they’re hardly supernatural. She can still shift her form. But she’s lost all her magical abilities like suggestion except for her charm power.

Which can only be used on a single person at a time.

And only lasts 24 hours at most.

And then, when it ends, can’t be used again on the same individual for another 24 hours.

A harem of inc/succubi could be a really annoying additional obstacle in a fight; you're here to kill the Grand Warlock, but while you're attempting to put the hurt on him, his whatever-cubi buddies are hanging out in the ethereal, tossing charms and popping into the material world just long enough to drop 5d10+5 points of slobbery kootie damage on someone. But, frankly, is that cooler than a wand of lightning bolts, a flock of pet harpies, or a pair of amorous red slaadi?

To put it bluntly, I’m a bit at a loss as to what I’m supposed to do with this critter. She’d probably be most effective popping in, charming some NPC, then going ethereal while she interrogates her new best friend via her telepathic bond that can bridge planes. Useful, sure, but it would seem you could replace the monster with a nifty spell or two. Like scrying.

Scrying is one of the powers the lamia has, in addition to suggestion. She can also toss geas once per day. Her intoxicating touch, while nowhere near as potent as the old Wisdom-draining one, is a lot more fun and useful than the succubus’ boring kiss (which does nothing but deal damage and can only be used on someone she’s charmed, and even then gives the target another saving throw to break out of the charm).

The only thing that the succubus has over the lamia is the ability to go ethereal. It’s a neat trick that will allow the succubus to escape certain death most of the time (until the PCs get a way to thwart it). Whether that allows for a cool repeating villain or creates an annoying and not-fun headache for the players will depend on careful play by the DM.

As for me, right now I’m tempted to replace every inc/succubus with a lamia. They’re both rated at Challenge 4, the lamia has more neat tricks in her bag, and she’s much more likely to come across as challenging rather than annoying.

Monday, February 23, 2015

You're Not Wearing That Tonight, Are You?

Or, 10 Random Facts About Kyma.

Kiel Chenier suggested we share ten “random” facts about our campaigns that make them unique. The campaign that I’m getting the most play in now is my face-to-face 5e game. It’s a (mostly) urban game, taking place in a metropolis that’s heavily inspired by ancient Babylon, medieval Constantinople, and fantasy cities like Sanctuary. The urban random encounter tables I’ve been posting were made for this game.

This was my first attempt at running a 5e game, so a lot of things are fairly bog-standard. I didn’t create any special classes or races, and I made room for all the things that were in the PHB.

However, that still left a lot of space for me to put my own spin on things. Here are ten examples of that:

  1. Orcish Manhood: when a male orc reaches a certain age, he is tried by his clan, found guilty of being a feral beast, and banished. He must then prove his worth to another clan before he’s allowed to join it and fully be accepted as an adult orc. Typically, it’s the females of the tribe who’ve successfully raised sons to the point where they’ve been banished whose approval must be won. Kyma is thus home to a steady population of young orcs looking to win gold, fame, and steel in the city by whatever means necessary. They often end up fighting in the colosseum, acting as thugs to those with money, or forming fraternal gangs in the city’s expansive sewers and catacombs. If orcish females are about, one or more of these “juvenile” males won’t be far away, looking for an opportunity to prove his mettle.
  2. Warlocks: most citizens of Kyma believe that warlockery is illegal. Technically, this isn’t true. What is illegal is fraternizing and dealing with demons, devils, and other inhabitants of the “Lower Planes.” Those whose powers derive from an Archfey are not in violation of the law. Technically, neither are those who’ve turned to the alien Great Old Ones. However, since most folks can’t really tell the difference between a demon and a Great Old One, the distinction rarely saves a warlock from being burned at the stake. However, the warlocks can easily tell, and those who serve Fiends and those who serve Outsiders revile each other. Violence is common when they can get away with it while not drawing too much attention to themselves.
  3. Paladins: in 5e, these come in three flavors. On the streets of Kyma, they come in four flavors. Those who take the Oath of the Ancients serve the Fey Powers. They tend to be hedonists with hearts of gold, and if you think Fandral or Volstagg from The Warriors Three, you won’t be far wrong.
  4. Most paladins who take the Oath of Devotion join the priesthood of Xithras the Defender. When not slaying monsters and routing the undead, they turn themselves to rooting out the warping powers of Transmutation magic. Feeling that the “natural” forms of creatures is sacred, anything that threatens that purity is anathema, even the use of potions fashioned from minotaur milk to enhance fertility. As an organization, they are distrustful of tieflings, seeing them as living examples of the horrors that await anyone who starts down the slippery slope of magical enhancement.
  5. The Hasheeshins of Skotas the Hidden take the Oath of Vengeance. They seek to pierce the veils of lies and illusions people cloak themselves in via the use of powerful hallucinogens. The line between dream and reality is of vital interest to Hasheeshins, and thus they have a harder time of perceiving it than most. However, where others assume, the Hasheeshin looks deeply, and is more likely to root out hidden truths.
  6. The paladins of Phaedre, goddess of War and Love, are all women (though not all were born that way). They can swear the oaths of Devotion or Vengeance. All sorts of rumors swirl around their mysterious rituals and practices: that they are cannibals, that they will remain forever young so long as they bathe in the blood of their goddess’ enemies, that any man who slays one of these Warriors of the Red Dawn will sire a daughter who will be his death. Phaedre’s paladins do little to discourage the rumors.
  7. Calendar: Kyma exists in a sub-tropical zone with monsoon-dominated weather patterns. The calendar I used is a modified version of this one.
  8. Elves: have words, rituals, and patterns to accommodate a large array of what humans would call romantic relationships, from one-night-stands to lifebonds (until death do them part) and even soulbonds (which persist through this life and into the next). What humans would more easily recognize as marriage does exist, but is usually contracted for a period of years divisible by seven. Tradition favors seven, 49, and 210 years. This is the most common arrangement for the raising of children. The most famous such relationship was between Kyma’s great sultan Zafir and the elven princess Kosmyna. It was a time of strong unity between the humans and the elves. Unfortunately, Zafir was slain during a campaign against the tiefling Sea Princes. When word of his death reached Kyma, the harem exploded in a frenzy of bloodletting and murder. Kosmyna was among the first to die. Kosmyna’s homeland, the coastal city-state Galazos, declared war against Kyma. In spite of gifts and abject apologies from a number of sultans over the decades, Kyma's ships still keep a sharp eye out for vengeful elven corsairs. After all, a marriage that took place 88 years ago may seem like ancient history to most humans, but is within the living memory of all adult elves.
  9. Fashion Tips for Men: Pants, and pretty much any bifurcated garment, are seen as barbaric in Kyma. A man in trousers is making a statement, being publicly humiliated, or doesn’t know any better.
  10. Yuppie Street Violence: dominated by middle-class artisans, the Terraces are a bustle of noise and industry during the day and a bustle of noise and revelry (mostly by the artisans’ apprentices) in the night. The streets are mostly clear of crime and gangs from the other parts of the city because the apprentices are quick to defend what they consider their turf (unless they’re busy in guild-vs-guild shenanigans and rumbles). Most of the ruckus dies down by midnight, when the apprentices have either settled into their favorite taverns (the Terraces sport a wide range of them) or moved on to the Night Blooms to spend what coin they’ve managed to scrounge up.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Brandon Liao

Just added a new artist to my art links on the right: Brandon Liao.

His work has a very Numenera-ish feel to me, a sort of '70s-80s-era Saturday-Morning-Cartoons-grown-up feel I find pleasantly inspiring.

You can also see his stuff over at Deviant Art under madspartan013.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Turning "What did we get?" Into "Here's What You Know."

Angry’s got a pretty good rant (or, rather, how-to) on exposition. Suffice it to say, your best world-showing probably happens in the game, rather than before (though I never fail to sneak in a little via character creation, and D&D 5’s backgrounds are a great opportunity for more of that).

There are some related thoughts on ars ludi about using treasure as a method for providing exposition:

There are lots of times during a game when players are half-listening, or thinking about other things, or maybe just wandering into the kitchen to get a soda. But in the magical post-combat pre-treasure window, everyone’s attention is high, their curiosity is piqued, and they are clamoring to hear what you will say next.

Couple this with the Three Clue Rule and you shouldn’t have much trouble filling out your treasures with interesting stuff. The treasure doesn’t just include a map to the ancient elven forge, but an elven silvered dagger worn by the scholar the map was stolen from bearing his family crest on the pommel, and an ornamental lapis-and-gold bowl engraved with runes commemorating a deal between the forge and a dwarven nation which agreed to supply the forge with mithril in exchange for an even weight of brandy.

Which answers the question Zak brought up when I was trying to find where I’d read the ars ludi quote above:

I just go "…aaaaaad 5200gp worth of random fancy junk". The thing I hate is when it's like "…and 37 copper and 2 tourmalines worht 6000 each and…" like: why are we doing math for no reason and hearing random jewel names?

I’ll admit the Gygaxian Naturalist in me knows exactly why the hobgoblins have a chest full of uncut rubies, but, as Zak points out, it’s really all the same to the players. (Most of the time. My college group was big on the types of gems they were getting and using them in jewelry they designed and commissioned for themselves. But they were an exceptional bunch in many ways.)

With treasure-as-exposition, you get to eat your cake and have it too. Just be sure the exposition gives them something actionable. That is, it’s not just, “Hearken ye back to the days of yore…” and is more, “Hey, I’ll bet these elves could tell us something about the lost forge,” or “Wait a minute… these are all tools for hunting vampires. Do you think these guys knew something we don’t?”

Friday, January 16, 2015

"There's Gonna be a Rumble..."

Mr. Robertson has been contemplating urban adventures lately after flipping through the 1e DMG’s urban random encounters table (you know, the one with the wanderling harlot subtable). As per usual with 1e random tables, there’s no effort spared on encounter balance. Just as in the wilderness where 3rd level PCs could encounter ancient dragons, so too could that wandering harlot be a succubus and that old man could be a high-level wizard. So Mr. Robertson asks:

While the idea of letting players run into this range of adversaries is appealing to me, I wonder if other people have had success with this? How did you make players aware of the risk involved in the average man they meet with a sword when they could be a 0-level person, or 10th level fighter? If they are not dressed like a Lord, do not have obvious magic items, and are hanging around in a common sort of place do you give any hints to ensure the players don't unwittingly bite off more than they can chew?

Well, as long-time readers of this blog know, I’m more than happy to let my players bite off far more than they can chew anytime they feel like it. That said, my current 5e campaign is almost exclusively urban (we’ve been playing since September and I think they’ll have their first real dungeon-delve of the campaign in our next session or the one after). So I do have some recent observations to throw into the ring.

In general, I've found players avoid violence inside cities. The social repercussions are seen as too daunting. Sure, you can kick around that one-legged beggar, but if he's a member of the Beggars Guild, that means facing enforcers from the guild later, large men without necks and a pinch or two of ogre in their background and absolutely no senses of humor.

And this pretty much holds for the entire city: the pencil-necked alchemist could hire an expert duelist to call you out, the sailor just off the boat has his crew backing him up and the urchins travel in packs.

So violence, when it happens, tends to be very focused, very quick, and the PCs have to be all but pushed into it. (Of course, since we're playing 5e, that also means I've had to chunk the EXPs-for-murder mechanic the game is built around).

Now, I did front-load this by tying local knowledge into character creation, using their chosen backgrounds as opportunities to speak of the dangers of the Beggars Guild, the political alliances of the city, and tying the PCs into their own alliances (that are too useful to threaten by acting like jerks).

Another consideration going the other way, however, is the openeness of the urban environment. If they players haven't wandered into a well-planned ambush, they can almost certainly flee in multiple directions. So if they do get in over their heads, they can generally beat a hasty retreat, regroup and figure out who they need to pay off to make this problem go away.

Mr. Robertson adds:

I was thinking of the 'Rake' encounter from the DMG: 2-5 young gentlemen fighters of 5th to 10th level (d6 +4). The rakes will always be aggressive, rude, and sarcastic.

In this case, the NPCs are begging for a fight. If the PCs take the bait (the wood elf barbarian and feral, raised-by-wolves half-elf ranger in my current group absolutely would), what then?

Well, assuming they’re badly outgunned, they’re unlikely to suffer a TPK in a single assault. Even 10th level fighters can rarely do more than 20 points of a damage to a single individual in a single attack, and that’s only if they roll critical. (I think. Important caveat here: I've only played so much 5e and barbarian rage can be pretty scary.) So it’s unlikely even one PC will be KOed after the first round of combat. Even a wizard with no Constitution bonuses or defensive spells up has 14 hit points by 3rd level, and the party’s fighters will have 22 without Constitution bonuses. So they’ll get a single round of fighting at the very least where I can make clear to them the skill of their foes when describing the wounds they take. A smart party would hopefully see what’s happening and take the opportunity to flee, regroup, and plot revenge.

And if they don’t? Well, as Mr. Roberts points out, “The 5e rule where they could elect to make their attacks non-lethal might be helpful as well.” Why did the rakes start the fight? Maybe they just roll the PCs, lifting all their loose coinage and jewelry and leaving them for others (local clerics or the like) to rescue. Were they just trying to make a point to a patron or organization friendly to the PCs? Or do they drag them off for ransom? Sell them to the Temple of Shkeen? With a TPKO, the adventure’s just begun.