Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Wow! It was fun! It was exciting! It was everything Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wasn’t!

This was easily one of the prettiest Star Wars movies ever. Maybe a bit too pretty; when we first saw Snokes’ throne room, I thought it looked like a dance stage, something from a ‘50’s film where we’d see a large, choreographed number. “Ah ha!” I thought. “We’ll be seeing a big lightsaber duel in this room.”

I was mostly right. Completely right for certain definitions of “lightsaber duel.”

Yeah, there will be spoilers below.

This film does have issues. It’s embarrassed by lots of things. It’s embarrassed to be an action-adventure movie and self-flagellates over the excesses of the genre. It’s embarrassed to be the movie following The Force Awakens, though I have to admit, the digs it takes at that film are some of my favorite moments.

The point is, it’s not the free-wheeling swashbuckler the original three were. A bit too much of Rogue One’s earnest war movie has rubbed off on it. Still, it’s not nearly as heavy as that one was, and our heroes get to be heroic and our villains get to be vile. It just has to make a big plot point out of the issue of all the people dying for the cause, where a New Hope deftly encompasses the issue with tension in the Rebel control room and a look of fear and shock and loss on Luke’s face when Biggs dies. I understand; there’s been a lot of big blockbuster action films with massive body counts. People die left and right in Valerian and hardly anyone seems to notice most of the time. And it does give Poe a nice arc from hero to officer. But Lucas did it far more gracefully in ’77.

Like Episode VII, VIII still feels stupidly small. In the original trilogy, the Empire was a freakin’ empire, with a military force capable of subduing a galaxy. Entire star systems slipped through Gran Mof Tarkin’s squeezing fingers. The battle of Hoth involved hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers, pilots, support personnel, etc.

The First Order feels like its got maybe two dozen starships; the entirety of the Resistance fits in the Falcon at the end of the movie. Neither side has the industrial infrastructure to produce their own armaments and end up buying their weapons from the same dealers. (Kinda makes you wonder why the Order hasn’t just said, “Hey, you know, these tie fighters are totally naff. Let’s just buy a bunch of those totally boss x-wings and paint ‘em black and white.”) When the Resistance sends out its message asking for help and nobody responds, the truth becomes obvious: nobody else cares. The Resistance vs. the Order feels like a slap-fight between the last vestiges of two once-glorious powers now deep into their respective sunsets.

But let’s be honest: the action in this film is top notch. Not only is it obvious what is happening, it’s obvious why it’s happening. We can see the move and counter-move of both sides and we know why they’re doing what they’re doing. I’ll admit, I wasn’t always sure how they were doing what they were doing; the whole hyperspace tracking thing felt odd and full of Geordi-speak, but even worse was the Order targeting the cloaked Resistance shuttles. Maybe they explained how the thief guy learned that while I was in the bathroom? (Hey, it’s a 2.5 hour movie, cut me some slack!) And there’s waaaaaay too much characters not telling each other things for no good reason.

Beyond those little quibbles, we know why the fights take place and the strategies employed make sense. When Kylo turns on Snoke, when the Order brings a big gun to the planet to blast through the massive doors and the Resistance flies out on outdated gear to destroy it first, when Luke strides out to buy time for the escape, we know what’s at stake. Even when Poe launches an attack at the Order’s dreadnaught and then gets castigated by Lea for it, we understand why he did what he did and why Lea took issue with it.

And then there are the lightsaber duels. The one in Snoke’s throne room was lovely and fit in perfectly with the duels we’ve seen after the original trilogy: dance-like choreography and spectacle galore. But it’s the Kylo/Luke duel at the end which is the real thing, worthy of standing beside the lightsaber duels of the original trilogy. It’s not about killing but things far more important than mere life and death. It takes place on a plane elevated from all the military hardware and mere lightsaber technique. For that reason alone, I’m miffed that Luke is relegated to the role of Force ghost in IX. Yeah, ok, moping for however many years on his island is lame, but everything else about this Luke, from his frustration with Jedi tradition to his old-guy been-there-done-that attitude, to his disgust with fame, is awesome! I want more adventures of old-fart Luke and I’m really, really annoyed I’m not gonna get ‘em.

Luke vs. Kylo was not quite the Luke/Darth fights, but wow! The magic is back.

I can’t way to see episode IX!

Next time: Everything wrong with Vice-admiral Purple Hair, where everyone I didn’t piss off with this post gets to hate me. 😉

UPDATE: more thoughts on the teeny tiny stage this movie takes place on.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Cheaters Never Prosper Until They Stop Playing D&D

There’s an interesting discussion about cheating over at the Farsight Blogger. I can absolutely understand a player who’d quit because they can’t cheat. That’s a player who probably shouldn’t have been playing D&D in the first place.

If you must always win, if you find missing boring but don’t find always hitting boring, if the thought of your character being tied to a chair and interrogated like James Bond in just about every movie in the franchise leaves you cold, then you should be looking to games other than D&D and the many, many others built on a similar chassis, for your RPGing fun.

The Cypher System puts nearly all the mechanical heavy-lifting in the hands of the players, allowing them to effectively purchase success. The Leverage RPG assumes the PCs are hyper-competent individuals who simply do not fail. No matter how badly you roll, you succeed. A poor roll just means a new complication has arisen and must be dealt with. Further along that spectrum are GMless games that give narrative power to the players, allowing the group to dictate what does and doesn’t happen during a game.

D&D, and the many games built in its image, embraces randomness and chaos. As many have pointed out (and complained about) in the past, the d20 is an incredibly swingy thing to build a core mechanic on. Out of 100 rolls, even the best swordsman, the slickest thief, and most knowledgeable wizard is going to roll a 1 an average of five times. Stack critical success and fumble rules on top of that and you’ve got a recipe geared heavily towards the random, the zany, and the unexpected, rather than the competency porn of other games.

D&D is about the unexpected, the unplanned, the curve ball that came out of nowhere. It’s the anticipation as everyone waits with baited breath while the die bounces across the table. It’s the sure-thing that was whiffed and the long-shot that connected.

This is why pages and pages of random tables make sense in D&D. These are the crazy props you toss to the improv troupe that is your game to see what they’ll come up with this time. A world built from randomly generated hobgoblins eating pie and drunk PCs making clumsy passes at witches.

I have often said that when you’re rolling the dice you’re not playing the game. That’s not the same thing as saying the dice are not important to the game. If your game is D&D, the dice, and the randomness they bring, are vital. If you don’t like that, there are many, many games that will be more fun for you than D&D.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Why You Should Pay for Xanathar's Guide to Everything

Which isn’t to say that you must go out and buy it today! This isn’t a review of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. If you’re curious and want to know if the stuff in the book is good for your campaign, well, the first hit is free.

Those links don’t go to torrent sites or dodgy Russian pirate servers. They go to official WotC D&D pdfs. Specifically, they go to what are called Unearthed Arcana articles. They’ve been cranking these out on their web page for years now and while some are fluffy bits of “here’s what’s happening in our campaigns,” most of it is new not-yet-official material to be trialed by players. The WotC team follows up occasionally with surveys asking what folks think of the content, in addition to reading what folks say on forums or just straight email to them, and stuff that needs and warrants it will get revised and republished in a new form.

This, of course, is a huge boon for D&D. The WotC team keeps in touch with their players, material gets a strong shakedown before “official” publication, and the players who want it have a constant stream of new material to inject into their games.

So what’s this got to do with the Xanathar’s book? Just about all the content in that book has seen the light of day before, either in free pdf format (like the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion) or as Unearthed Arcana articles. Which means, technically, you could cobble together your own copy of Xanathar’s from the various free sources still available from WotC.

So why buy the book? First, you’d have to do a lot of hunting for the stuff you wanted, plus you’d have to make sure what you find is the latest version. Second, there have been some “tweaks” to the material before final publication. (Just how serious those tweaks have been, I can’t say, but what I have seen mostly looks fairly minimal to me.)

But more than that, you’d be supporting the ongoing effort to create the content for the book.

Way back when, Mearls told us that they were tossing the old hardback-a-month game plan in the trash and exploring alternative methods for supporting an RPG line. What they have adopted appears to take full advantage of the diversity of D&D players.

Traditionally, we’ve seen two sorts of D&D players. The first set are the young folks with lots of time and no money. These are your pre-car teens and your college students, who have very flexible schedules, lots of time on their hands, and lots of people in their social circles in the exact same situation. These folks are perfect play-testers for the Unearthed Arcana material. Most play at least once a week minimum. It’s easy for them to keep up with the latest UA articles and pump tens of hours into playtesting what’s new.

Of course, it costs WotC money to do this. Material needs to be written and published. Feedback needs to be solicited and combed through for useful data. Then revisions need to be made and republished, and the cycle begins again.

So WotC collects this tested and improved material, commissions art for it, and publishes it as a book. And the other sorts of players, usually older fans with jobs and families and such, who have lots of money but not much time, can pay for all the UA work by buying the book.

I personally love this system. The lots-of-time-and-no-money folks get lots of free content, though they have to deal with the fact that some of that content isn’t ready for prime time (or is, in fact, kinda bad). The no-time-and-lots-of-money folks get a book full of play-tested material focused on content that players can actually use in their games. WotC is using their customers who have cash but don’t have the time to generate tons of their own content anymore to support the games of players with lots of time to try new ideas, crash those ideas hard, and help cobble together better ones from all the bits. And the gamers with cash get the benefit of these improved ideas to plug right into their game.

It’s too early to tell if this is the sort of virtuous cycle you can build an empire out of, but it’s certainly a better way to support an RPG. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the DM

This is more of those advanced DM challenges that are almost certainly not for beginners. The challenge itself is pretty simple to explain: make the PC’s background more important than the PC’s class.

If you’re playing 5e RAW, your players are picking a background. They get the proficiency pips for the skills that come with that background and then, all too likely, are completely forgetting about it. Don’t let them!

There’s a ton of cool stuff you can do with the PCs backgrounds. Some practically hand you adventure hooks, like the sage’s “letter from a dead colleague posing a question you have not yet been able to answer.” Others imply connections, both good and bad, like the noble, acolyte, criminal, and guild artisan who are members of larger communities. The urchin might be an orphan, but they probably know everybody in the seedy part of town, and the sailor and soldier were part teams whose members are probably still out there somewhere.

Adventure hooks, especially at the opening of the campaign, are wonderfully nice to have, but we’re looking for deeper engagement. Time to put on your Mephistopheles hat. Get the players to start thinking about their backgrounds by making it clear that backgrounds are a good way to solve problems. You might need to prod a bit at the beginning; mention to a player that they might be able to get reliable information by asking this person they know. Need to find the Thieves’ Guild? The urchin knows a fence who used to work for them and probably still does. Need to find out more about the ruin they’re planning to loot? The sage knows a local specialist on the historic period when the ruin was built. Need a guide through the swamp? The locals might open up to a folk hero and divulge which smugglers and poachers are trustworthy.

Keep a list of the PCs’ background handy and consult it often. Whenever a player asks, “Do I know anyone in this town/tavern/jail/etc.?” check the backgrounds first and look for an excuse to say, “Yes!”

The goal is to get the players to bring up their backgrounds whenever they’re faced with a conundrum. If you allow the players to go to that well often and profitably, with solutions, good hints, and timely warnings, they’ll start to rely on it. The goal here is to have one player say to another, “Hey, surely your guild merchant knows somebody who…”

And then you can start to rope them more tightly with conflicts. The local entertainers support the Queen’s faction over the Cardinal’s. The sailors want a more aggressive foreign policy that will sweep the pirates from the Inner Isles. The local community of the learned is riven with internal politics and back-stabbing. Let the PCs get involved and make a difference, especially as success leads to greater prestige.

But if you really want to hook them, give them a big, juicy mystery. The secret leader of the warlock-bandits is really an old chum from the university; the urchin’s childhood buddies from the street are being murdered; a ship the sailor crewed sails in with all hands missing and a hold full of barrels of salt water; the soldier’s old unit is disgraced and cashiered for an offense they couldn’t possibly have committed. Of course tie that in with the larger plots of your campaign. Weave the backgrounds of the PCs into the ongoing conflicts of the setting and the larger mysteries they’ve expressed an interest in.

Old School DMs, you’re not off the hook here, though I suspect most of you already do this to some extent. You just wait later to get started. Building relationships, callbacks to earlier adventures, enemies made and allies won, start to dominate the campaign. It’s a natural progression when the first three or four levels is the PCs’ backstory. Since they build it together, it’s less about this character or that character and more about all of them together. Whether that’s a bug or a feature depends on you and your group.

Art by Rembrandt.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Critique of Xanathar's Guide to Everything

I think I want to like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything more than I do.

This is not to say it’s a bad book, and I suspect it will become the de facto PHB-part-two everyone thinks it is. But it also is certainly not a replacement for the PHB, nor do I think the options in it will eclipse those in the PHB. (Having said that, I’m not a min-maxer and my last dedicated min-maxer left my games months ago. So there may be opportunities/abuses I’m missing in my blissful ignorance. Still, I doubt there’s anything here that’s going to topple the Druid from its top spot.)

What you, DM or player, will get this book for are the evocative sub-classes. That said, the format shockingly reveals just how paltry a sub-class is. Shorn of the rest of the class info, each sub-class fills about a page, art and descriptive fluff included. You get four or five “features” every handful of levels. Exactly how much that’s going to impact your game depends on how you play. The Rogue, for instance, doesn’t get another sub-class feature after 3rd level until 9th. If most of your play takes place in the traditional sweet spot of 4th through 12th level, those features you get at 3rd pretty much define your archetype for the duration of the campaign. Exactly how useful those are completely depends on the sort of campaign you’re playing in. For instance, the Swashbuckler gets to use their sneak attack bonus damage if “you are within 5 feet of [your target], no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.” In my games, having nobody else within 5 feet isn’t going to happen all that often.

Some of the features are even more situational. Also for Rogues is the Inquisitive, an option probably not worth pursuing unless you were able to give yourself a very good Wisdom score (and you’ll probably want a high Intelligence as well). Insight and Investigation checks are central to a lot of what the Inquisitive can do (even dictating when the Inquisitive can get their sneak-attack bonus damage, a la the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes), but the Inquisitive doesn’t get any bonuses to those checks until 9th level.

The Monk’s Drunken Master sub-class is likely to prove divisive. How useful is it to you to wed a Disengage and an extra 10 feet of movement to your Flurry of Blows? At 6th level, the Drunken Master can redirect missed attacks at another attacker within 5 feet; clearly, the Drunken Master and Swashbuckler do not belong in the same campaign.

I love the flavor of these things. Hitting your foe’s friends with their own attacks is fun and not mechanically cumbersome. The idea of a non-magical detective skilled at penetrating lies is appealing. But even more than the options in the PHB, the sub-classes in Xanathar’s are more matters of setting and DM style than preference. Since I do combat via theater-of-the-mind, little adjustments to positioning are less likely to be useful to you. On the other hand, the new Grave Domain for Clerics is something my campaigns have needed for a while now. You’re going to want to talk to your DM about the sort of campaign they’re running before you pick most of these. As a DM, you’ll want to get out ahead of your players by stating the sort of campaign you have in mind and which sub-classes are not suitable for it.

There are some fun build-a-background life-path tables. These include things like tables for why you became whatever class your PC is. The results are purely cosmetic and I’m more likely to come up with this sort of stuff on my own, but for those who love tables, you get lots!

After that is a grab-bag of stuff in a chapter titled “Dungeon Master’s Tools.” Much is the sort of thing you could easily handle with a ruling: sleeping in armor, how to wake someone, tying knots, how to tell if someone is casting a spell, that sort of thing. There’s a long section on tool use that tries to rescue tool proficiencies from obscurity and disuse; I’m not sure how effective it will be, but it’s an interesting read and I think players would do well to peruse it if they have a character with a tool proficiency.

For those who’ve been busting their brains trying to build encounters with the guidelines in the DMG and the CR scores, there’s some handy cheat-sheets for using multiple monsters and mixed-CR monsters. Helpful, if that’s your bag; otherwise, I think six months experience as a DM will take you farther in terms of building “fair” encounters.

“Traps Revisited” is a huge improvement on the outlines for traps in the DMG. It puts a bit too much focus on skill checks for overcoming them, but does (if a bit dismissively) at least nod towards disabling traps with clever thinking. If you’ve been treating traps like Old School puzzles, this won’t convince you to do otherwise. For everyone else, this will make traps a lot more entertaining at the table.

The downtime section is nice. It includes carousing tables! Not nearly as fun as Jeff’s, and the only benefit is making social connections. Still, social connections are damned useful in some campaigns. The downtime section also includes rules for buying and selling magic items. The assumption is still that you can’t just go down to the local shop to buy them off-the-shelf (unless you’re talking healing potions or scrolls, both of which have rules for manufacture in the downtime section). Buying and selling magic items is a long, drawn-out process that involves spending 100 gp per week in your search. The time and money spent improve the roll you get on a random table to see what’s actually available. PCs can seek specific items, but that just raises the difficulty of finding anything. PCs could potentially spend thousands of gold and months of time only to come up with nothing, or, if the DM uses the complications table, something that’s cursed or draws the wrong sort of attention. It’s a system that’s both flavorful and easily handled via email between sessions.

Downtime can also involve rivals, people who live to make the lives of the PCs more difficult. The idea appears to be to create a sense of a living world by putting a face to the problems the PCs might encounter during their downtime activities. The idea has some potential but it’s not the sort of thing you want to toss in the path of murder-hobos.

There’s a collection of “common” magic items, most of which have only cosmetic abilities. I think the designers sold unbreakable arrows short; using them to block doors and the like seems like a pretty potent ability. Otherwise, most of the entries are cute (a cloak that billows on command, armor that smokes ominously) but hard to take seriously.

Then we get the spells. There’s a fair number of them, but most fall into the does-damage-and-something-else category. Damage-plus-potential-blindness has a few entries, there’s one damage-plus-heals-the-caster, and lots of damage-plus-move-the-target-around spells. There are some deliciously atmospheric ones, like a spell that does damage plus kills all non-magical and non-creature plants in a 30-foot cube, a spell that allows you to give your hit points to others (or, more appropriately, take their damage onto yourself), a darkness-plus-gibbering-that-causes-psychic damage, and both water and acid versions of fireball. Some old favorites also return, like mud-to-stone/stone-to-mud and homunculus. There are also a handful of spells for summoning devils and demons that villains will get great use out of and require material components that could potentially tip off PCs before the spells are cast.

We also get the just odd and disappointing. For instance, apparently couples who get a real cleric to perform the ceremony get an AC bonus for their first week of married life. I can understand the type of thinking that went into insisting that something like a wedding needed to include a mechanically significant combat component, and that sort of thinking makes me cringe. Even then, a +2 to AC feels kinda lame, especially when you compare it to the wedding magic from Krull. Weddings are once-in-a-lifetime affairs (especially fantasy versions of them). If you’re going to give them a magical effect, make it truly momentous!

Finally, we get the appendices. These start with suggestions on how to organize a campaign in which the DM duties are shared, whether that’s just friends taking turns in a private campaign or a wide-flung thing like Flailsnails.

After that comes 17 pages of names, arranged in tables you can roll on. First we get one for each of the PC races listed in the PHB (but not from the Volo’s book). Then we get numerous real-world cultures, ranging from ancient Egypt and the Celts to a mix of modern and medieval German and French and English. The range is incredible, including Polynesian, Hindu, Norse, and Mesoamerican.

I would have given my eyeteeth for lists like these back in the ‘90s. Today, however, I have the internet, with resources like that not only gives me more cultures to pick from but also tells me the meaning of the names. Add in the quality random generators available online as well and these tables really only become useful when I’m trying to game on a campout or the like.

The stuff I like, I really like: some of the spells, some of the subclasses, mostly. Most of the rest is forgettable. If 5e is your first RPG, you’ll find a lot here to expand and improve your game. Otherwise, you’ll find some nice tidbits. I will get use of the expanded spell lists. I think I’ll get use from the additional subclasses. All in all, I give Xanathar’s Guide a prospective B- and that’s contingent on the sub-classes proving as useful and popular as I think they will. If it turns out I’m only using a dozen or so of the spells, that grade could drop into the C range.

UPDATE: a very different take can be found here:
To put that another way, the first six subclasses seem determined to explode pre-conceived notions of what D&D is about, and that is all I can really want from a book that is pointedly not titled Player’s Handbook II.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

This is Why We Can't Have Sexy Things

Ok, I may be over-reacting; I haven’t read all of Rappan Athuk. There might actually be some context to this. But as it is…

Anyone entering the room must make a saving throw or succumb to the scent’s intoxicating effect... It generates a feeling of pleasurable lassitude coupled with heightened lust. This prompts those affected to copulate again and again, exhausting themselves. Once they begin, victims sustain 1 point of constitution damage per ten minutes spent in this vigorous pursuit. When their constitution drops to 1 point, they become too weak to continue, though the drive remains; victims typically die of thirst or starvation even while they continue to feel the need to mate.

This looks, well, dull. At first pass, it appears that PCs who fail their save will immediately start with the fornications. With the right group, that could be hilarious as they work out the pairings. It could bring long-simmering issues to the fore. But mostly, this is just slowly losing CON until you die. It’s so slow, I can’t imagine most groups struggling to diffuse it, which makes it even less interesting than a simple pit full of gelatinous cube or green slime dripping down from the ceiling. Considering that Rappan Athuk is described as an adventure that “offers legions of inventive traps, tricks, strange features, and monsters -- many of them never before seen,” I can’t help but assume that the designers were at their wits ends for yet another way to kill PCs slowly. The result is a room that’s going to cause more than a few DMs to snerk and then read the text aloud to their players as an example of design to be mocked, before continuing on as if the room were empty.

Compare this to one of the classic magic items of the first edition: the Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity. Many dismiss this as a blatant example of locker-room hur-de-hurs. But it’s actually a very clever bit of design.

How can I say that? It creates a situation that the players can react to in a broad range of ways. Where the room above is pretty much a death trap for everyone who fails their save (and those who pass just drag their friends out of the room, I assume), the GoM/F leaves it up to the players just how much they want to interact with it. Laugh and move on? Treat it as a horrible curse that must be reversed? As an opportunity for out-of-the-ordinary RP? A last-ditch disguise to escape an encircling enemy?

There might be larger issues in the broader world that are brought to the fore in Rappan Athuk, but there probably aren’t. Getting transformed by the GoM/F will almost certainly cause your PCs to have to deal with the consequences in the world outside the dungeon. Maybe your world is so egalitarian there are none. Fair enough. Maybe the consequences are everywhere, in every little interaction your PC has.

The thing is, it’s entirely up to the folks playing the game. If the DM built that sort of thing into the setting, here’s an opportunity to approach it from a new angle and bring it back to the fore. If it’s something your group really doesn’t want to deal with, just get that Remove Curse cast and move on. Or live with it and move on.

That right there is the brilliance of the GoM/F. It’s as important (or unimportant) as you want it to be. It tosses a new toy onto the table, but you get to decide if it’s just a laugh, a temporary issue, or the centerpiece of the next phase of the campaign. It gives you more options and you get to decide what to do with them.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the Players

So I recently got to play the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other game, only this time with two girls and one guy. The guy actually gave me a pretty cool, if brief, backstory. It lacked details like names, but definitely left the door open to some neat play.

And that, after all, is the point: encouraging neat play. You want to pack your game sessions with as much cool and excitement as possible. Your background is just another way to do that. But how?

Work with Your DM
Your DM probably has a few themes and ideas in mind for things they want to bring to the table. Ask them about those. See how they might be worked into your background. If you know ahead of time that the campaign is going to be about hunting down a secretive cult worshipping Tharizdun, it’s easy enough to say that cultists killed your family. But you can turn it up a notch to say the cultists are your family! If so, how did you escape? Did anyone else escape?

Feel free to use the Ten Ideas trick. It’s a pretty simple tool for coming up with great ideas. When you need an idea, force yourself to write down ten. The first two or three are clichés everyone would think of. You were probably really stretching through the last two or three, and those ideas, while potential the most creative, are probably too “out there” to be useful. The ideas in the middle are where you’re most likely to find gold.

Ask if there are any institutions that are important to the campaign. Perhaps there’s a temple, a secret society, or a race that figures importantly in your DM’s plans. Find ways to connect your PC to them. This way, not only do you have powerful motivations to get involved in the world, but the DM is going to turn to you to provide exposition and important details.

Don’t be afraid to go big here. My latest campaign takes place in a world ravaged by a war between wizards. The landscape still bears the scars and huge swaths are only habitable thanks to powerful elemental magic supplied by genies. Knowing this, one of my players made her character the daughter of a powerful djinni. We worked together to create a situation where there is a useful link but also insure that her character was independent enough to go out on her own and couldn’t always just fall back on Mom’s influence and power. In spite of that, her ties to the movers-and-shakers of this world have been incredibly useful to both the player and myself in deepening the world and propelling the game.

Work with the Other Players
One of the hardest parts of getting a game rolling is finding a reason for the (inevitably diverse) PCs to join together and stick together. You can not only improve group coherency but also piggy-back on the cool ideas of your friends by linking your characters together before play even starts.

The methods for doing this are countless: family, childhood friendships, old loves and rivalries. You’ve seen all the old tropes in movies and novels for years now. Mine ‘em for their best stuff.

But don’t fall in love with something until you’ve talked it over with the other person. This is all about working with others, and will require some give-and-take. If the two of you can’t settle on something, just drop it; better to play what you want than a character you only kinda like linked to others by bonds you find annoying.

Don’t Stop Working!

It doesn’t do you any good to build all this background if you let it lay fallow on your character sheet. Keep in mind that your DM has a lot of balls in the air between monsters and NPCs and a whole world to manage. If you wait for the DM to bring up your character’s background, it might not happen.

Which isn’t to say you should be pushy and force your character’s background into center stage. The best way to bring your background into play is to ask your DM open-ended questions about what’s currently going on in relation to that background. “Which side of that conflict was my family on?” or, “What sources did my mentor at the Collegia Arcanum use to acquire black lotus?” or, “How did people prevent necromancers from animating their dead back where my character is from?” These are good questions that can deepen the world-building. Understand if the DM can’t address those in the moment; some might best be addressed via email or over coffee between games. And don’t be surprised if the DM throws the question back on you: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Look for opportunities to bring your background into the game, the same way you’d look for ways to use the special abilities of your class or race. Re-read your background regularly to keep the details fresh in your mind. Towards that end, don’t write thousands of words of background. Keep it short and focused on the details. Create a bullet-point version for use at the table. Be gentle; it’s a shared world, after all, and you don’t want to step on the toes of others. But by weaving your character’s background into the story, you’ll be strengthening everyone’s investment into your character and the world you’ve all created.

Don’t be a Passive-aggressive Jerk

This is not an excuse to create traps or subtly influence where the game goes. That sort of nonsense never works. If you want something from the game, be up-front about it with your DM and the other players. Don’t use your character’s background as a club to whack the other players and DM into doing what you want, either. It’s a tool to deepen the experience of play, not a handle for you to drive the game.

Interactive backgrounds that tie the PCs together and to their setting is advanced-level play. It’s not the sort of thing to undertake unless you’re comfortable with your game and you have a good rapport with your DM and the other players. That said, it can also be used to build that rapport, but if that’s your aim, don’t ask it to do any more heavy-lifting until you’ve got buy-in from those players and DM.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Pen and Sword in Accord

There's a lot here I agree with. Especially:

As much as I try and present a story for the players to help flesh out though, I keep in mind that this is a game. In all but the most extreme circumstances, I let the dice "fall as they may", and try not to twist the rules simply to accommodate my story idea.

As it turns out, I think letting the dice fall where they may makes for a stronger story experience. One of the challenges for writers of fantastical fiction is making the world and characters feel real enough for the readers to invest in (aka verisimilitude). When writers talk about creating and preserving verisimilitude, they actually use phrases like: "Your world must be consistent; don't break its internal rules!"

When you fudge a die roll or pretend, "Well, ok, that will work this time," you're damaging your verisimilitude. You're weakening your story. (Likewise, when you whip out your story points to change the rules temporarily, you're weakening verisimilitude unless those story points have actual existence within the world of your story. This is why I can't enjoy most story games; they actually have mechanics in them that damage the story!)

But when you apply the rules of your game consistently, you strengthen the verisimilitude and you make the story more enjoyable. When players know how their magic works, or how likely they are to defeat a troll, or how the city guard will react when they discover a pick-pocket, they can invest emotionally in their characters and the world they inhabit.

In short, if you want your RPG sessions to have the effect of a story (rather than just mimic the structure of a story), you need clear, understandable, and consistent rules. (It’s not all you need, but without them you’re not even going to get started). This is also why it’s important that the rules you choose actually promote the sort of story you want to tell. If you’re fighting your rules, you’ll constantly see your story drift away from the look-and-feel you were aiming for.

Saturday, September 02, 2017


I recently had a chat with a friend who’s running 5e for the first time after pretty much sticking with 2e since the ‘90s. One of his players was playing a rogue, and he wasn’t sure what made that class unique in 5e.

Confusion is understandable, because in many ways, the 5e rogue is the antithesis of the 2e thief. 2e’s thief was often found far ahead of the party, using their stealth and trap-detection abilities to scout out what was around the corner or further down the corridor (or listening to discern what was on the other side of the door) before reporting back to the rest of the group. In a fight, they were either a bodyguard for the magic-user or were sneaking around the edge of the fight, looking to get in a backstab on the enemy spell-slingers, snag the Magoffin, or unleash a nasty alpha-strike on a boss monster. After unleashing their backstab, however, they were a second-rate fighter-type with poor hit points and inadequate armor; they primarily survived because, after unleashing the back-stab, they were not much of a threat to anyone.

Most of the special abilities of the 2e thief are now possible by anyone. Listening at doors is a Perception check; the cleric is likely to be really good at it due to their high Wisdom. Ditto searching for traps. There are a few backgrounds (including Urchin) that grant proficiency with thieves’ tools. Stealth is now something anyone with high Dexterity (and less-than-heavy armor) can pull off, so there’s no reason for the rogue to risk going alone to scout.

In fact, the last thing the 5e rogue wants to do is be caught out by themselves. Their back-stab ability can be invoked anytime they’ve either got advantage or their target has another foe in melee range. So what the 5e rogue really wants to do is back-up frontline fighters and clerics. And they’re really good at this because their Cunning Action ability allows them to get extra movement, or attack and then disengage safely the same round.

This means the 5e rogue makes a great mobile reserve. They can move in against a foe already engaged to ensure flanking bonus or just to deal out extra damage. Or they can rush in to support a character who’s hard-pressed by the enemy. They can support a cleric who needs to take a round to cast healing spells rather than fight.

They could use that extra movement to harass enemy spell-slingers or snag Magoffins, but they’re far less effective combatants when they can’t use their sneak-attack bonus damage. (Besides, the barbarian and druid are both much better at the deep-penetration of the enemy backfield.) They can put together some powerful synergies, for instance by fighting alongside a druid transformed into a wolf (who gains advantage thanks to Pack Tactics), a paladin with Aura of Protection, or a fighter with Commander’s Strike or Rally. And at mid-level, a rogue is able to stay in the fight longer thanks to Uncanny Dodge and Evasion.

5e’s rogue is not the antisocial loner 2e’s thief was. They’re a support-class, rather like the cleric and the bard, but unlike those, they don’t buff their allies but rather get buffed by being close to their allies. A 5e rogue should buddy-up with a character who’s either putting out a lot of damage or can create synergies with the rogue’s sneak-attack bonus damage. And they should stay mobile throughout the fight, ready to hop over to another part of the battlefield to aid someone else.

Outside of fights, they’ll probably find use for their thieves’ tools, but they might not be the only one who’s got them, nor are they necessarily the best at sneaking or perceiving dangers. This does allow the rogue to be much more flexible, concentrating on any holes the party has in their skills. This can be especially useful in a party that doesn’t include a bard.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Making History

My very first issue of DRAGON magazine was #74, an out-of-nowhere gift from my brother while we were on summer vacation. That issue is still magical to me; between Ed Greenwood’s seven magic swords utterly transforming the way I played D&D, to the “review” of Star Frontiers, to the comedic-yet-epic cover by Jim Holloway, I treasured that issue for years.

Amongst all the great stuff in it was talk of this thing called “GenCon.” It seemed magical. A gathering of gamers from across the world. I could barely conceive of such a thing.

And this at a time when attendance could be measured in a mere four digits!

This marks my fourth GenCon and Tam’s second. We have a great time every time. And every time, I do things I’ve never done before. My GenCon experiences include my first games of pictaphone and Dogs in the Vineyard. I met Larry Elmore and discussed my critique of his work for TSR. I’ve met face-to-face with people who, up until then, had only been names on the internet. I got a press badge and did one-on-one interviews with industry luminaries and legends like Eric Mona and Liz Danforth.

And this year, due to a sequence of odd circumstance and luck, I got to host Zak’s post-ENnie’s party.

To everyone who came, thank you so much for being such gracious guests. I’m sorry we had to move things downstairs as early as we did, but as I understand it, the hotel is favored by vendors who have to actually be awake and functioning in the morning. So completely understandable. I hope you all had as much fun as Tam and I did meeting you and enjoying the energy of that amazing night.

However you slice it, this year I got to help create a little GenCon history. My 11-year-old self would have been totally blown away.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Death is Still Boring

This is insightful:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is like a Saw movie for kids: it matches grisly fates to the sins of the children who enter the factory. I needed all or most of those grisly fates to be represented in the adventure: blueberrification, being boiled alive in chocolate, being shrunk and stretched, uncontrollably floating, plus a bunch more of my own design. All of them weird and gory and absolutely deadly.

They were one of the first things James Raggi took issue with.

While LotFP adventures have a reputation as being really deadly, he wanted BitC to be for 1st level characters, and specifically new players. All my listed damage was way too high, and all my poisons too lethal. His point was along the lines of “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?”. He suggested toning down the damage of the adventure significantly, and instead focusing on these poisons and effects inconveniencing players or making them rethink how they play.

This turned out to be a genius suggestion, because it provided a clear through line for the rest of the adventure. Few things in the final draft of BitC are designed to explicitly kill. Instead, they’re designed to unsettle, gross out, and inconvenience players. Body horror carries with it the threat of death, but it’s more about the perversion and grossness of life than it is about death.

This is why death is boring. “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?” Answer: they can’t. They laugh or shrug or whatever and roll up a new character. “What’s next?” they ask.

And understand, I’m not denigrating that kind of play. If a rolling series of grizzly deaths is what gets you and yours excited to play, more power to you. But if you’re into body horror, the joy isn’t in the death, but all the stuff that leads up to it. It’s the inflation, or the bulging of the eyes and the appearance of gill-like slits along the neck, or the way the xenomorph squirms within your belly as it grows. It’s in the way the body devolves, or turns traitor, or evolves in sudden terrible spurts.

And sure, the victims of body horror often die (Aliens franchise) but sometimes they devolve (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) or evolve even to a point beyond fleshy existence (Akira). The real challenge for a DM running a game based on body horror is keeping the horrors and transformations new and fresh. Too much of anything gets boring after a while.

And this same principle largely applies to nearly any campaign; death is anticlimactic. It’s got no answer for, “What next?” except shake off that old character and everything they’ve been through up until now, and start a new one. It violently forces the player out of the fiction and thrusts them head-first into the realm of mechanics (though skilled players can hop right back in again). All the work the group has done to build up tension and interest in that character and their contacts is suddenly chopped off. Death is, in terms of fun, expensive.

Which isn’t to say it should never happen. The fear of death creates wonderful tension in a game. As a DM, killing an NPC you love early on is good way to let the players know you mean business. (Hey, it works for GRR Martin and J Whedon, right?) But it’s vital you keep in mind your themes. Death is rarely the best way to support those, and defeat that doesn’t involve death can give you entire new avenues to explore.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Cant do Paranoia

Outside my home I saw a little triangular rock, all shiny and glisteny if you looked at from just the right angle, that made me think of thief and tramp markings, which lead me on to contemplating Thieves Cant.

What are you doing with Thieves Cant in your game? Probably not much, and that’s understandable. Since you likely only have one (if that many) PCs in the game who understand it, they’re not going to be using it to pass messages between each other. Usually when I see it, if I see it at all, it’s a handy way to get the PC rogue in touch with the local thieves guild.

Still, Thieves Cant is a thing in the game, you might have a PC who knows it, so it’s not a bad idea to see what use we, as DMs, can make of it. I treat it as an additional way to give the players information, almost parenthetically so. It’s a bit like riffing in the dungeon; the whole place is mysterious and dangerous, but some joker who was in here fifty years ago has left what amount to footnotes in the place explaining what they saw here back then.

A dungeon I made recently was a little proving-ground test maze. Rogues, of course, cheat, so there were clues left here and there in Thieves Cant, some even pointing the way to hidden tools to make the challenges easier.

The most well-known real-world version of Thieves Cant (at least before Guy Ritchie taught us all Cockney Rhyming Slang) were the Hobo Signs. These are simple and informative, but can be playfully enigmatic as well. For instance, early in the game, the PCs are heading into your traditional haunted house, and as part of the history of the place there’s a Thieves Cant symbol hidden out front that basically says, “BEWARE: this place has been marked for destruction by dangerous powers.” The idea here is that a group with a rogue in it will know that, whatever happened at this place, it wasn’t an accident. Somebody came and inflicted tragedy here (and righting this wrong could be central to putting to rest the vengeful spirits of the place).

All well-and-good, and more than a little useful. But imagine how the players would react if later they encountered the same sign outside the home of a beloved ally, or even their own residence. Now you’re cooking with gas.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Wicked Reptilian Magic

One of my favorite creations over at the Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons & Dragons is the reptilian Sshian.  These feathered snake-people make an awesome buried-and-forgotten ancient evil for the PCs to accidentally re-awaken.  Of course, when you're looting their tombs, you need to find suitably wicked magic items.  The following were written for 5e, but there's really nothing that needs doing to convert them over to the OSR game of your choice:

Claw of the Lictor
An ornate orichalcum gauntlet with three clawed fingers and little tubes for affixing feathers, the claws themselves are fashioned from black iron. The gauntlet is a simple finesse weapon enchanted to a +1 to hit and damage. It does 1d6 slashing damage. It’s also vampiric; any damage you do to a living creature that draws blood regains you hit points equal to the damage roll.

Looking into the gauntlet reveals a series of hooks, blades, and gears inside the Claw. In truth, it’s not meant to be a gauntlet, but rather a prosthetic replacement hand. Putting a living hand into the gauntlet will cause the gauntlet to eat the hand up, doing 2d6 damage and, assuming the wielder survives, grafting itself to the arm. Only a remove curse or wish spell will allow you to remove the gauntlet.

Crimson Thorn Scourge

This six-tailed scourge is fashioned from braided lengths of manta-ray-like hide, studded with thorn-like hooks of orichaclum. Treat it as a whip that has a +1 to-hit and damage enchantment on it, does 1d6 damage, and is vampiric, giving the wielder 1 hit point for each point of damage caused. The target must make a STR saving throw vs. the attack roll or be restrained (PHB pg 292) so long as it is size Large or smaller. Every round the target is restrained, the whip can’t be used as in an attack, but it automatically does 1d4+1 damage to the target. The target can escape if they roll a STR save of 12 or better.

If the wielder rolls a 1 on their attack, then the wielder is tangled in the web and becomes restrained, suffering 1d4+1 damage (which is not fed back to them via vampirism). The wielder can escape on a STR save of 12+.

Sanguine Cords

A trio of crimson ribbons, stitched minutely with black runes, are attached to a small gold ring. At the end of each ribbon is a small obsidian plumb weight. If a spell-caster of any sort makes a loop through the ring of the cords, places their dominant arm through the loop, and then wraps the chords along their arm, they can then sacrifice 2 HP to increase both their spell attack bonus and save DC by +2. When they do this, their dominant hand exudes a brief crimson mist that trails their gestures.

If the spell being cast causes piercing or slashing damage, the bonus is automatic and does not require the user to sacrifice any hit points. Prolonged use can lead to any garments being worn on the dominant hand or arm to be stained as if with a mist of blood.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What is Generic Fantasy Now?

So, I have to somewhat disagree with this:

As far as I am aware it has long been established that the game worlds of any Dungeons & Dragons game is essentially a quasi-Medieval world wherein the concepts of Arthurian and Tolkien fantasy hold sway over the possibilities available to the players.

This has not quite been my experience, though what was my experience may be leading me to split hairs.

Ok, I believed it, or hoped it could be, when I first started playing in the early ‘80s. My games were a mish-mash of Saturday-morning cartoons, Tolkien, Lewis, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. Problem was, the only part of that mish-mash that really worked was Saturday-morning cartoons.

Tolkien and Lewis depend on a setting where morality is literally woven into the landscape. The alignment system kinda helps to achieve that, but it’s a clunky tool that few love and fewer enjoy. Otherwise, TSR-era D&D was too enamored with looting and WotC-era D&D is too enamored with combat to map well to either Tolkien and Lewis, whose heroes spend most of their time avoiding combat whenever possible. And there’s waaaaaaay too much magic, even in early TSR-era D&D, to get anything like the Robin Hood or King Arthur feel.

I spent years trying to pound the square peg of AD&D into the round hole of Tolkien and A Young Boy’s King Arthur. Finally, in junior high, I played with a DM I hadn’t trained. He’d clearly read Fritz Leiber (which I hadn’t yet), and his adventures flowed smoothly, working in harmony with the rules. It was an eye-opening experience and completely transformed the way I played the game.

D&D has always been more of a Saturday-morning cartoon, kitchen-sink sort of assumed setting. In spite of everyone talking about “a quasi-Medieval world” the assumed setting described by the equipment is actually late Renaissance, with its pikes and halberds and plate-mail armor, lacking only the occasional arquebus (which was in 2e’s basic equipment list) to complete the picture. And variations far from that theme have always been a part of D&D, from the spaceships and lasers of “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” to the katanas and ogre-magi of “Oriental Adventures” to the genie-folk and mamluks of Al-Qadim to the pseudo-Victorian slang of Planescape to the steampunk art-deco stylings of Eberron.

Still, the author is correct in that most folks don’t want those out-there settings. They want something more familiar, more plug-and-play with everyone’s expectations. However, those expectations have little to do with Tolkien or the Arthurian legends. Yes, there are some trappings lifted wholesale from those sources, but they are only two sources, and they look nothing like our games. As the author says:


So, which taverns did King Arthur and his knights hang out in? Trick question; they didn’t. They stayed in the castles of other knights when they were not roughing it in the wilderness in magical silk pavilions that provided for all their needs. The only tavern I can remember being mentioned by name in any of the Middle Earth stories is the Prancing Pony. The only dungeon is Moria (maybe Shelob’s lair, though the movies made far more of that than the book did). The Knights of the Round Table almost always met their foes in the open, at crossroads or on the list field. They dared the occasional magical castle, but these looked far more like old-school funhouse dungeons, with bridges made of swords and fighting animated statues.

Orcs and goblins are found in profusion in both Tolkien and D&D, but they bare only surface resemblance to one another. D&D’s orcs completely lack the metaphysical implications of Tolkien’s twisted elves, and have morphed into a weird, green caricature of British soccer hooligans, slow-witted jocks, and tribal Nazis with maybe a sprinkling of noble savage.

Dragons are few and far between in Tokien’s popular stories, having only one in The Hobbit and being completely absent from The Lord of the Rings. You find few in most tellings of the Arthurian legends.

As for treasures, D&D’s generic gold pieces, swords +3, and healing potions are blandly utilitarian compared to storied blades like Orcrist and Excalibur, enchanted girdles that protect from all harm, the Arkenstone, the Palantir, Morgul blades, Isolde’s love potion, or the Holy Grail.

What most folks expect in a D&D game isn’t Tolkien or King Arthur, but instead a brand new thing sometimes called “gaming fantasy.” It’s pretty much what you find in World of Warcraft and the like, and it’s heavily based on the bare-bones, utilitarian basics of D&D. It’s also got a healthy heaping of Ren Faire tropes, Greek and Norse mythology, and an endless parade of Tolkien knock-offs that were pale imitations of the original (Shannara, I’m soooo looking at you). These are worlds where combat is frequent, looting bodies is a steady job, and anti-social behavior is shrugged off, so long as the “right folks” are doing it.

And yes, it’s so cliché as to be boring now. But if you want to escape it, you could just simply run something with more fidelity to Tolkien or the Arthurian myths. But after my personal experience, I’d not suggest you use D&D in those games.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder (Why They Bothered) Woman

Back when the trailers for the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie were embedding “Hooked on a Feeling” in everyone’s ears, there was a joke making the rounds in nerd circles:
DC: Well, we’d really love to do a Wonder Woman movie, but her background is too complex and would confuse audiences.

Marvel: Look, a raccoon with a machine gun!
Clearly, DC never overcame their fear of confusing the audience, because the Wonder Woman movie we got is painfully paint-by-the-numbers:

  1. Introduce Diana as a cute, precocious child who wants to fight! But her mom is a worry-wort stick-in-the-mud. Diana learns to fight anyway.
  2. Diana has a mysterious past! A past that remains mysterious through the entire movie because everyone who tells the story has an ulterior motive for doing so. Yeah, I know, golden lasso. Tell that to Saruman and Denethor with their Palantirs.
  3. Diana rescues handsome man of questionable behavior but with a heart of gold who just happens to be of suitable age for marriage. Awkward sexual tension (mostly played for cheap jokes) ensues.
  4. Diana defies! She defies everyone (her mom, early 20th century propriety, the military realities of the first World War) except modern-day Hollywood’s sensibilities.
  5. Cute guy dies in noble self-sacrifice! (Because only Supes is allowed a long-term relationship.)
  6. Reflecting on handsome guy’s self-sacrifice suddenly makes Diana’s special effects more powerful than generic upper-crust-brit villain’s special effects.
  7. The struggle continues (but just what it is she’s struggling against or for remains impenetrably vague).

Script-wise, this movie just doesn’t cut it. Which Is a shame because a lot really works well here. You’re always entertained. The performances are a lot of fun (often in spite of the lame script). The action sequences are top-notch. The pacing is good. Runtime is 2.5 hours, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

But the script never does the heavy-lifting to support its ending. At no point do we feel a strong enough connection between Diana and the Yank to justify the act of simply dwelling on him giving her any sort of insight or opening untapped wells of inner strength. Hell, at no point do we get the feeling that Diana trusts, respects, or even really likes the guy much. There’s a kinda-sorta hinted-at sex scene in the second act that you’d miss if you blinked, and it never comes up again in any way, shape, or form. We don’t even get the usual morning-after sweet-awkward smiles or anything.

So his sacrifice leads her to slaughter a bunch of faceless Germans. But when she’s presented with a German who very much has a face and a name, suddenly she decides she believes in love and her FX are more powerful than the villain’s FX because… reasons?

It doesn’t hold together at all. Maybe if the Yank had been more respectable, or had a family he was leaving behind, or we’d seen some sparks between him and Diana, the sacrifice thing might have made sense. But he’s none of those things because one of the big themes is that humanity is deeply flawed.

Which is the other fumbled ball of this movie. The whole time, they keep hinting that Ares isn’t a completely unreasonable jerk, that he understands humanity better than the other gods did, that perhaps he even has a point. But nope, he actually is just a jerk who gets off on goading humanity into larger and more destructive wars.

(Which, incidentally, makes the post-fight scenes very confusing. Everyone’s friends now? So it really was Ares clouding everyone’s minds? Does that mean the second World War never happens in the DC universe? It’s certainly implied in those moments of everyone helping each other as the sun rises behind a victorious Wonder Woman.)

So Ares is defeated when Diana decides humanity is worth saving because… reasons. Reasons never explained and certainly not supported by the rest of the movie. Especially since the movie very clearly says that Ares is right about humans, but apparently wanting to wipe them all out for it is wrong because… reasons.

Philosophically, the movie is a complete mess. Which renders the end nothing more than a clash between special effects, visually interesting but incomprehensible. How and why anything happens is utterly hidden from the audience, and you’re left with nothing but the needs of the paint-by-numbers plot. At the very, very end, Diana gives us a generic, “I must continue the struggle!” monologue, but as she’s leaping out of the Louvre, flying through the air, we have no idea what she’s going to fight against. There’s vague talk about creating a world that could be, but the only visions of such a world are the all-female paradise of the Amazons and Ares’ dream of a human-free Eden. Exactly what Diana’s goals are in the modern world and how she plans to achieve them… Nope! She’s a super-hero. Doing super-hero things. Because… reasons!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Boycotting Yourself in the Foot

Apparently, I’ve somehow missed most of the last political slap-fight in the RPG internet-o-sphere. Can’t say I’m horrible upset. I did, however, come across this blog post considering the morality and efficacy of boycotts against RPG companies.

Now, right off the bat, I’m not a fan of organized boycotts, especially against creative types. It very much is trying to tell artists what they can and cannot create, and backing up your demands with threats. That’s not something I can comfortably cotton to.

But, as they say, don't appeal to a person's better nature; they may not have one. So let's talk about your self-interest. And since you're here reading this blog, I assume you're interested in having fun playing RPGs. So right off the bat, discouraging people from making cool RPG things by threatening any monetary gain seems like a bad idea. Things get worse when we see Victor applying a carrot in conjunction with the stick. Sure, you can absolutely spend your money with an eye towards “supporting the creators and narratives we want to see flourish in the world.” But keep in mind that, when you do that, you’re not promoting good games. You’re promoting those who voice support for the issue de jour. You’re encouraging creators and publishers to focus on politics, social causes, and appearances instead of things like good game play, useability at the table, and creating fun. Time and money are both limited resources. The time writers and artists focus on voicing the proper opinions is not spent on improving their craft, researching new techniques and tools, or playing games. But they’ll have to do that because the publishers will be hiring folks with strong reputations for voicing support for the right causes, rather than the folks who are the most innovative and effective at supporting fun at the table.

The results will look like large swathes of the RPG market at the turn of the century, when publishers were convinced their primary audience was collectors and readers, not players. The books were big and pretty, but the art did little to support game play, the rules were poorly organized (and frequently broken; everyone remember the Star Wars game where better armor could actually make it easier to wound your character?), poorly written, and confusing, and the density made them impenetrable to beginners.

While I understand Victor’s point about boycotts potentially being more effective in the RPG world due to the small number of buyers (making each that much more important), I think it’s undercut by the nature of RPGs themselves. Quite simply, as the drift of D&D from a game about exploration to a game about combat aptly demonstrates, writers and publishers have nearly zero influence on how a game is actually played. As extreme examples (that have actually appeared on RPG forums), it’s not hard to make a game of Blue Rose about patriarchal champions fighting against the vile misandry of Aldis and its magical-deer overlords, or turn Monster Hearts into a game about competitive rape.

Of course, there’s nothing preventing you from doing the opposite, either. Which is why everyone is best served by supporting those who make really good games, no matter their personal failings or extreme political ideas. A new way of playing, or presenting information, or organizing rules can improve your game and create more fun for you regardless of the wacky ideas on economics or biology held by the author. And there’s nothing stopping you from using those tools at your table, which will naturally promote models of economics and biological science known and supported by all right-thinking people.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Road to Victory

I think we can now unilaterally declare the OSR a success. Starter boxed sets are a thing once more, with both Pathfinder and D&D 5e having one. The 5e team not only reached out to OSR bloggers shortly after announcing 5e, but paid them to consult on 5e. In his design of 5e, Mearls openly embraced simplicity over completeness and the venerable Caves of Chaos were offered as a playtest testbed for the rules. OSR works have received the highest accolades of the industry and fandom, and we even have a few folks making a full-time living at this stuff. So I think we can safely say that, yes, from an outside perspective, the OSR has been shockingly successful.

Notice the caveat up there? From an outside perspective. That’s vital.

I’m writing this because I’m seeing other groups that appear similar to the OSR and have clearly been inspired by the OSR. Yes Pulp Renaissance folks (or whatever you’re calling yourselves), I am very much talking to you here. Because there’s one key aspect of the OSR that is vital to the success of any similar movement (and as I love me some Howard, Leiber, Wagner, etc. I’d really love to see you folks flourish).

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back—
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

From the OSR’s inception, before Maliszewski started Grognardia, before anyone was even saying anything like “Old School Renaissance,” the OSR was about one thing: having fun playing RPGs. Fun, of course, is a very particular thing; what floats my boat might sink yours. Each of us was pursuing our own individual fun. Sure, we did it in groups (RPGing is largely not a solo activity), but those groups had very different ideas of fun. Maliszewski had his very Appendix-N-driven world-building with a strong emphasis on dungeon exploration while Raggi pursued a horror vibe in a pseudo-historical setting. Some pursued Gygaxian Naturalism while others preferred a more metaphorical experience via delving into a Mythic Underworld. Games were opened up to the whole world (well, all of the world that could get on Google Hangouts) via the Flailsnails linked campaigns while others were carefully cultivated walled gardens, specifically designed for the enjoyment of a small few. Some wallowed in the excesses of Gygaxian descriptive writing while others embraced the simplicity of the One-page Dungeon. Thieves were excised from games, or modified, or the original design was strictly adhered to. Some embraced the entirety of Appendix N for inspiration, others picked just certain portions (Dying Earth stories or Swords & Sorcery) while others looked to video games or anime.

Within the very loose framework of the OSR, each of us pursued our own fun. Each of us pushed the boundaries of what the OSR was and then we’d get together to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We tore apart the old games to see how each individual piece worked, how they interacted with one another, and then tried new combinations to see what would happen. When something worked and was fun, we shared it with each other. And so our toolboxes of fun-building grew, our games became more fun to play, and we had great times.

The reason for the caveat above, about an outside perspective? That’s because whether or not the OSR succeeded or failed hung entirely on a single question: did you have more fun playing RPGs? The OSR succeeded and failed hundreds of thousands of times for every individual who gave it a whirl. Nothing else really mattered. If we were not having fun, things were not right and had to be changed. So we changed and explored and each of us found our individual fun.

So far, so good, at least as far as those of us finding this personal success were concerned. But enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s easy to be enthusiastic about something that’s fun! The more fun we had, and the more we talked about our fun and shared it, the more other folks wanted a piece of our action. That’s what created the success of the OSR as an influential movement in the larger sphere of RPGs. Not any attempt to strongly codify what the OSR is, or an internally coherent logical structure, or deeply penetrating philosophy. Jeff Rients set the tone early on; fuck pretentious bullshit. Is it fun? Then do more of that!

Were there fights with outside groups? Yep. Internal fights that grew rancorous? Of course. That happens, especially when you lose sight of how individualistic the whole thing was. It wasn’t all fun and games. But the core of everything vital was, in fact, fun and games. The success of the OSR, both for the individuals doing it as well as the movement as a whole, was entirely built on a foundation of playing games and having fun. Everything worthwhile and good grew from that.

UPDATE: a variation on this theme from Zak.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

What the Heck is That?!?

I haven't found any solid rules in 5e D&D for adjudicating Nature and Arcana checks to learn more about monsters. My players (who for whatever reason haven't all run out and purchased a copy of the MM and memorized its contents; I suspect "not being a teenager" to be high on the list of reasons ;) ) ask for these rolls a lot. I certainly don't mind; part of playing under the philosophy that "it's not the DM's job to balance the encounters; it's the players' job to unbalance the encounters in their favor" is giving the players enough information to make intelligent decisions about which encounters they want to tackle and how.

So that means, whenever they encounter an unusual critter, they'll ask what they know about it and I'll ask for either a Nature or Arcana check. Which do I ask for? Arcana for the following creature types:

  • Aberrations
  • Celestials
  • Constructs
  • Elementals
  • Fey
  • Fiends
  • Monstrosities
  • Undead

All the rest us Nature checks; I'll take the highest of either Nature or Arcana for dragons.

So the players roll their dice (usually they all do this) and I start with the second-highest roll ("Ok, the bard knows blah-blah-blah...") and then move to the highest ("... and the wizard can also tell you blah-blah-blah.")

So what do I tell them?

On a roll up to 9:
I tell them they don't know much. I tell them maybe what the thing eats, and a rumor (that I openly label as such) that might be true and says more about the setting than the monster ("The shepherds down by Greenford have trouble with these things coming out of the forest and swiping sheep every three or so years.") and may or may not be true.

(In general, whenever the players make a knowledge check, I tell them something no matter how badly they roll, even if it's not immediately useful.)

Either an immunity or resistance, or one major attack or defense the creature has. If it has a defining characteristic (like a displacer beast's illusionary positioning) they'll get that instead.

All immunities, resistances, and vulnerabilities, plus one major attack or defense, and any not-obvious forms of locomotion. If they ask, I might tell them about senses, but not give ranges, as well as relative speeds (faster/slower than you).

All-of-the-above, plus highest and lowest stats, all senses and their ranges, plus their speeds.

Pretty much anything they want to know. If they roll above 30, I'm just handing them the book to peruse.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Bushel-full of Gods

Over on G+, Stuart Robertson asks:

How formally do you handle religions in your game? Do you use an established setting with deities? Do you sort of hand wave it all? Do you have something DIY but more structured?

Religion is pretty central to my campaigns. 5e only seems to have made it more important, though I'm not entirely certain why. (Possibly because we have more paladins now that being Lawful Good isn't a requirement?) One of the first things I do when creating a campaign, right after deciding on a theme, is build the gods.

One of the three (!!!) campaigns I'm running now has a theme of hidden mysteries and lost history. It's centered around a large sheltered sea (very much like the Gulf of Mexico) called the Mur. The gods are below.

Long-time readers will recognize some of these deities from my old Labyrinth Lord game from back in '09. I am so not above stealing gods from other campaigns, either my own or those from other folks. If you've got a stable group of players, it's easy to reuse things like that and it gives them an easy in to the new setting, or is a great way to demonstrate how this new setting is different from the old one.

Along the shores of the Mur, these are the most widely venerated gods. Of these, the worship of Abzu and Tiamat is nearly universal across the multiverse. The further you get from the Mur, the less likely you are to encounter the others.

God of Civilization, Knowledge, and Truth

Symbol: an untethered golden flame
Domains: Knowledge, Life, Light, War
Alignment: Lawful Good

Abzu is the great platinum dragon, sibling and occasional lover of Tiamat, father of dragons. He is her opposite (and you can create a sort of yin-yang symbol from their combined symbols), being the patron of cool intellect, reflection, and the search for truth.

He’s also the patron of penance and forgiveness, as he periodically fails to adhere to his own principles and engages in violent and passionate lovemaking with his sister-lover. It is said that, should he ever manage to resist for long enough, all of Creation would wither and die.

His temples are places of learning and education. Most universities have at least a shrine to Abzu on their grounds. Some monasteries are dedicated to Abzu, and most have meditation on the platinum dragon’s struggle and will as part of their discipline. Nearly all paladins taking the Oath of Devotion have Abzu as their patron deity.

God of Order and the Law

Symbol: an iron mace
Domains: Knowledge, Light, War
Alignment: Lawful Neutral

Aratshi is the giver and the defender of the Law. He is a being of absolute order, the Primarch of the modrons and the patron of order. Most of Aratshi’s temples are fortress-courts where the guilty are tried and condemned by a court of judge-priests.

Aratshi’s priests dress in accordance with their duties. Those who serve as judges dress in kilts of white wool striped with purple. Enforcers of the law wear sleeveless chain mail over red tunics and bear iron-headed maces. Inquisitors, those who seek out the guilty, wear long crimson robes.

While most human lands have at least a small presence of Aratshi’s devoted, he’s seen as far too hidebound and inflexible by the tradition-following dwarves or the chaos-embracing elves. In most human lands, Aratshi’s faith has dwindled to a few specialists, aiding civil courts to enforce secular laws. In a few places, Aratshi still wields great influence, and it’s not been lost on most that these places tend to be ruled by iron-fisted tyrants. Note also that Aratshi is a god of the law but not a god of justice, which falls more under Abzu’s domain.

Goddess of the Stars, Divination, and Hidden Secrets

Symbol: a silver star of four greater and four lesser points
Domains: Knowledge, Light, Trickery
Alignment: True Neutral

Hasrit is one of the most popular deities in human lands, second only to Tiamat (and sometimes eclipsing her in more urban and urbane environments). Her priests carefully chart the motions of all the celestial bodies, then reproduce those motions in spinning, ecstatic dances seeking enlightenment and perception that pierces the veils of the mortal world to see their underpinnings. Hasrit herself dances at the fulcrum of the universe, where Chaos and Order, Good and Evil meet.

Hasrit’s temples are especially favored by merchants and politicians, seeking insight into future events or the natures of clients and rivals. The guidance of the goddess’ oracles are sometimes sought at coming-of-age ceremonies, before major construction projects, or marching off to war in some cultures.

Most of Hasrit’s ceremonies take place at night, and while her temples are open at all hours, nights of the new moon are considered to give the clearest divinations. Hasrit’s priests wear robes with long, bell-shaped sleeves, and from their belts hang long strings of gems, stones, metal chains or ropes that splay out as they dance. Hallucinogens and similar consciousness-altering drugs are frequently used in Hasrit’s ceremonies. While it’s not unheard of for Hasrit’s temples to include sacred prostitutes, they are not nearly as common as they are at Tiamat’s temples.

Emperor of the Dead, Caretaker of Souls

Symbol: a white skull crowned with flowers
Domains: Knowledge, Light, War
Alignment: Lawful Good

Khogus rules the underworld, where the souls of the dead go for the final reward. Kinda. Most priests of Khogus preach a soul’s time in the underworld is limited; eventually such souls are reborn into new lives.

As defender of dead souls, Khogus is violently opposed to undeath; his priests are charged with destroying undead wherever they are found and safeguarding the bodies of the deceased against necromantic tampering. They also aren’t very fond of those who’ve sold their souls.

Khogus’ priests typically wear common clothing and maintain a somber, sober appearance. They oversee the rites of death and burial, defend graveyards, and hunt the undead. When performing their sacred duties, they wear white or black robes. Paladins who have taken the oaths of Devotion or Vengeance may choose Khogus as their patron.

God of Slavery, Aratshi’s Hound

Symbol: Three links of chain between four triangles which are arranged like the fangs of a hound
Domains: Knowledge, Nature, Tempest
Alignment: ???

According to legend, Shkeen was a powerful creature of Chaos, possibly a demon, defeated and enslaved by Aratshi. The two are generally linked in the mortal realms, since the most common punishment handed down by the courts of Aratshi is a period of enslavement, the profits from which are supposed to serve as restitution for the injured.

Those so sentenced are handed over to the priests of Shkeen. These hound-masked individuals are experts in bending, breaking, and rebuilding the will, and those branded with the mark of Shkeen are considered to be the most loyal and dependable slaves you can buy.

While the Shkeenites are supposed to primarily acquire slaves via the law courts, they are not forbidden from engaging the larger market. It’s rumored that, while the Shkeenites don’t themselves organize or directly finance slave-taking raids, they’re eager to buy new and exotic slaves from nearly any source. In more tyrannical regimes, open season on targeted communities allow the Shkeenites to periodically sweep an area, claiming whomever they can catch as new slaves for their temple-stockyards.

Because of this, it’s not unusual to find that Shkeen’s temple is larger, more opulent, and far more popular among the rich and powerful than Aratshi’s. Their wealth also grants them far more political leverage than the law-giver’s temples enjoy.

Goddess of Passion, Fertility, Creativity, Violence and Chaos

Symbol: a bloody claw
Domains: Life, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, War
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral

The chromatic queen of dragons, Tiamat is venerated in all lands as the patron of fertility and creativity. In many places, she is worshipped as the goddess of both war and love. She is the sister-lover of Abzu, repeatedly tempting him to abandon reason and wallow in his passions (which are, at heart, as violent and potent as hers, perhaps even more so for struggling against his near-constant adamantium restraint).

You can find her priestesses and temples in nearly every society, from the tribes of goblins to the dwarves (where she is worshipped in secret mystery cults by women only).

The exact nature of Tiamat’s temples varies greatly by race. Among the dwarves, she is worshipped in living caves whose entrances are a closely-guarded secret. The orcs venerate her with living sacrifices and bloody rituals under the open sky. In most human lands, her temples are palaces of hedonistic delights, offering shelter to the starving artist, healing to the emotionally wounded, and the services of hierodules, sacred prostitutes, to all with the gold to pay for them.

It should be noted that while Tiamat is a chaotic deity, she has little interest in esoteric concepts like good and evil. Some paladins who’ve taken the Oath of Vengeance or the Oath of the Ancients have Tiamat as their patron deity.

Lesser Gods
These gods are extremely regional and most are lacking in any sort of organized worship (which isn’t to say that they lack clerics). Where they are venerated at all you usually only find roadside or street-corner shrines.

The Magpie Princess
The Barefoot Goddess, Queen of the Open Road

Symbol: a gold ring with a ribbon tied to it
Domains: Tempest, Trickery
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral

This enigmatic being is said to roam the material world in the form of a tall, strikingly handsome woman with long and wild black hair, wearing the height of last year’s fashions in a motley collection of threadbare cast-offs. She isn’t worshipped so much as she’s invoked by travellers and caravans (and most of those are asking her to stay far away from them).

While she is not herself a goddess of fertility, it is believed in some regions that she can pick the gender of an unborn child. In territories where she's known to roam, the father or son of a pregnant woman will climb a tall tree and tie a trinket to the highest branch they can reach as an offering to the Magpie Princess. Coins or unadorned jewelry are requests for a boy, while gemstones, either alone or set in jewelry, requests a girl.

Lord of Snickers, God of Shadows and the Downtrodden

Symbol: a raccoon’s mask
Domains: Knowledge, Trickery
Alignment: Chaotic Good

This prince of tricksters is well known in nearly all cultures as a gadfly to the comfortable, wicked, and foolish in numerous stories. He’s almost as frequently invoked by bards before a performance as Tiamat. In his stories, Mapachtli is generally seen outsmarting wicked tax collectors, stealing the ill-gotten wealth of the powerful, or spiriting away princesses on the day of an unwanted political marriage.

While Mapachtli is usually the hero of his stories, on occasion others get the upper hand with him. Most notoriously is Tiamat’s vengeance against him when he stole one of her eggs.

While his worship is discouraged among the dwarves, nearly every other civilized race reveres Mapachtli. His shrines can be found in almost every small hamlet or hidden within the cells of slaves. He is especially loathed by Aratshi and hunted by Shkeen, and their priests often figure as villains in Mapachtli’s stories. Uniquely among the lesser gods, he is sometimes chosen as the patron deity for paladins taking the Oath of Vengeance or the Ancients.

The Prince of Swords
The Ravager, the Despoiler, the Hound of Chaos

Symbol: a bloody, two-edged sword
Domains: Tempest, War
Alignment: Chaotic Evil

The patron of mercenaries and the bringing of strike, the Prince of Swords is generally seen as an unpleasant but necessary force in the world. He is the patron of violence, as willing to strike the good as the bad, and his whispers of fear and greed spur the great and powerful to acts of aggression. His shrines can be found in every sword-school, mercenary camp, and castle in the world.

Lady of Mosquitoes and Marshes, Goddess of Plagues, Thieves and Assassins

Symbol: a mosquito
Domains: Nature, Trickery
Alignment: Chaotic Evil

When those in polite society invoke Skotia, they’re hoping to turn her attention elsewhere, or propitiate her to the point that she won’t aid in attempts to rob, swindle, or curse them. Most of Skotia’s worshippers are thieves, assassins, grifters and con artists. While few temples dedicated to her worship exist, it’s not unusual to find little shrines tucked away in dark alleys or just off well-travelled roads.

The Mystery Cults
In addition to the gods named above, the shores of the Mur are littered with secretive mystery cults. Unlike the faiths of the principal gods, mystery cults have little interest in spreading their worship broadly. In fact, it’s often forbidden for members to mention to others that they belong to such a cult. It’s rumored that these cults are actually fronts for demons and devils, and that they have infiltrated nearly every prominent government and financial institution. Some say that even the temples of the principal gods have secret adherents to mystery cults among their members.

It’s rumored that even the Autarch himself is a member of a mystery cult. Other, more sinister rumors insist that a number of mystery cults actually worship the Autarch himself!

Art by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.