Monday, January 21, 2019

How I Include Magic Items in My Campaigns

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

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

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

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

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

Like unto this are…

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

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

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

Take it slow.

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

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

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

Make it cool!

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

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

How to Describe Your Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Conan: Exiles for cRPG of the Decade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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