Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Why Is This Item Cursed?

On a post about cursed items, someone wrote, "I have never liked cursed items. Why would someone make one?"

I responded with a brief table. If you want to know why a given cursed item exists, roll 1d8 and consult the table below:

  1. Failed magic item project of an ancient civilization's wizarding grad school equivalent.
  2. Evil wizard or unseelie Fair Folk crafted item as a magical trap or revenge piece.
  3. Mundane object infused with fell magical energies as a side effect of a magical catastrophe.
  4. Magic item granted as part of a poorly-worded wish.
  5. Functional magic item corrupted by forgotten decades in an evil lair or by infusion with wicked sapience.
  6. Perfectly normal magic item in extremely alien and forgotten culture. ("We use bags of devouring to solve our trash problem!")
  7. Curse is an unintended side effect of the item's creation, and was overlooked by the creators.
  8. Item belonged to a famous hero who offended a god, archwizard, or other powerful entity and cursed their favored magic item.

Friday, March 24, 2023

RPGs as Art: A System Matters Metaphor

This tired old debate* rears its ugly head with alarming frequency, and every time, I am left wanting from the answer.

Whenever someone complains about a system being "misused" — which is to say, not used for its intended or supported purpose, like using the Dungeons & Dragons game engine to run an Animal Crossing-style game — a version of the debate that I frequently encounter is that RPGs are tools, and you wouldn't use the wrong tool for a job. You wouldn't, say, use a hammer to try to turn a screw, as you're liable to ruin the thing you're attempting to build or fix.

This metaphor has never sat right with me.

For starters, table-top RPGs are art and are tools to make art. That's a bit different than attempting to use a screwdriver when you need a wrench; some of the most compelling art uses nonstandard components, like that one of the industrial robot trying and failing to clean the blood pooling around it. You know the one:

Beyond being short-sighted from an artistic perspective, it also ignores what a large swath of role-playing games do. Many games aren't tools, but toolboxes; the creators certainly hope that you'll take them, use them, and enjoy them, but once it's in your grasp, it's up to you to figure out how to use it. A lot of hacks, custom systems, and mini-games come from here: add the Objective rules from Unknown Armies; the fishing rules from Rod, Reel, & Fist; and the narrative rules from Let These Mermaids Touch Your Dick Maybe into Call of Cthulhu to get the Frankengame of your mad dreams!

(I don't know why you need rules for organizational agency, fishing, and thirsty-ass mermaids in your hypothetical Gothic cosmic horror game, but I assume you know your group better than I do. Maybe you want the game to be a little more player-directed than your typical Call of Cthulhu game, and you want to add options for SAN refreshes that include fishing and mermaid-mediated sexual healing. But I am here to tell you that if someone on the internet said you're playing wrong by making the eldritch horror fishing and mermaid seduction game of your dreams, they can go pound sand.)

And of course, I will again bang my drum that RPGs are art. Pretending that RPGs are tools ignores why people actually like a particular game, which often has a lot to do with the myriad (and often subconscious) reasons people like art. Is it accessible? Do your friends like it? Does it fulfill some need within you? Is it especially resonant with your background?

All this to say: the tool metaphor always rankles me when I see it, but I only recently realized why.

RPGs aren't tools. They're cars.

If you're not in the United States, allow me to set the scene: everywhere is too far to walk, and public transit is often underfunded, so that means you basically need access to a car to live. So cars are ubiquitous, but I suspect most people buy, rent, or borrow cars for very prosaic reasons: you had access, you could afford it, it suits your needs, whatever. For the vast bulk of people, they just need something that will get them to work and the grocery store.

These are the equivalent of the vast hordes that indie gamers mock when they wonder why someone is hacking Dungeons & Dragons 5e to make an unofficial Uncharted RPG. Such people may neither know nor care about other RPGs that would do what they want more "efficiently," they just want a game that will handle some action, is somewhat familiar, and has lots of online support in case they get stuck.

The bog-standard American car consumer just needs a car to get from point A to point B. If the brakes work, it's good enough.

Then there are the car guys.

These are people with Opinions™ about cars. A car isn't just a convenient way to get from place-to-place, it's a statement. A lifestyle. They study the breeds of car, they know their natural habitats and ecological niches. This one is built for speed and needs premium petrol and hood clips. This one is built for hauling and can add a trailer hitch and a tow reel in the front.

In this extended car metaphor, that's the sort of people who collect RPGs and dissect them. If you're reading this blog entry, chances are good you're the RPG-equivalent of a car guy. We know where the different breeds of RPG live and like to graze, and we will invent new taxonomies to explain why we know them better than anyone else.

The elaborate taxonomy of cars might be interesting to a car guy, but it isn't as helpful to the kid who just started driving to her part-time job. Likewise, the elaborate taxonomy of RPGs is probably overwhelming or boring to someone who isn't obsessed with this stuff.

That's all right. If they're interested in RPGs, they'll come around to it in their own time.

* As you might surmise, my overall view of the "system matters" debate is, "It depends." Certain systems give you certain tools to do some things more easily than other choices, but my experience teaches me that most GMs tend to run games the same way no matter what system they're using — and that they often bring their assumptions to a new game without familiarizing themselves with it. Once again, the book is less important than the thing that happens at the table, and that is the thing that ought to be judged.

Friday, March 10, 2023

No Prep Is Wasted

If you run games long enough, higher-order patterns begin to emerge without your direct input. A campaign setting is a thing better divined than made.

I have previously posted about Arctic Death, Infinite Night, my "arctic Ravenloft" campaign. (If you want the basic setup, this post has all the details.)

Well, that section of the campaign has wrapped, and as they say, the slime's coming home. They killed the darklord, did the obligatory bookkeeping, and now the wizard has built a spelljamming helm and they have acquired a vessel in the hopes of returning to the home they fled via the Gardens of Ynn, essentially causing most of the issues in the campaign to date. As for the Domain of Dread of Isiksivik, when they slew the darklord, the whole realm fell back into the world it left centuries ago.

But which world is that?

I've been ruminating on that particular question for months now, but then I remembered What Luck Betide Us. Many years ago, some friends asked me to run a 4e campaign, and I did a lot of work on it before we started. Like, I made a map of a region a million square miles in size and filled in the settlements with procedural generation before the campaign started. (To contrast, the Sorrowfell Plains map for Crux of Eternity is still mostly empty, with landmarks only going on the map as they come up in play.) While a fun exercise, I wouldn't recommend trying to build a campaign setting from the ground-up like in What Luck Betide Us, and I certainly wouldn't have the time to do it now unless someone were paying me.

Well, as with most campaigns where you front-load much of the work, that game died a horrible death after only a couple of sessions. So it goes.

But that just means that there's an unused campaign setting just sitting in my notes, one that I know fairly well because I made it up. Isiksivik can easily sit to the far north of the region from What Luck Betide Us, and what's more, the dwarf's sketchy backstory fits nicely with the overall aesthetics of the dwarven theocracy of the Farhelfik Commonwealth and the elvish magocracy of the Lanirilis Protectorate. She can just as easily be from the same world!

(The characters in Arctic Death, Infinite Night subsequently met the major campaign villain from What Luck Betide Us, because they fit well with her agenda in the service of Chaos.)

Years ago, I also teased The Wizard at the End of the World. I didn't know anything more about this entity than I put into the blog post, but I figured the rest would sort itself out in the fullness of time. In trying to solve this problem, I also solved that problem: The Wizard is indeed the second iteration of a BECMI-style Immortal, originally from the Sorrowfell Plains but now ascended after some time shenanigans, and What Luck Betide Us features the world she made during her first ascension. (I already knew she made a world, I just didn't know that it was clearly this one. But it nicely explains a couple of things I never quite figured out during the course of What Luck Betide Us.)

(The characters in Arctic Death, Infinite Night subsequently met this Immortal in her guise as the elf Archdruid Lueliten. She has ties to the dwarf's backstory and clearly has some future knowledge about what has happened and will yet happen.)

If there's a takeaway from all of this, it's the advice I gave at the start: leave gaps in your campaign creation where interesting things might go. The players don't need reams of epic backstory to jump into a game, so you don't need to make them. However, if during the course of planning or play, you determine interesting connections between your disparate, intriguing details, give them context and make them matter. (Remember: nothing the GM does matters unless it emerges at the table. This is why the other players ultimately have more power than the GM, because every decision they make matters.)

It's the Tim Powers design principle, but applied to one's own writing: in a couple of places (I'm citing this one in particular), he references doing research for his latest book, giving this anecdote, "Half the time, if it's very late at night, I find sometimes when I open some new research book, it'll appear to confirm my fictional theory, and I’ll think, 'Oh my god, Powers, you’re not making this up. You've stumbled on the actual story here.' Except in the morning, I'm sane again." Leave gaps, interrogate those gaps, and then divine your own campaign setting from what you find.

Now the only way to truly recycle all my ancient prep is to find a way to re-use plot points from my aborted Spelljammer campaign from ten years ago...

Thursday, January 5, 2023

RPGs as Art: On Sincerity in Art

"Don't do fashionable science." — Max Delbrück

A mantra for 2023.

Wandering around the lonely corners of the internet in this foul year of our Lord two-thousand twenty-three, there's a repeated piece of advice that feels intensely counter-intuitive to me. Whenever someone is thinking about writing something for publication — often on one of the OneBookShelf community content sites like DM's Guild, Storyteller's Vault, or Statosphere — the most common piece of feedback I see is to write something that the author thinks will be popular. Or I see people soliciting their slice of the community for ideas, putting up a poll or open thread about what sort of thing the community wants to see next.

It doesn't surprise me that lots of those projects never materialize.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I can say that I am way more likely to finish something if I'm passionate about it, and I'm more likely to be passionate about it if it was more-or-less my idea. My idea is a relative concept — it might be a collaboration or even someone else's skeleton that I sketched out — but the key is that it's something that lit my brain on fire and I had to put it somewhere. If I produce it for public consumption, I'd rather produce a weird piece of art beloved by ten people (and perhaps hated by a hundred more) than a milquetoast piece of art that is passively enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people and then abandoned when the media cycle changes.

(In fact, the most melancholy version of the crowdsourced art trend is seeing someone abandon a passion project because they arbitrarily decided no one was interested in it. I still dream about the guy who was thinking about doing a Statosphere supplement about archery. Archery hasn't appeared in my modern horror games, but if someone is passionate about it, I want to see what they do with it.)

On the consumption side of things, the RPG products I enjoy and get the most use out of are things I never knew I wanted in the first place. Of the Unknown Armies offerings on Statosphere, everyone talks about big, ambitious products like American Dreams or GOAD or RITE, but I've gotten the most direct use out of Three Miles of Bad Road. (I'm not even running a car-centric campaign!) I haven't had a chance to slot The Sun King's Palace into a fantasy campaign yet, but I'm definitely going to do so. I keep returning to it, tasting it in my dreams. I certainly didn't ask for a d100 horror sci-fi game, but Mothership continues to beckon me. (And there's a sentence or two in the beginning of A Pound of Flesh that features some of the best game advice I've ever read.)

All this to say: everyone has a story in them that only they can tell, in a medium of their choosing. Even if it's a lousy story, clumsily told, it will resonate with someone. Make your weird, idiosyncratic art and you will find like-minded people to play with you. Don't try to make the art you think people want to see, and don't try to make art because the topic is trendy. If you find yourself rushing to make something so you can release it while it's still topical, you've already lost.

So when you're staring down the gun barrel of your next RPG project and you don't quite know what to do, don't turn to focus-testing to tell you what to do. Brainstorm, try stuff, put your weird art out into the world. Consider this your permission to get real fuckin' weird with it.

(And astute observers will note that this applies to all art, not just role-playing games. I've watched a lot of mediocre film and television over the past month, things that were clearly focus-tested to death or tried to have Important Things To Say™ rather than honest things to say. Tell a story only you can tell.)

The Obligatory Addendum

Since the above screed largely talks about the individual (-ish) process of making art, let's talk about the uniquely collaborative activity of role-playing games themselves. (As I say repeatedly, RPGs are what happen at the table, and the rest is but smoke.) Even though the above post addresses the individual artist, it also applies to the group as a whole. If you're a Game Master, don't ignore your group's good ideas because they don't jibe with The Very Important Story You Have To Tell™. If you're a fellow player, don't ignore your other players' ideas because they don't fit your conception of this collaborative exercise.

The RPG table is going to be weird, messy, and collaborative. Your job is to enable that collaboration and have fun. (Please don't forget that games are supposed to be fun.) Everyone's favorite moments in a role-playing game are invariably when everything is chaotic and in total freefall. Lean into that, otherwise you could be writing a novel.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The Obligatory Dungeon23 Post

In case you haven't heard the good word, there's a community project this year. (Already in progress!)

Sean McCoy posted about this on Twitter and his Substack, but the gist is that you make a megadungeon by writing one dungeon room per day. At the end of the year, you'll have a twelve-level megadungeon with 365 rooms.

I've seen a lot of folks doing a bunch of pre-planning for this project, but as Sean himself says in another post, keep it simple. Divine your megadungeon via random tables and free association. (And in my personal experience, front-loading too much of the work makes it seem unattainable.) This is a brainstorming exercise more than anything else, so get ready to get weird with it.

Personally, I'm excited to see what develops. Hopefully everybody takes this opportunity to figure out how a megadungeon is put together and what they like to see in dungeons.

I don't plan on writing about my own #dungeon23 project too much on the ol' hobby blog, but I plan on keeping up with it. My dungeon is tentatively called The Crucible, although I don't know what it will become with the fullness of time. For starters, I don't think "The Crucible" is what the locals call it; they don't know that the nearby cave systems are actually connected into a megadungeon complex. (In fact, I'm not even sure anyone — including the inhabitants — has ever discovered the main entrance!)

In the meantime, here are a handful of additional community discussions around dungeon23:

Ben L.'s dungeon23 tag on the Mazirian's Garden blog

Better Legends' #dungeon23 tag on Tumblr

Zedeck Siew's #dungeon23 tag on Tumblr

Thursday, December 22, 2022

How to Keep Players Returning for a Thousand Hours

As noted elsewhere, I've run a lot of long campaigns. (I don't currently have an ongoing game that has lasted less than three years. My longest campaigns lasted eleven and eight years, respectively; one of my current ongoing games has continued for six-and-a-half years.)

Bearing that in mind, one of the most common complaints I see on the internet is about Game Masters attempting to wrangle players and force them to enjoy the GM's nonsense. To answer those complaints, here's a short list of advice, in many ways a coda and distillation of the advice I gave at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

  1. Don't cancel. If the players have to cancel, that's one thing. But in my experience, if the GM habitually cancels, everyone assumes the game isn't a priority and their attention wanes. Stay home if you're sick or there's an emergency, but otherwise, do your best to make the game a priority and your players will do the same.
    • If you have to cancel, give as much notice if you can. Otherwise, even if you're feeling unprepared, this might be a great opportunity for a breather session.
    • If you can establish a regular schedule, that's even better. Don't break it unless you absolutely must.
  2. Listen to the players and make their choices matter. Table-top role-playing games have two big selling features: players can try anything they want (as long as they're willing to live with the consequences), and it's the only activity in this cyberpunk hellscape where a participant is guaranteed an actual living human's individual attention (as a reward rather than a punishment). So give it to them: let them try whatever they want and live with the consequences as long as you telegraph the consequences in advance.
    • You don't have to tell them exactly what will happen, but "if you fail this jump you'll fall" and "you don't know what will happen if you mix those potions together" are good starts.
    • Also, let consequences echo throughout the campaign. Players love it when a dangling plot thread from a year ago makes its triumphant return.
    • You can do this even if the characters aren't "important." The cashier at the corner store notices that you haven't been around in a couple of weeks; that establishes the character's place in the world and suggests that someone cares about what they're doing.
  3. Establish real stakes. A series of 300 scripted fights might be fun as a tabletop combat sport, but it makes for a boring longform campaign. Dig into why the characters are doing what they do, and play antagonists as intelligent characters in their own right. Everybody wants something, and has stuff they're willing to do to get it. What does that mean for the NPCs? What does that mean for the PCs? Even if the players are no-backstory dungeoneering chumps engaging in 1974-style fantasy adventuring to get gold to gain XP to build a domain, that's a plot detail that should probably come up before Level 9, right?
    • On a smaller scale, not every encounter with hostile forces should lead to combat, and those that do should feature creative use of equipment, terrain, traps, tactics, and even more ephemeral things like positioning and time limits. A fight even against weaker opponents is more interesting if they have hostages, while C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan increases the difficulty by giving the players a time limit while delving the dungeon.
    • Even if events become world-shaking, always bring the game back to the player characters' scale. They're not saving the world, They're saving the people in it. They probably even know and like some of them!
That's basically it. You should show your players all the courtesy you want a friend to show you, and they'll keep coming back to find out what happens next.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Don't Punish the Players

A couple of months ago, The Alexandrian made a post about OneD&D in which he took issue with "bounded accuracy," the idea in 5e and some older D&D and OSR variants that the character's statistics for attacking, skills, and the like are going to remain within a narrow range throughout a character's development. (Contrast with a game like 3e, where a character's statistics can theoretically scale infinitely such that lower-level threats do not meaningfully concern higher-level characters.)

Among his other points, Justin Alexander argues that bounded accuracy is a myth, that certain abilities in the game break it by making characters too good at certain activities. I'll let him explain:

"The more fundamental problem is mechanical: There are a handful of class abilities which trivially — but hilariously! — break bounded accuracy.

"The rogue, of course, makes an easy example here. Expertise doubles proficiency bonuses, changing a range of +2 to +6 into a range of +4 to +12. Combined with ability score modifiers, this almost immediately turns most reasonable DCs within the system’s bounded accuracy into an automatic success for the rogue, and it gets worse from there.

"Reliable Talent then comes in for mop-up, making the rogue’s minimum die roll 10. The rogue is now auto-succeeding on every proficient check, and in their chosen Expertise any DC that could challenge them is probably impossible for every other PC.

"Of course, those are exactly the DCs these hilariously broken abilities pressure the DM to assign. Partly because they want to challenge the PCs. Partly because it just makes sense that these PCs should be able to achieve things the PCs without the hilariously broken abilities can’t do."

This, in turn, reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend years ago, in which he was talking about running D&D and worrying about the fighter's armor class and hit points. He posited that one has to ensure the monsters are tough enough to routinely hit said character's high armor class so that they deduct hit points, otherwise the players are not properly engaging with the rules system.

But I don't think those approaches are the right way of looking at things. It's perfectly acceptable — and likely even good — for player characters to be good at certain things. If the rogue can pick almost any lock with a single action, or if the fighter routinely doesn't have to worry about being significantly challenged in melees, that's fine. As a Game Master, if you seek to "challenge" your players (whatever that means to you), making the numbers scale infinitely is the laziest way to do it.

You can only begin to challenge the players when you establish real stakes for success and failure. My oft-mentioned high-level D&D game could defeat any fair challenge I throw at them (and quite a few unfair ones!), but they could still be challenged with stakes: retrieve an item, save the prisoners, delve the dungeon on a time limit. Your rogue can pick any lock and disarm any trap, but can she disarm the traps and pick the locks before the room fills with water? The fighter can stand tall against any challenger, but what about a distant wizard lobbing fireballs and mind control sorcery? Your diplomat can talk his way out of any situation, but can he stall the unfriendly cultists long enough for your allies to arrive before the cult starts executing hostages?

What if one of the hostages is a beloved and trusted hireling?

I have had plenty of Game Masters in the past who seem to like to punish players for their choices: they invalidate your character abilities, steal your resources, threaten every ally you have, and turn every victory into ash in your mouth. And while that sort of game can be fun with appropriate buy-in — Black Sun DeathcrawlCall of Cthulhu, Delta Green, and Ten Candles all come to mind as fun games when you learn to embrace the catharsis inherent in nihilism — that often turns a fun, engaging game into a grimy slog. (Incidentally, that's usually about the time when I lose interest. Always winning is just as much a bland and uninteresting railroad as always losing.)

Don't punish your players for smart choices they made, and don't make a hard game harder for everyone. If a character is good at something, you know you're only going to target that thing with luck or by making the game unfair. Instead, challenge something else. Employ distractions, challenge multiple abilities simultaneously, play foes as intelligent and reactive forces who adapt to changing circumstances.

Establish real stakes, then build on what you've established. Character stats don't make mistakes, but players certainly do when the clock starts ticking.

You might be able to support yourself and maybe even your allies, but can you accomplish your goals?

Can you save everyone?

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