Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Lovecraft Problem

For any Game Master running a Call of Cthulhu game set after 1917 (and really, after 1890), there is an immediately problem that must be addressed, even if unconsciously.

Does Lovecraft exist in your campaign?

Strangely, the default answer (at least in the late eighties, anyway) is "yes."  Cthulhu Now includes some adventures with elements based on H. P. Lovecraft's stories, and characters can reference those stories.  In addition to roleplaying supplements, many Lovecraftian stories make reference to Lovecraft himself as having actually lived in the context of the setting.

However, as with everything, there is no absolute answer.  Individual Game Masters are free to determine whether the man lived or not.  There are some things to consider, though.

I usually go with the idea that he didn't live, or if he did, he's obscure enough that it effectively doesn't matter.  This is pretty simple in the 1920s and 1930s, as he has achieved little to no fame at this time, but by the modern era, Lovecraft is everywhere.  Even if you've never heard of him, you probably have seen a horror movie, or read a horror novel.  If you've ever read any Stephen King, or watched a King film adaptation, you've seen some of Lovecraft's influence on modern culture.  It rarely comes up in a Call of Cthulhu game, but it's possible that you have to determine some explanation.  The simplest is probably that Lovecraft, or someone similar to him, lived and wrote stories exploring the same themes, but not the same stories.

Then there's the idea that H. P. Lovecraft lived, and the world is pretty much as we know it (except for the whole "Cthulhu Mythos" thing).  I've never gone this route, largely because I thought it was lame when I was younger, but it's an interesting choice for a very specific reason.  You can easily use this to add to the horror of the setting.

Imagine, if you will, that you're an investigator, and you're looking into this series of weird murders.  You're not well-versed on popular culture, but you are well-versed in Semitic languages.  This is fortunate, because the murders seem to be perpetrated by someone worshipping something called "Dagon," which you recognize as an Assyrian and Hebrew deity from the region.  Your first Google hit is for some movie and your third is for a wikipedia article on a short story, so that's not going to help.  Neither of them reveal "the church of Dagon" or anything ominous like that, so you're not worried.

Here we go.  Google search page two has the Temple of Dagon...oh, but it's another site to this Lovecraft author.  Esoteric Order of Dagon!  They're an occult order — oh.  "The E.'.O.'.D.'. utilizes the so-called Cthulhu Mythos of the horror and fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft as a magickal method of exploring the Collective Unconscious."  So you do magic based on a book.  Maybe they're what you're looking for, but these seem like Crowley types rather than hardcore murderers.

This pattern repeats — you either find stuff on this Middle Eastern god or this pulp horror author, so you return to your investigation another way.  Eventually, you find some sacred objects of the cult, depicting Dagon not as the merman-looking guy from Dark Age literature, but either as a fish man or a fish man with an octopus head and bat wings.

Wait a minute.  This all sounds familiar.

You go back to your Google results.  Oh shit.

This Lovecraft guy has the whole history of the cult.  He mentions specific things that you're just learning.  Your buddy Sanchez discovered this old tablet and started having messed-up dreams, too, until he finally killed himself.  The tablet disappeared from his house.

It gets even more horrific.  You learn that an alternate name for this deity is Cthulhu, and it's everywhere.  Children's programming even references Cthulhu.  They made a roleplaying game, a video game, a bunch of movies...

See what happened there?

By making Lovecraft active in your game world, you suddenly have a score of tomes penned by a circle of pen-pals in the 1920s.  What's more, these guys knew the underpinnings of reality.  Some facts are wrong here and there, but the stories are good enough to use as basic reference materials.

This opens up the obvious question of whether the Lovecraft circle knew it was writing about true things or not (Lovecraft, for example, had very vivid dreams, and it's possible that something was prompting his writing through dream-sendings), but in the end, it doesn't matter.  You can reduce an investigator to a gibbering wreck because he read a couple of books; the revelation that one of Lovecraft's stories is true is awful, but the revelation that two or more are true is heart-rending.  If more than one story is true, are all of them true?  Is there no hope for the universe?

Something to ponder.

Powergamers Take Note: I know I have witnessed someone trying to use this to their advantage, but having Lovecraft's tales in your campaign is only marginally helpful.  Consider: each one is a tome with no spells.  They're just Sanity sinks.  Sure, they let you increase your Cthulhu Mythos, but nothing is free in Call of Cthulhu.

Also, they're dated.  If you're playing in a modern day game, knowing about the backwoods, Voodoo cult of Cthulhu won't help you with the upper-class hidden Satanists cult of Cthulhu.

System Hacks: Skill Challenges

Whether you love D&D 4e or hate it, or just think it's okay, you might find skill challenges lagging.  They're not really bad, but they're about the most constrained part of the system.  I have a tendency to fudge them and add modifiers for roleplaying because they tend to be bland, even with good description.  So, here are a few things you can do to make skill challenges more interesting.

The first is to give a bonus for good or bad roleplaying.  This concept is used heavily in the Storyteller System, where characters can roleplay, or use their skills, or do both.  So, if you have a tendency to put your foot in your mouth, you can rely on the fact that your character is a smooth talker.  In the event of 4e, a +/-2 modifier is the standard.  So, if you're roleplaying through a scene and you say something so witty the Game Master thinks it would help you, get a +2 to the appropriate roll.  Likewise, if you improvise this great line that comes out of your mouth sounding like, "Wanna you wanna weenie me?" you'll probably get a -2.

Note that you can use this for more abstract challenges, too.  If the characters have to barracade a house, and someone goes into great detail about chopping up the furniture, using the pitons from his climbing kit as nails, and reinforcing the doors and windows, give him a +2.

A better way might be to warrant automatic successes.  So, if a character comes up with something brilliant, let him roll but give him a success.  Alternately, if he fails that roll, ignore his failure.

A final option, though slightly harder to adjudicate, is to dispense with skill challenges entirely, but still award experience.  To keep with the 4e skill challenge scheme, maybe you determine a number of "decision points" equal to the successes required.  So, for a complexity 1 skill challenge, you come up with 4 decision points — things that the characters have to overcome to win the challenge.  In a roleplaying challenge, each decision point might be a doubt the character has, or a counter-argument; in a stealth challenge, each decision point might be the passing of a guard, a patch of dry leaves, or a sudden complication like a barking dog.  If characters plan well enough that the Game Master is convinced of their success, dispense with the rest of the challenge.  Likewise, if failure is the only outcome, let them fail and suffer the consequences.  Note that this modified skill challenge can still call for skill rolls, but it flows more organically (also, you might do well to do this anyway, running skill challenges as a combination of scenes requiring player input and possible rolls).

Also note that you can do this with puzzles.  Maybe a complexity 5 puzzle has twelve moving parts, for example.

Finally, there are ways to completely ignore skill challenges.  You could always assume that overcoming a challenge counts as defeating a single monster of the party's level, or perhaps you award some form of Quest experience.  The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 recommends giving experience equal to a single monster of the party's level for every fifteen minutes of solid roleplaying; you can modify this to taste.  You can always avoid the issue by only awarding quest experience and experience for defeating monsters, and ignoring experience for roleplaying entirely (after all, your group will probably naturally tend toward roleplaying or not, so the incentive is probably unnecessary).

Admittedly rudimentary stuff, but something to consider for your next 4e game if you have found skill challenges lacking.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Keeping with my continuing exploration of the Old School Renaissance, I bring you Fourthcore, an attempt to bring the sensibilities of Old School gaming to D&D 4e.

If you can extricate yourself from this Gordian Knot of game design and recursive causality, more power to you.

Read about Fourthcore here.

D&D, Fifth Edition

Fifth Edition sucks.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The "L" Word

No, not "lesbian."

LARP. Live action roleplaying. The place where even gaming geeks fear to tread.

Somewhere, right now, there's a stereotypical D&D group that will laugh you out of their parents' basement if you say the word. Oddly enough, the feeling is mutual.

As much as I've heard about tabletoppers who think LARPers are weird, obsessive people, even for roleplayers, I know LARP people who have never played games on the tabletop and wonder why you'd ever want to gather around a tabletop when you could play something more immersive.

LARP is still reviled and somewhat underground, but is occasionally mentioned to a wider audience.

A bit of history: LARP is how I got into this hobby. I'd heard of D&D, but a newspaper article on LARPing mentioned Vampire: the Masquerade. I'd heard of it, too, but that started the path toward receiving a copy as a gift, and the rest is history.

Cut to three years later. I'd heard about this thing called Avalon, but I had never gone. Then my best friend went, and well, I had to go.

I played for about three years.

It was fun, but had a tendency to be time-consuming. I spent a year or so at this game called SimTerra (they also have a wiki) before drifting away.

Both Avalon and SimTerra are boffer LARPs, which refers to the fact that they have real-time combat wherein you beat your opponent with padded lengths of PVC pipe designed to look like melee weapons. Ranged attacks are performed with spell packets (little cloth pouches filled with birdseed), boffer weapons that lack PVC cores (basically just foam designed to look like a weapon and weighted only by the duct tape that covers it), and even boffer arrows (arrow shafts that have wide, foam heads placed on them; they don't hurt, even at close range).

I was never a fan of boffer LARPs for a couple of reasons. First, they're more unyielding than the old school tabletops. Your old school character might only be as smart and as clever as you are, but at least he can cast magic or swing a sword reliably. Boffer LARPs mean that you're frequently only as accurate as your own abilities allow.

Boffer combat has a second weakness: it doesn't accurately simulate real combat. In real combat, you try to avoid getting hit. In boffer combat, you try to avoid getting hit the most. The strategy is totally different. In a real fight with real weapons, people aren't going to charge at each other, they're going to size up their opponents and hope to get the most out of a single blow. In a boffer fight, you can kill someone by pummeling their feet with rapid-fire strikes — try doing that with a ten to twenty pound sword and see where that gets you. I have spoken to some people who actually know how to swordfight, and they don't like boffer combat, either.

That having been said, boffer combat is neat because it's real-time — everything is fast and flows with the chaos of an actual fight. Combat doesn't really interrupt roleplaying because it's so seamless. Most boffer LARPs are combat-heavy, though, as befits a system where everything is geared toward fast and furious combat.

Since playing boffer LARPs, I played a little Mind's Eye Theatre, but I've mostly played Cthulhu LIVE. It is, hands-down, my favorite LARP system I have so far encountered. The third edition uses an artificial-time combat system, and balances the fact that my character might actually know how to fight with the speed of boffer combat. A typical combat round lasts about a minute, though this may vary from group-to-group (I'm assuming a sizeable combat with, maybe, ten participants).

I've played in several Cthulhu games, and run six (I've helped run a couple more than that, but precise numbers escape me). These games are typically like locked-room murder mysteries, and are typically played tournament-style: rather than making one's own characters, the Game Master writes all the characters. While this prevents you from making your own character, it does ensure that you have something to do, as most characters are at least tangental to the plot at hand. The Game Master of these tournament-style LARPs is very hands-off, typically running combat or answering story questions, but otherwise letting the PCs interact however they like. Since there are only a couple of Game Staff, PCs play all parts — the janitor, neurotic professor, and evil cultist are played by players who only know as much of the plot as their characters would know. These games are also typically one-shot LARPs, so there's typically a whole story arc in four hours or less. That story arc sometimes involves everyone going home, but the climax usually involves some faction attempting to perform its master stroke and touching off all the conflicts in the house. This is almost always unpredictable.

For example, I was once playing a character (the mayor of a small town) who owed money to a recently-released prisoner, because he had hired said prisoner to kill a business rival. I didn't know that the business rival survived by body snatching, and hoped to kill me. All I knew was that I didn't have the money to pay this guy, and I didn't know what I would do. Apparently, just fidgeting and drinking was super-effective, though, because the prisoner and the body thief killed each other about halfway through. It was one of the most successful games I've ever played.

I ran a game involving a secret church in a Soviet village. The KGB agents finally came around, guns blazing. A hidden monster was released in the chaos. Anybody in the house who had access to a weapon used it. There were four survivors out of an initial group of about twenty.

I'd recommend trying LARPing if you have a dramatic bent, or like dressing up in costume. Some are longer than others. Avalon and SimTerra last for an entire weekend. Cthulhu LIVE games typically last a few hours (we usually play with PST Productions or a local group called Sic Semper Tyrannis).

Weird Fantasy and Gygaxian Probability

It should come as no surprise that I am quite fond of D&D With Porn Stars.  A friend recommended I Hit It With My Axe with the standard gimmick presentation that it's porn stars playing D&D, which sounds like the sort of thing that is funny once and probably worth a few seconds of one's time.  It became swiftly obvious that this show was the play log of a gaming group that just so happened to be composed of porn stars, and since I like to hear about roleplaying games as much as I like to play them, I started watching.

This is how I met Vornheim.

Vornheim is this baroque, gothic, surreal campaign setting that somehow manages tropes of high fantasy, pulp fantasy, and fantasy of manners with minimal fuss.  What's not to love about a setting like that?

After wandering my way through some of the headspace of the Old School Renaissance, I determined part of the secret to making a Weird fantasy setting.

The charts do much of the legwork for you.

Go through that Vornheim link and look at some of the tales about random charts.  This post is an excellent example.  Look at how the random results force the Game Master to forge a coherent story out of them.  Sure, an uninspired GM might figure out some mundane way to connect these disparate elements, but the charts tend to force odd elements together.  Roll on enough of them, and pretty soon, you have a whole culture based on what a sister, a candle, a talking rock, and a floating castle have to do with each other.  You still need skill to weave these elements together in an interesting way, but you have a handful of elements that you probably never would have associated on your own.

I'm still not in the habit of using random charts to determine outcomes — I suppose I'm still a Newtonian determinist — but this revelation makes it a little more appealing.  I've even seen a random chart for a modern day game.

Another Analogy

Last time I did this, I talked about the Old School vs. New School in terms of religion.  Today: science!

The New School represents the deterministic universe of Newton, the one that we intuitively inhabit.  Theoretically, if you can know all factors influencing an event, you can predict that event.  Planetary orbits are the outcomes of several complex factors, but they're regular enough that we can predict them.  The Game Master might not have already determined what's on the other side of the hill, but if he hasn't, he will do so using the most logical outcome based on the other factors of the campaign.  Frequently, though, the story dictates what's on the other side of the hill, and that's probably been determined.

The Old School represents the probabilistic universe of modern physics (the domain of Schrödinger,
Heisenberg, et al.), the universe we inhabit that seems counterintuitive to a bunch of uplifted hunter-gatherer apes.  There are limits to what we can know, simply because the universe isn't already determined, it's a morass of uncertainty that is only realized when it is observed.  An unobserved area has the possibility of being anything, but there is a sliding scale of probability that it is occupied by any one thing.  The Game Master probably hasn't worried about what's on the other side of the hill, and when you go to explore it, he randomly rolls on a chart that gives a list of things likely to exist there.  This chart doesn't represent everything that could be in the area, only those things most likely to be in the area.

Once again, that's a highly simplified metaphor, but it's one I share with you.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Adventures in oD&D

So last night, I ran a game of oD&D.  It was...well, it was something.

Taking a page from Dungeon Crawl Classics, everyone was 0-level — six Abilities, d6 hit points, and a handful of silver.  Some characters were pregenerated, but most were made at the game.  Taking inspiration from some throwaway lines from my last 4e session, the group was a bunch of Morgrave University students in the town of Sorgforge.  They sneaked into an abandoned goblin tenement to drink, smoke, and make merry.  A sinkhole dropped them into a dungeon, and since the sinkhole is probably too far up to climb, better explore the complex for a way out.  The concept was basically a B horror movie crossed with a dungeon crawl.

Overall, there were twenty characters for five players.  The half-elf connection had a satchel of alcohol and drugs.  A couple of people had enough silver to buy daggers.  One guy brought his pet goat, another brought five chickens.  They're about to head into a dungeon.

So, you know how horror movies whittle down the characters until only a few remain?  And the last few characters are half-crazed and fatigued, but resolute?  It didn't happen that way.

Two characters died immediately.  One of the players took half his characters to investigate the hot springs, by swimming into a cave underneath.  Incidentally, this is the steam vent that energizes the hot springs; two of his characters were boiled alive.  Several more characters were eaten alive by rats, or had their heads smashed by animate statuary.  By the time they got out of the first three locations in the dungeon, twenty became five.  What statues and rats didn't do, zombies finished.  It was an excellent last stand — seven zombies will probably have shattered jaws until they finally collapse from collected rot — but the group still perished.

Some thoughts:

• oD&D is deadly.  I knew that going in, but it's even more unforgiving than Call of Cthulhu.  At first level, getting hit by anything will probably kill you.  Call of Cthulhu at least gives you a second to soften up.  If you ran this game in new World of Darkness, there probably would have been survivors.  oD&D kills people.

• Movement is highly important.  I abstracted combat because everything I read suggested that this worked.  It doesn't.  If you're not exactly sure where people stand, casualties are the only result.  This leads to the fact that...

• Chainmail is essential, and anyone who says it isn't is a liar.  Even the alternate combat system benefits from Chainmail.  I read the three core books from the box set, but only glanced at Chainmail.  This was a mistake, and one for which I take full responsibility.

• We're totally new school.  Descriptions made it pretty obvious that people were still relying on the whole "my character has skills thing."  An oD&D character is a vector for problem-solving, and the numbers mean very little, particularly when you don't have a class and you're not tracking experience.  Having room layouts might make that easier, though, because it's easier to explore a specific portion of the room that way.  Once again, abstracted movement doesn't work here.

• Mapping is pretty essential.  It became fairly obvious that my whole "here are some stone corridors" approach to description doesn't work in oD&D.  It assumes a mapper, and even though these aren't dungeon delvers, I might include one — an architecture student with some drafting stuff, for example.  Even if I don't, I should still be explicit.  "This corridor is eighty feet long before coming to a T-junction that stretches to the left and right."

• The freeform "what are you guys doing?" approach that usually works in our games needs a bit more structure.  This is a game with turns, and those turns need to be used.  "You, what are you doing?  Okay, now you.  What are you doing?"

Overall, though, people seemed to have fun, even though it ended in bloodshed and horror.  I should like to try this module again with a few modifications.

Edit: I have since run this module again.  Read about the second attempt.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Twenty Questions

A few months ago, Jeff Rients posted a list of twenty quick questions for your campaign setting. Since I'm awake anyway, I might as well do them for the Plain of Sorrow, the region of the world featured in my 4e campaign, Crux of Eternity.

1. What is the deal with my cleric's religion?

This is pretty standard D&D. It's polytheistic, but as a cleric, you are probably a devotee of one god. You might admire traits about other deities, but there is probably one that speaks to you specifically (for example, maybe you were raised in a temple to Bahamut, Moradin, and Pelor, but something about Pelor resonates personally). This is similar to the concept of household gods or saints — you respect the whole pantheon, but someone is a personal patron.

2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

Pretty much anywhere. Most general stores are stocked with the essentials, and merchant caravans are on regular trade routes throughout the region. Trading posts and temples between towns exist, but your best bet is to stock up before you hit the road.

3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

Scandshar, the major city in the region, has blacksmiths that can help you. Merchant caravans and major towns could also help you, but it might cost more.

4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Ebenezer Cascata Mararnith Jepson, headmaster of the Wizard's Tower in Duchy Jepson. Mordenkainen is the historical example, though there are rumors that he's still alive.

5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

You've probably never heard of Eric Goldenear, though you may have heard of Sir Krizaut of Jepson (if you're from Duchy Jepson, you probably know these names). Thalia the Bloody-Handed isn't quite the best, but she's the best known; she's a gladiator in Scandshar, and she will murder your face. Baarziduul the Valorous is the historical example, but he's been dead for a while.

6. Who is the richest person in the land?

Unknown. It's probably somebody from the Scandshar Parliament, but nobody knows for certain. Some people suspect the merchant families of Sorgforge are worth more than they say, that they engaged in profiteering during the Cackledread Wars. Dark rumors suggest the richest man on the whole planet is the Esteemed and Omniscient Peacock Lord, leader of the crime syndicate known as the Illustrious Menagerie of Peacocks, but nobody's sure if this person actually exists.

7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?

Most major temples can help you. Merchant caravans typically also have people on hand. Expect to "donate" or pay.

8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

See above. Since 4e healing is pretty easy, healing conditions is about the only thing left. Also note that some of the above conditions aren't permanent problems in D&D 4e, though disease and death typically benefit from magical cures.

9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

Morgrave University in Sorgforge has a magic college, but you really want to go with the Wizard's Tower in Duchy Jepson.

10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

Morgrave University, Wizard's Tower, and occasionally in temples and merchants' districts. Also merchant caravans tend to offer this sort of stuff (they're basically mobile villages).

11. Where can I hire mercenaries?

The only established guild after the Cackledread War is the Illustrious Menagerie of Peacocks. If you don't want to muck about with the mafia, you can find mercenaries by asking around in taverns and such.

12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

Not particularly. Being armed attracts attention, but it's not illegal. You'll probably be questioned if there's trouble anywhere in your vicinity.

13. Which way to the nearest tavern?

Most towns and villages have at least one. Beer, food, and lodging is good business.

14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

Gnolls. Enough people remember the Cackledread Wars that gnolls are still among the most feared creatures around. You could make a career as a professional gnoll hunter, no problem.

Also, everybody's really antsy about the Broken Chain, some weirdo terrorist cult. If you could do something about them, that'd be great.

15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

You're about fifty years too late. Of course, there's always the orcs, kobolds, and goblins to the east. And the giants to the north. So, if you want to start a war, I'm sure that could be arranged.

16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

Scandshar. Word to the wise, though: slavery's still legal there. Many of the gladiators are slaves, so you might want to keep that in mind.

17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

The Broken Chain is public enemy number one; it's probably only a matter of time before neighbors start accusing each other of being members simply to grab each others' livestock. Nobody knows what their agenda is, though; they just have a tendency to appear and blow stuff up with magic. They've never announced an agenda, and nobody even knows the origin of the name.

The Illustrious Menagerie of Peacocks has their hands in pretty much all crime in the region. Feel free to make fun of the flowery name.

The noble families of Scandshar and the mercantile families of Sorgforge probably also count, as they're no doubt scheming and incestuous.

18. What is there to eat around here?

Like typical D&D, it's an anachronistic morass of things that should never share an ecosystem. Meat, grains and vegetables are most common; a perennial favorite in taverns is mutton and vegetable stew with a hunk of brown bread, served with ale. Do you remember Sands in Once Upon a Time in Mexico ordering puerco pibil with tequila and lime in every bar in Mexico? Yeah, that's mutton and vegetable stew with brown bread and ale.

19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

Typical Greyhawk stuff. Axe of Dwarvish Lords, Rod of Seven Parts, Sword of Kas, Eye of Vecna, Hand of Vecna, etc. There are a lot of rumors about stuff — the Giantbane Hammer of Onyxarm, the Sword of Kord, the sword Kingmaker, and the Armor of the Black Moor — but those are just legends as far as anyone can tell.

20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

There really aren't any. Vilustuminen the White is the only dragon around these parts, and he's a young'un. He probably doesn't even have a lair yet.

Old Ways vs. New Ways

Keeping with my continuing examination of the Old School Renaissance, here's a bit of philosophy.

The Old School has a lot in common with the priests of old.  In the old days, you didn't pray to the gods to help you, you prayed to the gods so that they would ignore you.  Worship was only noticed when it stopped, and the gods' attention was typically pretty violent.  This is why, in ancient Rome, you could keep your cultural identity, but you had to add the Roman gods to your pantheon — Rome doesn't want the hassle of an apocalypse because you didn't want to pray to the Jupiter.  You are not special because the gods are negligent and petty.

Similarly, the Old School is ruthless.  This dungeon is designed to murder you if you're careless, and it will do so because that's its raison d'être.  If you do not evade the dungeon's notice, it will deal with you.  Messily.

The New School has more in common with the newer religions.  You pray for mercy from loving deities who are interested in your well-being.  They actively want you to succeed out of some undefined interest — perhaps the gods see you a child to their parental role, or perhaps there is some spiritual fulfillment involved.  You are special because God made you.

Similarly, the New School is merciful.  The story is more important than navigating some deathtrap, and the Game Master wants you to succeed so that you can finish the story.  Death is a risk, certainly, but it's not as pervasive — and it might be an empty risk or wholly symbolic.

Curiously, though, there's the structure of Yin and Yang here, to just throw everything into a mishmash of world cultures.  Free will is a decidedly new idea — the old gods determined your fate utterly, while the new gods gave you free will so you can succeed or fail on your own merit — but it is one which the Old School prizes.  That dungeon might be a death trap, but you decided that you wanted to explore it, you decided that you wanted to go down the left hallway, you decided that you didn't need to buy a ten-foot-pole, and you decided to walk at a normal pace so that you fell right into that pit of acid.  If something attacked, you decided not to run when it ate your dogs and hirelings.

Contrary to what you read, the New School similarly dislikes railroading, but it tends to be a little more abstract.  You are free to do anything, but you're probably going to find yourself in this story again.  That's a decidedly ancient idea — yeah, sure, maybe you had free will in deciding what breakfast cereal you ate this morning (probably not), but your major decisions are certainly scripted.

That's simplified, of course, but I like the metaphor, so I share it with you.

Railroad vs. Sandbox

As previously noted, I've been delving into the old school movement, and I've primarily discovered that a lot of the vitriol of the old school toward the new school seems to regard the idea of railroading.  Primarily, the more story-driven games of the post-Hickman revolution encourage (sometimes strict) attention to the plot, whereas old dungeons are just dusty holes in the earth where you can muck around however you'd like.  This argument isn't without merit — in fact, I'm even somewhat inclined to agree — though it ignores the fact that you can have a plot-filled sandbox or a bare-bones linear adventure, and that all axes aren't mutually exclusive.

Anyway, after reading this post over at Zak Smith's blog, I was contemplating this idea a little more.  I'm presently running a fourth edition game, and the group is having fun with it.  I will admit, however, that it's quite different from the games I usually run.  I've typically only run sandbox games before.  Imperial City was pretty sandbox; toward the climax, the PCs moved toward specific goals, but before then, I ran games centered around going to restaurants, settling personal vendettas, and taking pilgrimages to foreign countries for completely personal reasons.  Live by the Sword was more focused, but the characters could ultimately do whatever they want (note: "whatever they want" usually meant "violently self-destruct," which is arguably the most sandbox thing you can do).  False in Some Sense was a smaller sandbox (the town of Terra Lake), but PCs could do whatever they wanted or even deal with the consequences of leaving town; I usually consider the possibility that the PCs will stop fighting and move to greener pastures.  True in Some Sense is even more sandbox; the setting is currently the continental United States, and is only linear in the sense that there is currently only one character trying to fulfill her goals.

I've run a few more linear games before, too.  We Are Control and World Pulse Remix: All the Agents both run in the episodic format of assigned missions.

Which brings us to Crux of Eternity, my 4e game.  It falls somewhere between the two: here's a campaign setting with some stuff in it and some tantalizing stuff outside your established territory (there's the 4e canon Points of Light to the East and an ocean to the West with at least one major trading partner in it), but since you're not doing anything else at the moment, here are some quests.  There's a linear plot (these quests are all leading to a climax), but there's also a sandbox (you can always tell the Citadel where they can stick their quest and go do something more interesting).  The escalation is what makes it odd, though.  Power progression in 4e isn't exactly predetermined, but it's close.  There's a balance of power inherent to 4e adventure design, and though it can be ignored, it's not badD&D always seemed to lend itself to an adventure path building off the structure of level progression, although it appears that older editions were frequently played more like Call of Cthulhu (as in, sometimes you're supposed to fight and sometimes you're supposed to run).

Using the level-progression structure keeps things some things simple while making others more complicated.  On the one hand, planning a game is pretty simple.  On the other hand, every crazy idea that pops into your head is just a distraction to that finished product.  As presented, 4e just doesn't have that kind of wiggle room.  The focus does have the advantage of keeping campaign planning on track, but it's still very different than having a bunch of plot hooks on a plate, and letting characters pick and choose.

So far, though, I think the linear structure of 4e is pretty good for beginning players, because it helps keep everything manageable.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rule of Cool

The Rule of Cool, as it is memetically known, refers to the audience allowing something to pass in a work if it is, quite simply, cool.

I almost used it in the last post, but found enough controversy that I did not.  I always assumed that the Rule of Cool did not preclude internal consistency and logic from a work — the rising action of a story is a sort of escalation, an arms race imposed by the Rule of Cool (things get more enthusiastic as a story continues because a drop in enthusiasm would bore the audience).  I typically think of it as not being over-the-top (a dude walking down the street in an R. Crumb Keep on Truckin' walk cycle is cool without being ridiculous, for example), but it certainly can be.  That doesn't prevent internal consistency or even a certain level of dignity.

But, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what the Rule of Cool is, particularly in gaming circles.  Is it simply that cool things should happen in your games?  Or is it carte blanche to jump over a T. rex on your motorcycle in your otherwise-realistic Vampire: the Masquerade game?  You can read about the debate from the Chatty DM, or from Geek Related.

I was under the impression that the Rule of Cool does require suspension of disbelief, but not necessarily within the setting.  For example, diving out of the way of an explosion stretches suspension of disbelief too far in a realistic setting, but is just fine for an action movie.  Solomon Kane isn't going to wall run, kick off the wall, and dive-bomb into a squad of warriors, though the Prince certainly will.  You wouldn't want to include a wall run and dive-bomb in, say, your intrigue-laden Vampire game, but it might be all right in D&D (depending upon setting, edition, and personal preference) and would certainly work in Exalted.  I run a setting called World Pulse Remix that runs primarily on Rule of Cool, but can support more serious themes (killer7, one of the source materials, is a high-concept political thriller, but one of the main characters is a luchador with a grenade launcher).

Basically, as with all other things, the Rule of Cool is something to consider, and possibly something in your toolkit.  It's neither good nor bad, merely something to invoke when appropriate.

The Difference Between Planning and Random Generation

As usual, I was going to write a post, and then I saw somebody who wrote on a similar topic with greater precision than I could likely muster.  Go ahead and read this post on Monsters and Manuals, then come back.

If you ignored the post, noisms basically suggests that random generators help with story planning.

And that's true.  I recently made a dungeon using the tools from Dungeons & Dragons (the white box or brown box or 1974 edition or...whatever), along with some dungeon help from donjon.  I found it to be Zen, but not the typical Zen of RPG prep I've found in the past.

Typically, campaign planning is a little like writing a novel, but a lot more like acting.  After setting up the initial situation, everything is typically sandbox, so preparation is just me either brainstorming a new element, or someone's reaction.  New elements are either to break the monotony, take into account something that just makes sense, or simply because it's a neat element the players might like and it fits the game somehow.  Reactions are more typical, something along the lines of "last week, the PCs killed one of Charles Odderstol's lieutenants, so this week, one of the others is going to make a preemptive strike."  It's more a game of strategy and escalation, where the rising action happens naturally as the PCs try to complete their goals.  New elements get added, but they build on existing elements; the brute squad with the surviving lieutenant isn't quite "new;" sure, these are characters the PCs have never met, but you knew this guy had some serious hardcases with him, so you could infer the existence of a bunch of occult weirdoes ready to live and die at his command.

Random generation is Zen, but a different kind of Zen.  Rather than getting into a mode where you brainstorm and ideas flow through you, random generation requires that in smaller steps.  I altered the random encounter tables in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures to make the dungeon more internally consistent, which is a form of reaction to the concept I had for the dungeon.  As I roll for random elements, that sparks ideas for other bits of the dungeon — since this treasure is behind a secret door, it has to be there for a reason; since this monster is here, it's probably guarding this thing; since the dungeon has this layout, it says this about the creators.  Stuff like that.

As with many of my recent forays into the Old School Renaissance, I've found I liked it.  It's no better or worse than my typical gaming style, just different.  But it suggests a different play experience than normal.

Anyway, I'd like to run my 1974-era D&D scenario for ConstantCon, but it sounds like I'll get to playtest it this weekend.  Stay tuned for results.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dungeon Setup

As noted, I've been running Seekers of the Ashen Crown for my players, and they seem to be enjoying themselves.  So far, they found an old tomb complex while searching for a tangle of kruthik warrens.  In the tomb, they found an artifact that attracted the notice of just about everyone in town.

Before that point, however, they are looking for the kruthik egg chamber so they can destroy the kruthik eggs and eliminate the kruthik problem in the slums.  The kruthik egg chamber is a darkened cave.  Kruthiks secrete mucus as a way of nesting, so the chamber has eggs, slime, and sheets of mucus strewn about.  The mucus sheets act as walls, providing cover and blocking line-of-sight, though they are destroyed either by attacking them or simply by powering through them.

While reading through the encounter, it became pretty obvious that erasing walls on a battlemat would be pretty tedious, so I made some terrain.  Eggs were just pennies, areas covered in slime were represented by numbered tokens, and the walls were composed of wax paper and tape affixed to toothpicks (broken in half, because a whole toothpick was pretty unnecessary) with Sculpey bases.  Pictures of the setup (during the battle, mostly) are available after the jump.

Setup at the beginning of the fight.
Setup at the beginning of the fight: second shot.
Closeup on the cluster of PCs and kruthiks.  Also: beer makes everything better.

Second closeup on mucus wall, PCs, and kruthiks

Wider shot of the board, post-fight

Closeup of the board, post-fight

Unfortunately, the PCs kept movement to a minimum, like good Spartans, so only a single wall was destroyed during the fight.  Still, the effect worked, and the players were suitably shaken by the intricate setup — obviously, this fight is important somehow.

Fortunately, though, the fact that so few walls were destroyed means that I can use them again.  A fight in a Japanese-style tea house, perhaps?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Yet Another Article Rundown

Today, I came across an article on The Escapist discussing D&D as a post-apocalyptic game.  This is nothing new, of course, but I rather liked the article.

Also, I was rather fond of an article on Dice of Doom discussing how to deal with the Monty Haul problem.  Again, nothing new, but I'm always humored when people apply inflation to the local economy; it's often considered but rarely implemented.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Can I Interest You in a Slightly-Used Velociraptor?

My new players are starting to evolve into the psychotic little monsters I'm used to GMing.  I feel so proud.

A touch of backstory: as part of a campaign, I'm running Seekers of the Ashen Crown.  The original takes place in Eberron; my game is not set in Eberron.  As such, I've had to make some changes, but I do have a few nods to the original setting.

So, the PCs run into a hobgoblin gang that wonders why they've been poking around the slums.  Some of the gangsters are riding a type of mount called a Clawfoot, an Eberron creature that is essentially a domesticated velociraptor (by which I mean Deinonychus, but who cares?).  Combat occurs, ending with all the hobgoblins dead, an escaped Clawfoot, and an unconscious Clawfoot.

The PCs decide they're going to use this as a mount, but when it awakens, it tries to murder them.  They quickly subdue it, ask around for the going rate of a Clawfoot (they find that the things go for 680 gold), and decide to sell it.

As an aside, the hobgoblins tried to ambush them (or talk to them — nobody's really sure because the PCs attacked first) as they were exiting a dungeon — so the PCs are covered in blood, muck, and kruthik slime while they're discussing this.

The bard decides to take a bath, but the others go to the local stables to try to unload this Clawfoot, waiting for the bard to do the talking.

Then they all meet at the stables and try to unload a Clawfoot.  The beauty of this scenario is that the strongest men are carrying a bound Clawfoot covered in wounds and angrily snapping at the air.  It's been knocked out twice, and currently does not see its masters.  As the stable master says, he'll have to expend a lot of time and energy to try to prevent it from killing him, and then he'll have to sell it to make a return on his money.  They finally talk him up to 60 gold and call it a day.

Though they think they might try repurchase it later, after someone else has gone to the trouble of training it again.  Especially since it will probably never go for full price.

Friday, August 19, 2011

In Case You Like Warhammer and Such... ought to check out Warpstone Pile.  The author's Khornate Daemons were mentioned today in this Games Workshop's "What's New Today" post (look down toward the end for the two pictures submitted by Richard Rush).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Other People's Brains

A couple of things from roleplaying blogs I encountered today.

This post exemplifies what has happened as I've grown older.  I've always treated roleplaying as a game to avoid becoming one of those guys, but I always had a halfway serious mind to it.  Sure, you could play any crazy thing you wanted, but there were certain limits of internal consistency that should be observed.  Depending on the setting, that's still true, but I'll probably let your insane thing slide in a setting with fewer limits (like World Pulse Remix, for example).  That's why I've started examining the old school a bit more; the lawless, anything-goes feel has a certain appeal.

And I have yet to use this NPC-crafting method, but I recommend it.  It's been making its way around the internet for a little while, and I totally forgot about it until finding it again today.  Basically, brainstorm a thing.  Brainstorm an unrelated describer for that thing.  And then another.  Now make it logical enough to use in a game.

The Quote Book

Here's an old favorite across several gaming groups.

With the beginning of The Imperial City, we had a player who typically said things ridiculous enough that we wanted to document them.  Here's a made-up example of a typical exchange.

GM: "...all right.  It's your turn.  What are you doing?"
Player: "Making with the tearing and the biting and the killing.  Roar.  Gwaaaargh!"
GM: "All right, roll to hit."

...this is frequently accompanied by several slashing motions, as if clawing into someone.

These were typically noted on the computer I was using at the time, just in a random text file.  Pretty soon, other quotes were added to it.

Then, I came across Revenge of the Gamer Chick (this would have been on Geocities at the time).  She has a similar quote log, but made reference to a quote book.  Being much more portable than a desktop computer in one room of my house, I purchased a blue spiral-bound notebook and began keeping track of entertaining, notable, and hilarious things said during game sessions.

The notebook is significantly more battered, the cover is slowly migrating away from the binding, and the original entries in pencil are getting lighter over time, but it still serves us well.  If anything hilarious is said, it gets noted in the book.  And if it gets tossed to the center of the table, it will inevitably be grabbed and read by someone.

Possibly something to add to your own games.

Sandy Petersen on Call of Cthulhu

One of today's blog posts on Grognardia was entitled, "Sandy Petersen Reviews Call of Cthulhu," which I thought was a touch odd because he wrote the book.  But that's how Mr. Petersen introduced it himself.

Anyway, you should head over to RPG Geek and hear what Sandy Petersen has to say about his game.  And I agree with Grognardia; the fact that Sandy Petersen didn't originally want to set the game in the 1920s — his idea was modern day, actually — is pretty interesting.

Maps II: The Dungeon

Yesterday, I mentioned my foray into mapping, but after pondering it, I think I still missed the point.

Up until messing around with D&D, my experience with RPGs has been primarily investigatory.  The PCs go around, ask questions, mess with stuff, get drunk, get in crazy fights, and the like.  What Zak Smith over at Playing D&D With Porn Stars would likely call an Urbancrawl, except without the randomized, Gygaxian dungeon element.  Then again, if I'm running, say, Mage: the Ascension in New York City, I can just throw you in some of the rougher parts of Bowery Street rather than randomly determine the statistics of the seedier side of the city (the established setting is either a benefit or detriment of running modern-day games).

I also noted the dungeon as "adventure flowchart," but that's not quite right, either.  The flowchart still stands when you're urbancrawling, the boundaries are just different.  It's less "if you take the left fork, you're fighting a beholder, and if you take the right, you fight the remains of the last party of adventurers to come here," and more "okay, if they don't get the book in time, then they'll go back to their patrons who will direct them to Frankie the Minge, and then he'll..."  It's a flowchart either way; even if the game is a sandbox game, you're doing something, and that something will prompt another something to happen.

No, mapping is weird because the dungeon is a novel concept to me.  I may have building plans in my head, but it's not a dungeon (it can be, but if it's just the setting of a conversation or a fight, it's not a dungeon).  Dungeons are typically artificial, old, and uninhabited (not counting the traps, guardians, and whatever beasts have moved into the dungeon).  The dungeon is almost a character in its own right; even if it doesn't have traps, it oozes atmosphere.  By that definition, I've dabbled in dungeons (the Nephandi are fond of labyrinths, so their lairs tend toward a dungeon-y feel, and the Snake-Bear's lair has a dungeon-y feel — particularly the part that leads into the Underworld), but even those dungeons weren't completely dungeon-like.  The main difference is that characters could rely on their skills to navigate those dungeons; they didn't make meaningful decisions to navigate the dungeon, they merely went the right way or the wrong way.

It's even weirder that I haven't previously explored the dungeon since I've been inundated with them my whole life.  Video game RPGs are all somehow derived from D&D, and they typically have dungeons (some of my favorites like EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and even the RPG-lite series The Legend of Zelda all explore the dungeon environment).  But there you have it.  Modern horror games typically don't make use of the dungeon, which I suppose is a bit odd, given that the dungeon can certainly provoke horror (Call of Cthulhu uses the dungeon as a setting moreso than most RPGs in contemporary settings, but our adventures were typically still urban or in some remote place not wholly dungeon).

If you want to hear someone more eloquent than I wax poetic on the allure of the dungeon, I will (as I often do) refer you to Zak Smith talking about why he likes dungeons (mainly because they foretell your mortality as a player character, which is something I similarly appreciate), and another thing he wrote regarding dungeons.


For my D&D 4e game, I'm converting an old AD&D 1e module (a lot of the players were new, and I wanted them to experience some old school classics).

The weirdest part of planning this is the map.  Coming from World of Darkness, tactical movement was quite possible, but never used by my group.  A simple description of circumstances sufficed.  "All right, you move up to the snarling zombie and blow out his midsection with your shotgun.  The other two zombies eye you hungrily."  Even some dungeon crawls admit that the dungeon is an adventure flowchart, meant to get characters from one combat (or puzzle, or trap, or whatever) to the next.  The structure of the dungeon doesn't really matter (and a cheap DM trick is to have each option basically lead to the same place).

This is a little different, though.  With a more tactical movement system, it doesn't suffice to describe a tangle of tunnels (and this dungeon is pretty closed; once you're in the complex, you're pretty much stuck there until you complete the adventure).  The PCs can literally go anywhere, and a fight in a single room, or even a series of rooms and attached corridor, can literally go anywhere.  The stationary combat in my head can easily turn into guerilla warfare throughout the dungeon complex, as the characters make tactical decisions that move the fight.  Those maps I'm adapting are highly important, not just for that "flowchart," but also for tactical reasons.

Which, again, is an odd state of mind coming from games that were almost entirely in one's head.  It's still fun, mind, just a different kind of fun.

As a final note, I've examined many free mapping utilities, but ultimately, I'm doing this the old-fashioned way: pencil and graph paper.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Roll for Random Monsters

I saw this meme over at Monsters and Manuals, and decided to participate.  No stats provided, as these can be system-less for now.  Maybe I'll write these up eventually.

Apparently, I have an aquatic theme.

Bog Suck Bass
Despite the name, this creature isn't anything terrible special; they're just especially large leeches.  The gnome who first reported them muttered something about "bog suck bass" before losing consciousness.

Brittle Tail Salmon
These long-lived salmon keep to the sea for prolonged periods, only spawning once a century.  These salmon are capable of regenerating from all but the most grievous of wounds.  If caught, a brittle tail salmon can speak, and will answer any question.  However, their tails are quite brittle (as the name suggests), and if the fish is damaged as it is brought aboard, it will place some form of curse on the fisherman before escaping.

Ring Stalker Coral
These intricate, colorful corals form large rings underwater (the largest recorded, in the Sea of Renanos, measured approximately two miles in diameter).  They are named not only for their penchant of forming rings, but for their other behavior.  Unlike other corals, ring stalker corals are not completely calcified, and will slowly gather around prey.  Once in position, they move with great swiftness, attempting to bind and crush prey.  They are intelligent enough to recognize when prey is drowning, and they will attempt to use that to their advantage.

Whisker Coral
The colorful whisker coral is (thankfully) stationary, instead forming something of an underwater hazard.  These corals send out long filaments covered in specialized structures similar to nematocytes.  Supposedly, the sting of a whisker coral is incredibly painful, but few know this because it typically causes paralysis and necrosis of the flesh.  Whisker coral have been noted to paralyze prey, attack it with several "whiskers," and then draw it near the reef for digestion.  This digestion occurs externally, meaning that remains may be found within the vicinity of a whisker coral around the time of a feeding.  Some creatures have formed a mutualistic relationship with the coral, becoming immune to its venom so that they can feed upon the prey it digests.

Metamorphosis Alpha preorder!

Metamorphosis Alpha, frequently considered the first science fiction roleplaying game, is available for preorder from Signal Fire Studios.  You can go read about it here. (if you can't find it, just scroll down the page; the preorder link is right under "Metamorphosis Alpha Player's Guide").

Yes, it's 4e, but I'm sure it'll still be absurd fun.

Also, if I ever run an AD&D 1e game, expect references to Metamorphosis Alpha 1e.  You have been warned.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hammer Horror and the Mists of Ravenloft

I have a confession to make.

Until this past Saturday, I had never seen any horror movies from Hammer Films.

I know, right?

Now that I have (I haven't seen Horror of Dracula, but I did see Prince of Darkness and Dracula A.D. 1972), I can better appreciate some of the set pieces from Ravenloft.  There are two that are really important:

(1) Only the protagonists see the horror.  The outside world might be superstitious, and might live in Transylvania, but they still don't know that Dracula is anything more than a creepy old tyrant.  Note that this is perfect for D&D, because the PCs are frequently written as visitors to the Dread Domains rather than natives (though either option is certainly possible).

(2) It's not spooooooky; it's actually rather pretty.  Ravenloft (and several of the other core Dread Domains) is noted as being rather pretty.  In Hammer, the land doesn't give any indication that anything is wrong.  The trees aren't twisted and gnarled, and the whole place doesn't sag under the weight of its age or evil.  Actually, the beauty is part of the draw to Hammer Films.

The only real downside I can see is that Hammer Films don't have enough burgomasters wearing pickelhauben.  Maybe that's not how things are in your Ravenloft, but my Ravenloft totally has pickelhauben.

Oh, and one more thing.  The obligatory photographic comparison:

This is Christopher Lee as Dracula from Hammer Films.

This is Count Strahd, one of the most iconic villains from Ravenloft (he first appeared in the I6 module and even persists through fourth edition's Open Grave supplement).  He has a bit of a Mick Jagger or Tim Curry vibe, but the hair (at the very least) reinforces the Christopher Lee origin.

This is Peter Cushing as Abraham van Helsing from Hammer Films.

This is Rudolph van Richten, a van Helsing expy from Ravenloft.  Note the cheekbones and hairline and then compare to Peter Cushing.

If somebody ever makes a Ravenloft movie, the casting director would have to get Wayne Pygram to play van Richten.  Obviously.

Vampire: the Masquerade Anniversary

The teleological path is twisted and incestuous.

Getting back to my World of Darkness roots, Vampire: the Masquerade turns 20 years old this year, and White Wolf is releasing a new book in recognition.  They are selling said book for $99.99.

As with all things internet, some people are excited about this, some people are outraged, and some people have noted that White Wolf has been focusing on old World of Darkness a lot lately (in addition to the anniversary book, the upcoming White Wolf MMO will also focus on Vampire: the Masquerade).  This leads to speculation that parent company CCP Games has no idea what it's doing, or that the new World of Darkness hasn't been doing well — or more properly, that its core lines (Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage) haven't been doing well (Changeling continues to be highly-touted among fans, while the others still prompt nerd rage in the proper circles).

Then again, that's an ongoing thread.  People claim that the industry is dying, and that there's little money in it.  In fact, most publishers have moved to a pdf/print-on-demand model, with only Wizards of the Coast having enough money to still make print runs (they're owned by Hasbro, in case that gives you a clue).  However, as has been noted, this year's GenCon showed record attendance, so it's not all doom and gloom in the RPG industry.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Guest Spots and Requests

And one more fiddly bit for the day.  Hopefully.

I know some of the people who expressed an interest in reading this blog are new-ish to gaming.  If you are (hell, even if you aren't), and you want me to write about a topic that interests you, let me know.  I'll either write about it, research it and write about it, or direct you to a place that can explain the concept or answer the question a million times better than I can.

Also, I know some of you are writers, but may not keep a blog (or maybe you keep a blog, but you don't want to write about your gaming pasttime on there).  If you want to do a guest piece on here, let me know and I'm sure I can post whatever article you have along with whatever contact information you want me to give (or none, if you wish to remain anonymous).  Just, you know, keep it within the confines of gaming.  Preferably.

The Most Mammoth Bestiary

So over at Monsters and Manuals, Noism just posted The Most Mammoth Bestiary-related RPG Download Ever, a compilation of an ongoing thread discussing every monster in the Monstrous Manual for AD&D 2e.  If that sort of thing interests you, or if you're looking for new ideas regarding some of your favorite monsters, you ought to go check it out.


You should be able to comment if you're not a registered user, now.  I may change that if I get too many posts about penis enlargement pills.

Still feeling my way around the site.  Let me know if there are any issues that need fixing.  Thanks!

Board Game Ouroboros

The first board game I recall (well, that I recall reading about, anyway) with a cooperative, almost roleplaying sort of premise was Shadows Over Camelot, released in 2005.  In it, you play the knights of the Round Table, questing for Camelot.  But!  One of you may be a traitor who seeks to betray Camelot.  Note that "maybe."  The traitor is randomized such that it is a different character each time, and it is entirely possible that no one is the traitor.  This last part is the most important mechanic, as the uncertainty makes everything more interesting.  In addition to this, there is a vague storytelling aspect as quests are completed for the glory of Camelot.

I believe Battlestar Galactica (2008) has a similar uncertainty with its traitor, but halfway through the game, you check for Cylons again, making it much more likely that you'll encounter a traitor at some point.  Also, outing the traitor doesn't end the problem — then you're just openly opposing the traitor.  Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) similarly forecasts your inevitable doom — the traitor is inevitable, but isn't determined until the game's climax.  Basically, you're wandering around a randomly-generated mansion with a deep-cover agent who will eventually fly into a cackling rage and enact some grand scheme.  Until that time, though, everyone is working together.  As such, it lacks the same level of paranoia, but that's replaced with a sense of you bastard! instead.

A more recent offering (2010) is Castle Ravenloft, basically a cooperative dungeon crawl with a D&D fourth edition-lite flair.  It lacks the traitor mechanic, but is heavily randomized (basically like an analog version of dungeon-building in Diablo), so there's a lot of replayability.

To the point: last night, I played Mansions of Madness (2011), not to be confused with the classic Call of Cthulhu module of the same name.  It doesn't feature a traitor or a betrayal (though it's possible that other scenarios offer such), but it does form a more narrative experience than, say, Candy Land (though I suppose that's open to debate).  It also offers a very familiar mechanic: one of the players takes the role of the Keeper, and runs all the monsters (as well as the scripted events and random events of the night), while everyone else picks a character and navigates the mansion of the scenario.  This caused a bit of confusion at first, as everyone at the table was a veteran roleplayer, and we immediately fell into our appropriate roles.

The board game did not reward this behavior.

In a horror roleplaying game, it is best to avoid triggering the horror tropes, primarily by sticking together and staying alert.  Mansions of Madness, however, is on the clock; you need to split the party to uncover clues as quickly as possible so that you can get a headstart on stopping whatever horrible thing is going to happen.  We didn't, and suffered an appropriately Lovecraftian pyrrhic victory — the summoned shoggoth evaporated, but all but one of the party lay dead.

Mostly, though, this is an interesting loop.  Board games like chess form primitive wargames; the initial roleplaying offerings of the 1970s came out of wargames (most historians of the hobby trace its lineage directly back to the Little Wars of H. G. Wells).  In turn, the Call of Cthulhu RPG helped beget the board game Arkham Horror (2005, though an original version was published in 1987), which prompted Mansions of Madness — which emulates the structure of the original Call of Cthulhu RPG.

More interesting than that is probably an examination of Mansions of Madness as a roleplaying game.  If I describe what happened last night, I probably wouldn't just leave it at, "Oh, we played a board game, it'll probably be smoother when we know the rules better."  I'd probably tell you about how the private investigator wasted zombies with his twin automatics (except for the zombie that set itself on fire and died), or how I threw a fire extinguisher at the charging fanatic and completely missed him, or how the weird flapper psychic kept binding all the monsters in place, or how the nun was the only survivor.  It has more pieces than a roleplaying game, but the overall mechanics are simpler — exploration is a fairly simple affair (you either find something, find nothing, have to fight something, or have to solve some form of puzzle), and combat moves pretty quickly.

In fact, that can be said for most of these games — these board games have much of the complexity of a roleplaying game while telling a story in a much more focused arc.  They also have interesting ideas of adventure design, and even manage to randomize the map with simple, cardboard tiles.  This is, perhaps, something to consider when running your next game, both from a mechanical perspective and a storyteller one.

System Hacks: D&D 3e-style saves in 4e

Sometimes you just need a good saving throw.

One of the troublesome things about fourth edition D&D is that the defenses are all static.  Something, even if that thing is just an environmental hazard, has to attack them.

So, when my party was crawling through a shadowy and magic-filled dungeon — and I mean literally crawling through claustrophobic tunnels — I wanted to use the Despair Cards from The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond.  So, I made everyone do a Will save against moderate difficulty.

This one's pretty easy.  Just roll a d20, add the appropriate defense (Fortitude, Reflex, or Will), and throw in a -10 modifier.  Add other modifiers as appropriate.

In retrospect, I probably should have gone for a Wis check, because that Will save gets pretty high.  Ah, well.  Sometimes you just need a good saving throw.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Great Retrogaming Debate: Update

It recently came to my attention that this is more properly called OSR, short for...something (Old School Revolution, Old School Renaissance, or Old School Rules depending upon the definition).  As Monsters and Manuals notes in this blog post, OSR has exploded in the past few months.  I'm primarily surprised by the vitriol of some of the old school toward the new school, but then again, it's the internet, and yelling on the internet is pretty much the only form of communication.  As you've noticed, I recommend a lot of OSR blogs even though I'm probably technically new-school, largely because they contain excellent stuff and are written by dedicated gamers.

Go check some out (that blog post above has lots of links).  Just beware the comments section of any website, as it is the scourge of the internet.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying, Part 2: Quick and Dirty stats

Once again, I told you a story to get to a point.  Improvisation is terrifying when you're starting out, but it can be your friend once you get going.  There are several resources made to help you improvise roleplaying situations — Roleplaying Tips has an online NPC Generator or you can just download the NPC ebookBehind the Name is a good place to look for names if you want to generate a random list, books like Ultimate Toolbox have tons of improvisational materials if you need to randomly generate things on the fly, and Zak Smith over at D&D With Porn Stars always has a ton of GMing shortcuts, typically with a Gygaxian, old-school flair.

However, when you're trying get a handle on mechanics, you may not feel confident just messing with numbers, particularly regarding some random guy the characters just decided to shake down.  Or when the characters just performed an ill-advised summoning ritual and you just realized that you didn't have a good result for when they totally botch the job.  Here are a few examples in various game systems to help you out.

Dungeons and Dragons, third-ish edition: I'm not going to recommend something when plenty of good word count has already been devoted to it.  Once again, Zak Smith at D&D With Porn Stars has something that might be useful to you in this article.  It won't make balanced encounters, but it'll feel right enough that no one cares.  If the PCs shake down a shopkeep who isn't skilled, give him a handful of hitpoints (maybe a d4 or so) and a +0 to do pretty much anything (maybe he has a +2 to talk to people).  Give the PCs a head full of shame for shaking down defenseless villagers.  Also, feel free to give big stats to mobs (in D&D 4e, unruly mobs are level 5 creatures).

Dungeons and Dragons, fourth edition: The books themselves give you the tables to make monsters by role and level (it's in Dungeon Master's Guide 1, but I don't know where you find it in Essentials).  The most recent version of the rules can be found here (the table in Dungeon Master's Guide 1 is still usable, but is "out-of-date" with the latest version of the rules), and if you don't feel comfortable with the numbers (and don't want to pay for a D&Di account), has a program that lets you make stat blocks and a website that does all the math for you.

World of Darkness, whateverth edition: There's a quick and dirty way to do NPCs in the Predators book for Werewolf: the Forsaken.  Basically, an unskilled character should roll two dice, a skilled one should roll three or four dice, a professional in the field should throw six dice, and a truly gifted performer (we're talking Olympic athlete or prodigy scientist) should roll eight to ten dice.  More than ten shows supernatural ability.  In terms of Attributes, two is average, so rolling two Attributes together will probably be around four dice for an average person.  Seven points is average health (five or six is dead minimum), and goes as high as ten in, say, a truly gifted endurance athlete.  More than ten displays supernatural fortitude.  Feel free to add the typical modifiers, as noted.
Also note that this works in old World of Darkness (pre-2004).  Two is still average, but dice are a little more common (individual successes don't mean as much in the old edition), so maybe bump dice pools by a die or two and you'll be set.

Deadlands, classic: Bigger dice are better.  More dice are good, but slightly less better.  2d6 is average in a Trait; you're professional at your Aptitudes at a skill of 3.  The die type is tied to the governing trait, so a klutz can be a practiced gunslinger, but he's still only rolling 5d4.  Four is a pretty good number of dice to represent high proficiency.  Use wounds as normal, or (for quick and dirty wounds in mooks that go down fast) multiply size by five to make hit points, and ignore hit locations (though you should still roll to chart the extra damage from shots to the guts or head).

Call of Cthulhu: How often should the NPC succeed at a skill?  That's his percentage.  Human professionals probably fall around 50% or higher.  30% is more typical for dabblers.  Average hit points fall around 12 or so.  Gods rarely (if ever) miss, and typically don't use skills (not in the way that humans understand), so give an attack at 100%.  Cthulhu has stats, but if everyone meets Cthulhu, they're probably dead.  The one who took the least sanity loss survives.  Maybe.

Unknown Armies: The average stat is 50%, and they typically range from 30% to 70% (less and you're disabled, more and you're an Olympic athlete, a genius, a popular motivational speaker, or a powerful occultist).  Professional skills fall around 30%.  Someone just learning a skill has about 10%; a person expert in the field is probably around 50%.  Going above 60% probably represents someone who is known in the field — a published scientist, skilled doctor, noted marksman, or gifted athlete.

I might do some other systems in the future, but those are the ones with which I'm most familiar.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Narrative

I've previously mentioned GNS Theory and the fact that I typically keep it in mind while gaming, plotting, whatever (which is to say, I think about it occasionally, y'know, as a thought exercise).  Note that I'm not sure if it's correct — the field of human endeavor in any activity cannot be simplified to a few core concepts — but it's something that I consider.  So that means it's time for another anecdote.

When I started gaming, I could be considered a simulationist.  I liked the fact that you could model reality with these games, and you could add increasing complexity to make everything more realistic.  It was important not to get lost in the fact that you were telling a story and playing a game, but modeling reality was my secret joy (my notes regarding intricately-detailed neurotoxins in old World of Darkness no doubt still lurk somewhere).  My first game, The Imperial City, primarily reflected this fact by being the most deadly game I've ever run — mistakes were frequently fatal, and the only players who didn't lose a character at some point were the players who only ever played one session (going off alone carried a huge risk of becoming fatal about halfway through the game's run, when it became obvious that the world was full of things that wanted you messily dead).  The characters could pull off marvelous feats together, but any one was squishy and vulnerable (and as a group, they still feared the black cloaked things used by the main antagonist as enforcers).

The Imperial City also had a second simulationist stamp — pretty much anything the characters encountered had full statistics and enough background to render it playable as a full NPC.  I have no idea how many characters I made for that game; I lost count around forty, and that was within, maybe, two years of its eight-year run.

Unknown Armies really emphasized the narrative aspects of gaming, though, and since then I've kept that in mind.  After all, the game only has the model reality in the sense that it has a coherent, logical scope.  It should tell an entertaining story (even if that story is just mindless hack-and-slash or just a story of people dying over and over again in hilarious ways).  And when it stops being entertaining, either bring the story to a close or take a vacation to reinvigorate it.  It's a good time to play that new system you've been wanting to try, or to try that totally wacked-out module that you cribbed together from the ramblings of a homeless guy on K street.

Expect a point to this whole blog post in the next blog post.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Gary Gygax Biopic

I'm...just going to leave this here...

Feel free to check out the original article for whatever that's worth.

Sharpened Hooks: The Box

I originally developed the Box for an Unknown Armies campaign.  The campaign never materialized, so it only appeared in a prequel one shot I ran.  Perhaps you will use it more than I did.

The Box is an unremarkable wooden box.  It lacks finish, and it is old, though not too old.  It has a latch, but unless the current owner has locked it, it doesn't have a lock.  In settings where characters can detect magic, the thing oozes magic.  Though it looks unremarkable, astute observers might note that odd things happen in the vicinity of the Box, though they are never explicitly connected to the Box.

The Box only has one power: it contains knowledge.  Whether it forms a gate to some Other place, or whether it physically contains this knowledge, the bottom line is that the Box holds the keys to personal enlightenment.  Unfortunately, the human mind wasn't meant to hold all this knowledge, and that means that there's a consequence to all this knowledge: madness.

In game terms, the Box confers experience points while prompting insanity in the user.  How this works depends on the game system.  If the character spends a round (somewhere in the five second range or so) looking in the Box, that character gains some experience (a point or two in systems that award individual experience points, a skill check or the like in systems that use skill checks as development, or maybe the equivalent experience to a monster of the character's level in level-based systems; basically the amount one could reasonably expect for a minimum session's work).  However, if the character spends that round looking in the Box, he risks madness.  Since not all games detail madness, how this works is up to the Game Master.  In games like Call of Cthulhu, Deadlands, Unknown Armies, and World of Darkness, the madness rules already in place should suffice.  Games like D&D typically don't have a default madness system, so the Game Master may have to improvise (settings like Ravenloft, Call of Cthulhu d20, and others typically do include some rules for measuring a character's mental state).  In any case, the power to become a better character should come with the penalty of becoming a gibbering wreck as the secrets of the universe blast the character's mind.

Note that the Game Master may grant other appropriate benefits (perhaps the character learns a spell or the location of an important item) as well as appropriate penalties (perhaps the events are so shocking that the character becomes deformed or gains some other genre-appropriate flaw).

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