Friday, September 30, 2011

The Frog Goddess

A friend is doing some research and mentioned a statue of Heqat the Frog Goddess over at the Cleveland's Museum of Art.

If you're running an Egyptian game or just need a neat-looking frog statue (or, y'know, you're interested in Egyptology), you can see it and read about it here.


I previously noted a naming site I like to use, but unsurprisingly, another site aggregated several name resources.

This article at Campaign Mastery has some good naming resources (including several random name generators).

Another Blog Rundown

So I got a few new readers today, and I was perusing their blogs.

Reader Jedediah has two that might interest readers.  "Book Scorpion's Lair" is about geeky pasttimes; the book and film reviews might tie into that whole "using literature as inspiration thing" mentioned at Porky's Expanse and on the previous blog post.  And the subject matter might just interest you.

The other is a photoblog called "Ook, she wrote" which I highly recommend as a roleplaying resource; if your games have an ecological bent ("Your ranger recognizes the Veringian wolf spider!"), perusing the blog might give you some ideas and image resources.  Or maybe you're just into biology.  Either way.

For that matter, have I mentioned some other blogs?  This seems like a good time.

I've previously mentioned Rushputin's wargaming blog, Warpstone Pile.  But here's a good time to revisit it, if you're into that.  He's an excellent painter (and he's selling some stuff right now, so if you want minis, go have a look).

Mike runs The Black Ark Apathy, also predominantly about wargaming.  It is not updated all that often, but it's worth a look if you're into Warhammer and wargaming in general.

Arashi runs The Felling Blade, about gaming in general.  He does a lot of board gaming, roleplaying, and some wargaming.  He also plays in the Deadlands game I sometimes mention.

And I've mentioned them before, but the old school blogs D&D With Porn Stars, Grognardia, Jeff's Gameblog, and Monsters and Manuals may also have relevant topics for your perusal and (hopefully) enjoyment.

And there you go.  I've given you more data than you can ever hope to assimilate.  You love it.


I was mentioned today on Porky's Expanse (specifically my post on microbiology in gaming), so I'll return the favor in an incestuous, Gordian knot of advertising.  I might particularly recommend his recent series of short adventures for the OSR's September of Short Adventures challenge.

As for the post itself at Porky's Expanse, he discusses Heart of Darkness, which is among my favorite books (the weird, paranoid fantasy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is still probably my top choice), and has been noted as inspiration for The Imperial City.  You should definitely follow the links on the blog post, particularly the one about science fiction inspiring new generations of scientists.  He also talks about finding inspiration in literature, which I have noted in the past.  Although he's talking about cultural milestones like Heart of Darkness and Jurassic Park while I'm talking about, say, Battlefield Earth.

What can I say?  At least I have bacterial culture.

As an aside, Porky was curious how to follow more than 300 blogs on Blogger.  So, if anybody has any familiarity with that or the error message he received, let me know and I'll pass it along (or go comment on his post).

Deadlands, Part III

So, I previously mentioned this Deadlands game.  I missed the second session, but returned for the third.

Here's the lowdown.

I'm the old priest, Father Alexander Seward, and I'm sitting in the police station in St. Louis, answering questions regarding the death of the other old priest on the train.  I'm held there for a day or so.  During that time, there's an earthquake and a hustle of activity.

Finally, sometime after nightfall, the Sergeant returns with the bloodied remnants of what can only be our esteemed Southern lady, Ruby O'Flahertie.  She is unconscious.  The Sergeant lays her on a table and flits into the back room, presumably to get some stuff.

In the quote that busted up the room, I "get up, go over to her, look around like I'm about to tell a racist joke, and lay on hands."  After spending a red Fate Chip, I make the roll and she's good as new.  The Sergeant runs back out and starts slapping bandages on her, telling me to apply pressure, and running to get a doctor — all before I can explain that her horribly mangled arm and torso were "just flesh wounds."

So I wait, and cast succor to bring her back to consciousness.  She starts freaking out before I calm her down, and I learn that the group was attacked by these large maggots with tentacles on their faces (which I think I recognize out-of-character, but am not yet sure — it's bad news if they are what I think they are, though).  I also learn that the drifter (Jake, just Jake) and the journalist (David Hood) were both out there, and did not return.  There's also another minor freakout as the Ruby realizes her belly button is gone (it's possible that I accidentally healed the umbilical scar — oops).

After deciding to wait for the Sergeant and the Doctor, we'll go look for them.  The Sergeant and the Doctor return in a frenzy of activity before I can explain that all is well.  The Sergeant moves, wordlessly, into the bowels of the station while the Doctor leaves.  I walk Ruby to her hotel.

We get prepared to ride.  We see the Sergeant, who is preparing to go to the salt mines and tells us not to follow.  After he leaves our sight, we promptly disobey his recommendation.

Meanwhile, Jake and David were captured by bandits who seem to know something about all four of us.  They are tied and blindfolded, and pretty much any movement from the pair is considered threatening.  A gunfight breaks out at the mouth of the cave.  Jake tries to move so that his hexslingin' is less obvious, but the spell fizzles and one of the bandits sees the movement.  He says he's going to amputate Jake's fingers to keep him from doing that again.

About this time, Father Seward and Ruby arrive at the cave mouth.  Ruby stays on the mule, but I start shuffling for the cave entrance.  After being shot a couple of times and seeing this weird lightning light up the cave (it's Jake, successfully casting his black lightning spell), I move back out.  Jake manages to subdue all the bandits through intimidation or judicious use of magical lightning and earthquakes (while tied and blindfolded, mind you).  When all is quiet, I enter the cave and proceed to start untying people (who need little help at this point).  Then, the rumbling starts.  We try to run.

The horrid worm things (which, yes, are rattlers, and if you don't fear the word, you certainly should) fan out to kill one of the bandits who ran.  The rest of us are almost to our horses (which is to say, my mule and the Sergeant's horse; the other horses are apparently dead) when the big worm appears, and almost everyone faints (except for David).

Not only is that where we left off, but I ended up writing way more about that session than I expected.  Ah, well.  Expect more feverish rambling throughout the weekend.

Foiled Again!

I appear to have contracted some horrid respiratory ailment, so my week of roleplaying is ended abruptly.

Though I will not be attending the Dunwich Experiment, I may still post any pictures that appear with my own commentary, probably having nothing to do with the actual picture.

I'll post the writeup for the game, though, as it sounds super-keen.

In January of 1970, American International Pictures along with producer Roger Corman brought to theaters an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror". Attempting to drum up publicity in anticipation of the film's release, AIP held a write-in contest with 5 winners chosen to survive a weekend in the actual town of Dunwich, Massachusetts. In October of 1969, those 5 winners and their friends, along with several AIP employees and special guests, boarded a bus from Boston to Dunwich. What took place over the next 48 hours is, to this day, not completely known. When the film finally released, moviegoers had completely forgotten about the contest and the fate of the winners.

When AIP was sold to Filmways, Inc. in 1979, police investigation records regarding the Dunwich Horror contest were discovered and leaked. These records state that several members of the AIP group did not return to Boston after the weekend was over and had not been seen in the following weeks. Additionally, some who returned were apparently injured, though the reports don't go into detail. Survivors of that weekend have since been unwilling to speak to investigators regarding their experiences and what happened to those who never returned.

The Dunwich Experiment is their story.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Difference Between Old and New World of Darkness(es)

So, old World of Darkness versus new.  I mentioned it earlier today.  I think I determined what gets me about one versus the other.

In oWoD, what you play is a meaningful choice.  Vampires feel radically different from werewolves who feel radically different from magi who feel radically different from, say, fomori.  These choices may fall under a variation of It Was His Sled or Late Arrival Spoiler — some players always like to speculate on what a given creature is, occasionally sucking the mystery out of things — but at least those choices all felt different.

In nWoD, everything feels a little similar.  Characters are just humans + supernatural templates, so only the game themes tend to differentiate game lines (you have a weird cannibal with claws, which could be...well, anything, really).  On the other hand, this does aid the atmosphere of mystery — the subtle variations are such that it is difficult to determine among supernatural "types" (though even in oWoD, these assumptions are sometimes hilariously wrong).  It's a tradeoff — different supernatural creatures don't feel as different, but everything feels weird and mysterious.  I might recommend a recent article on non-banal D&D to highlight this difference, as the sense of mystery is one of nWoD's strengths.

Review: World of Darkness

Somewhere between the crunchy, rules-heavy D&D and the narrative-driven, rules-lite Maid lies World of Darkness (which I will abbreviate as WoD; the old system is marked as oWoD, and the new system is marked as nWoD).  As noted elsewhere, this is the system that introduced me to roleplaying with its Vampire: the Masquerade, second edition.

Even though the WoD has two major rules changes and almost twenty game lines, I tend to count it as a cohesive unit.

No matter the edition, the WoD has the same basic premise: this is the same basic world we know and love, but monsters are hidden in it.  In, say, Call of Cthulhu, you're a human fighting these powers; in the WoD, you usually play one of these creatures.

In the old World of Darkness (1991-2004), characters coexisted along labrynthine, eons-old conspiracies.  Supernatural creatures battled for supremacy, though in the modern nights, vampires and the Technocratic Union were pretty much the main powers behind the scenes (though even they, admittedly, could hardly be said to control the world).  Most published scenarios involved the PCs reacting to one of these hidden threats, further building the setting's metaplot.

As for rules, the rules were simple — though, admittedly, I used them long enough that determining dice pools and difficulties was practically second-nature.  Every character has statistics rated from 1-5 (some were rated from 1-10).  Some combination of statistics would be rolled as a pool of d10s; for example, a scientist with Intelligence 3 and Science 4 would roll 7 dice.  Any dice that met or exceeded a numerical difficulty (difficulty 6 was average, and could skew upward and downward from there) were considered successes.

I felt this system was fairly fast and elegant, though I have since heard complaints about this system.  The main complaint came from combat; one attack may very well require four of these rolls.

In 2004, White Wolf ended the game line to clean up the metaplot — the long-threatened apocalypse happened.  Cynics suggest they ended the game line to sell more books in the future.  Oh, internet; don't ever change.

White Wolf then implemented the new World of Darkness (2004-present).  Like the old, supernatural powers lurk among humanity; unlike the oWoD, global conspiracies are practically nonexistent.  Instead, the supernatural powers now rule petty fiefdoms rife with paranoia, and there is no "official" metaplot (though a plot, such as it is, is frequently suggested across sourcebooks).  Most supernatural creatures realize they cannot trust members of the same power bloc enough to consolidate power, or they are so harried that they can't form a power base to start, so each city is an independent domain overseen by a mix of supernatural creatures.  Or not; some cities skew toward one group over the others, and some cities have little to no supernatural presence at all.

This latter fact emphasizes the dark mystery of the setting: you cannot ever hope to fully understand the world.  That city without a supernatural presence might have somehow escaped colonization, or it might not have enough resources to support a supernatural community, or it might host a sapient colony of space-insects that devours any supernatural creature who stays more than a day or two.  This is another reason why supernatural creatures don't form large societies; in addition to concerns from neighboring domains and concerns regarding human discovery (because even disorganized humans are much bigger threats in the nWoD), why would you want to forge an alliance with a neighboring domain when you barely understand the weird stuff around your domain?  Additionally, since supernatural creatures no longer have unifying origin stories (and, in fact, almost seem actively unable to recall or determine their origins), they have no reason to work together.  Your bloc of vampires and the neighboring city's bloc of vampires might both look and talk alike, but you have no way of knowing whether these guys are actually vampires like you, or some weird offshoot (and even if you both made your characters from Vampire: the Requiem, you still may not be the same type of vampire).

As for the rules, they're similar to the old system, and most people think they're more streamlined.  You add a dice pool and roll the whole thing against a target number of 8.  Reroll 10s until no more 10s occur.  Count successes as normal.  Though it is harder to get successes in this system, individual successes count for more, and critical failures are much harder in this system.  Additionally, things like combat only require one roll per attack; the opposing character's dodging, armor, and suchlike are taken into account with modifiers to attack rolls.  Remembering all the modifiers is sometimes wonky, but some things are a bit smoother.

Additionally, character advancement is different; characters could become powerful very quickly in oWoD, as many low-level abilities were very effective.  The nWoD, however, promotes game balance, and even makes individual mortals a credible threat.  However, advancement tends to be slower.

Overall, I still like the oWoD better than the nWoD in many respects.  The old World was ostensibly horror, but had a gonzo vibe that just worked — you could build just about anything given the wealth of material, and there are some times you just want to run a game where a cyborg, a mutant, a vampire, Frankenstein's monster, and a Highlander fight evil (or are evil).  After working with the rules for so many years, I'm still faster with old than new.

On the other hand, the nWoD is more unified into a cohesive setting, friendlier to new players, and is creepier than the old World.  The horror in the new game tends to be more personal.

I would ultimately recommend either system to anybody, though.  Whether it's the weird, gonzo, subjective horror of the oWoD, or the creepy, personal horror of the nWoD, either one works.

A final note: White Wolf really excels at some of its newer, smaller lines.  I still think oWoD Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage had something that the newer versions lack, but Promethean, Changeling, Hunter, and Geist are really good.  Changeling (which takes the reincarnated, dying otherkin of the old version and replaces them with supernatural abuse victims — and I think the new version was an improvement despite the fact I am one of the few who will admit to really liking Changeling: the Dreaming) and Promethean (you're a golem made from one or more cadavers, and you can use spiritual alchemy to become mortal — which is for the best, because despite your personal power, the universe itself hates your soulless, undead husk) particularly deserve a look.  The human-centered Hunter: the Vigil is good, but I know some people who still like the bewildered, supernatural hunters from Hunter: the Reckoning (I like both but prefer the newer version).  Wraith might still be a personal favorite, but the zealous, life-lusting, rum-and-sugar-skulls vibe from Geist is a neat design choice, one that almost places the games on different axes (I like both, but for different reasons).

Review: D&D (Addendum)

It occurs to me that my review of D&D rambled without touching on the rules (D&D doesn't really have a core "setting," as it were).

The D&D rules are solid, but...odd.  Throughout all editions, they appear to be arranged like an onion: here are some core rules, and if you want more complexity, here are some more.  A lot of the detail-oriented rules are forgotten or ignored by many playing groups (in 3e, for example, you can roll to see where deviated missiles land).  Of course, some of the core rules are complex enough that they are forgotten or ignored by gaming groups, too; noisms recently did a post on Piledriving D&D (that is, forgetting a game rule so thoroughly that your made-up version becomes standard for your play group), as well as some follow-up posts here and here.

In oD&D, 3e, and 4e (as mentioned, I have yet to delve into AD&D), the rules require the rolling of a d20 against a target number.  In 3e and 4e, you add a modifier to this roll.  That's it.  All the DM has to do is figure out the target number and what modifier you add (whether you are attacking, arm wrestling, using a skill, etc.).

However, this simple mechanic gives way to fiddly bits that add complexity (though this is true in most game systems).  D&D isn't necessarily hard, there's just a lot to remember when you're just starting.  It's definitely the sort of game in which one might want a DM's screen or a handmade cheat sheet, particularly at the beginning.

D&D is crunchier than a lot of systems currently available, but is the perfect system for the gonzo, tactical, exploration exercise for which it was designed.

One final note: I can agree with D&D 4e detractors about the fact that this edition is crunchier than most.  It pretty much requires all players to keep a copy of the rules, particularly the rules for their attacks, handy at all times.  It also tends to abbreviate exploration such that, as written, sandbox play is more difficult.  Naturally, all these things can be tweaked, but 4e does have some distinct differences from previous editions (read a play log, though, and they probably sound pretty similar).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fun with Microbiology

Last night at D&D Encounters, the DM said something to the effect, "Any bloodied character who ends his or her turn in the sewer water risks exposure to Filth Fever," to which I replied, "Yes!"

My response to everyone's confused looks was, "What?  I like microbiology!"

I like that sort of weird detail; in my Cthulhu Dark Ages game, the home town of Sudleigh used wells because the river water was "sick."  Unsurprisingly, the town upriver is dumping their garbage and human waste into the river.

Planar Travel on a Cuboidal Earth

Once again, I will suggest you read D&D With Porn Stars.  This article is about alternate planar arrangement; specifically, how a cuboid planet would have six different biospheres, one for each face.  This way, traveling to different "planes" involves traveling through the mega-dungeon under the planet.

Since I'm batshit insane, I'm inclined to throw all these ideas together — astute PCs can find alternate planes through dungeoneering, Spelljamming, Planescape-esque cosmologies, or creative navigation through the Mists.  Everything is true!

Glut of Gaming

After a prolonged draught, I'm back to drowning in gaming.  Last Friday was Crux of Eternity, last night was D&D Encounters, tonight should be Deadlands, and this weekend is the Dunwich Experiment (a Cthulhu LIVE game set in 1969 Dunwich — as a promotion for The Dunwich Horror, American International Pictures picked five contestants for a "survive the weekend in Dunwich" promotional stunt that went horribly wrong as only a Cthulhu game can; expect pictures and a recap sometime in the next week or two).

This is the good life.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Redux: Oh, the Places You'll Go

At the beginning of this blog, I posted a list of sites I like and would recommend.

Now, here are a couple of sites I use with some frequency.

Behind the Name: Without a doubt, this is the website I use the most.  You can get meaningful names, or you can get random names.  Or you can get the most popular names broken down by country and year (so if you want to randomly determine names based on a realistic distribution, you have a d100 chart pretty much right there).  There is also a site for surnames.  I have yet to compile my massive random name charts, but until I do, this site should keep you busy for a while.

DeviantArt: Since you can browse by genre, subject, or keyword, this is good for finding character art.  You can also find landscapes and art objects on here, so you could really find a picture of any thing you might need to show your players (or, conversely, show your Game Master).  Browsing, though, can be a pain as you slog through looking for just the right thing.  This might ultimately treat you better as a place to find inspiration, but with a lot of good art on here, that's probably not very hard.

ModelMayhem: This website is for models and photographers; though you can find some other art expressions and some still life, you're primarily going to find pictures of people.  Fortunately, you can browse models by statistics, so you can easily find someone with the coloring and build you want.  Some people are a bit liberal with the statistics, though, so it can take some digging.  Even so, it tends to be more targeted than DeviantArt, though it helps if you don't have something too specific in mind while you're searching.

Urban Decay: Exactly what it says on the tin.  This LiveJournal group's members posts pictures of urban environments.  Along with Urban Explorers, these groups can probably fulfill all your urban landscape needs (though, as the name suggests, these location photographs are likely to show weathered and abandoned locations).

Review: Maid

I wrote the previous review to get to this one.  I should write a couple others, but this was rattling around my head first.  Largely because I'm interested in running it again.

So this game called Maid was on my radar for a long time.

Now, I'm not an anime guy, or even a Japanese culture guy — I recognize the vast majority of my consumer electronics to be Japanese in origin, and sure, samurai are kind of cool (but the Ainu are cooler).  Oh, and Shinto is pure awesome.  But that's about it.

Okay, maybe it's more accurate to say I'm not an otaku guy.  The Japanese have a neat history, and some of the modern stuff is cool in a "hey-look-at-this-neat/weird-thing" way, but it's not a thing.

Despite this fact, there was something about Maid that wouldn't let go.  I like anything weird, and after a certain point, I had a setting that used and parodied anime tropes.  So, after a few years of running into this game, I bought a copy a couple of months ago.

I really want to run this game.

Much as expected, this game caters to meido and the harem genre.  That's hardly surprising, and is the main reason why I didn't buy it sooner.

What is surprising is that the game actually sounds fun to play.  Sure, it's meido and harem anime.  But it's also a typically Gygaxian chart-laden affair (as in old editions of D&D, character creation is basically random) with strains of Paranoia throughout.

To explain: you're a maid.  You serve a Master who, while not necessarily inept, needs maids to continue functioning.  By serving the Master, you gain Favor points.  This is the experience system, as well as your "power source."  If you want to do something special, it probably costs Favor; likewise, if you want to raise your stats, it will cost Favor.  If you make a mistake, your Master might dock you Favor.  If you hit zero Favor, you're fired.  Clever players turn this arrangement into Paranoia by running circles around the Master, and undercutting other maids while bolstering their own careers.

As a default light-comedy game, "death" is nonexistent.  When a maid hits zero hit points, she throws some sort of temper tantrum before recovering and returning to her duties.  As a result, being fired is more severe than "dying" — but triggering a Stress Explosion is a good way to lose face and get fired.

More interesting than the bizarre political environment and weird anime tropes, is the versatility of the game.  When you read a game about maids, you assume a certain arrangement.  However, some of the sample games detail other genres and rule tweaks: one game casts you as a demon's lieutenants, and you are guarding his dungeon from greedy adventurers while he is away.  Another places you as shrine maidens guarding a shrine against the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Basically, you can play any game where a group is organized by a patron.

If this sounds remotely interesting to you, you can go look for the game on the Maid site, which also has additional information and downloads.

Review: D&D

It occurs to me that I should review some games on here, because, y'know, this is a blog about gaming and all two of my readers are growing bored.

Just kidding.  I wish I had two readers.

Anyway.  I had another review in mind, but figured it was more appropriate to start with a big thing.  Also, I'll be doing systems first; expect individual book reviews...eventually.

It doesn't get bigger than D&D.  Maybe you've heard of it?

If you aren't familiar with Dugneons & Dragons by some odd happenstance, Wikipedia provides.

Developed in the early 1970s by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D started a new genre.  With a lineage tracing through the wargames of the time (the original edition used Chainmail as the battle system, essentially scaling the system from military formations down to small units) back through Little Wars all the way back to chess and whatever people did before then.

Yes, H. G. Wells helped develop modern roleplaying.  How are you not surprised?

Anyway, I came to D&D in its third edition.  It was not the first game I encountered and read, but it was one of the earliest.  My initial impression was favorable, but I saw the system as being a little limited.  You can make a character that is good at doing one thing, and that character will only get better at doing that one thing, but a skilled generalist is impossible.

I still feel that way, but it's not entirely true.

Coming to D&D 3e from World of Darkness was part of it.  The World of Darkness was ostensibly horror, but was actually completely batshit insane.  Keeping strictly within the definition of the rules, you can play just about anything — the classic incarnation of my Imperial City party was a cyborg, a couple of mages, a vampire, and a weredragon.  (In those early days where I was inclined to answer "Sure!" to "Can I play...?" I almost allowed Doctor Who; I still have a Two Hearts Merit lurking on my hard drive for this very reason.)

A piece of my current understanding of D&D is acceptance of D&D's roots.  D&D originally occupied a niche between wargame and modern roleplaying game.  In that light, the class structure makes sense; you are a single type of unit with a single job (this also makes sense in the light of medieval professions, in which you are your job).  You will get better at that job as you continue adventuring.  This may also explain why I never liked the D&D skill system in 3e, because of its limitations; skills are an after-market accessory in later editions, and the original "do what your character would do" aesthetic makes more sense.

It's also not very limited.  In the original game, you could play pretty much whatever you wanted; this is still true in 3e and is true to a lesser degree in 4e (it requires more reworking in 4e, but is still feasible).

Even so, I still feel D&D lends itself to a certain type of fantastical-exploration-and-combat game before anything else.  In fact, exploration of the Old School Revolution reveals that Occam's Razor is at play here: D&D lends itself to episodic, emergent storytelling wherein characters raid old ruins for treasure and get into mishaps.  In that, it excels; characters start limited and grow powerful as they adventure, presumably retiring in old age after they've plundered.  It is quite possible to run other sorts of games with D&D, but the gonzo, treasure-seeking roots are probably still the strongest mode.

There are other editions besides third, of course.  I currently have a group playing fourth edition, and I am similarly playing a fourth edition game at the moment.  In light of what has come before, I understand many of the complaints with fourth edition: yes, it's true, it is extremely crunchy and promotes railroading.  However, it's still decidedly D&D, and those elements can be ignored as with any other game (as in Fourthcore).  And, of course, some people like crunchiness and they like linear plots (as I've said before, it's good to have a linear plot in a sandbox so characters — particularly those played by new players — can always go do something if they run out of ideas).

I've never played AD&D, but I have briefly run the original 1974 edition (you can read about my brief run here).  It is fast and easy to use — and since I adore fast and deadly combat, that makes me happy.

So, overall, I'd recommend D&D to anybody (though if you're reading this, you probably already have some ideas about it).  Later editions add complexity, though that's not always a bad thing.  It's good for weird, gonzo fantasy, and it's good for combat and exploration.  Play a game rife with intrigue, run with (or against) your Dungeon Master's epic plot, or just scour some ruins for treasure; it really supports all modes of play.  Which, I suppose, is why it's been around for almost forty years, and why it is still (so far as I know) the biggest roleplaying game.

If you want more character customization or nonlinear character advancement, this probably isn't quite the game for you — though, naturally, that might vary depending upon your Game Master.

Edit: I added an actual, albeit brief, discussion of mechanics in an addendum post.

Some Rambling About D&D and the Classroom

I came across this article the other day, and it reminded me of my goal to introduce gaming to the classroom.

Now, granted, I've always presumed that there will be gaming in the home (maybe my kids won't care for gaming, though?), but in that circumstance, I'd run whatever I want.  At home, I can ignore rules, teach rules, or gloss over rules with abandon.

The classroom, however, has many more students with many more personality types, and tends to be simultaneously more and less regimented.  The block schedule breaks everything into forty-five minute increments, but those forty-five minutes tend to be somewhat hectic.

However, should I ever insert gaming into the classroom, I've been preparing for this eventuality for some time.  Many moons ago, I found Meddling Kids at a used bookstore.  Since then, I have come across Witch Girls Adventures (about which I have heard much praise regarding the magic system) and Broomstix (a free and unofficial Harry Potter RPG).  The classroom tends to be structured such that I have yet to use any of these, but I am should like to try; the article at the top describes altering Monster Slayers: Heroes of Hesiod for large group play, and that modification might be the most effective way to do it.

With that in mind, here are some more resources.

This link leads to the "D&D in the Library" program:

Uri Kurlianchik also goes into schools and uses D&D as a teaching tool.  He wrote a series of articles on the subject, though I can no longer find them on Wizards of the Coast's site.  As such, I will host them here:

D&D Kids: Character Creation
D&D Kids: Combat Encounters
D&D Kids: Rewards
D&D Kids: Punishment
D&D Kids: Campaign Setting (this last one didn't transfer correctly, so the top is marred by an advert)

(If you happen to be from Wizards and feels that this infringes on anybody's copyright, let me know and I'll take them down.)

And apparently he also wrote some choose-your-own-adventure where you play a leopard cub.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sharpened Hooks: Fun with Wilderlands of High Fantasy

So, back in 1977, Judges Guild released a book called Wilderlands of High Fantasy (presumably as part of the campaign setting of the same name).  It is primarily a collection of world-building tables, with some examples relating to the aforementioned campaign setting.

Today, I messed with it a little.  Here are some things that developed.

Professor Mandrill's Refreshed Scholar Tonic
This attractive glass bottle still contains a measure of its blue, gelatinous contents.  When consumed, this allows the imbiber to assimilate information much more quickly, allowing learning to take place in short periods and possibly allowing leaps of logic like Sherlock Holmes.  This bottle is buried, along with the remains of its previous owner, beneath the rubble of a rockslide.  Unfortunately, clearing the rubble can trigger another rockslide.  In an even more unfortunate twist of fate, a hairline crack in the bottle has rendered the contents partially inert; any given dose from the bottle only has a 50% chance of functioning correctly.

The Ruby Window
This art object is a translucent pane constructed from ruby and surrounded by a frame of gold.  The frame bears arcane inscriptions from a lost civilization, and is further decorated with small gemstones (the inscriptions reveal that this object has no magical properties, but was constructed for a monarch through the use of magic).  It is badly scratched from years of poor storage and misuse, though it would still likely fetch good money on the open market.  Presently, it is hidden in a silt lake by a giant who thinks it looks pretty.  He occasionally takes it out of the dust to look at it and examine objects through it, claiming that it "brings out their sparkle."

The Monkey God
This figurine is partially collapsed, but is still vaguely recognizable as a humanoid figure dressed in serving clothes.  Originally crafted by a magus, it was a small serving golem that bows and says a few phrases, but mostly helps keep house — it cooks, cleans, and other such things.  It is possible that it could be fixed, but as it is, the delicate components that comprise the figure are almost certainly worth something.  Presently, it hardly does much of anything at all; it will occasionally twitch or speak a few words of dialogue, but that is all.  It is presently being held by a community of monkeys who appear to regard it as some sort of oracle or entertainment; the monkeys will fight anyone who attempts to take it, although they will not fight to the death.

The Vermin Ruins
Away from the roads of civilization lies a burned plain, bearing the refuse of a forest fire.  Amongst the charred tree trunks lies the remains of a scorched building, and if the pile of partially-burned wood is cleared, one can find the stone foundation of this building — its inscriptions remain, but are badly marred and impossible to read.  In addition to the fact that the plain is currently uninhabitable, the ruins are infested with insects of all types, and these creatures seem to attack intruders with a single-minded determination.  Nobody has yet excavated to find the stone foundation and what clues it might give about these ruins, but some visitors to this accursed place have theorized that this was a shrine to some minor insect god.  Others suggest that the placement and viciousness of insects seems to suggest magical influence, almost as if they were left behind to guard something.  Those in the latter camp suggest that a series of tunnels or a tomb complex may lie under these ruins.

By the way, Judges Guild is still around and they're still producing stuff in tandem with Necromancer Games.  If you're intrigued by the Wilderlands campaign setting, a lot of their classic material has been re-released under the OGL.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

More About Dogs

Since I just made a post about dogs, prepare yourself for some dogs.

You probably know several yourself.  They've been domesticated for a long time, ever since our ancestors started leaving scraps for the wolves by the campfires.  Eventually, those wolves started following us around and considering us packmates, and the rest is history.

Dogs are primarily known as workers — they have some capabilities that we do not, are differently shaped (and therefore suited to different tasks), and have the advantage of being considered expendible (by some).  If you don't have enough money for a nanny or a bodyguard, or if you live in a society without extensive security systems, get a dog.

Basically: dogs are useful in any preindustrial society.  This includes the medieval era, and thusly extends to the pseudo-medieval fantasy of D&D.  Dogs are on equipment lists for a reason.

So, with that in mind, I have some stuff for you.  Zak Smith has some stuff about dogs, and he links to some stuff about dogs at Monsters and Manuals.  I also found another article at Tower of the Archmage about dogs in D&D.

Tales of military dogs also show how dogs are still used.  To put this in perspective, farming might look basically the same as it did when it was first developed, in the sense that water is diverted to fields to grow plants.  However, we've made many strides since then.  A Mesopotamian farmer wouldn't recognize a modern farm because we do a lot of weird things to increase yield, prevent pests, and suchlike; even the crops themselves wouldn't look familiar (he's never seen a tomato, and he's probably never seen plants of the size and variety that we grow today).  We domesticated dogs a similarly long time ago (estimates vary, but we can at least all agree on that magic "birth of civilization at 10,000 B.C." date), and they're basically the same.  Some of the breeds are strange-looking by ancient standards, but that farmer would presumably recognize and be able to train a modern dog.  (For a further analogy, consider your computer.  It'll be obsolete in a year or two, but your dog has remained basically unchanged for millennia.)

And finally, dogs have one use that we don't readily consider in the modern West: a food source (though even your fake-European characters might take to eating those war dogs if you've run out of supplies on some frozen steppe).  Well, the attitude about dog-eating in China is changing, and an annual dog-eating festival is coming to an end.

Hopefully, something in there will be useful to you.

Riding Dogs

Last night, I encountered an egregious error in D&D 4e.

...they left out riding dogs, obviously!

Anyway, mounts are in Adventurer's Vault, with a few other mounts scattered throughout other books (the infamous Clawfoot is in the setting book for Eberron, for example).  But there is no longer the classic halfling riding dog.  The gnome wizard in Crux of Eternity was shopping for a mount, and ultimately went with a dog rather than a pony (and since I misquoted him the price, he got one for 33% retail, so who wouldn't buy a riding dog?).  Yet, there are few dogs and no riding dogs in 4e.

You can find statistics for 3e riding dogs here, and you can look for information and prices over here.

So, without further ado:

Riding dogs are a type of mount trained primarily by halflings.  Riding dogs comprise several breeds of largish dogs; St. Bernards, Pit Bulls, Dobermans, Labradors, Mastiffs, and the like have all been seen (though, truly, riding dog variations are unique breeds selected and trained specifically for riding).  In rules terms, any Medium-sized dog trained to carry a Small rider will do; some riding-dog breeds have been specifically bred from smaller stock over generations, appearing as large versions of hounds or terriers.

Though the original breeding and training techniques were codified by halflings, riding dogs can be found in any community with a contingent of smaller citizens (larger humanoids may also train them for the express purpose of selling them).

Riding dogs cost 150 gp.  Riding dogs follow all rules for mounts as presented on pages 46-47 of the Dungeon Master's Guide and/or pages 252-255 of the Rules Compendium.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sharpened Hooks: Sagespiders

This came to me in a dream.

Sagespiders, also known as suicide spiders (in modern-day games, this name likely originated from some jokester thinking sagespider hallucinations reminded him of a certain episode of a certain science-fiction programme), are woodland creatures bearing a strong resemblance to spiders, albeit more earthy in coloration.  Apart from a generally arachnid shape (they bear a resemblance to tarantulas), however, these creatures have remarkably little to do with spiders.  Close inspection reveals that they do not merely resemble forest flora; they are ambulatory plants most closely related to the mint family.  This aspect gives them camouflage in the understory; most people never see the sagespider that gets them.

Like regular spiders, sagespiders do use toxins, but rather than the typical arachnid predator, sagespiders are actually part of the decomposer cycle.  Sagespiders attack their prey with detachable barbs which release hallucinatory toxins (modern chemists might recognize part of the compound as salvinorin A or a derivative).  The sagespider's toxin is not likely to kill prey on its own, but it does make prey highly susceptible to predation by other creatures.  Sagespiders then feast on the remains, though they will occasionally consume live but heavily-weakened prey.

Sagespiders have no natural predators, but are susceptible to plant pathogens.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Here Come the Marteetee

So I was reading this article earlier today, and Mr. Smith mentions the fight with Marteetee's hand-hydra from Your Highness.

I totally forgot about it, but the movie just might be worth watching for that scene alone.  I'm not sure I can actually recommend the movie — if you're into that sort of thing, then you probably should; it's likely to be hit-or-miss otherwise — but if you ever catch it, look for that fight.  It's a pretty clever boss fight, really.

(If you don't want to slog through it, here's a summary: the grotesque barbarian chieftain places the heroes in an arena wherein they have to combat this giant, hydra-like entity.  Said entity is summoned when the chief shoves his hand into a cauldron of goo, and this hand-like hydra erupts from the ground.  When the entity is injured, his hand emerges from the cauldron similarly-injured.  Draw whatever conclusion you will.  Overall, it's a pretty cool effect, and I'm jealous that I didn't think of it.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Extremes of D&D

D&D can be this, but it can also be this.  Neither mode is "wrong," just as neither mode is "right."

Which I guess really opens up the debate about fairy tales: do you want a family-friendly fairy tale, or the sort of tale that serves as a bloody warning to your child?

D&D supports both modes, and my guess is that most games strike a balance between the two.  Much like the original sword and sorcery tales of the pulp era that served as a lot of the inspiration for D&D — the world is both horrible and filled with heroic and wondrous things.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Player Agency

You're going to get a lot of reading material in this post, so brace yourself.

I've already documented my exploration of the Old School Renaissance, and added to that description as necessary.

So, over the course of the last week, noisms has been talking about player agency and freedom as exemplified by the problem of the Quantum Ogre; that is, you have an ogre encounter planned, and you're going to give it to the PCs no matter what happens.

Monsters and Manuals has the initial post over here, as well as a second post here.  He also recommends that you read this, this, this, this, and this rebuttal to understand the argument.

Go ahead and read all those.  I'll wait.

Done?  Okay.

As previously noted, I am a firm product of the post-Hickman revolution era, and approach game design as constructing a plot (the Old School Renaissance typically has some level of plot, but tends to rely more on emergent storytelling).  However, I also attempt to dissuade railroading in my plots by making a detailed setting; basically, I marry the two trends by placing a plot in a sandbox, and if the players do something unexpected or decide my plot sucks, they can go do whatever they want.  My "plot" is frequently not so much a flowchart as a gunshot going off: now what are you going to do?  I find this act/react structure works really well because material is generated through player choice, and once the rhythm is down, new sessions are easy to run.

(Note that I've trended away from my middle extreme in some instances: Crux of Eternity and any mission-style plots are typically more linear, though I always leave the option of doing some research and striking out on your own.  On the other hand, my Sabbat games gave the PCs the objective of taking back New York and basically left them to their own devices in the hopes that they would achieve that goal.)

I mention all this with the knowledge that some groups will just play differently; some might like to explore a more-or-less predetermined plot, like an interactive novel or a video game, while others are going to want to actually explore a whole world.  And, as is typical, there's a middle path: some people feel overwhelmed by the burden of choice, and would rather have the possibility of a linear plot in an enormous world, so that they can do what they like when they feel more comfortable with the world (or maybe it's just nice to know that the sandbox is out there, so they at least have that notion of choice, even if they never take it).

More to the point, I've GMed more than I've played, but having played in several different games, I've seen several different styles.  Among my friends, the plot-in-a-sandbox seems the most typical: here's a plot, but if you go "off the rails," nobody cares.  The possibility of choice means that these games are still fun and uncertain, because the future is still in doubt.

To my knowledge, I have only played in one "railroaded" game.  There was a fairly intricate plot, but I'm not certain how much choice was involved.  Character death was...possible?  Maybe?  The threat of it got pretty empty after a while.

Was it fun?  Sure.  But, it might have been more fun if the outcome were more in doubt.

In general, it's a lesson I try to keep in mind.  Again, I think the bonus of the plot is that a character can always fall back on the plot if he or she doesn't have any ideas; the sandbox is there once you feel a bit more comfortable about things.

Also, I might recommend this post, on the subject of player ingenuity.  In general, if a player has a good idea, I'm inclined to roll with it.  If that kills the big villain of the piece, so be it.

The consequences of an action can always make an interesting game session.

Classic Gaming Meme

The recurring idea of analyzing real life as a roleplaying game is over at Game Theory.

Sharpened Hooks: Nobody Does It Better

A professor once suggested — as many have — that every tale has basically already been told.  There are only a few basic stories, and stories are made different through embellishments.  She continued, saying that the conceit of the writer is to think one can do it better.

Now, obviously, roleplaying is a little different: you may not think you'll run Tomb of Horrors better than Gary Gygax, but on the other hand, he's not going to reanimate simply to come over to your house and run.  Somebody has to run it.

Similarly, you might rewrite a module or write one of your own less out of personal conceit* ("this module sucks") and more out of necessity ("this module doesn't fit my campaign").

Even so, sometimes GMs (or players, for that matter) recycle elements or plots.  Sure, Drizzt is cool, but what if I play him?  Sure, xenomorphs are cool, but what if one is lurking under the ruins of Castle Greyhawk?  What if I include Colonel Ives in my Deadlands game?  A little of the writer's conceit shows through: maybe that thing was cool, but it'll be cooler in my game.  Obviously, it's very easy to do poorly, but done well, it can bring something to the table, even if it's just a dose of humor.

There's nothing inherently wrong with grabbing items like this; only when it's poorly-done or overly obvious is it a problem.  With that in mind, there are a few things that weren't considered particularly stellar, either across the board or by certain individuals.  Can you use them in your game?  Let's see.  We'll start with...

Battlefield Earth: Based on L. Ron Hubbard's novel of the same name (yes, that L. Ron Hubbard), humanity is enslaved by decadent, whimsically-evil aliens.  They're so decadent and whimsically evil that they hardly notice while humanity plans a revolt and manages to completely annihilate them (spoiler alert: the humans blow up the Psychlo homeworld).  As one would expect, it is incredibly anvilicious, but on the other hand, what game doesn't occasionally benefit from explosions and decadent, whimsically evil villains?  Possibly a good resource for Paranoia (after a fashion, anyway), or any post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, particularly if everyone is drinking and you want to do post-apocalyptic Independence Day with your gaming group.

Doomsday: Like a lot of films on this (admittedly preliminary) list, this is a pretty strong roleplaying premise.  A viral outbreak leads British agents into post-apocalyptic Scotland.  Glasgow is currently torn by strife — post-apocalyptic cyber-punk Scotland is at war with post-apocalyptic medieval Scotland.  A variant of the Technocracy's Z488-C Video Data Retrieval System (actually more like the Video Eyes and Spy Eyes of Strike Force Zero from Demon Hunter X) makes an appearance.  Good for establishing the atmosphere of games like Gamma World or a Fallout-themed game.  Given some of the technology and access, this might also be an interesting premise for near-future espionage games, or games involving agents of the Technocratic Union.

Freejack: Free...what?  If you've never heard of it, there might be a reason.  You'd think a movie with Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger, Rene Russo, and Sir Anthony Hopkins would have more going for it, but these things happen.  Maybe the time travel angle is a bit weird, but organ thieves and bodysnatchers are fairly classic plot hooks.  I had the idea of a group of inter-dimensional smugglers who run guns and modern weapons to fantasy settings where those objects are basically considered magic items (you might get a couple hundred for a gun on the street, but you could get several thousand gold for one in a low-tech setting); maybe there's an inter-dimensional group of organ thieves who do much the same way.  Or, for a time travel angle, maybe they run out of healthy donors in the future, and a modern group of investigators is trying to determine what's up with the odd disappearances and removed organs (maybe the Greys are these future humans, and they're so inbred that they need fresh human organs, which is why they do all the weird surgeries).

Legion: God loses faith in humanity, and so sends His angels to destroy them.  This is survival horror in a little diner with the baby as a MacGuffin: it is prophesied to be the next messiah, so the angels want to destroy it utterly.  The escort mission with the prophesied child is a pretty classic fantasy trope (for a roleplaying example, it gets used in Rage Across the Heavens).  Survival horror is a similar classic, and as any zombie movie will show you, the threat is actually an excuse to lock several different people in a room and see how they react (in other words: this is a great excuse to let the characters interact and go for each others' throats).  Finally, I once heard that the original plot was supposed to be that newborns were disappearing, and a group of people start investigating.  It turns out that angels are taking newborns, because humanity will go extinct if there is no next generation.  That premise might serve better, particularly since it suggests a longer story arc than survival horror (though escaping the diner and then fighting angels for the rest of your natural life could be a pretty exciting campaign).

Starship Troopers: Based upon the book of the same name, Robert Heinlein was one of the original codifiers of the concept of the "space marine."  Whether you want your space marines vs. aliens story to have as much political subtext as the book or the film, you can always just look to Space Marines vs. Tyranids and leave it at that.

Twilight: Admittedly, I've never read any book in the series (I think I skimmed a chapter at one point), and I've only seen the first movie while under the influence of RiffTrax (though I still maintain it's funnier on its own than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).  That having been said, everything I've heard about the book suggests a lot of interesting and/or creepy stuff, poorly executed.  Sure, Edward is a creepy stalker, but it should be creepier.  Look at Dracula: the Count ruins the lives of whomever he touches; Lucy dies and Mina is probably looking at psychotherapy, if she wants to live a normal life (as is everyone else in the book, for that matter).  As an example of something that stuck with me, I always thought Bella's father would be a good Hunter: the Vigil character.  A police officer whose daughter falls in love with vampires, that shouldn't go well.  That girl would go missing (or her strange actions would prompt investigation by a concerned parent), leaving a confused and worried father to determine what happened.  Likewise, by all accounts, the creepy baby-thing chewing its way out of its mother's uterus at the end of the series should be a study in body horror.  The argument that Twilight vampires aren't even actual vampires could also be examined: they sound almost like Seelie faeries, except a little less capricious.  Plus it throws off players if creatures don't act the way they "should" ("These vampires can withstand the sunlight?  Uh oh...").

You could continue this examination forever, of course.  The biggest recommendation is to avoid emulating books, movies, news stories, and the like, but to use individual elements from those sources.  Carefully.

*Note: Personal conceit isn't necessarily bad: that module very well may suck.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Today I received an email in my box revealing the Paizo Publishing's release of the Tome of Horrors Complete, described as "800 Pages of Monstrous Fun!"

Unfortunately, the words "horror" and "800 pages" just make me think of FATAL, so I can't take it seriously.

The email says "This 800-page volume, which contains all three previous volumes plus new material fully updated to the Pathfinder RPG, contains more than 750 stat blocks, and dwarfs our own Core Rulebook and the legendary Ptolus campaign setting to weigh in as the largest roleplaying game book I’ve ever seen."

FATAL, on the other hand, is somewhere around 900 pages of pure awful.  At some point, I hope to actually read it, but I'm not sure I have the stamina.

(In addition to the resources above, you can find another discourse on FATAL here.  Read it if you dare; you can find both editions if you look hard enough.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

You Should GM: A Good Article of Game Mastering and Setting the Tone

Check out On DMing over at Monsters and Manuals.  Make sure also to read the companion articles he mentions in the text: My Campaign World Is Tear-And-Share Size, What About Yours? over at D&D With Porn Stars, and On Ressurecting the Quantum Ogre and Having Him Over for Tea over at Hack & Slash.

Good analyses on what one might want out of a game.  Also, I should probably accumulate all my posts I'd recommend to new GMs, as I think this is appropriate.  Though that threatens to be as arbitrary as all my other tags.

Ah well, as one judge said to the other, "Be just, and if you can't be just, be arbitrary."

A Brief History of the Sorrowfell Plains

(this is the basic setting information for Crux of Eternity, and I place it here for general reference — yes, I am aware it's a bit cheesy, but it gets the job done)

At the beginning of time, existence was formed from the Elemental Chaos. The Primordials, godlike beings from that place, formed the World, but continued to test their creation and plunge it back into the forge. The gods of the Astral Plane saw potential in this creation, and decided to stabilize it and give it life.

So were the seeds of the Dawn War sown.

Working together, the gods defeated and vanquished the Primordials, establishing the order we know today.

The Sorrowfell Plains — also known as the Plain of Sorrow, the Plain of Sorg, or Sorgheim — were established during the Dawn War. A redeemed Primordial by the name of Sorg aided the gods in their war to stabilize the World and save creation. During the Dawn War, Sorg was defeated by his brethren, and legends claim his corpse was interred in a tomb in the Sorrowfell Plains. The dwarves routinely claim he is buried deep beneath the foundries of Sorgforge.

Since that time, the Plain of Sorg has seen the rise and fall of empires. Some of the legendary battles between the Arkhosian dragonborn and the Turathi tieflings may have occurred on Sorgheim, though records from the time have been lost since the rise of Nerath and the Cackledread War.

The human empire of Nerath brought together the various races under one banner, and is renowned as a golden age. However, it has long since crumbled; the inhabitants of Sorgheim stopped receiving Nerathi aid roughly a century ago, though it was not until fifty years ago that the problem became clear.

The Cackledread War is still remembered by some of the elders still living. It was a time of strife when the hyena-like gnolls overran Sorgheim. Some towns and cities fell, though the major Nerathi city of Scandshar, as well as the dwarven town of Sorgforge and the primarily human Duchy Jepson both survived. Various elven towns in the forest — such as the xenophobic town of Nainimdul — survived as well.

Even so, it was not a war easily won. As gnolls stormed the gates, some gained access to the cities and towns through their teleportation circles. Unclean monsters took advantage of the monsters to attack the weakened towns, and Duchy Jepson notably had to prevent the impact of the Fatehammer comet.

In the fifty years since the Cackledread War, things have returned to a cautious sense of normalcy. Gnolls still stalk the wilderness between towns, and goblin and orc raids are constant threats. However, merchant caravans still make their rounds, and the town guards are vigilant.

Still, certain elements require caution. The criminals and nobles of the Illustrious Menagerie of Peacocks supposedly have contacts throughout various levels of society, extending their influences with infusions of cash and threats of violence. More frightening are the terrorists and cultists of the Broken Chain, a den of insane vipers who may seek nothing less than the annihilation of all that exists. They are suspected to be a Primordial cult, but no one has any solid facts. It is only known that they strike without warning, attacking merchant caravans, crowded marketplaces, and the occasional high-profile target. Some whisper that if they truly seek to end the world, they are destined to succeed. Rumors among some magicians claim that they are the cause of gates to other places known as Convergences, though most claim that these are just the ramblings of the scared and insane in the aftermath of the Cackledread War.

Nerath stands in ruins, and the wolves are howling at the gate. It is a time for heroes to rise.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Trial of Blood

Eztlequiuh is a game also known as the Trial of Blood (but more properly known as the Burden of Blood), and more commonly known as bloodball or football.  Eztlequiuh is a team sport played by residents of the Plain of Sorrow, and possibly played in other places throughout the world (since the fall of the Nerathi Empire, it has been relatively difficult to gain statistical information and census data from distant locations).  Some claim that it was developed by the dwarves, others by the half-orcs, but most scholars claim the game was developed by the ancient Olman Empire.

Historians believe the game originated as a bloody religious ceremony among the Olman people.  Each team was composed of eight individuals (typically Humans, reflecting the racial makeup of the Olmans); historians believe the number eight was sacred to the Olmans, and more importantly, that it was somehow relevant to the game.  Teams would attempt to deliver a ball through a small stone hoop, and some anecdotes suggest that any method to prevent the other team from scoring was legal.  Losers would be executed as sacrifices, and the game was difficult enough that it was possible for neither team to win.

Eztlequiuh is much more subdued these days. Modern Eztlequiuh is typically played in teams of eleven, and it is somewhat common for teams to be separated by race (though this is hardly a requirement). Modern Eztlequiuh is a friendly game wherein one team attempts to kick the ball into the other's goal; in this respect, it is similar to contemporary association football (a variant known as "handball" is more similar to contemporary American football).  It has a few minor differences and some regional variations, but is otherwise the same.

However, some cultures still cleave closer to the old ways.  Orcish settlements and slave-owners, for example, may still play Eztlequiuh as a bloodsport.  The city of Scandshar, in which slavery is still legal, occasionally repurposes slaves for gory Eztlequiuh tournaments.  If the losers are not executed, then players are encouraged to extremes of violence while playing, so as to defeat the other team through attrition as well as athleticism.

Particularly among these throwbacks, old traditions sometimes remain.  Some players and spectators may utter the cry of "Blood for blood!" which is thought to be part of an older chant to one of the forgotten gods of the Olman Empire.  Dark rumors claim that each game of Eztlequiuh — even the friendly ones! — feeds this dark entity, and some claim that a society of dwarves still serve this entity, crafting bloody Eztlequiuh spectacles that can last for days and funnel sacrifices to this Blood God.

You Should GM: Addendum

Last time, I wrote a little post about first-time Game Masters.  I thought of something else, as I'm sure I will do often, so I'm putting it here.  Maybe I'll organize a new label or something eventually.  Who knows?


• Acting isn't important.  Nobody cares if you can act or not.  Even if you just describe what's happening and have no actual "roleplaying" per se, a fun game is a fun game.  Jumping into character is frequently part of that fun, but don't feel constrained by it.  Also...

• Don't feel stupid.  You're gathered around a table, pretending to be fantasy people while engaging in what appears to be gambling.  Nobody will think you're stupid for making a silly voice, or doing something weird, or even making a mistake.  Put yourself out there and the game will pretty much always be memorable.

Monday, September 12, 2011

You Should GM

"You should run something!"

It's basically my watchword to anybody who roleplays.  I'm not sure if everyone should be a Game Master, but I certainly think everyone should give it a try.  My general recommendation is to try it once, and then try it again if you didn't like it the first time (maybe you had a bad day or a bad player or even a bad group).

But it occurs to me that I rarely give advice.  I'll say a couple of words of encouragement, but going from zero to running the beautiful anarchy of a roleplaying game is tough — a lot of these blogs give tools for running a game, but few of them give new GMs tools for running a game.

So, a couple of recommendations.

• Read this:  Zak's girlfriend talks about running her first game, and it has some good stuff in it.  Especially about winging it when you're a n00b.

• Run for friends.  Friends don't care if you mess up; a poorly-planned game just turns into an excuse to hang out and drink anyway.  And you're probably better at it than you think you are.

• Figure out what you want to run.  This is obvious, but there are a lot of choices.  Will it be funny or horrific?  Do you want to use an established setting or make up your own?  What system do you want to use?

• Determine your stance on those choices.  If you write a horror game, but everybody's having fun while making it goofy, maybe you want to let it go.  Established settings and rulesets are trickier: determine whether you're accepting advice or not.  "That's not how the rules work," or "That's not how that would happen in Synnabar."  You can accept that advice if you'd like, but you're better off saying, "That's not how it works in my game."

• Go with what you know.  Make sure it's a game you want to run.  Don't get pressured into running something.  If you don't know the game that well, but you really want to run it, I suggest ignoring complaints, as per above.

• Familiarize yourself with the rules.  While you can say bollocks to the rules, you should know some basic things.

• Adventure path or sandbox?  If you're just starting, I'd suggest a straightforward plot: find the gem, rescue the princess, something like that.  Consider, however: sandboxes (that is, games taking place in an area that the characters are free to explore, with the plot arising from character decisions) work well because they turn action into reaction.  The players do something, then you react, then they react, and pretty soon the plot builds itself organically.  I talk a little about the sandbox, though you can no doubt find lots of word count around the internet.  Leave a post if you want some good resources.

• Organize all your notes.  Get your notes in order and determine what happens.  If you write the adventure yourself, this is pretty easy because you already know it.  If you're using a prepublished adventure, read the adventure carefully.  A couple of times.

• Prepare to improv.  No plot survives contact with the players.  Come up with a list of random names (maybe the characters talk to a random shopkeep and you have to name him) and some other notes.  I devoted an article to improvising statistics in a few systems, so maybe look at that if it helps you.  Also note that some of you (maybe taking a hint from Mandy, according the article I posted at the top of the page) completely improvise the game.  That's fine.  It's a different feel than planning, but it's certainly not wrong (and if you can pull it off, you just developed the most important skill as a Game Master).

• It's okay if you mess up.  I ran two Imperial City games before I started the "official" version.  Just take the ideas you developed and try again.  Your players are probably your friends, so they won't care.  Even if you say, "Wait a minute, I need to back that up," your players will forgive you.  As in acting, though, it's best to just gloss over a mistake and continue playing.  But either way should be cool.

• Run for a small group.  The average group, more or less, is one Game Master to five players.  Limit yourself to three or less players.  I typically recommend trying a one-on-one session with someone you trust: a sibling, a good friend, or a significant other.

Basically, remember that you're running this for fun, hopefully for people who are your friends.  Prepare what you want to do, but be prepared to improvise.  Don't worry about getting something wrong: roleplaying is freeform enough that the only wrong thing to do involves not having fun (if your players cause that much anxiety, maybe find another group?).

If you forget a rule or skip a part, don't worry about it.  Your players will probably never notice.

And if you're ever really stuck, don't forget Chandler's Law.  Use the time during combat to figure out who these guys happen to be (typically working for some enemy faction, or a new faction if your game is really stagnating).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Unexpected Horror

Two things:

Horror thrives on helplessness, but responsibility can be horrific, too.  This is the basic idea behind Eraserhead (as much as David Lynch can be said to present a thesis), and the roleplaying game Unknown Armies uses this as a central premise.  At first, the bewildering weirdness is the main source of horror, but it is quickly revealed that you have too much responsibility, and just what do you plan on doing with that?  Yes, you can go mad with power, but power can also be sobering.  It doesn't even have to be high-concept: you're a king.  Make a decision and think about how many people you affect.  Try to avoid becoming a total monster.

Also, to repeat a thing I've mentioned before, people always talk about limiting character resources as a path to power; that the Monty Haul game and horror just don't work together.  I disagree.  In Aliens, the Colonial Marines have everything they need to form an effective military force and pacify the situation, and it's still not enough.  Those resources might be enough to stop the problem, but they must be used carefully, because the enemies are cunning and tough.  Play Call of Cthulhu to see this trope in action: pretty much everything your character gets will limit you in some way.  You might get magic, magic items, and the knowledge necessary to combat your foes, but this is almost always poisoned in some way.  Each thing you get makes you less able to face the foes you fight (because you're more prone to freak out or become one of the very things you face), and less able to relate to your fellow humans (because you know things they don't and you might be too crazy to talk rationally).

Things to consider, as usual.

Sharpened Hooks: Accidental Occult Science

Consider the following:

Magic is a collection of symbols assembled to focus the will.  The symbols frequently aren't important; the important part is what they mean to the user.  This is a very postmodern view of magic, but most games relate to this in some way.  D&D is one of the last holdouts: rituals require specific components to work, although in 4e, those components are ill-defined such that there might be a wide variety of reagents to be used for rituals.  It can also be argued that magic is taught by mages, and they probably have a specific method of doing things; it's possible that the Vancian magic of D&D is completely cultural, and that another fantasy culture might use something different.

The most important fact from this is that magic is mysterious and unreliable (D&D is a borderline case as magic frequently just works, though some sources imply that magic is not as reliable for most NPCs).

Now consider Call of Cthulhu.

Magic in Call of Cthulhu is just different.  Yes, it's mysterious and unreliable, but not because it draws on symbolism and human will.  It's mysterious and unreliable because you don't understand it.  The magic of the Cthulhu Mythos isn't magic as we understand it; it is composed of scientific principles we have yet to discover (and Lovecraft being Lovecraft, we can't discover those principles without destroying ourselves and radically altering our civilization to something insane and lawless by the standards of our current society).  You don't inscribe a weird sigil while intoning a weird chant and holding a weird image in your mind because this focuses your will, you follow these steps because magic is a recipe or a chemical reaction, and if you follow the steps exactly, magic happens because you hit upon the right combination of factors (the Elder Sign is the classic example: it's not a cross to be brandished but an extradimensional hyperbarrier that physically blocks entities with extradimensional anatomies).  If you mix vinegar and baking soda, it makes a big mess whether you understand redox reactions or not, and any would-be anarchist can make a Molotov cocktail whether he understands the full interactions of the combustion reaction or not.  Likewise, a lot of historians have made the observation that the person who invented gunpowder and the person who developed gunpowder were probably different, because the Chinese alchemist who was looking for the Taoist elixir of life probably detonated his lab when he accidentally discovered gunpowder.  Then, some other guy wanted to make a big boom, too, and replicated his work very carefully.

Keeping this in mind, it is possible that a human would stumble across the principles of the Yog-Sothothery without fully understanding them.  Note that this is somewhat different from, say, the sorcerer's apprentice; the sorcerer's apprentice should know better, and the trope usually implies some moral about responsibility.  On the other hand, the accidental scientist never had a chance.  He didn't know he was meddling with obscene power, but now he's stuck with the consequences of his actions.

Obviously, these are the sorts of things from which plots originate.

Imagine the PCs find strange events, and find the evidence of somebody summoning something that cannot be put down or some similarly strange and/or horrible event (or maybe the event is somehow beneficial, but it is unnatural enough that it needs to be stopped anyway).  But rather than the suspected cultist activity, they find someone who might be schizophrenic, or frightened, or dead.  It was an accident, and an accident that could possibly be replicated by anyone who has a similar idea.

Note that this can be used in scenarios other than horror: even though magic is primarily symbolic, maybe someone hits upon the right symbolism to focus his or her will.  Accidental curses are a common element of fantasy, after all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tales of a Guerrilla Roleplayer: The Imperial City

I've mentioned it a few times before, but here's the rundown.

I ran a campaign.  It was crazy and sprawling and lovely.  We played for about eight years, but the game only took place from 2000-2002, with the bulk of the game taking place from August 2001 to June 2002.  It took place in New York City, in the old World of Darkness.  It was called The Imperial City.

I was young when I started running it, and I had all sorts of big, crazy ideas.  For starters: play whatever you want.  Second: I'll probably include whatever I want.  If something sounds cool, I'll try to use it somewhere.

After a couple of false starts, the plot basically took the form recognizable by any of its players.  After some time spent playing, the scope narrowed: mages only.

It wasn't any feat of writing, but it was apparently fun to play.  I take very little credit for that.  For most people, it was luck: it was their first long-running campaign.  Or their first roleplaying game ever.  For others, gaming was scarce, and they found an excuse to goof around with a bunch of friends.

But apparently, people had fun.  We still talk about it from time to time.

The Imperial City New York was a sandbox, albeit one with certain imperatives.  There were Technocrats and Nephandi, and the occasional Marauder.  Presumably, there were Traditionalist politics, but these were young mages with a powerful patron, and they were largely insulated from such petty bickering.  Really, their patrons were fighting the good fight against the other factions in the city.

The game was insane.

Don't get me wrong.  I've run games multiples of insanity higher than this one.  I wrote a campaign setting where a sapient bear in power armor with a lightsaber and a pet Pokémon is a viable character option.  I have recently run three games with a 100% mortality rate.  I've run games where characters are fomori from Freak Legion.

But where those had some level of planning, Imperial City was the Wild West.  I had never run a game, so it had a free-wheeling character that I haven't really emulated again.  People could play what they wanted as long as it made sense.  If you were willing to put some work into it, it didn't even have to make sense.  I mean, a vampire, a weredragon, a cyborg, and a bunch of wizards live in a house together.  Does that make any sense?

And the story was whatever you wanted out of it.  I threw history, occult symbolism, and literature (the trinity of Heart of Darkness, The Hollow Men, and Apocalypse Now were major influences on the game) into the mix, and had an enormous number of NPCs, but if you wanted, you could easily get by on ridiculous setpiece battles.  The PCs fought mummies in nightclubs, mutants in hotels, and Nazis on New York City streets.

I also refer to it as guerilla roleplaying due to the scheduling.  Initially, there was the typical attempt at playing on specific days, but after a while, there wasn't any.  Imperial City was held whenever players were together and wanted to play.  We played in houses, but we also played in cars, in restaurants (Denny's and IHOP both saw some late nights of gaming), on walks, in hotel rooms, and online.  A character fell to the Nephandi, and her first task was to betray her mentor.  We rolled the combat on one of the metal counters at the back of a 7-11 (which wasn't so much a combat as a brutal murder, which is why we could get away with combat on the go).

Speaking of brutal murder, Imperial City was full of them.  It was the deadliest game I've ever run, as it was completely unforgiving: if you wander into a situation where you should die and do not immediately extricate yourself from that situation, your death is probably the only outcome.  I encouraged characters doing things on their own time — long chains of solo play ran throughout the campaign's run — but mistakes were frequently bloody.  There's a binder of defunct characters, and while most of those are dead NPCs or characters who just stopped being used, there's a sizable group of dead PCs.

This ensemble cast also lent the game its unique mythology: as players and characters came and went, they added more stuff to the campaign setting.  Major NPCs were added or given enhanced backstories by players rather than myself.  Extra NPC groups were added by people who were between characters.  For as much as people give me credit with the intricate plot, everyone added something.  There was an entire Chantry formed from the misfits of other Chantries.  Major NPCs like Kalidas and Regina weren't really my creations, but background elements from PC backstories.  Doctor Stopwatch was revealed to be a member of a small school for orphans with special abilities.  Doctor Zirpoli was revealed to have funded said school.  None of these elements are truly mine, and I think the game benefited from that.

Recently, I've been going through my old notes, and it's a bit odd.  I left a lot of gaps in my notes because I mostly remembered what was happening.  It's been four years since then, and now there are gaps in my memory.  Some of my notes seem like things other people wrote.  For as much as I forget, though, the amount I remember is similarly surprising.  I read some notes and see things I was introducing, plot hooks I was throwing into the mix.  I read other notes and recall what was happening, how things turned out.  It's all very odd, but it's interesting reading.  I've changed in some ways, and stayed the same in others.

We've been talking for four years about doing a reunion, and my plans are still nebulous, but I think I'm ready to return to Imperial City.  Part of my hesitation is simply being busy, but a large part is the concern that the game has come and gone and any sequel will add a sour note to something best left alone.  People have been excited at the prospect, though, so we'll see.  If I actually do a reunion, I'll be sure to keep better records for the benefit of anyone who is interested in that sort of thing.  And probably for myself, so that when I look back five years later, I'm not completely bewildered by what I read.

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