Saturday, 21 November 2009

recap: recession-proof gaming and useful tools

C'mon - you knew this would happen sometime... so just imagine Don La Fontaine doing this voiceover!

First there was recession-proof gaming.  Then there was the sequel.  The field got opened up with no money, no time, no problem!  Then proof that the internet provides.  The search for stuff introduced pocketmods, graphic tools and yet more generators.  Then the discovery of undiscovered toys that could save you time.

Yet it's not just about the financiapocalypse.  It's also about making your life as games master easier - whether you have a game in sixty minutes, need some steampunk or use kanban to help you develop characters.  Add useful web 2.0 tools, browser tricks and TiddlyWiki, mindmapping and writing tools and you have an arsenal to draw on when creating a game. With these resources, it's getting easier to make the game you want to play.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

campaign branding: adding dimensions

Groups of people tend to be famous for one thing.  Even if that is being good at nearly everything or having taken it's greatest innovations from other cultures.  There are numerous proverbs and adages about nation and race which create stereotype, trope and cliche. From these arise the numerous interactions and insults that each culture will have for others.

However no culture is defined by one sole activity and supporting industries, save only in those stereotypes.  Even the generic fantasy dwarf is known for metalwork and stonemasonry as well as mining.  The ancient Greeks were not only thinkers but also warriors, sailors and storytellers.  Traditional cultures like the Maori or Inuit have more than one focus, even if that focus is significant to their survival.

So why limit game cultures to one stereotype?  This is OK for quick thumbnail sketches, to get more than that, more is needed.  Using the principle of significance (if it buys you nothing, who cares?) you can work out interesting takes on culture based on a particular race or species.  Some can be linked to environmental factors, yet others can be driven by different things.

One way is to exaggerate inherent qualities, as done by John Wick and Jess Heinig's Wicked Fantasy articles (an example is the Uvandir dwarves) in Kobold Quarterly.  Another is to contrast the desired trait against the typical inherent quality.  The old TSR Dark Sun setting did this brilliantly with hairless dwarves and tribal halflings who would like to eat you as much as discuss your future alliance with them.

Finally you can take the mechanics and riff something totally new.  White Wolf Arthaus' take on Ravenloft (remember that?) did that with half-orcs by turning them into caliban, humans twisted by hag magics into something inhuman.  Transforming stat blocks into new monsters is a fine and noble tradition of DMs and the ability to generate good fluff on the fly is a skill to be cultivated.

With these tools, you can create diverse cultures and bring in exotic elements.  Proud elven swashbucklers in tiger fur cloaks, sailing black swanships as pirates.  Gnomes using glassblowing, magic and alchemy to make crystalline constructs.  Hobgoblin nomads, phenomenally skilled in mounted archery who say each shot is a prayer to their god. Or you can go with the same old, same old.

The only limit is your imagination.  Remember?

(Inspired by this post at RPG Athenaeum about campaign cultures and equipment.)

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

the pale house

From the ashes of a failed necromantic cabal, this group is a cell of Inferati spawned in the insurrection led by Simkin Lanternon. As Mnemesyx led Lanternon's army, the cabal quietly removed corpses from battlefields.  Mnemesyx sensed them and bade the pretender leave. Lanternon's failure led a trapped Mnemesyx to send nightmares with hints of Abyssal lore to the necromancers.  This dark inspiration led to indiscretion, vengeful heroes culled the grave diggers of necromancy.  Or had they?

Survivors allied in desperation, saving the books.  Using the mortician's trade for respectability, the Pale House formed.  Aspirants were brutally tested as wary necromancers worked in mausoleums.  Mnemesyx sent more nightmares, teasing them with Abyssal magics.  The Pale House bound demons into items, mocking it's imprisonment.  Finally Mnemesyx wrote words of summoning in the dreams of the Magisters Manifest 

Whisper (the grave attendant)
Requires: Unaligned, Evil or Chaotic Evil, Religion skill.
Benefits:  Gain a +1 bonus to Religion checks concerning demons, undead or funeral rites.
A potential whisper is subjected to ordeals with animated corpses and minor demons to deaden their hearts. They learn funerary rites and lore about undead and demons.  Whispers are tasked with being messengers and doing dark deeds for the Pale House for ritual lore.  Loyal and efficient service leads to initiation into the possessed.  Betrayal, assassination and committing atrocity guarantees it.

Possessed (the black-hearted artisan)
Requires: Whisper rank, Evil or Chaotic Evil, Ritual Caster, Arcana skill.
Benefits:  Gain a +2 bonus to Religion checks concerning demons, undead or funeral rites (supersedes bonus gained at previous rank).
Gain access to the following rituals: enchant magic item, magic circle, linked portal, speak with dead.  Other rituals involving necromancy, enchantment and portal magic of 10th level or lower may be available to the possessed rank at the DM's discretion.
The possessed learns how to make basic magic items and the following: amulet of false life, amulet of health, bag of holding, black iron armour, belt of vigour, berserker weapon, deathcut armour, delver's armour, flaming weapon, lifedrinker weapon, lightning weapon, ritual candle, staff of fiery might, terror weapon, vicious weapon.

A potential possessed delves into magical lore and undergo trials to remove any vestige of goodness in their soul.  Once initiated, they learn ritual magics and perform acts of necromancy, enchantment and enabling travel by teleportation circle.  A possessed only has their own power to control one or more whispers and often has to resort to intimidation and violence in handling the more problematic lower ranks.

Magister Manifest (the master of their trade)
Requires: Possessed rank, Chaotic Evil, Iron Will,
Benefits:  Gain a +4 bonus to Religion checks concerning demons, undead or funeral rites (supersedes bonus gained by previous ranks).
Gain access to the following rituals: consult mystic sages, planar portal (Abyss, Shadowfell), shadow walk.  Other rituals involving necromancy, enchantment, commanding immortal creatures and portal magic of 18th level or lower may be available to the magister manifest at the DM's discretion.
A potential magister manifest betrays civilisation, species and the living to command the Abyss and the dead through ritual magics.  The typical magister manifest focusses on experiments, directing both possessed and whisper alike to their goals while testing them by harrowing ordeals.  The magisters are careful to limit contact with society unless they are sure there are no threats.  Then evil truly becomes apparent.

Leaving the Pale House is usually the last act of a former member.   Paranoid sociopathic demonologists and necromancers never forgive or forget.  Supported by followers with access to magic items and undead, the chase is typically brief, behind closed doors and spectacularly violent.  Orcus says nothing but no Pale House member who petitions The Lord of Undeath or joins an Orcus cult has ever survived doing so.

(Inspired by the post Demonic Allegiances at Nevermet Press.)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

ave morituri

Inspired by the discussion between Ideamancer and Wyatt at Spirits of Eden about setting up a 4E PVP game following NewbieDM's post about a breakout of 4E PVP play.  Gladiators are a staple of the Dark Sun setting and Thyatis in D&D so it seems a logical setting for such activity.  I've been in a number of games that have used the arena as a backdrop and even run a couple.  The setup makes for a different take on the more traditional warrior-as-soldier.

Gladiatorial combat is a staple of some civilisations, their origin in Etruscan times (from Greek games or Celtic contests) as a funerary honour.  Those chosen to die in combat wore armour taken in battle against warriors from Samnium, creating a tradition of naming some armoured gladiators samnites.  This led to a form of historic/mythical reenactment and promoting Etruscan and Roman superiority over foreigners.  The contests (munera) to honour the dead were lavish if private affairs leading to gestures of public generosity.

From such roots sprang the spectacle of Roman games (ludi).  Gladiators fought each other, captured beasts and condemned criminals in contests based on famous wars and mythic struggles.  Julius Caesar forged them into a political weapon.  With the rise of empire, munera entered decline with Spartacus' rebellion, the Senate limited the number of gladiators owned by an individual to stop private armies forming and anti-corruption laws proved increasingly ineffectual.

The ludus became a political tool, Augustus formalised them as civic duty and limited private sponsorship of munera, relegating them to ludi at Saturnalia and Quinquatria.  State-sponsored ludi grew with the remit of the Imperial cult into extravagant spectacles.  Commodus, Claudius, Caracalla and others used ludi to exhibit martial prowess, a scandalous act as gladiators were often criminals or slaves, tattooed or branded on the face or hands (these were called stigmata) to show their status.

The lanista, who managed a gladiator school was seen by Romans as little more than an overpriced pimp and sometimes sold gladiators for that purpose. Private owners of wealth or standing (munerator or editor) had no such stigma.  Owners had the power of life or death over their gladiators and put them through gruelling training in stratified groups based on chosen tactics and criminal status.  Access to massage and medicine as well as a quality diet was noted. Galen, a noted physician gained experience at a school in Pergamum.

A gladiatorial game need not just feature combat.  A life in the arena campaign could feature intrigue as well as politics and a reason for exotic race and characters to associate.  While the use of magics would need to be considered (people hurling fireballs in the arena may be a problem), flashy effects are part of the spectacle of a Romanesque ludus.  The arena is a convenient place of execution, strange beasts may appear and there is the possibility of fame, freedom and betting on the outcome.

What more could you ask for?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

toolkit: theme

Theme is a proposition set down, a connecting or dominant idea to be explored, the message you want to convey so that when you stand back, you see it writ large on your story or game.  The classics of story and interactive gameplay have strong themes.  You can play without theme - it's predominantly mechanical play where luck, strategy and rapport with other players matter more than thinking out of the box and using your imagination. 

Theme must also speak to the reality the audience currently inhabits, the big picture.  If a theme is relevant to our wider experience it will resonate with us and some stories gain considerable momentum when released at the right time.  Equally some games and stories have social footprints be it raising awareness of health issues or encouraging virtual tourism or even joining a game by donating to cancer treatment.

To communicate a theme, support it with relevant content.  Give the audience situations that fulfill dramatic, informational and emotional needs while discussing the theme or issues preceding from it.  These can be illuminated by genre conventions, amplified by tension and flavoured by sense memory.  Two guys sitting on opposite sides of a table isn't exciting.  An interrogation or police interview?  That's a different story...

Backstory and characters are two additional tools to induce interest.  Backstory has been used to mechanical video games more interesting for a very long time now and even provides context for movies.  Characters are not only story engines by driving the plot forward, they serve as behavioural models to induce empathy, awe  or even admiration in the audience.

By linking the theme and it's related concepts to relevant and entertaining situations, by embedding it in the background and hooking it to characters, a game or story can take it's audience for a ride they'll enjoy and remember.  Finding a good fit and making it feel natural is a matter of craft and practice.  Stories can be owned until they become natural and when this happens it becomes even more powerful.

Friday, 13 November 2009

inns and taverns: the summer swan

The Summer Swan is a narrow boat that works the river, providing ale and wine to the thirsty while avoiding many of the taxes most innkeeps pay. When it moors, a marquee and rough benches are set up and people are invited to sup the ale that is traded and brewed aboard.  On fair weather days, the marquee is sometimes dispensed with and the ale flows freely to farmhands and fishermen alike.

This has led to some antagonism with local inns, lords and sheriffs but this is smoothed over by trading small kegs of high-quality and potent pale ale and when it's needed, some coin.  Word of the Summer Swan's destinations travel swiftly with travellers and ne'er-do-wells, it is a welcome haven for tinkers, journeymen, gypsies, minstrels and runaways and these folk watch out for the boat and it's captain.

The captain and landlord is a slight, wiry man of indeterminate age and gleaming eyes.  He plays chess and fiddle exceptionally well and his genial manner barely hides a tireless enthusiasm for life, high tolerance for his own wares and low tolerance for boredom.  He keeps three calico cats that only he can tell apart and these fuss over anyone except the disagreeable, the diseased and those with an air of wrongness about them.

In the stern of the boat is a remarkably lifelike wooden figurehead of a barmaid; buxom, blonde-haired and clad in brown.  The captain claims it is his wife and will jokingly tell her to stop nagging to the amusement of his customers.  On the rare times he gets drunk (late at night during certain festivals), he talks to the figurehead and even hugs it, weeping softly as if lost to something or someone.

The pale ale he brews is light, refreshing and strong.  He keeps small barrels of dark stout and heather ale as well as brown bottles of fiery whiskey, apple brandy, elderflower wine and damson spirit.  He doesn't serve food, scarcely having enough to feed himself and his friends.  "You want food, you bring it!" is often laughingly shouted by those in the know at those the worse for wear by drinking on an empty stomach.

The Summer Swan will always move on after seven days anywhere, even with ideal conditions for trade and large crowds of customers.  Travellers and merchants are aware of the boat's passage and sometimes form spontaneous free markets to the consternation of nearby towns.  The question is not if the captain is a smuggler, the question is of what.  Yet until now, nobody has found anything that wasn't meant to be there...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

points of order

This post at Chgowiz's blog about making clerics relevant made me smile - it reminded me of the hoary days of 2E and how the cleric as armour-plated, mace-wielding healer/detector/undead turner with smiting options became something more interesting.  Making characters go beyond treasure hunting is something that you can apply to other classes too.  This looks relevant to this month's RPG Blog Carnival too! 

Beyond the classic trope of the thieves guild (or the order of wizards or knights) not much thought was given to groups the characters belong to beyond membership costs and  limited modifiers to reaction rolls without being overly bureaucratic or screwing characters over. Why limit yourself (and your players) when you can give them more interesting things to do?

Affiliation with any group can be fun if it fulfills certain needs - solving problems and providing benefits to it's members.   If your game has archetypes, groups may form around these or form complimentary partnerships (e.g. Red Wizard and Thayan Knight prestige classes) based on common ground and develop identities of their own.  With sufficient membership, a group has rudimentary character and iconic image. 

Imperial stormtroopers in Star Wars are a strong example.  Their white uniform, group tactics and bully-boy attitude perfectly fit their minion role.  Common elements and uniform identity builds distinction and induces audience interest, particularly if it subverts commonplace tropes.   This makes them memorable but overuse erodes any icon. Some variation keeps things fresh.

Designing a group is simple enough - imagine it's a character!  Define it's problems and the benefits it offers to reveal attitude, attributes and needs.  An order of knights sworn to slay dragons look and feel different to a gang of righteous rogues fighting a tyrant.  These differences may have system or aesthetic impacts.  Using these generates distinctive attributes and infers methods of operation.

Determine a hierarchy, the further up, the more the group character is exemplified. Three or four layers is enough, each may have it's own benefits or constraints which escalate or diminish.  If an individual conflicts with the group, they diverge by inclination, action or consequence.  If the conflict contrasts with the group, that builds interest. Some examples will appear in future posts so watch this space.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

upgrading excalibur

This post at Musings of the Chatty DM got me thinking on my attitude to magic items and their receipt and use by PCs as they gain levels.  It's inevitable as characters advance that challenges are greater.  Yet do they need more powerful equipment to face those threats as well?  In some cases yes - you can't hurt certain monsters without the right weapons!

Previous editions of D&D introduced creatures that needed silver or magical weapons to hit them.  In 2E, this happened with Deities & Demigods, again with Monster Manual II and again with Ravenloft.  Yet 3E that codified the process, raising player expectations of  large quantities of magical items and if you compare things, the results can be jarring.

I've previously expressed my dislike of shopping for magical items.  Having player wishlists may be a case of campaign planning yet I feel this is meta-gaming.  Shopping for magical items are a subversion of form rather than a default condition.  Also the question of what happens to the originals. Plot helps prevent golf bags of magical swords but those without authority figures to redistribute their wealth may feel railroaded.

Do player wishlists really enable the game?  I have misgivings, having seen at least one player leverage an item combo into game-breaking with the justification of 'I wanted to see if it worked'.  Etiquette aside a moment, there is also the variation of balance within sourcebooks.  DM veto is always an option along with debates with players about the fairness of it all - this is one of the perks of the job.

Phil proposes that items are upgraded instead - a solution mentioned in 3.xE and 4E but the costs of doing so are intensive.  In 4E, using residuum to boost item power or finding item recipes or components is much better and offers plot (and skill challenge) options. Plus it gives people reason to hate rust monsters.  I prefer this option, even if gathering item components has it's own perils.

Some PCs may become monster charcutiers or host elf blood drives for potions of longevity.  This kind of unethical behaviour fits the frontier mentality and unsavoury reputations adventurers deserve.  There is always the matter of preservation as well.  These things can be done but I like the concept of exotic components and jars of pickled monster parts in a game.  Such ephemera lends an air of the grotesque which appeals to me.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

pretender to the throne

Regaining my armour is the beginning.  My banner shall fly anew and our fortunes will be restored. What was sundered can be made whole and our throne is within reach again.
-- Simkin Lanternon, exile and pretender to the throne.

Born of a lampmaker and a disgraced lady-in-waiting Simkin Lanternon grew up in a land where noble blood assured power.  His ambition was pricked and he turned to deception.  From this Simkin learned the seeming of nobility with the blessing of his embittered mother and ambitious friends looking for a fast path to power and court.  His intellect and semblance to a former king set him on a collision course with the nobles of his homeland who spurned this newcomer and his grasping friends.

The king was newly crowned, resented by his subjects for heavy taxation and hated abroad for overthrowing the former monarch, a practice the foreign kings hoped to quash.  Lanternon travelled to their courts as a knight errant who decried the tyranny afflicting his homeland.  Nobles in exile confirmed his lineage with divinations (Simkin was a bastard of the former king's uncle) and began to groom him for greater things while Simkin bought legitimacy with his treason and flourished as he toured.

A certain king had come to possess a demon-ridden helmet that whispered dark thoughts to it's wearer, he presented it in a set of armour for Simkin. He knew Simkin would fail as he was skilled in tourney but not battle. Giving away the helmet removed a burden and left a trap for Simkin's slayer. Mnemesyx and Simkin fed off the other's incitations and the growing cruelty in Simkin was heralded as 'the will to conquer' by those courts who sheltered him and his exiled supporters.

Convinced he was ready, the exiles hired mercenaries and a seasoned captain eager for war. Simkin would lead a popular revolt and usurp the usurper.  When Simkin landed, he was joined by friends and disaffected nobles.  Mnemesyx saw it's chance and rallied the forces.  The mercenaries took a coastal town loyal to the king and ravaged it then sailed up the coast to a new attack. This attack failed as Simkin resisted Mnemesyx's influence and the resulting bad tactical decisions allowed the enemy to regroup.

Changing plan, Simkin chose to attack a town further inland at the behest of Mnemesyx. After three days of fighting, the town fell yet the conquerors were besieged as the king's general came with a greater force who slaughtered the mercenaries and punished the treasonous.  Simkin was captured alive by a knight errant who claimed his armour as a prize and ransomed Simkin to the exiles.  The exiles plot with Simkin again for the pretender is now a scheming demagogue. Mnemesyx has taught him well.

Simkin plots to steal the armour and helm from the now-titled knight who took and keeps them as trophies, being ignorant of the demon within.  He presents himself as the unfortunate victim of a melee in which he was robbed yet 'enemies at court' would see him dead were he to return home to his friends.  Once the armour is restored, he will recommence his plans for usurping the king.  This time he intends to give Mnemesyx full rein in his ambitions. Adventurers may find themselves on either side of this plot.

This post is inspired by Mnemesyx, The Twice Fallen  by Nevermet Press  and Perkin Warbeck.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

exclusive! review: heroes or villains? miniature pack

Review: Heroes or Villains? pack by 6d6Fireball Miniatures.
These miniatures were provided by 6d6Fireball for review purposes.  Fame & Fortune is an affiliate of (check the Affiliates box under the RPG Bloggers Network button for details).
  Have to go with fireballs.  One bad, five awesome.

Metal miniatures are a binary proposition - either a must-have or you pick them up on the fly while waiting for your FLGS to re-order Pathfinder.  Recent editions of D&D encourage using miniatures in tactical play and even the hoariest grognard has a small collection gleaned over years of play.  Those looking for a motley band of all-male adventuring types may get their itch scratched here. So, going from left to right...

First Corvell, an aspiring wizard with a goatee beard and funny hat in wide sleeved doublet and breeches.  He raises a hand in some kind of invocation while clutching a scroll.  Detail is good with a spell-book shaped satchel and a glyph on his upraised hand.  Looks like he's stepped out of Legends of the Seeker.

Next, Drax the Chain (human fighter in chain with a spiked chain) is attacking his enemy.  As many pre-gen human fighters in WotC 3.xE supplements either uses a bastard sword or spiked chain, DMs get replayability and the level of detail is good, from the closed helm to the sagging backpack and belt pouches.

Then Kiris, Mightiest of Gnomes is clad in a brigandine jack, open-faced helm and wielding an axe in two hands.  Tall for a gnome, it shows a willowy build that differentiates him from bulky dwarves but still shows a warrior capable of hacking kobolds and goblins down.  That axe still means business though and this figure would work well in any fantasy setting.

Finally, Celebhith, a bearded ranger-type in chain with detachable sprue for his arms and longsword - he's described as a half-elf but is as tall as either of the humans here.  The slung sword and bow over his back indicate he's ready for both distance and close-up fighting. Some assembly is needed - this figure can be customised with a little care and epoxy.. 

Summary: 4 fireballs.
The figures are comparable quality to Ral Partha and beg to be painted.  There was some minor and easily removed (by fingernail) flash on the legs of Drax and Celebhith.  The figures are good value and as a pack of four, would make a good bundle of henchmen or NPCs. You can buy them individually if you like but the pack is good value and offers variety.

Bonus Discount Code - £3.00 off one order per person at 6d6Fireball Miniatures.  Type in satyre091.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

story: don juan tenorio

A play by Jose Zorilla performed in Spain on All Saint's Day for over 100 years, the story provides buckets of inspiration, be it the nature of the bets taken, deceiving someone, statues coming to life, a feast with an unexpected stone guest ending in a duel or a desperate, last minute plea for redemption from a rake.  This is a romanticised version of the play 'The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest' by de Molina, whose original plot was a moralist critique of Spanish honour as a veneer for sin which is a retelling of the legend of Don Juan or his equally notorious Italian equivalent, Don Giovanni.

A stranger enters a crowded Seville inn, wanting to learn about the exploits of a gentleman who his daughter will marry.  The landlord reveals that the gentleman and his companion will arrive shortly.  Devilish rakes Don Juan and Don Luis enter, to learn who won their bet of who seduced more women and killed more men in that year. Don Juan wins on both counts.  As Don Luis fumes, the crowd ask Don Juan if he ever fears the consequences.  Don Juan replies he only thinks of the present.  Don Luis reveals Don Juan slept with women of every social standing save two, a novice about to take holy vows and a woman engaged to be married. Coincidently, both are currently engaged to be married, Don Luis to Dona Ana and Don Juan to Dona Ines. 

Luis makes a rash wager that Don Juan will not manage to seduce a woman of either kind and Juan accepts, says he will do this in a week and that Dona Ana will be the engaged woman!  Now the stranger is revealed as Don Gonzalo, the father of Dona Ines.  He declares Don Juan will never see her again and cancels the wedding.  Don Juan boasts Ines will be his, given willingly or taken by force.  With Ines taking vows, the stage is truly set.  By chance, personality, trickery and bribery, Juan manages both the seduction of Ana and abduction of Ines to his manor in one night.

He does not seduce Ines, instead both tenderly profess their love for each other.  Juan has found someone he can truly love rather than just seduce.  Yet Don Luis arrives, outraged Juan impersonated him in his seduction of Ana.  Then Don Gonzalo arrives with the town guard to accuse Juan of kidnapping and seducing Ines.  Surprisingly Don Juan pleads for the hand of Ines on his knees.  Gonzalo and Luis mock his cowardice and demand his life which pushes Juan to declare having been rejected as a good person, he will continue as the devil.  He shoots Don Gonzalo, stabs Don Luis and abandons the fatherless Dona Ines to flee the country.

Five years pass and Don Juan returns, pardoned for his crimes.  Yet he returns to find his manor torn down and a cemetary for his victims in it's place.  Juan's father, Don Diego Tenorio disowned his son and built the cemetary for Juan's victims with his inheritance.  Lifelike statues of Gonzalo, Luis and Ines are present and the sculptor reveals Ines died of sorrow soon after she was abandoned before leaving.   Juan expresses regret and prays to Ines for forgiveness.  Her statue comes to life and reveals that Juan has a day to live, she has made a deal with God to offer her soul on behalf of Juan's.  God has declared both will be bound together so Juan must choose for both - salvation or damnation.

At this point, two of Juan's friends Avellaneda and Centellas appear.  Juan convinces himself Ana hasn't just spoken to him and in a fit of bravado heretically invites Gonzalo's statue to dine with them this eve.  During the meal, Juan blasphemes against the dead and Heaven until Gonzalo's statue walks in.  His friends pass out from fright and Gonzalo's statue intones Juan's time is running out before departing.  Avellaneda and Centellas wake up and Juan accuses them of a practical joke to mock him.  They accuse him of drugging their wine to mock them.  A duel ensues.

Now Juan is led to the graveyard by Gonzalo's ghost.  There Gonzalo's tomb opens and an almost empty hourglass is revealed.  Gonzalo explains this is Juan's life, almost ended as Centellas killed Juan in the duel and he takes Juan's arm, ready to lead him to hell.  Juan cries out, denying he is dead and reaching to heaven for mercy.  Ines appears and redeems him, both then go to heaven together.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

dracula the un-dead

Nottingham, October 31st 2009.

It is with heavy heart and light hand that I lay down this novel and attempt to compose my thoughts on this latest story of the great Un-dead, Dracula.  Knowing the precious hours spent reading cannot return fills me with a sense of longing for innocence.  Yet what has been read cannot be unread.  What permits me to set this book aside lightly, rather than hurling it with great force as Dorothy Parker suggests is that it has not been penned by Dan Brown.  That I fear would be a burden beyond endurance but it perhaps is an expectation of fidelity and pedigree that make this horror seem less than it is.

Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre has with the help of Ian Holt, elucidated events twenty-five years after in what is described as the 'official' sequel to the novel and the return of vampires to London.  Yet there is no respect for those characters, the literary style that Bram Stoker used or geography  (Carfax Abbey being in Purfleet, near London not Whitby).  It reads like a modern re-imagining with vampires with entirely black eyes who have forgotten their mesmering stares, whose mouths fill with fangs and who become reptilian brutes in the mode of the movie Van Helsing.

The essential nobility of the survivors is destroyed by ensnaring them in vices and despair.  Almost nothing of the original people survives, fast friendships eroded and frayed, familial and marital bonds now bitter burdens resentfully born by all involved.  Mina Harker is transformed from the resolute muse of her band to vacillating, guilt-ridden ingenue.  Jonathan Harker is a controlling sot trying to numb Mina's love for Dracula with visits to prostitutes, Arthur Holmwood is bitter and loveless with a death wish and Van Helsing palsied and helpless while posturing before Dracula's portrait.  Surely they deserve better.

And it appears talent skips a generation.  Quincey Harker has grown into a wilful trust fund baby obsessed with acting rather than inheriting a lawyer's practice and resentful of family secrets.  Bram Stoker himself plays a part in this book and historical figures take a bow as do with knowing nods to actors who have played Dracula in cameo.  The pall cast by Jack the Ripper offers red herring relief from the bloody massacre of those who killed Dracula.  Or did they?  For it appears a vampire is stalking the night and killing again.

Inevitable comparisons, particularly to Kim Newman's Anno Dracula and Fred Saberhagen's Dracula series will be made and I fear this book does not come out favourably.  Another sequel seems certain and a movie treatment almost inevitable.  My heart is filled with foreboding as a result, the book indeed elaborates on the backstory of characters yet falls victim to tropes pervading modern horror including a token lesbian scene and casual violence.  It attempts to explain the inexplicable, renders consistent the mystery that hangs around the undead and in doing so fails to honour the mythos of the original.

Those who fancy a vampire story are welcome to try Dracula The Un-Dead - it achieves it's goals with some finesse. If you're expecting a story faithful to the original then be tolerant of the creative liberties taken herein. For a book that prides itself on provenance and pedigree, it is ironic the story takes a divergent approach from the original.  The story is good and well-constructed using modern sensibilities and if it were not touting itself as an official sequel would stand on it's merits.  Yet the book makes a big play of it's provenance and it's lack of faithfulness to the original is jarring.

Score: Three stakes (out of five).  Some nice interplay between characters but while the homework is done in some areas, it surprisingly lacks in others and the heroes of the first tale are almost beyond recognition.

Friday, 30 October 2009

inns and taverns: the zaros road taverna

At the foot of the Zaros hills, the Zaros Road is known for it's sinister nature and as harvest shadows lengthen, the gods are placated for bright spring and gentle winter.  These sacrifices are not always heeded and the gods have seen fit to shelter brigands and worse in the hills.  As a result, the Zaros Road Taverna was built over a freshwater spring within reach of the town and used as a waystation by merchants and travellers. 

This taverna and it's yard is enclosed within a whitewashed stone wall and painted gate.  Close to the taverna is an extensive frame holding up a trellis laden with vines and a creeping white rose at each post.  The result is a shelter thick with vines and in summer, grapes and roses.  A pair of large yet intelligent warhounds owned by the landlord lie here, keep vigil over the yard and occasionally beg food from the gullible and easily scared.

The taverna itself is a 40' square two-storey structure made of quarried stone and geometric tiles laid out in patterns around the bar and hexagonal hearth burning pine cones and birch or pinewood.  A collection of wooden benches and tables can hold up to forty people, typically there are fifty people jostling for space and additional service; with up to another six musicians, entertainers and dancing girls working them.

The walls are decorated with icons of local gods and artifacts of hunting and shepherding.  There are eight  cell-like rooms upstairs behind the bar which command a high price - most locals sleep in the courtyard anytime but winter or curl up in the corners.  Occasionally a merchant will visit, risking the road for profit, and complain to the grim amusement of the landlord who asks if they want to camp outside.  They never do so.

The landlord is a grizzled former archer who runs his place like a barracks, his staff and family are fiercely loyal despite his appalling behaviour to them.  The locals respect him, his skill has kept them safe from the brigands and his taverna is pleasant and often drink small beer or wine (a little rough about the edges) while enjoying the skill of the cook, whose craft is considerable. 

The locals enjoy roasted goat and mutton, freshwater mussels boiled in butter and rich lamb stew packed with garlic and olives with occasional boar and blood sausages.  The prices are reasonable.  Shepherds who live near the taverna may offer one of their flock for a tab reckoned by the landlord.  The locals are a friendly bunch yet mentioning what is in the hills makes them taciturn and they suggest taking the road during the day.

The taverna is cooled by an underground cistern where ale and wine are kept.  This cistern collects water from the fresh spring, it's design allows the water to flow away while giving enough to keep the taverna well stocked.  Food is kept in an adjacent cellar - in theory, the taverna could last for a week if it ever came under siege from whatever lives in the hills.

The stables are made of the same whitewashed stone as the wall and support up to eight horses.  Two of the stalls are permanently taken - one with the landlord's own horse, the other holds a horse for local messengers to use.  The local town council willingly waive the price of the stables and feed from their local taxes since the taverna is a waystation and often shelters those who cannot return to the town before nightfall.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

character development: rebirth and reinvention

Rebirth - Where a character confronts certain core assumptions about their nature and place in the world with the intent of changing.  To overcome one's flaws, they must be shown in a way that directly challenges the character and which overcomes their inertia to remain as they are.

This option is not taken lightly, rebirth is traumatic, may have deep psychological or spiritual implications from which the character may grow.  Confronting deepest fears or flaws is optional yet the option to confront these is often taken, whether as part of a point of no return or projection scenario.
It's also rarely advisable to force rebirth on characters in interactive entertainment without prior foreshadowing and demonstrating why the rebirth is necessary.  The process is best served either following a dark night of the soul or a gradual yet visible apotheosis.  If you can manage both at the same time, this is powerful stuff.

Reinvention - The alternative is to either recreate a character to make them new or update an existing character to maintain their relevance, allow for new cultural sensibilities or to emphasise a particular focus - letting a character develop in ways that the original could not predict or that was unsuited to.

Where rebirth acknowledges what has gone before, reinvention prefers to focus on the renewed aspect of the character and minimise or even revise prior knowledge in favour of the new image.  As a result it grants more authorial control over the character and their environment.

This process can kill a character deader than disco if mishandled and is best done with an eye to what makes the character emotionally resonate with it's audience.  When renovating the character, adding emotional hooks or minor details that catch attention may provide jumpstarts for strong stories.

These two processes permanently change the status quo of a character - a big step!  Done well, it transforms a character into something much greater.  Done badly and it means either applying retroactive continuity which damages their credibility or worse, forcing the character into yet another reinvention.

Monday, 26 October 2009

big damn dungeons

This post at Grognardia about the lack of mega-dungeons and the follow-up at Greyhawk Grognard and it got me thinking.  My introduction to the mega-dungeon proper (I didn't know it then) was Descent Into The Depths/Vault of the Drow (D1-3) with it's epic scale (miles of caverns) and sections you were encouraged to develop.  Big damn dungeons are one of the iconic elements (to borrow a phrase) of Dungeons & Dragons.

Undermountain, Night Below, Moria, Dragon Mountain, Rappan Athuk and The World's Biggest Dungeon are examples with a more contemporary example being the dungeon built by Monte Cook at Dungeon-A-Day.  Demand for such exists yet few hit iconic status without re-invention or turning into self-contained mills to grind out levels and gain loot with no customisation or replayability.

Ironically, the failure of most mega-dungeons to engage may be down to granularity and scale, effectively not thinking big enough. There is a danger you create modules for the mega-dungeon setting rather than larger campaign elements.  The difference between module and campaign sourcebook is notable and it's this divide that has caused many mega-dungeons to be definitive works, preventing individual innovation.

Mega-dungeons have been described as campaign dungeons.  Why not then treat them that way?  Provide a core sourcebook or boxed set for the megadungeon with an overview map with complete sections and gaps to allow growth. The basic model of expanding detail works but the trick here is to stop short of providing the ultimate resource.  Tabletop's big strength is imagination and the unexpected so why not play to it?

The second part of this plan is to think larger scale when publishing to fill the gaps.  Instead of modules, using self-contained sourcebooks with example encounters and two or more adventures.  The rest is assorted new things, vignettes and elements to maximise replayability (e.g. tables, selections of elements) enabling emergent play and customisation while being effectively self-contained. 

The trick here in both cases is to inspire development by the DM, sections with three lines of text at most (something Gary Gygax excelled at) to spark imaginations (e.g. "Here lies Dragotha, the Undead Dragon.") and deliberately leave sections for the games master to make their own.  Making your mega-dungeon different from your friend's means you get more enjoyment out of it.

Flexibility in creating content is a desirable skill for any games master.  Providing rough flight plans for areas of the mega-dungeon and enough meat on the bones so running this game as is can be good, but running it your way is better.  Emergent play also allows the sourcebook to inspire further adventures within that common framework and gives players a taste of something they don't get every day - the unknown.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

something wicked this way comes

Review: Kobold Quarterly 11 by Open Design.  There's a lot of content and I have to fit in reminiscences.  As it's Kobold Quarterly, I'm using kobolds as my metric - one bad, five awesome.  Now the disclaimer as interests need to be declared.

Disclaimer: This review is of a free PDF copy provided by Wolfgang Baur of Open Design for review purposes.  Articles considered on merit and judgement, not actual play.  Games masters may vary depending on ability, confidence and your willingness to participate.  Be excellent and party on.

Now that's out of the way, let's get moving.  Back in the day, I used to buy Dragon avidly.  I admire what Open Design have done as Kobold Quarterly (KQ) recaptures that feel without quite being the house organ Dragon used to be.  Including the kick-ass Hallowe'en issues, which this assuredly is. 

Art: 3 kobolds (a little more interior colour will go a long way.)
Consistently strong and supportive of theme.  Love the art for Ecology of the Vampire, Howling Werebeasts, Monstrous Paragons and Spell-Less ranger.  My only caveat is writing over cover art lessens it's impact.  I'm impressed by the roll call of Mearls, Bulmahn, Perkins (I never knew More was an RPG designer) but the text makes the cover cluttered. Interior art is good if less colourful and the use of woodcut plates for some articles lends charm. Cartoons by Stan! provide levity.

Articles: 4 kobolds (consistently good concepts, minor rough edges)
A Broken Mind by Scott Gable is a neat take on 4E sanity mechanics and lends a Call of Cthulhu feel to that system.  It gives punch to encountering aberrants and undead and provides roleplaying hooks while mitigating the blasé attitude many players display to horrific monsters and situations. It will shock 4E purists expecting empowered heroism so warn your players first, eh?

Uvandir: The Pride of Craftsmen by John Wick and Jess Heinig hammers dwarves into proud, genderless, relentless inhumans with buckets of attitude while keeping core dwarven qualities intact and offers crunch love to back it up.  I like this a lot and would use as a PC option for a stable player group.  For more dynamic or less confident groups they'd make great NPCs.  Scott Gable provides a faithful 4E conversion. 

Howling Werebeasts by John E. Ling Jr. presents the lycanthrope as player character and considers what consequences occur.  It presents balanced 3.xE level progressions in rat, wolf and bear and inspired me to outline a Les Miserables style campaign involving pursuit of a fugitive lycanthrope. It makes having an infected monster in the party much more palatable. Enjoyed this very much indeed.

The Ecology of the Vampire by Tim & Eileen Connors offers nice flavourful content then spoils it with faux White Wolf trim.  Exquisite fluff about vampiric transformation, feeding and motives with good crunch to stop the vampires going on siring orgies, player and NPC tactics and hints at variant powers. Yet it also drones on and on about heaven and hell, ending with vampires of legend sired by Lucian Twice-Fallen.  Without irony. 

Running Across The Screen is a round table of GM tips from a veritable rollcall of cool game designers who provide advice.  With dense amounts of good, practical advice this is a firehose of fresh spring water to dip into when running a game or event grinds you down.  Kudos to Robin Laws and Greg Stafford for less than corporate photos.   Killer content.

Book Reviews - Balanced and fair.  Guillermo del Toro has co-authored a modern day vampire bio-thriller? And a new Harry Dresden novel?  And a Silver John collection?  And the other books look cool too - this only happens once a quarter.  Good ideas for the primary gifting period for that gamer friend of yours...

Haunted by the Spirit of the Rules by Monte Cook is a warning to players to drop the type A dork act and for games masters to consider consistency by precedent.  It highlights roleplaying is about collaboration, entering into the spirit of the game and focussing on what makes a good time at the table rather than seeking self-validation by trying to be the Oscar Wilde of tabletop gaming.  Thought-provoking stuff.

Wishing Well by Garrett Baumgartner brings wish spells into 4E by applying a framework to the wish effect and codifies potential by tier. It also offers the Wishmaster monster template (neat) and some slightly gamebreaky items especially a ring of three wishes that recharges at every milestone!  Ditch the items and you've got a nice take on the Arabian Nights.

Whack Jacks and Harpy Nets by Daigle, Happ, Hitchcock and Kortes brings monster weaponry for 4E to our attention.  They remind us monsters have technology at their disposal.  While the necksnapper, gouters and giant's arbalest and others make me smile, I would actually use the nailbiter, razornet and warcage in games.  The ideas are strong in this article and can be innovated on.  Maybe in later posts? :o)

Torture and Fear on the Tabletop by Hank Woon looks like a Pathfinder table for every occasion article yet it's real strengths lies in core concepts.  Torture does ability and regular damage; emphasise description to get inside player minds.  The only thing missing is a reminder players can ask for a cut scene and may want to resolve breaking points mechanically (Will or Fortitude saves) rather than listen to the GM get... medieval.

Same Rules, Different Treasure by Ken Marable takes the concept of skinning stuff with a new look to provide a distinctive image and applies it to treasure.  The result is a strong article on how making an item distinctive can yield thematic information and make a game unique - a real example of campaign branding in action.  The examples show the kind of innovation that can make a good games master great.

Monstrous Paragons by Phillip Larwood offers 4E paragon paths for monsters that builds on the conceit of monsters as player characters or levelling NPCs rather than defined entities tweaked to fit using pages 42, 174 and 184 of the 4E DMG.  An 11th-level kobold anything should fill people's hearts with fear.  Tucker would be proud.

Mysteries of the Philosopher's Stone by Mario Podeschi provides a 4E take on the Philosopher's Stone and provides an artifact book, a ritual to make the stone and two takes on it. Nice touches on lending wizards a scholarly rumour mill air.  Tacked on at the end is a treatment for White Wolf's Mage: The Awakening.

The Spell-Less Ranger by Marc Radle looks at Pathfinder rangers and removes spells from them without taking out any of it's magic; it's a sensible and balanced approach that takes the core concept of the ranger as a wilderness warrior and gives it legs.  Certainly worthy of inclusion in any Pathfinder game.

Farragum, The Howling City by Dan Voyce describes a derro city in lavish detail while referring to other Open Design products. The article evokes eldritch secrets (gibbering steel!) and bizarre structures with monstrous ecology.  Old-school grognards will love this before converting it all to some retro-clone and there's a very nice printable map ripe for plunder.

Road and River by Wolfgang Baur evokes the old-old school style of Minarian Legends and early Forgotten Realms by mentioning the day-to-day of mercantile travel towards Zobeck.  The map of Margau and Doresh is lush if a little tricky to read but prints out just fine.

Finally a supporting two-page sheet for the Spell-Less Ranger article.

Editorial and Letters: 3 kobolds.  (Meta stuff is meta.)
Open Design wins Ennies! I suspect because it gives tabletop gamers what they want.  Letters alternate between heady nostalgia myths of 3.x, how 4E shows it's age and why nobody is listening due to Pathfinder's awesomeness.  At least there's none of that old-school renaissance going on. Now sports.

Advert/Content Ratio: 4 kobolds (13ish/85 pages (15%))
The adverts and promo boxes are not obtrusive with full-colour page ads offering things of interest. Format is professional in the vast majority of cases with artwork on a couple of ads being the only smudge but there's minimal control over what kind of content an advertiser can put in.

Overall: 4 kobolds ("Carry on my wayward son...")
KQ11 is excellent and the length of this review, written in one sitting shows how engaging it is. It scratches so many itches and delivers the horror theme with a subtlety that does it's editors credit. KQ is faithful to the spirit of it's draconic ancestor, displaying the same virtues and to a much lesser extent, the same flaws. For a magazine approaching it's 3rd year it's looking very good indeed and Wolfgang Baur and team can rightly be proud of their prodigal.

Friday, 23 October 2009

au revoir and differences of opinion

"Freedom is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear."
-- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

A lot of discussion around the status of the RPG Bloggers Network has taken place following a disagreement on terms of admission (in flammenkrieg terms not huge but hurtful to those involved). Now the admins have chosen to pursue their own projects.

I wish them the best, they've done great things and left sizable boots to fill.   Network members respond in different ways, displaying the Kübler-Ross model behaviours to unexpected changes - denial, negotiation, anger, depression, grief and acceptance.

Yet in what people are already lampooning as the Great RPG Bloggers Network Schism of 2009, it's obvious a couple of things remain true.

First, anger towards the people you're trying to persuade isn't as effective as respect.  Insulting your audience will encourage them to stop listening or go elsewhere.  Maybe that's what you want?  Yet those behaviours limit options and damage your credibility on a personal and professional level.  Even if you do them well.

Second, to quote Dale Carnegie: "You don't kick a dead dog."  The network is attracting criticism from those worried the sky is falling, disappointed at how the admins were treated or those hoping to develop their own vision.  The bug has bitten and the road has called.  I plan on continuing for the only way to fail is to give up.

I want the RPG Bloggers Network to move forward regardless.  The network is bigger than one individual and if you're part of any network, it's wise to respect it's participants.  Word gets around and those who live by mudslinging usually get dirty themselves for with good intentions, the destination remains the same.

campaign branding: genre conventions

Genre conventions are a framework of elements that set a scene and provide an audience tools to help them imagine it and the wider story.  These conventions give a creator options and choices that make their story or game distinctive and help convey messages (thematic or otherwise) to the audience.

Aesthetic - The specific attributes of a story that helps define it.  The time, place, genre and basic premises of what is expected from the story.  Aesthetic conventions include oppressive regimes, armoured knights or isolated rustic colonies. These need to be outlined up front or the audience will be confused.

Ideological - A specific vision or sensory experience (a 'look' or 'feel') - if aesthetic is the substance, this is the style.  Here is the grit in your crime drama or the slick chrome in your science-fiction.  As over half of all communication is non-verbal, this is something ignored at your peril.

Rhetorical - Persuasive arguments employed by a story on it's audience.  The social implications of those arguments may compel (compare The Handmaid's Tale with Gattaca with Children of Men) an audience and contemporary issues can shape or alter the sensitivity of an audience to a story's rhetoric.

Ritual - Behavioural actions associated with a particular genre, the traits characters display to comply with the above.  Action heroes are courageous, tough and rebel against authority.  Noir detectives are cynical romantics with internal monologues.  All of these (and more) are explored in one place

Aligning genre conventions can maximise story impact and speed setup.  The trick is to do it so the genre conventions are revealed in an original or innovative way.  Due to high exposure (how many TV shows and movies have you seen this year?) these are used and re-used to a point some call formulaic. 

Judicious blending or contrasting conventions can invigorate formulaic elements.  Robocop is cyberpunk but uses elements of the western and crime drama.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another example of blended genres.
Yet even blending can hit saturation.  The key then is to go back to the classics and work from there.

To give a story zip, it's worth focussing on character and emotions powered by situations.  In order to provide characters, emotions and situations context, genre conventions provide a backdrop for the drama and help to wrangle thematic elements.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

darksea war: tides of chaos

In darkness lit by phosphorescent fungi and the reflected light of fading magics on rushing water, the Darksea War continues apace.  New combatants enter the fray, drawn by compulsions woven by each side, formed out of horrific experiments or help from other worlds. Down the long years of war, aboleth and illithid have clashed over the limited resources, one seeks to drown the Underdark, the other seeks to civilise it.  Yet both seek to enslave those who remain and crush who resist their dominion.

The aboleth have been invigorated by the presence of the Elemental Chaos and Abyss that offers new allies to fight a war that for a while appeared to be siege-based and dependent on changes in water.  Now the aboleth plan an offensive based on sallies and counter-attacks hidden under the illithid.
  • The cultivation of failed servitors (or skum in Deep Speech) has given the aboleth a new weapon, while their fragility poses little threat to illithids, those approaching the lake-cities risk annihilation or aboleth control as they drive their former victims before them. The mere presence of skum has served to break sieges as their psychic dissonance enhances slime mage attacks.
  • Water archons have been recruited to the aboleth cause by invocations and portals to the Elemental Chaos and their presence presents the illithids with an unappetising problem.  The water archons can strike and retreat where there is water, cutting a swathe through massed illithid thralls and pulling them down to their doom.
  • Worse still, the aboleth have encouraged Dagon cults among some kuo-toa and these have led to devastating attacks on illithid thrall strongholds.  The aboleth help them by summoning kazrith demons whose hit-and-run attacks and tunnelling under key structures causes mayhem in thrall settlements.  Punitive raids by the illithids are frustrated by the supremacy of the kuo-toa in their environment.
The illithid have not been idle.  They recognise numerical superiority may not be enough and have delved into forbidden lore and experimentation to increase their superiority on land and to try and take the fight to the lake-cities where their enemies plot.
  • Bladerager trolls were created to destroy aboleth slaves and to sacrifice against the aboleth who lurk in the shallows.  Illithid-made bladeragers often display razor-edged crystals as well as broken blades and spikes and spear-heads taken from captives or thrall-forged.  The bladeragers are often transported in chains and loosed upon their intended enemies with devastating results.
  • The presence of a maw of Acamar amid some illithid raiders has provoked alarm among those few survivors; that some illithid scholar turned to a star pact for power is no surprise.  That the maw of Acamar appears to tolerate the illithid instead of just consuming them and their thralls worries many right-thinking individuals - if such terrible power can be harnessed against the aboleth, who is safe?
The Far Realm continues to provide both sides with resources beyond rhyme or reason.  The strange nothics serve both sides, mindblights are seen roaming the shores of the lake-cities hunting thralls while illithids retain cacklers as loyal if vicious pets.  The presence of fell taints have increased in the war, posing threats to all sides and making the Underdark even stranger and deadlier.  As more abominations spawn, the Far Realm comes closer.

Both sides are threatened by the duergar; vengeful former slaves of the illithid now loyal servants of the Nine Hells who have learned from their illithid captors.  The duergar are set against both sides but will make certain the illithid suffer since they are often in direct competition with the mind flayers and more than a few grudges have been passed down through duergar tradition.  The appearance of demonic allies among the aboleth has made them a target as well yet the duergar are smarter than to fight a war on two fronts.

The neogi have also escaped servitude under the illithid and intend to avoid that fate once more.  As a result they will trade with anyone including allies from both sides.  The slave markets are visited by both drow and kuo-toa; yet the neogi keep their customers at arms length while subtly sabotaging illithid expansion by a combination of proxies, treachery and magic.  On one thing everyone agrees, the neogi cannot be trusted.

Monday, 19 October 2009

play vs. story

"My take on the ludology/narratology debate has always been that it's a clever and completely false dichotomy.  If what you're into is talking about interactive entertainment, then it's endlessly fertile ground. If what you're into is making interactive entertainment, it's literarily meaningless."
        -- Mark Barrett, game designer

So which is more important - game or story?  Every instance of what is referred to in the quote as interactive entertainment has narrative elements - in some cases flapping like vestigial limbs while others have huge plot museums for you to wander through - all to provide an answer to why you are here.

The quote above raises an interesting point.  Is plot essential to play?  Does it matter if you're having fun grinding a level or three that you skip the exposition? Nobody stopped a game of Tetris because it broke their immersion – yet if you need that information to complete the game, you’d best have it available!

The priority that an audience places on mechanical interaction or completing challenges against that of story that helps you suspend your disbelief is more likely driven by a designer than by audience. Yet different players demand different things from games and a cohesive, entertaining story is often used as one of them.

This presents a paradox for tabletop roleplaying games.  I've seen games fall flat when players reject the set up.  If an event is unexpected and inconsistent, even if it follows the rule of cool, some players hit disbelief and utter “That’s just silly” or engage their right to choose and engage in mayhem upon the local village.

Equally, an alternate reality game stands or falls on exposition.  If you lack a strong lead then something new and shiny will distract your audience promising hidden stories, special benefits or unique merch.  While the interaction and challenges may be brilliant, without exposition you’re going nowhere fast.

Interactive entertainments in the vein of RPGs or ARGs require a greater investment of attention over time.  Using a story linked to the game as a reward is common to video games, RPGs and ARGs.  Some games implement this reward exclusively while others use it in tandem with formal play using rule mechanisms.

Ultimately it comes down to the design objectives of the game.  If you’re looking at formalised play then story is a secondary concern.  If you’re more interested in free-form play then story is suited as a framework and reward to participation. Determining what the players want then becomes important.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

recession-proof gaming VI: the undiscovered toys

The financiapocalpyse is dragging it's feet.  So if you've used up all the other materials, here's some more stuff for you to peruse and play with.

Free games
For those of you who fancy a bit of sci-fi goodness, there's steampunk alt.history courtesy of Broken Gears (which uses a d12 resolution system).  As it's Hallowe'en soon, the classic Witchcraft RPG is an intriguing one-shot or go for 44: A Game of Automatic Fear - a fast game of robot replicants and 1950s paranoia. 

If you need a system to hang your setting from, try the Tri-Stat dX system or the PDQ Core System while story gamers wanting something different may try the No Dice RPG PDF that uses cards in various ways to power a system limited only by your imagination.

Scaldcrow Games have a page of random generators (I like the abominations and town details) that can provide rapid inspiration. RPGInspiration provide another page of random generators (from Greek city-state names to orcish hunting parties and sci-fi soldiers).  Dingle Games has a 3.x edition NPC generator that will save plenty of time for the harried DM.

Web Tools
For no frills building mapping, Small Blue Printer is good as it can do isometric and 3D perspectives but if you want full layout use Autodesk's Project Dragonfly.  Both are intuitive interfaces and easy to print out.

Re:Subj is an e-mail-based group discussion tool almost perfect for play-by-email.  It uses public, threaded e-mail conversations to structure the information provided, works with any e-mail client and doesn't need any registration.  Information is sent by invitation and there's some healthy development in the works.

And if you need a fire & forget web page, then take a look at DinkyPage - create a one-shot page which you can customise to your heart's content.  Abusive content, malware and phishing is not welcome but if you need to put something out quickly you could do much worse.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

weekend warrior: aisenblut orcs

In the frozen Aisenfell, hardiness and cruelty are survival traits.  It is no surprise the orcs there have changed in a land where dragons are hunted for food and where abominations roam the ice.  A breed apart from normal orcs, the Aisenblut are known for hostility and supernatural power.  Their pale, dappled grey skin, thick white hair and almost colourless blue eyes with catlike pupils mark them as different.  Many Aisenblut are known for living without fire, preferring to salt their kills or hanging them so they develop a game taste.

Aisenblut Parb
The parb are the weakest warriors of the Aisenblut orcs, analogous to the drudge.  Like drudges, their concept of honour is non-existent and they enjoy charging at enemies and swarming them.  Unlike them they learned clubs are useless for hacking and employ bone-bladed short swords that can cut blocks of ice out of a glacier.  Their sensitivity to fire is such they avoid it at all costs, preferring the chill of the glaciers and the small igloo-like dwellings they make.

Aisenblut Mestetul
The mestetel are fierce hunters analogous to the raider often harrying their foes and prey across ice sheet and glacier.  They dislike fire intensely and aim a javelin at torch bearers and other fire-making types.  They are wiry but as strong as a parb and often intimidate them. Their hunter's eye ability makes them fearsome foes in a skirmish where a javelin can find people who mistake partial cover as insurance against pain.  Their ability to pick out a concealed target and strike it with a javelin makes them deadly hunters and feared opponents.  The mestetul is also feared for charging the enemy with great spears - their superior reach often carries them into a shield wall with devastating impact.  Mestetul are keen on skewering enemy leaders as trophies. 

Aisenblut Yrokh
The yrokh corresponds to the orc berserker and it at least keeps with ancestral tradition as a blow from it's greataxe will crush the weak who it despises above all things.  The yrokh is a brutish mass of dappled grey orc muscle and sinew, it's ice-blue eyes menace all they see.  The yrokh braids the fingerbones of their fallen foes into it's hair and revel in senseless carnage. For them, there is only kill or be killed and death in battle is chosen over retreat.  This attitude leads to a short, brutish life filled with other people screaming - this pleases the yrokh well.  It will serve those who are stronger but an yrokh will test for weakness.

Aisenblut Glazazimoi

A shamanic leader of the Aisenblut orcs though it serves an aspect of Gruumsh fitting to it's chill environment.  It's skin is bone white, shaven and scarred and it's single blue eye radiates a chill light that invigorates other Aisenblut in battle.
The glazazimoi will inspire other Aisenblut orcs to fierce charges and use it's eye of winter to weaken a foe for allies to finish.  If it is close to a group it will use it's freezing blast ability to weaken foes then keeping close to it's allies for them to benefit from the relentless chill and incite blood fury.
The glazazimoi often forms the tactical nucleus of a group and works as a shamanic advisor to the orcs of it's tribe.  Unlike the eye of Gruumsh, it is much more inclined to tactics and defensive fighting (for an orc anyway).
On death, the glazazimoi's eye shines with an eerie blue chill that coats it's spear and the flesh in frost, allowing one final attack before the glazazimoi finally falls over, heart shattering into ice. The cold revenge is a gift from the Elemental Chaos stolen by Gruumsh when the orc race was still in it's infancy.

Friday, 16 October 2009

inns and taverns: the barrel

The Barrel has the distinction of being built by dwarves yet it's location in a human slum makes it less than popular with visitors.  The dwarves did not mind the location and made the best of the local sandstone.  The result is a smooth-walled vault whose walls appear made from terracotta yet which are strong and warm enough to defy the worst winter.  Those who drink here are mostly labourers and slum-dwellers, the occasional dwarf comes to visit.

It's underground location is found by a short flight of steps to a pulley-powered elevator.  This doubles as security (few drunks have patience and few fops manage the work) and entry.  The pulley is simple enough operation and about a minute's exertion to raise and lower.  The common room has a number of carved stone seats and benches at the walls with three alcoves (the space for the fourth is the bar) and standing room for thirty at a push - The Barrel alternates between bustling and almost dead.

The Barrel makes it's own beer (a sweet russet brew) and bakes it's own fruit bread and meat pastries to consume here or elsewhere.  Prices are cheap and the quality is average so the clientele keep it a secret.  This is a source of alarm for the landlord who would rather more people and less loyalty.  Accommodation is not available yet those unable to work the pulley are allowed to sleep it off but the stone benches and tables aren't comfortable so most people try to avoid getting that drunk alone.

Water is dispersed by carefully-grooved tiles and air vents covered by stone bas-reliefs of dwarven heroes with holes in their eyes and mouths to remove smoke and stale air yet a fine mist forms at the vault ceiling.  Occasionally in the depths of winter the mist condenses so drops of rain fall on the heads of patrons much to the amusement of the regulars.  The mist is a distinctive feature that some claim is magic but any dwarf worth their salt knows this is just a consequence of it's construction.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

morality play

This month's RPG Carnival deals with morality - both in game and audience. The title comes from a style of medieval and Tudor-era theatre where personified attributes (e.g. justice, charity) urge characters (and the audience) to live a good life.  Born of mystery plays where religion was distributed by the stage, a morality play is a Renaissance take on allegory.

What role does morality have in escapist entertainment?  Escapism permits a get away from the dolorous or banal nature of the real world.  Can entertainment vicariously give a moral holiday to an audience expected only to witness events?  When entertainment is interactive, is simulation of evil merely self-indulgent or actually evil? Where does escapism become transgression?

Moral holiday is a term coined by philosopher William James to describe a temporary respite from moral concerns using belief in an absolute reality - trusting the world to look after itself a while - until the individual is ready to return to striving for a better place.  Protagonists from Richard III to Dexter delight audiences while performing atrocities.  Of course, protests are made due to the immoral nature of it all.

Escapism is compatible with both morality and banality.  Banal escapism is certainly possible by the medium of 'reality TV' so moral escapism can and has been since Aesop.  I could tell you about my paladin but the heroic stance is often a default state.  This has led to examples of actual play subverting the social contract of a game due to dissatisfaction with formulaic adventure or a missing incentive to be heroic.

Allen Varney wrote an excellent article, Do The Right Thing where he notes many games use resource-based survival and the scarcity of games considering morality beyond good vs. evil or moral spectra with ethical bells & whistles.  Attempts to justify morality by mechanics foundered on relativism, consider Vampire with it's paths of enlightenment and numerous hierarchies of sins.

Yet laws without authority or sanction are inherently weak and one size doesn't fit all even with superheroes.  Moving from zero-sum into business ethics a moment, is a moral element an essential component in games design if only to provide context?  Is morality a genre convention or part of a social contract between players and to a larger extent, society?  Like it or not, the audience is part of a greater thing.

Violation of taboo is a provocative element and may be used for satire or shock value to reinforce established morals.  Using entertainment to justify evil acts exposes your ethical or moral integrity to criticism.  Players can ignore a moral framework and play as they like - rebellion against conformity moves to territory where things may bite not only in-game but also in reality.  How good is a game if it's censored and censured?

The tipping point comes when the moral holiday becomes the moral retirement plan or when a consensual line is crossed.  Visiting a carnival and living in one are different things and require at least a shift in viewpoint.  Where there are those threatened by an alternative point of view, they need either to be shown the fears are baseless or where appropriate, reminded of the basic right to freedom of speech.

Monday, 12 October 2009

character development: the point of no return

Otherwise called that 'Oh sh-' moment where a character realises they must 'do something' about a situation or confront something that exposes them to a flaw or vulnerability.  Recognising the point of no return as a point for activity means the following:

Clear Options - Doing nothing must lead to obvious negative consequences.  Retreat must be worse.  If they didn't bury their heads in the sand, signposts for different options need to be apparent. At least one option represents a theme at odds with the character and their goals or one where a weakness, flaw or gap comes into play.  From such seeds conflict will arise, whether it's external battles or inner struggle.

Boons - The character may have help in dealing with the conflict - in the form of people (Merlin), places (Rivendell) or even objects (e.g. Luke Skywalker's lightsaber). They can provide advice, safe refuge or even the tools to achieve success, not only at the point of no return but beyond...

Boons may be related to the theme of the story or adventure, or reflect the attributes of the hero or those attributes sought by the hero (e.g Excalibur is a symbol of kingship and martial power). They help to complete the character if they have suffered in the events leading up to the point of no return (Frodo is healed at Rivendell before leaving with the Fellowship).

Banes - Building a better enemy for a character has been discussed in my post on antagonists. They represent the opposing side of the conflict, in some cases a dark mirror of or an embodiment of the flaws or limitations of that character. The enemy may have boons of their own – or perhaps be the guardian of the boons for the character to obtain.

Banes can also be foils rather than foes, some foils can be turned into allies (e.g. Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca) while others may remain an aggravation and lesson as what failure can lead to. While foils can threaten the character, this is usually not potentially lethal to the character, that perogative belongs to the villain.

Threshold - This is a locus, a place or state of mind that must be achieved in order to begin dealing with the issues determined by the theme or leading to this situation.  The threshold can be a literal doorway or cliff top, or it can be a psychological crisis or journey.  What happens next is up to the character...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

weekend warrior: unasha-ti

Another cyclops to answer the cri de coeur from Gothridge Manor for more monocular monsters, this one with a seasonal twist (a mummified cyclops) and as it's harvest time, I figure a cyclops crusher with locusts, beetles and other crop eaters would be suitably scary.

The tale of Unasha-ti
A greedy cyclops who crushed those who defied him in the name of his fomorian masters, he would stalk the fields of the terrified subjects and crush them flat under his tread.  Yet the fey can be vengeful; they got Unasha-ti drunk on potent wine and restrained him with ropes as he slept.

When he awoke, things got inventive.  The greedy hunger of Unasha-ti was known well to the villagers so they mocked him as they filled his maw with beetles and grubs, choking him on a wave of crawling, scuttling things.  Then they raised him up on a pole as a warning to the fomorians he served.

Three nights later, the moon turned black as sackcloth and there was a faint red fire around the rim.  To their horror, the fey saw Unasha-ti break free from his bonds, crawling with locusts and beetles, leaving grubs in his wake as he crushed the fields under his tread.  The eladrin drove him off with burning magic but Unasha-ti wrought it's revenge as the fields burned around his long strides, fleeing into the woods and hiding.

The gods heard Unasha-ti's choked cries of suffering and deemed the punishment unjust; they unleashed him in his new state upon the fey who now seek heroes brave and powerful enough to strike down a terror of their own making.  Yet Unasha-ti has turned spiteful in undeath and thinks nothing of stripping the flesh from the helpless as he walks, wreathed in locusts, beetles and biting flies.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

recession-proof gaming V: the search for stuff

Times are hard - when faced with this kind of situation, you can either put the children out to beg for tobacco (as these people did) or you can game your cares away.  Not only is gaming healthier for you and your family but the links in this post also have no cost to you beyond using a computer and your printer.  Those kids don't look happy about the prospect...

Character Sheets - RPGSheets has sheets for a lot of available systems.  If you're a 4E player, then you likely already have the official 4E character sheet.  Then again, you could visit Dragon Avenue.

Graphics - Online graphic manipulation is getting more prevalent. Big Huge Labs in particular has some very neat tools that allow effects, badge making, trading card making, photocubes (a.k.a really big dice) and lots more.  Also there are timesinks like motivational posters and Flickr tools.

PDFs - Printing PDFs is easy.  Re-arranging pages and editing is a little trickier but there are still sites and apps out there for free.  I can vouch for PDFTK and PDFTK Builder.  For a web-based version take a look at MergePDF or PDFEscape.

PocketMod - A one-page disposable PDA (in the manner of Hipster PDAs).  The original site isn't so active so the torch was taken by re:PocketMod with online and offline flavours.  A Word template can be found here but I've found custom mods can be made using Scribus.  More on that later...

Random Generators - A nice selection of 3.x edition-friendly tools can be found at donjon. Grognard DMs who like 0e and who are in a hurry will appreciate the Moldvay Dungeon Generator.  For random names take a look at's RPG tools and for cyberpunk plots take a look here.

Bonus PocketMod level: Here's a couple of custom mods I've done using Scribus and converted into PDF for general use.   A five-room dungeon planner (based on Johnn Four's idea) and an Adventure Funnel planner (based on Dr. Rotwang's idea).

Got more ideas for recession-proof gaming?  Leave a comment already!
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