Tuesday, 24 February 2009

undead maps for the carnival

So what you have for this month's RPG Carnival is a new map and a new monster. Knowing I couldn't leave it as that simple I started thinking about how you make a map a monster and a monster a map? This led me to Clive Barker's Books of Blood.

So how do you preserve your monster maps? Make them undead of course. This not only allows me to get Open Grave (for research) it also gets a blog post and practicing maps chops as well - now all I need is to run a 4E game! A flick through this fine book and Kasar Khane, the tattooed heretic of the snake god Zehir - was unborn.

Which then leaves us with the new monster, which has to have some kind of map connotation - and what are maps made of again? Vellum, also known as skin. How about an undead construct that mimics a map to get close to it's victims? Finding the name for this one was fun - a bit of old Latin gave me the name mappafalsus which seemed to fit fine.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

more web tools for groups and writing

A few more web-based tools for your delectation.

Adobe Buzzword - I'm currently working on a series of LARP scenarios with this at the moment; it's very pretty and offers the usual document editing and support. My only caveats are you are tied to the interface and it's also not the fastest system to upload shared files. Once you get the file up though, it's a very intuitive package.

BambooSpace - Creating a wall of stuff has never been easier. Ready made game master screen? You can make one right here and set it up for the game. You might even want to share it with the other game masters in your network. Or you could set up something else like a working desk with inspirational stuff.

Exploratree - A Flash-based site which gives a number of templates for thinking about ideas. Wonderful not least for it's online selection of thinking guides but also the templates as well as well as being able to share all of the above or print it out up to A0 size (this should meet most requirements!) . Has it's own section for the Welsh as well.

Lefora - Easy to set up (easier than you'd think) online forum. Laden with features and can draw on existing content from YouTube, Flickr and Photobucket. There are polls, spam filters and MediaWrap facilities to port your forum posts out to other sites as well. It's reasonably priced (free) and there's no hosting hassle either.

MorphThing - Pictures of characters. No really, you can lose a whole day doing this though if you've chosen someone with facial hair and someone without, it can get a bit jarring seeing five-o-clock shadow on a woman's face. Plays best with faces facing the same way - eminently exportable to graphic applications, the picture opposite is Cameron Diaz and Carla Gugino.

PDFEscape - Online PDF reader/writer/form designer. You can save online forms to printable PDF forms; there is a 30 day lifecycle on forms left on the PDFEscape server but you can upload your own versions onto other sites like this example - a version of the character worksheet from the emotional easter eggs post.

Planypus - Organise meetups, events using a wiki tailored to your requirements; lets you set up events, discuss and vote on them before setting things up. This approach allows you to set up a regular long-term event and would work well in conjunction with services like Obsidian Portal or one of the previously mentioned online wikis.

Friday, 20 February 2009

in the heart of darkness

A comment on Tankards & Broadswords got a little long so I'm porting it over here to bloom. This is my take on what to do when you're in a setting where Evil is triumphant. The kind of thing where Luke turns to the Dark Side or where Frodo puts the ring on and decides that Sauron is OK for a disembodied immortal flaming eye.
  1. Protagonists must make a positive change to the setting - even if the end is still doom-laden and stacked against them.
    In these settings, the protagonists are likely to be outlaws. They will adopt strategems ranging from the flashy antics of Zorro to the downbeat fun of Firefly/Serenity.

    These strategems are often intensely fun. Always play consequences - outlaws do not live that long unless they are (a) successful and (b) as bad as, or worse than the status quo.

    Robbing the rich to feed the poor would have quite the impact on the kingdom's political status internationally - there's a reason Robin Hood is famous.

  2. Some villains will die, you can't have an omelette etc.
    Whether at the hands of the protagonists or the betraying hands of bigger villains (or even smaller ones - take note of Saruman) doesn't matter. This may also not be a good thing for the protagonists as the devils you know unintentionally give you breathing room while the devils you don't, well, don't.

  3. Be aware of burnout, if you need a holiday take one...
    There is a limit to how long you can be a fugitive. Some rest-time or time in a less-fraught locale will be helpful for people to get their breath back. I've found this with a Mage game set in New York that moved to Sao Paolo in Brazil for a while. The change in setting, attitude and even local colour can reinvigorate jaded audiences.

  4. Be inventive in your evil.
    Monolithic evil is OK but everyone has seen endless undead armies marching in lockstep. Even an undead army will realise their battleground is pacified ruins after 20 years; the orcs of Mordor didn't enjoy their duties after all.

    Those calling on eldritch horrors may need motives beyond breaking the world open for their supernatural masters and may have interesting motives tangential to the traditional. The best example I can think of is The Fate in Delta Green who use eldritch horrors and bizarre magics to control the New York underworld.

    Evil doesn't mean extensive remodelling to grungy and foul. You can have pockets of glamourous, glittering wealth and idyllic tropical settings. Sure, Vegas has a dark side and some parts of Hawaii need their bounty hunters. Mix it up, play to the unexpected.

  5. The balance of power will shift eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow...
    Evil betrays itself - it can't help it. The vices and flaws that mark those characters rarely stay static, sadistic killers, despotic tyrants and crazed summoners do not make stable communities and eventually things break down into turbulent times.

    Those who pick up the pieces may be worse though. That's a common enough reality and the protagonists may find themselves invited to be in charge... will they retain their basic integrity or do they fail in the face of temptation?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

emotional easter eggs

Yes it's early, no I'm not fussed. Observant readers have noticed I missed a post out in the characters and characteristics specifically on emotion so I am compelled to finish the job. As this is an extra feature, I'm going to address easter eggs as well because I can. Yes it's early. Consider it balanced.

Emotions are another characteristic which provides colour to a character; recall Elric and his gloomy melancholy or the anger of the Incredible Hulk (in this case anger is green - or grey or red of late) and it's a matter of time before we get as many Hulks as we get colours of kryptonite. Part of the Hulk's identifiability is his colour which is at odds with those around him - this isolating attribute sets him apart from a community of garishly costumed individuals (and superheroes) as a real lone wolf.

The emotional spectrum of a character is indicative of traits and attributes; it helps provide context and energy to decisions and actions. An example is Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, whose 20 year quest for vengeance leads him finally through drunken despair to frenetic energy in the short space of one book. It can emphasise either by compliment or contrast. A good example of this is the Sin City story 'The Hard Goodbye' which contrasts Kevin serene joy with Marv's implacable rage - yet both have common traits, psychopathic hunters yet their emotional stances (among other things) contrast them.

Easter Eggs in this context are secret bonus scenes or bits of information which had to be found. The practice originated in software development where code including additional information or functionality were provided and were not obviously linked to. These 'easter eggs' could be tracked down using 'secret' codes or navigating to a particular area. The most notorious example outside of the flight simulator in Excel97 was the 'Hot Coffee' mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Unlocking access to these eggs can provide extra stuff for gamers as well as possible competitions.

This kind of knowing in-joke can be found in a number of areas and can provide enough information to form it's own minigame. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) can use these snippets extensively and information of this kind has appeared in a variety of formats; from text-based illustrations through to mini-websites.

Finally, here is a little bonus character worksheet for your perusal. You can use this to help brainstorm that certain someone using techniques used in the blog and mentioned in the sources.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

from the edge of twilight : nightwalker

19.29 - Our subject's on the move. Possible delivery. Subject mobile, motorcycle licence plate (edited), black and white leathers. Moving to High Street, stand by unit 4, this could be business.
19.31 - Bloody hell, look at him go. Nutter. Unit 4, confirm visual.
19.33 - Looks like some vandals broke the street light in this alley. Don't know how they managed to scale that lamp post. Kids today eh?
19.35 - What was that? *muffled* Nothing.
19.40 - Subject has reached destination. Meeting with Caucasian, five-nine, blue and white Adidas hoodie and sportswear. Passing over Jiffy envelope - intercept? OK, we'll pick our new friend up later... wait.
19.42 - They're heading to the house. Wait... we don't know this guy.
19.43 - Subject and friend now entering house. Music on, looks like they don't want to do business in the street. Do we have a go Unit 4?
19.44 - JESUS! Get backup! This is PC(edited), looks like the new guy had been thrown through the window onto the fence. How the fu - oh god, what was *sound of breaking masonry* GET DOWN! GET BACKUP NOW!
*tape ends*

"The rest you know. The press report says there was a gas cylinder explosion and we had to ensure the incident report didn't conflict with that even if SOCO says the section of wall that hit PC(edited) looks like it was torn from the building and hurled. It's just one nonsense among the many I've had to deal with in the last day or so."

"There's no sign of the subject. Nothing except his bike helmet and his bike. The damage to the walls of the property indicate some massive impact and the disturbed plant pots are far too heavy to knock over, which fortunately lends the explosive theory some credence but the lack of canister shrapnel."

"The officers aren't going anywhere near that estate now and are requesting Serious Crime Squad involvement, I don't blame them. There was enough skunk in the house to put away the dealer for distribution and a couple of improvised weapons. It doesn't fit any kind of gang pattern I'd expect. You've got your own theories of course."

"There's a problem with the CCTV footage you've requested. The cam with the best view was having trouble, looks like the stanchion it rests on was bent somehow and the light in the alleyway where PC(edited) was watching from was gone. I don't know if he'll recover from the wall hitting him - medical retirement's a certainty."

"Good luck. I don't know what else we can do to help but if we can, ask."

Thursday, 12 February 2009

reason and reasonability (sense and sensibility is done already)

This is the last post expanding on characters and characteristics. So you have this character...

They've got history, motives, emotions and can affect their world; they may even be breathing in their own right. Some writers note that characters can run away with themselves; this is not an unknown phenomena. Before you give the character full rein, consider why you started this in the first place - they have a job to do after all - are they still capable of delivering what you need from them or do you put them somewhere else or introduce them later?

Do they meet your purpose and intent for them? Have they a reason to be here, now? With all this development, things may have changed along the way. That riding school which gave your character the capacity to leap on a horse may be useful later down the line. Connections may exist with other characters, do you need to factor these into the scene? Would they appear with their friends or are they a lone wolf by necessity? Have their emotions led them to a scene in which more may be exposed by the right word?

This sense-check can throw inconsistencies to light - why would that glamourous socialite visit a grungy club? Slumming? On a dare? Looking for protection? Or a high? Inconsistencies are not always a bad thing - these can suggest potential plots, plus how many situations do you know where you've been 100% at ease. If there is an inconsistency know why it's happening... and it must be related to the character's motives or emotions in some way.

People get led into strange places on the basis of motive or emotion. They need to manifest that trait if it furthers the plot (you gave them that trait after all), makes the character empathetic or interesting. Actions can speak louder and faster than words sometimes - other times, dialogue is needed to make clear the intention of the character. Remember - show don't tell.

Choice, even it's illusion must be available and it must make sense that your character is there, even if it's a bit out of place for them. That socialite could go back outside and confront the bodyguards trying to bring her home to Daddy with limited success. Or she could try to leave, realising the options aren't good only to draw a patron's jaded eye and get into a whole different bucket of problems.

The work you've done is never pointless. If you've created a character that endures but who doesn't fit, keep them on file for future reference (most people have computers or notebooks for that reason) or look at the process you used to get here and realise where things changed. You can then either adjust that decision or see if that decision trips off a whole new character...

Saturday, 7 February 2009

senses working overtime

Sense memory is a powerful tool in setting a scene as it provides imaginative cues for someone experiencing the scene and this can provide intensity and versimilitude. As such it's something that's worth exploring and like all ingredients, discretion is useful and too much detail can drown the message you're trying to get across. Consider the palatte of colours you intend to use and see what speaks to you.

- The most obvious sense. The one that conveys colour, height, width and depth as well as light and shadow. Obscuring that sense is a trope, whether it's the presence of fog or a protagonist who can't see properly (or at all). Playing games with the sense is an alternative, bathing a scene in red light conveys a different perspective to plunging it into darkness; there are several kinds of trompe d'oeil that can be used to this effect up to non-Euclidean geometry.

- This blog post was inspired by Uncle Bear who describes the chaos of battle in purely auditory terms leading to visual references for those audible cues. I've stood in a shieldwall and heard the hush before your enemies come roaring towards you and your adrenaline kicks in; Shakespeare wrote about sound and fury and he wasn't kidding. Equally, silence (rare today) is notable. Walking on a pine needle carpet at night makes anyone stealthy.

- A striking example of how this builds a scene is in the Poppy Z. Brite story Calcutta, Lord of Nerves where she described the smell of sweat as onions and lemon. People can smell perfume, flowers, musk, cooking meat, cigarette smoke, dust, sweat, hot metal or stale water. Is it any wonder people advocate deodorant or scent given the range of smells that the human body is capable of? Ask any new father...

Touch - Tactile sensation is something often overlooked in writing outside of romance, erotica or horror. The feel of smooth or rough, hard or gentle, soft or unyielding is another dimension to consider when dealing with the unfamiliar. Add the weight of armour, the slipperiness of silk or the greasy, scratchy softness of freshly shorn sheeps-wool. Touch fills in gaps from a first person perspective and something no computer game will be able to express without text or add-ons.

- An intimate sense unless you're dealing with a particularly pungent smell. The world of taste is something that is experienced during meals or other mouth-based activity (brushing your teeth for example) though the phenomena of sweet, salty, bitter or sour can be experienced by smell to a lesser extent. Protagonists who experience taste have usually let their guard down unless they are food tasters for royalty or the paranoid.

Other senses - The human body is capable of other senses. Balance, temperature, pain and spatial awareness (propioception) that allows you to put your finger on your nose with your eyes shut can help fill out the blank areas. If you're dealing with less human characters there may be expansions beyond this (e.g. heat sensitivity in pit vipers) or refinements (low-light vision) of existing senses. These may reveal perspectives that offer something new.

carnival's over but the giving continues...

The RPG Blog Carnival may have moved on but here's some more stuff for harassed 4th edition D&D referees. This one is about a band of hobgoblins and their Shadowfell allies who have taken to the mercenary life to make the bills. As one of those allies is a dragon, you can imagine the bills are not small but they've got secret weapons a-plenty.

For your downloading pleasure - Darkblade Camp.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

relationships and relativity

This is the penultimate post following about characters and characteristics.

The relationships between characters is a pivot on which actions and status for those individuals are in balance. They can colour the other elements of a character through their state or even be a key attribute (think of new-found lovers and how involved they can be) at a certain point in the story. Like all other elements, it conveys details about the individuals involved that may change in the course of a story arc.

These relationships may themseves change (mutable) or not (durable) and can be informed by attributes, driven by motive, drawn from emotional states or informed from inferences from these other elements. In terms of dynamics, they can push some incredible iconography; Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah, Han and Chewie (OK the last one is a business partnership but you get the idea) - these provide strong hooks for a story.

If the relationship is still active (likely a mutable relationship if all parties involved are in the story - consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the Star Wars cycle) or not (more likely to be durable unless one party undergoes significant change by catharsis or revelation to find a new durability) it can drive the story and alter participants.

These too may be relative to the character - a conquering hero can be perceived as a tyrant by those who they have conquered; to those the hero professes loyalty to it's a different matter; or no essential difference between the two sides. The classic example is Coriolanus, his indifference to politics leads him into conflict with his enemies, allies and even his own family.

Speaking of relative values; the medieval knight sees things very differently to a modern soldier yet they swear the same duty to a national leader. The feudal samurai has different values and is honour-bound to slay those who dishonour his daimyo or chasten those who disdain his duty. The Mafia wise-guy has a different approach to a Jamaican yardie and to an East End gangster, what is acceptable and what is not means very different things.

Monday, 2 February 2009

accessory before the fact

I confess a partiality for Algernon Blackwood's short stories and Munsey's is a firehose of stories and books - if you're looking for Robert Chambers and Ambrose Bierce or film noir or Victorian drama, you could do much worse.

This is a fast read about the protagonist suffering a premonition of robbery and death at the hands of a pair of ersatz German tramps in the lobby of a traveller's lodge. This robbery is conducted at speed on a track and is a textbook bandit mugging which for a low-fantasy or early modern game would be a good event.

Though he is nobody special, he tries to interfere with destiny as he realises he sees the assailants out of their disguises and the proposed victim, who rebuffs his offer of help. In an unexpected twist, the protagonist cannot interfere due to his fear of the consequences.

The story moves to the crime having taking place and the impact of his premonition (it traps him into inaction - how does he explain what he knows without revealing his premonition - something that a policeman would never believe or accept). It's pure Twilight Zone/Outer Limits fodder.
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