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!

Friday, 9 October 2009

campaign branding: supplies in demand

It's interesting to note many games and stories have inherent assumptions about their rules borrowed from real life(TM) yet authors and game masters fail to consider logical extensions.  An example in D&D 1st to 3.x edition is the prevalence of powdered silver as a cleric spell component.  It implies relative ease of access to silver by any priesthood.  Not a problem in a game with a common silver standard.

There are places where this is not applicable.  Settings like Dark Sun where sorceror-kings and history have depleted resources.  Or Ravenloft where werebeasts aren't only prevalent but rule certain realms.  Another example from D&D is diamond dust.  Diamonds aren't plentiful without a source.  There are other examples but you get the idea.  Wool without sheep?  That may be a problem...

Rather than despair at the inconsistency, it's worth thinking of this as a way to give the game or story a bit of distinction.  An explanation why is needed as you will be asked by those inconvenienced by - or who wish to take advantage of - the situation.  To have arrived here, a series of events have taken place.  All you need to do is to establish what they were.

Those with improv genius and opportunity will riff something pithy and insightful into the human condition and the apparent inconsistency. The rest of us have to prepare something - which requires thought and a little bit of judicious problem solving. I recommend borrowing a couple of methods to facilitate this as you'll need to identify the root causes and possibly turn it into a scene or even a whole story.

The first is taught by three-year old children the world over.  Ask "Why?" in response to an answer to your question.  Repeat five times. Each "Why?" sparks an answer which leads to more information.  More than five and whoever you're asking may try to strangle you.  Asphyxiation is bad and it reduces my readership. Resist the temptation. It's been tested by children so you don't have to!

The second is Dr. Rotwang's adventure funnel which offers a goal, sets obstacles in it's way and provides details to give additional flavour.  Use the inconsistency as the goal (in the first example, the presence of powdered silver despite the setting saying otherwise), set obstacles (the whys it's not working that way in the setting) and use elements of the answers to your five whys as details.

Doing this is no excuse for bad research or sloppy plotting.  It does smooth rough edges off and provides opportunities for campaign branding.  Done well, your audience will buy into the story when they find that the apparent inconsistency has a logical and internally consistent explanation for why things are the way they are.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

blackfont auction house

Blackfont is spoken of  among mages for whom the lure of power and knowledge exceed their morality - an entirely too prevalent breed.  It is a moving auction that specialises in 'items of interest' among mages, from Ducheski alchemical glassware to matched Regency duelling pistols to rare blues records to bloodstone jewellry.  Notably there are no telephone or computer-based bids allowed - this isn't eBay after all.

Blackfont trades out of London according to their website but the reality is global with small offices in York, Edinburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, Sao Paolo, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Oslo, Prague, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Moscow and Singapore.  It's founder Henry Blackfont was an English swordsmith and pawnbroker to law students during Queen Elizabeth I's reign.  When duelling was outlawed, Blackfont became an auction house.

Blackfont trades on a combination of competent researchers, hauteur and flair for the unusual. In particular, their skill at tracing provenance is formidable.  Fiscally, the auction house is well-heeled with a combination of old money, legal patronage and directors of diverse nationalities and remarkable wealth.  Yet Blackfont keeps to the shadows while providing research services to houses like Sotherby's.

Auctions start at 13:31 local time in sunlit locations.  Those who attend Blackfont auctions include proxies for celebrities, musicians and other artistes, academics, collectors, politicians,  aristocrats and self-professed mystics.  A few have showed up in person though paparazzi are frustrated.  Most Blackfont auctions are black tie with exceptions for those with enough wealth or influence not to care.  

There are few actual wonders sold (perhaps one in thirty items, anything at Level 2 is a rare find indeed - one in 900 lots at best and nothing beyond) but items with Resonance are plentiful (one in five) and almost all have a history of at least seventy years.  Items range from whimsical (an early phonogram) to macabre (bracelets made of the teeth of Vedic gurus) to desirable (a dress worn by an iconic actress of silent movies).

Security here is discreet, heavily-screened and talented - some auctions boast almost exclusively ex-special forces personnel. Items are transported in safety boxes or cabinets using old-fashioned lock and keys as well as security officers keeping manual records; this lack of trust in electronics has frustrated numerous thefts.  The presence of competent security and demon-possessed guard dogs doesn't hurt either.

The Technocracy to date have tried to disrupt sixteen different auctions and failed due to unexpected Contingency One or Five situations forcing redeployment.  One NWO administrator stated statistically they must be planned yet there is no evidence even with repeated interrogation (and memory wipe) of specific employees involved with the auction with no recorded telecommunication of any connection to Blackfont.

The rest of the Awakened treat Blackfont as a somewhat exclusive resource.  Recent times have seen vigilantes randomly attacking senior Blackfont staff and at least one vigilante was declared insane by the authorities.  This has led to more rigid enforcement of security which has antagonised some of the more flamboyant mages and collectors.

Monday, 5 October 2009

character development: gaps, buttons and flags

The Chinese say an urn’s usefulness is in its emptiness. When developing a character, look for their gaps or wants.  Take the rugged loner, someone without family (in RPGs some tire of threats to family so their relatives die peacefully to stop this plot being used) and some games masters either comply or escalate with a manipulative response.

These gaps (or voids) are where a story can fit in.  For our loner, stories about isolation, friendship or relationships may resonate.  Here Maslow's hierarchy of needs provides fuel and ideas and those with input into characters do well to consider how choices leave future gaps.  Stories may be positive resolutions or threaten to widen or deepen the gap.

A character without flaws in physical or psychological or spiritual makeup is difficult to relate to.  Even The Man of Steel has limits and carefully cultivates a fallible identity in order to fit in. People are drawn to gaps, needs and vulnerabilities and this attraction can be used to give characters empathy – it is desirable but not essential.

Some make it easier by giving characters hot buttons, using the risk principle 'If X, then Y' where ‘X’ is a situation and 'Y' is an action or behaviour. This compulsion may vary in intensity from irritant to obsession and forms a contract the behaviour will take place at some point – otherwise why bother?

Hitting the hot button repeatedly can lead to fatigue where the audience doesn’t give a damn or worse, turns the character into a cliché.  Timing and the rhythm of a story is also a consideration as hitting the hot button at the wrong time may get in the way of or worse still, derail a story completely.

A character without hot buttons is concerned with editorial or self-control.  If nothing provokes a reaction the character disconnects from the story.  The hot button isn’t critical, it can be interesting if used well and can present dilemmas where the behaviour can set them up for risks or sacrifice for a reward - fulfilling for both the character and audience.

An alternative to the hot button is the flag.  This signifies a character's story needs to go where the flag indicates - suited to aspirational goals ("Kill Bill" or "Escape from New York").  Like all journeys, there are beginnings, waypoints and a destination.  Using the flag forms an implicit contract that the journey will feature and eventually be resolved.

Reverse plotting from the flag leads to story hooks and situations which may need to be signposted. Individual audience members may feel the plot is being railroaded or led by the nose.  Again, over-use weakens its impact.  Throwing in distractions or curveballs can give the audience a holiday.  Remember to make it fast and come back to the story.

A character without flags has no positive goals or desires.  They just float through life, reacting to events and trying to deal with their flaws.  It may be nice if you’re in a 90’s sitcom or soap drama but is it adventurous?  Is it heroic?  And would you engage with a character that laissez-faire or passive?  Few people will enjoy the vicarious feeling of helplessness even if they bond with the character by other means.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

three things: zombies as inspiration

Zombies are a recurring theme. I figured a bit of hot 3.X edition action was called for to try and address the apparent imbalance between editions here.  Like you lot care. :o)

Axe of Inevitable Death
A burnished steel double-bladed battleaxe with a bone handle carved with skulls wrapped in a supple brown leather. It is enchanted to lend a wielder the strength and fortitude of the dead; yet the slowness it incurs make it unpopular with adventurers but not with executioners.

This +1 battleaxe grants a character the following only when wielded:
  • +4 to Strength
  • +2 to AC
  • +2 to Fortitude saves
  • It forces the wielder to be last in the round, regardless of initiative.
Making an axe of inevitable death costs 9,000gp and 720xp and requires Craft Magic Arms and Armour as well as a 5th-level caster casting bull's strength, magic weapon, resistance and shield of faith. An axe of inevitable death costs 18,000gp to buy.  How many actual buyers would appear may be another matter.

Hanged Man's Hand
This preserved human left hand is attached to a three-inch diameter ring of black iron at the wrist. It radiates faint necromantic magic. It is intended to be fastened to a rope but need not be.  The command word to activate the hand is tattooed in the leathery palm of the hand, when spoken, the hand will mimic the gesture of the left hand of the wielder and lock in that position when the word is spoken again. if used as a weapon, the hand strikes for 1d8 damage (x2 critical) and counts as a +1 weapon for purposes of damage resistance. It can be thrown (range increment 10') at an opponent.
Making a hanged man's hand costs 12,500gp and 500xp and requires Craft Wondrous Item and a 5th-level caster casting animate dead and spectral hand.  A hanged man's hand costs 25,000gp to buy.

Scourge of the Servant
This braided scourge is made of pale leather studded with bone shards wrapped around a thighbone handle.  When used on an intact dead humanoid body of Medium or smaller size and 5HD or less, the body animates as a zombie under the control of the holder of the scourge.  The scourge can on a successful to hit roll rebuke any zombie it has created as though it were a 5th-level evil cleric.  The scourge counts as a +1 weapon for purposes of damage resistance only.  Using a scourge of the servant to create zombies is not a good act.
Making a scourge of the servant costs 9,000gp and 360xp and requires Craft Magic Arms & Armour as well a 5th-level caster casting animate dead and a prayer spell cast by an evil cleric of 5th-level or higher.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

campaign branding: making magic items memorable

There are ways to make a game come to life.  Campaign branding is about making a particular game have it's own distinctive feel. Whether it's the flash on your magic, the genre conventions you're working with or down as deep as explaining where all the diamond and silver dust comes from, essentially setting fluff that impacts directly on the characters that help make a setting memorable. So let's start with a popular one.

Gamers lament the generic nature of magical items (given how most RPGs treat them, this isn't surprising) and have correctly identified a little detail goes a long way.  Doing it is it's own artform.  Which do you prefer?

A +1 long sword with a ruby in the pommel
A black +1 long sword with hazy red edges and a glowing ruby in the pommel.

Six more words.   Mechanically identical, aesthetically different.  Keep additional fluff to fewer words than the original description and use enough to make a difference or three from the base item. Short words help to sell this idea and as someone once said, if you can't show, then tell but do it quickly.

You're right - I prefer ostentatious magic.  Having seen sword smiths working and the effort it takes to make a normal blade, why not give magical blades cantrip-level bling?  Do you want them to know it's magical? And magic need not be glowing.  They can emit a bitter scent, twitch like rat's noses or even scream when wielded.  And that's just weapons.

Armour may shift through many colours, robes may be seamless, rods may be inset with gems that twinkle like stars.  Exotic materials may be used in construction (and if magic is involved usually are) or manufacture and this is the beginning of the level of customisation you can aim for.  That black and red sword can have a lot more about it than just being a magic sword with a Sith colour scheme.

Additional decoration in the form of maker's marks, insignias, religious markings, mystical runes and more suggest additional stories as well.  This is before we get to decorations like dragon's head pommels which can be applied to non-magical weapons as well.  Stories you can use to give the game new directions - triggers for bringing a game to certain parts of the campaign world even...

Those craving subtle magics can find them and use them if they so wish.  A nondescript dagger may reveal lethal magics only spotted by those looking for such. As long as form follows function it makes some sense.  A dagger makes a good assassin's weapon, a flamberge less so (even if it's effective, sheer size makes concealment tricky) - it depends on the enchanter.

You can omit mechanics and reveal the modifier only if someone thinks they've missed.  Doing this in isolation or solo play is fine.  Doing this for a group of four to six people with different weapons may slow things without some preparation so it comes down to preference, adjusting player combat rolls or more gameplay with players who know what they're doing. I prefer the latter myself.

Friday, 2 October 2009

inns and taverns: Old Jonas

A rickety, cramped narrow dockside inn, Old Jonas is a sailor's bar with a ship's wheel sign and perhaps the most dubious clientele outside a free port. Many sailors found here are toughened by sun, salt and strong rum and some say made mad by the same things.  It attracts equally the desperate and depraved - if you have a ship and need a crew, or a pretty face - you're best avoiding Old Jonas unless you'll fit in.

Outside, the inn looks dingy and dilapidated, made of ship timbers, driftwood, nails, pitch and caulking to provide shelter.  The long-neglected and faded scene of a mermaid beckoning clients hides beneath cracked paint, damp patches and bird lime that gives her a haggard, leprous aspect.  In the long afternoon shadows, more than one sailor can be found unconscious from drink and empty-pursed outside the front door.

Inside the inn is dingy, tallow lamps and greasy candles gutter on rough-shaped tables around which sprawl unwashed patrons in various states of drunkenness and spilt alcohol.  Tattoos, scars and missing body parts are worn proudly and knives are concealed.  Woven rope nets hang from the ceiling and support jugs, small kegs and tankards which are brought down to serve diverse individuals.

Drink is cheap, either sour ale that churns the stomach or dark bottles of spirits that burn the palate and fill the drinker with bravado.  Requests for food are met with laughter and presentation of a cut lime and a dry tack biscuit.  There are two bar staff, usually sullen bearded men in leather breeches and waistcoats that grudgingly serve anyone but who serve sailors and fishermen in preference to merchants and adventurers.

As may be expected, working girls and fishwives can also be found here, red-faced from drink and shouting at drunken sailors.  Equally tattooed, drunken and potentially violent, they are often the cause of brawls that rattle the timbers of Old Jonas.  Brawls here are often ugly, bloody affairs before someone calls for the port watch.  Few people die here, that honour is reserved for elsewhere if a local hates someone enough.

Old Jonas is never closed, despite numerous problems with the port watch.  It's whispered the bar is owned by pirates who bought the inn and the magistrate with it.  There is a private room upstairs that can sleep six in three cramped paired bunks available for a gold a night.  This room is the only place that privacy is assured in the inn - everywhere else has at least one pair of eyes and one pair of ears with an interest.
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