Saturday, 30 January 2010

inns & taverns - the sweet hearth

At the southernmost point of a elven forest, the Sweet Hearth is a crescent-shaped elven manse, three stories high with a well-tended orchard.  The manse is built between two carefully tended pear trees and sheltered by a giant of a lemon tree, it's trunk is woven into an ornate lattice by careful grafting.  This tree is adorned with woven canopies, decorative banners and two types of fruit - fist-sized juicy lemons and green limes. Nearby is the hearth it is named for, a compass rose of bluestone and slate nearly twenty feet across part-shielded by smoke screens of woven branches,  tended at all times by two staff who keep watch over a serving area with solid logs for seats amid the scent of cooking and pear wood smoke.  Windscreens of woven cloth keep the serving area and hearth from being disturbed and afford some privacy.

The inside is well-appointed with evenly-spaced wooden panelled tables and ornate wooden chairs.  The oil lamps burn with a unique white-gold flame and sweet scent.  Fires of pear and oak wood burn bright in their stone hearths, warming those preferring to stay inside who may listen to local minstrels, study in nooks or seek conversation at a circular table decorated with an ornate compass rose and the inscription 'Seek conversation here, ask for directions if you are uncertain.'  Nearly every night, this table has at least eight guests talking and debates have been the most violent thing at the table.  This has led to certain elflords using the Sweet Hearth for political ends though the staff will change the subject politely if conversations take a darker turn or appear to be going nowhere.

Notable fare includes pear ciders served in a cup of hollowed lemon, honey ale, metheglin (spiced mead), wines and potent herbal cordials.  The food ranges from spiced boar sausage to stuffed vine leaves, pheasant pastries and venison stew.  A speciality in winter is stewed pears in honey served with mulled wine, much beloved by visitor and regular alike.  Most travellers use the common room, it's floor strewn with sweet broom and flower petals, partitioned by opaque drapes that deaden sound and dim light.  For discerning guests and nobility, there are six private suites with goosedown beds soft enough to please the most sensitive.  These are not cheap, offering amenities and discretion equal to the cost, to the delight of discerning elfmaidens and their suitors alike.  Steeds are kept in a nearby enclosure amid the orchard and tended by a talented half-elven stablehand.

The Sweet Hearth is run by an extended family group of thirty-six elves working three shifts, morning, noon and night.  The staff are elves clad in raiment decorated in saffron crescent moons and green-grey leaves and three half-elves who work the stables.  All are attentive, capable, polite yet informal.  There are also various working pets, all have a touch of the sylvan and interact with the elves like beloved family.  There is magic in the Hearth, yet it is subtle, much comes from horticulture, craft and alchemy rather than outright spellcraft.

The usual clientele range from wealthy nobles to artisans seeking finery and off-duty soldiers wishing to relax.  Aggression to the staff is not tolerated.  Violence is frowned upon, instigators find staff capable with sword, spell and stealth with devoted guardians.  Preparations for defensive magics are concealed and used if needed though the Hearth seldom sees trouble, it is ready when the worst happens.

Friday, 29 January 2010

prese prese!

This weekend is your last chance! donate through the OneBookShelf Gamers Help Haiti program.
For your donation, you receive a huge amount of stuff including 3:16, Classic Spycraft, The Desire, No Dignity In Death: The Three Brides, Pathfinder Condition Cards, Serenity RPG, The Kerberos Club, Kobold Quarterly 11 (reviewed here) and lots of counters, terrains and tokens for any system you can think of. Obsidian Portal are also offering a $100 certificate prize if you re-tweet it. go to the Helping Haiti Heal page. If you're a Harry Potter fan, you probably want to go here; lots of stuff (Potter and otherwise). Even if you aren't, the chance to get signed books by Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and movie memorabilia is available.

In the words of the Governator "Go! Now!!"

Thursday, 28 January 2010

finding the path

The route between landmarks or events is constrained by both space and time.  Charting these paths means you have considered the virtues of mapping and relative position between locations without handwaving it.  The last only needs to occur when you hit a tipping point of setting complexity.  There's a reason that every fantasy trilogy you've ever read has a map - the author needed to know where stuff was - with the notable exception of Terry Pratchett. 
"There are no maps. You can't map a sense of humour."
                        -- Terry Pratchett, Discworld author.
Eventually though the Discworld succumbed to cartography
Typically, there are three kinds of path:

Obvious - Taken by about 80% of your setting population. Clearly marked, maybe with milestones to show progress or landmarks to give navigational reference.
  • Predictability - If you take this path, you will get to your destination.
  • Ease of Use - This option is the most accessible (otherwise, why use it?) to the majority.
Obscure - Paths your environment allow that are less obvious.  These may require some exploration or even trail blazing.  Not all hidden paths are advantageous - for example the proverbial shortcut that takes twice as long. There are two reasons to go the road less travelled. 
  • Opportunities - to reduce inconvenience (avoiding a toll) or reveals benefit (an untended apple tree).  This is one of the main reasons for adventure.
  • Options - Where the obvious path is obstructed, you have an additional option. 
Least resistance - Favoured by liquids, winged things and the lazy.  Note the path of least resistance is not always rewarding or without hazard.
  • Speed - Sometimes you're in a hurry.  You may not want to meet the travelling gypsies, find treasure or kill a dragon.  You might just want to go home.
  • Safety - When you absolutely, positively have to get there.  Self-preservation is a concern raised in a number of blogs where heroism is tinged with pragmatism.
Designing with these paths (and their objectives) in mind enables you to anticipate particular strategies and can help build causality into your setting.  Including limited, minor choices on a particular path preserves a sense of choice without resorting to illusionism (a phenomenon in some games where no matter what you do you end up somewhere usually undesirable or divorced from causality) or railroading.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010


The milestone is a marker of progress.  The use of milestones to help navigation began in Roman times with  marble or concrete monoliths erected on the Appian Way.  They did not usually provide indication of distance to and from, preferring to inform you which Emperor commissioned it.  Later milestones included distances and this information increased their utility so that milestones and signposts are still used today.

Those familiar with the five room dungeon realise each room is itself a milestone.  This may seem obvious but is helpful in mapping out what is called in the writing trade as 'beats' and story arcs.  It can help to realise you have achieved certain objectives and how far you've already travelled - what you know getting here may be useful in helping determine what actions need to be taken.

In 4th edition D&D, a milestone is reached when you complete two encounters without a rest.  Rather than get into how that works or may potentially structure your sessions, milestones can be used as a resting point (or in some games a restore point) or basecamp to continue from. An interesting point, is it possible to capture the information from a game in play as a save point and would the game benefit? Hmmm.

Milestones can also serve as an indicator of how much further you need to go.  The five room dungeon is a useful metaphor.  You could be in a museum or railroad with many more stations.  If you know what you need to achieve the final goal (and if not, why not?) milestones indicate how much further you have to go - if you're on a time-sensitive plot, you may need to speed up or slow down.

Like the Appian monoliths however, the usefulness of a milestone is enhanced by giving additional information to the audience (if not the characters).  Milestones may be metaphorical or tangible.  Themed plots may indicate what kind of things lay ahead; not all cues may be explicit or encounters in their own right, a plot arc for undead may feature a skull by a milestone or fresh roadside grave for example.

As a navigational device, milestones are useful points of reference. While they are not as widespread as they were, the quality of information for your milestone can provide a sense of continuity and is helpful in the development of longer-term campaign play.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

places to be

This month's RPG Carnival is about gaming and travel.  When on holiday, visiting different locations and doing something different is one of the main reasons you're there - or why travel?  Designing a location requires certain things in order to entertain your audience.. It's helpful to consider locations as landmarks - imagine the cover of your book or module as a starting point and think of that image then fill in the blanks - what would you hear, smell, feel?. 

Draw attention.
A strong first impression is essential, it's often useful to contrast with their base camp or where they've been previously in some significant way.  There are various options to explore..
  • Environment - Exotic helps, difference is essential. Whether the environment is isolated or part of a wider domain it helps to be distinctive.  Mordor is not Rohan is not Lothlorien.  More extreme cases may change an environment entirely (e.g. The Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) in relation to the jump-off point.
  • Excitement - Use the Rule of Cool as your guide and draw on your own interests for inspiration.  If you like board games, chessboard traps, mansion-based murder mysteries and irascible prospecting mules are perfectly acceptable.  You do have other interests?
  • Goals - Why are they here?  Set any objectives you want to achieve early and sense check with the motives of your characters (and your audience).  If you're having to mallet them into compliance, you need to find out what they really want and if you want to, give it them.
  • Senses - Heighten differences by emphasising sensory effects and using sense memory.  If the action takes place in an office, it doesn't matter if it's Hawai'i or Harrogate.  Bright lights, loud sounds, strong smells, crowded streets or corridors, it all makes a difference.  If you want the audience to move, show them the way. Stimulate them to go towards somewhere, dial it down or repeat a bit to move them on.
  • Scale - Varying scale is also effective.  Small can be exciting, think Hansel & Gretel or Dog Soldiers and small houses in the woods.  Equally epic needs a setting equal to the task - pyramids, arcologies or moon-sized weapon platforms.  Variation in scale can be effective; The Prisoner moved between The Village and London on more than one occasion.
Bring me that horizon!
Navigating between (or within) locations can provide it's own benefits.  Being able to place yourself in relation to a landmark enables interaction (navigating Paris is easier along the Seine or near the Eiffel Tower).
  • Altitude - Makes a difference.  How many stories can you think of where high places are used to begin or end a story?  By getting a higher perspective, you introduce a place or a visual cue to aim for while deep locations tap into the underworld meta-myth that Joseph Campbell expounds.
  • The lay of the land - You can provide access or channel direction by a mountain pass, lost trails or riverboat journey.  The route taken can offer it's own excitement - the objective is to get there anyway.
Give options.
The choice of short-term vs. longer-term goals can give relief from the main objective that persuaded them to come here, particularly if achieving that goal is a long or arduous affair.  Three options at most, drowning in choice is nearly as bad as no choice at all.  Equally at least one choice needs to offer a reward of some kind, be it tangible or something more ephemeral.
  • Activities - Few people do nothing on a journey, even if what they do is row the boat.  Imagine a landmark as an activity (e.g. dungeons are explore and pillage, mountains are climbing) and reward characters who engage with that activity.
  • Foreshadow risk and reward - A choice needs to have two things.  A risk of a bad thing happening and a reward for doing something you want to encourage; these can be linked (e.g. getting a treasure chest out of a flooding sea cave) or independent of each other (e.g. crossing a bed of geysers to reach an abandoned monastery) according to your needs.
  • Build tensions between options and goals - If you are able to pick up everything at that location then no problem.  If you have to choose between one or another it gets interesting.  Good choices make the journey easier, bad ones make it more entertaining.
Create a memory
When you get there, choices are made, actions are taken and rewards are found.  Make sure those actions and choices are memorable and that they matter.  Everyone has experienced a trip that when they got there was pretty enough and that bored them silly. Don't be that tour guide.
  • Deliver on your promises - Foreshadowing promises an event will take place.  If you've left dragon foot prints there either needs to be a dragon, the skeleton of a dragon or a giggling kobold with big dragon-shaped snowshoes and flamethrower.  Why have Chekhov's Gun  if you're not going to fire?
  • Make an impression - This not only goes for you but also for your characters.  Making a difference to their environment is one of the more rewarding things you can give without worrying about game imbalance.  Equally, going there and coming back should have had an effect on the character other than a change in wealth or shortage of ammunition.  Rewards and consequences let the audience know they do not exist in a vacumn but in a living, breathing world.
Your story or adventure is a holiday from reality - so work along similar lines to encourage your audience to take interest and participate.

    Thursday, 21 January 2010

    ruin of aress

    Lumps of metal, shattered icons and charred wood litter a slagheap floor.  A burnt smell lingers on tatters of fabric and charcoal.  Where paladins swore fealty now a breeze whispers, stirring dust and ashes. The ruin festers like a broken tooth, avoided by the faithful who are dead or scattered. Beneath the cathedral floor are crypts yet there have been no stories of unquiet dead since the cathedral's destruction.

    Those who make a Religion roll (DC 20) know that Aress Cathedral was built using divine fire and once kept vestal flames known to enhance fire magics.  Those making a History check (DC25) recall it was burnt after attacks by an undead army summoned by a necromancer.  Kindling a fire in the ruin leads to clear and bright-burning flame from glowing embers yet the shadows dance disturbingly over the broken angels and blackened walls and wisps of pale fog rise from the cracked floor.

    Areas of the floor are difficult terrain due to the debris scattered over them.  If a fire is lit with debris from the ruin at the start of an encounter, fire or necrotic attacks gain a +1 to hit and +1d6 damage bonus.  This effect persists regardless of current occupants.  Removing the necrotic taint in the cathedral needs a quest to regain divine favour and ceremonies to sanctify the cathedral anew.

    Tuesday, 19 January 2010

    snark attack

    "Just the place for a Snark! I have said thrice: What I tell you three times is true."
             -- The Bellman, The Hunting of The Snark (C.S. Lewis).
    Snark is a portmanteau of snide remark and widely prevalent in certain circles.  It's origins in classic literature, subversive humour, puns and wordplay has seen it mistaken for wit and incubated exponentially by Internet semi-anonymity.  It intends to ridicule the envied or mock those perceived with too high esteem by re-hashing 'received wisdom' laced with attribution errors and anodynes for cognitive dissonance.  Methods used include low-brow humour, sly sarcasm and indirect derision rather than evidence or facts, relying on in-jokes and cliques built on taboo behaviour towards enviable success.  It caricatures indiscriminately, believing only the worst and attacks traditional values without offering viable alternatives.

    Snark is a method of control, a normative process that like Procrustes, maims those failing to fit the hospitality of it's exponents.  Snark feeds the Dog In The Manger inside us on dirt, schadenfreude and vitriol.  Aristotle (in Politics) and Livy (in The History of Rome) tell how those in charge advise to weed out the pre-eminent to stay in control.  Livy's story inspired the observation of tall poppy syndrome.  Another expression of snark sentiment is Janteloven (Jante Law) or in Swedish, Jantelagen.  This is based on Scandanavian small town mentality and explained marvellously in this video.  .

    Individual motives behind snark indicate a need to level social capital and equally to deny the pleasure found in others.  Snark attempts to express a perception of standards or need for appreciation at the expense of others.  It implies a competitive zero-sum mentality similar to that found in a bucket of crabs; this competitive streak is prevalent in those used to insider jokes and indirect humour. 

    What is said reveals as much about the speaker as the subject.   In forming social contracts, is the need to normalise or identify needs worth offending or alienating people who you're spending time with?  Wanting to get things done or to be liked is reasonable. Being a jerk to communicate or meet those needs is less so.  Are you good company or is it guilt by association?

    Saturday, 16 January 2010

    inns and taverns: the winter wolf

    In the cold steppes, the Winter Wolf is a legend. A covered wagon pulled by a bull yak that leads three yak carrying the logs and felt for a yurt appears with the first frost and vanishes with the last snows of spring. The Winter Wolf is named for the white wolf pelts that cover the wagon and worn by the driver and owner of the yurt and yaks. He is welcomed in the remote settlements he visits yet is equally likely to stay at a crossroad, stream or hillside.

    Their driver is a man known only as Ulfin, a gruff man with pale eyes and black hair and beard rimed with white hair. Clad in a coat made of a massive white wolf pelt, his sardonic manner and weary pragmatism hide a strong sense of justice. Those nomads and traders who drink in his yurt exchange goods for strong drink, dried foods and wisdom earned from a life on the steppes and communion with occult forces.

    He is partial to riddles and Go, his ability to drink is formidable, rivaling that of a cave bear and his temper is equally formidable if roused. His insight into the human condition is more than enough to keep thieves and deceivers stringing along until they are caught out; then he deals with them accordingly. Some find themselves falling asleep in their seat to wake up a very long walk from their original position.

    His wagon carries clay jugs of mint and blackberry kvass (a sourdough spirit), cherry, blueberry and thorn hip wines, spiced mead and barrels of dark winter ale as well as reindeer jerky, dried fruit and roasted roots. The yurt is comfortable, dry and warm, though civilised folk may find it basic and the firepit... fragrant. Would-be raiders find Ulfin a tricky customer and capable of calling on potent help from other worlds as well as more local allies.

    The stories say Ulfin disappears when winter ends, travelling to another land where he can brew in peace for the coming winter. Yet the Winter Wolf travels between territories without allegiance to any lord or tribal chieftain. The wagon and yurt move on after seven days, the ground trampled flat and the remnants of a fire visible but no discernable trail, independent of her The Winter Wolf moves on, preferring freedom to the service of any lord or chief.

    Thursday, 14 January 2010

    winter warmer (review: kobold quarterly 12)

    Disclaimer: Review PDF copy submitted by Open Design.
    Metric: Kobolds (one bad, five awesome).
    Overall: 4.5 kobolds (Impressive stuff, entrails everywhere).

    Lots of half kobolds but this is an improvement. Quality is raised from KQ11 (impressive in itself) and the Dragon-ish flaws mentioned in the previous reviews are being ironed out. Some articles aren't the usual crunch /fluff affair but show a wider interest. A good thing as it gives a change in pace and reveals how creativity spurs the hobby.

    Artwork: 4.5 kobolds. Colour is nice; fewer words on cover means more artwork. Internal line art is good with use of classical artists still prevalent.

    Telkari, Inevitable of Death (Tim & Eileen Connors): 4.5 kobolds.
    A corrupted marut inevitable and biomechanical plagues redolent of Hellraiser and Tetsuo: Bodyhammer. Awesome article, the Central Casting paladin bigot is the only flaw in a real diamond of a campaign concept.

    Ecology of the Froghemoth (Jonathan McAnulty): 3 kobolds.
    I like Ecology articles without cultural baggage*. Beyond that, it's a solid reworking of a Dragon article for later editions with nice art.

    Burnt Offerings on Stage (Jonathan Jacobs): 3.5 kobolds
    Interesting author's perspective whose humility shines through. Lovely article, nice to see LARP props and kids running rampant as goblins. Score one gaming advocacy!

    The Holy Remix (Scott Gable): 5 kobolds
    Pathfinder Cleric Hacking! Like clerics of different deities being distinct from each other? You'll love this. Holy monks, cloistered sages, missionaries, covert cultists, wow…

    Impossible Caravans & Unseelie Ambassadors (Neal Hebert & Jon Cogburn): 5 kobolds
    Concept-laden, sinister ("It warms us.") and otherworldly with dark humour. Eminently liftable for other games and provides 4E stats for those in a hurry. Gaimanesque in all the good ways.

    The Myths & Realities of Game Balance (Monte Cook): 5 kobolds
    Monte talks game balance, design decisions and social contracts.  Thought provoking stuff for all gamers.

    Elves: The Fallen Ones (John Wick & Jess Heinig): 4.5 kobolds
    More Wicked Fantasy, conquered elves enslaved by iron. Perfect with the right players, awesome NPCs. Add Ravenloft's Falkovnia for maximum win.

    Spiked Pits, Poisoned Arrows and Healing Words (Scott Murray): 4 kobolds
    Traps to boost 4E monsters. A nice way to buff encounters and diverse enough to suit different monster types.

    Spice Up Your Combat Encounters (Phillipe Menard): 5 kobolds
    Integrate skill challenges with combat in 4E, this guitar solo article takes disparate elements and brings the fun.

    Lessons from The Shadows (Catherine McDonald): 4 kobolds
    Ninja 101 - Reputation, improvisation, desperation. A call for players (and DMs) to think on their feet.

    Sanctus et Virtus (Brandon Hodge): 4 kobolds
    Relics for the Zobeck setting; magical items and plot hooks with lavish backstories and a sense of humour.

    Eight Plagues & Diseases (Stefan Styrsky): 4 kobolds
    Nice. Fills a noted gap in a 4E DM's arsenal though a couple have some rules kickers. If you like, try this.

    Vilest Evils of the Abyss (Philip Larwood): 4 kobolds
    Detailed backstory but no stats for new demon lords and references to Green Ronin's Book of Fiends. Some adult themes here.

    War Wagons of the Magdar (Wolfgang Baur): 3.5 kobolds.
    An intriguing concept for the Zobeck setting and nice take on the war wagon. How about a tabor floorplan?

    Dragon's Lair (Corey Macourek): 4.5 kobolds
    A working map at the back for a dragon's cave nest; not a battlemap but easily scalable for those with the tools.

    Editorial: 5 kobolds
    Nice reminder brevity is the soul of wit and namechecks for Red Eye of Azathoth and Courts of the Shadow Fey. Shame this review eschews that.

    Book Reviews: 4 kobolds
    The reviews are consistently informative and useful in considering if you buy a book. Boneshaker looks like a certain buy.

    Letters Page: 4 kobolds
    Meta is still meta, nice to see information on back issues, distribution and Adopt-A-Soldier.

    Cartoons: 4 kobolds
    Stan! riffs on elven lack of Twilight sparkle and holy gall stones.  Thematically consistent & funny.

    Advertising: About 12.6 pages (18.5%). Higher quality and weirdly less obtrusive because of it. Hat tip to the layout folks.

    In conclusion: If I didn't know better I'd say Wolfgang took the last review to heart! Heartwarming to see ChattyDM in print where he belongs. If KQ can keep this up, they may have overtaken their draconic ancestor which for three years is pretty impressive.

    Tuesday, 12 January 2010

    fear itself

    Fear is one of the key adrenal responses; the body cools and tenses as breath quickens and hackles rise.  Eyes and mouth flood with sensory data and oxygen.  It is obsessed with the future, anticipating the worst yet tied to surprise so much that Charles Darwin described it as "…so far akin to it…" and a symbol of loss of control and ultimately, loss of survival.

    Bill Tancer in his book Click found people looked into fears about environments (heights), people (intimacy, rejection, clowns), animals (snakes), situations (success, death) and movement (flying, driving).  Other surveys include spiders, water, enclosed and open spaces and the perennial favourite, public speaking.   Extensive lists of phobias are found at Wikipedia, the eponymous and Call of Cthulhu.

    Engendering fear in a game environment has the added complication players aren't usually in an environment to enable or enhance fear so blase responses to horrific events become the norm.  Wading in rat-infested sewers while being hunted by cannibals is probably a big deal.  Not everyone has the facility or inclination to game in a disused warehouse or abandoned hospital so it's worth considering how to bring the fear.

    Fear has cognitive stablemates like distrust, dread, horror, panic and terror.  There are common hooks that nearly everyone has; death, ostracism, loss of control.  Finding ways to bring these into play can help heighten or foreshadow fear.  Being hunted by cannibals in a town where everyone thinks you're unclean, criminal or heretic turns the screw. 

    It's also a qualitative phenomena - reasons for fear can be tied to individual attitudes and mores  (a rogue may fear being caught more than death by poison) so the same thing may have a different response depending on player or character.  Attacking character strengths or taking advantage of vulnerabilities is an effective way to engender fear on an individual and qualitative level.

    Fear is primarily concerned with avoidance or escape; to allow these is to release tension.  Deferring that release is OK for a short period of time; dragging it out can wear thin.  Dr. Richard Kimble and Number 6 were allowed victories and escapes from time to time and  this tradition goes back further than Flash Gordon and Superman with Republic serial last-minute escapes.

    The rogue being chased by cannibals through rat-infested sewers was poisoned with something giving her the shakes in a theocratic town known for intolerance.  Acting in concert, each stimulus racks up the tension until things get interesting.  Raising the stakes in this manner is a good thing; remember in all this to let characters take effective action; don't cripple or incapacitate them with modifiers.

    Loss of control may be an issue for some players whose motive to play is vicarious empowerment.  Equally, some players have hot buttons or issues around specific items or concerns.  Respecting boundaries and issues is crucial.  The game is a game and not worth jeopardising friendships over.  Who wants to be a jerk about it? Heroism is about transcending challenges and fears to achieve greatness among peers.  Fear is omnipresent as a survival reflex but heroes are known for courage and doing it anyway in the face of fear.

    Friday, 8 January 2010

    a question of format

    There's been some thinking lately about adventure module formats.  Whether you want encounter information (maps and monsters) inline or farmed to an appendix.  The issue of hyperlinked PDFs vs. tangible deadwood is still one polarising gamers years after e-books are being shipped ubiquitously by mainstream businesses and Pathfinder's success.  Dungeon-A-Day and produce hyperlinked dungeons with maps and PDF modules are regular visitors to DriveThruRPG.   PDF is not going away.

    ChattyDM has mooted there is a business niche if we but look.  I know he's right and would love to try out some mapping tutorials on GIMP provided by Jonathan Roberts at NewbieDM, throw in encounter structures, add form character sheets, multimedia content and assemble the lot into a PDF and put it on Issuu, Zinepal or Lulu.  Open source prototypes may lead to an evolution in modules as we know them - and if it sounds familiar, then yes, this was discussed by Mad Brew Labs back in April last year.  One reason identified by Dave The Game is ease of adoption.  This leads to module design and accessibility, a sentiment raised by gamers who may have different needs and expectations of what is OK at the table.

    If you're looking for a killer app to provoke development, it's called the quick start kit.  Imagine you get a new game and you hit their website.  Instead of a PDF which you print out and then run cold, you get a PDF, character sheet forms (pregenerated and blank) and pointers on running encounters (with animations for those ambiguous rules) to show rule technicalities.  If you're going to make it easy, make it easy and if you're going to introduce yourself, then make the very best impression you can.

    Thursday, 7 January 2010

    pharobell bay

    Once a bustling coastal town and wizard academy, Pharobell Bay was quickly annihilated in a magical cataclysm.  The bay was scoured by magic, remade  into tumbling dunes.  Rockpools and shallow waters choked by sandbars yield difficult terrain.  Seabirds wheel overhead while crabs scuttle, shells adorned with gem and slate chips and fragments of arcane trappings.

    The town is ruined, scorched stones amid veins of glass.  Patches of red sand shimmer with heat even now.  In the day, dust devils whip the ruins, racing to the sand dunes. At dawn and dusk, mist creeps around the ruins.  At night, there are whispers, strange lights and bodiless undead.

    A subtler peril is a phenomenon called dweomertwist.  This drains a healing surge from all living humanoids for each day spent in Pharobell Bay; those without remaining healing surges lose 25% of their hit points.  Those dying of dweomertwist dessicate into a plume of residuum that blows into the sands.

    Users of arcane power who make a successful Arcana check (DC 25) can use dweomertwist to restore one used encounter power by expending a healing surge.  No hit points are regained from the healing surge burned this way beyond those (if any) restored by the encounter power.

    The dunes and sandbars contain a salt-and-pepper mixture of sand, ash and traces of residuum.  Unskilled peasants dredge then sift the sand, a day's effort yields 1d6gp worth.  Wizard crabs can be caught with an hour and a DC20 Nature check, if ground up a shell yields 1d8+2gp worth and up to five crabs can be safely caught per day before tides drown the hunter.

    Though humanoids rarely stay in the bay for long due to dweomertaint, there is a wrongness about the area that discourages settlers.  Stories of spectres and ghosts in the ruins, wizard crab swarms and rumours of creatures living in the sea off Pharobell Bay disturb all but the dedicated or desperate.

    Tuesday, 5 January 2010

    campaign branding: generosity

    This post considers how generosity can provoke adventures and conflict. Rather than give a white elephant or a poison chalice and force characters to buy off the problem that's suddenly landed - in itself fun yet overuse leads to resentment and paranoia towards such by sensitive or unduly competitive players.  Such extravagant rewards can emphasise the 'above and beyond' nature of exemplary success in certain actions, particularly if they are driven by roleplaying as well as favourable dice.

    Generosity in RPGs is not a trait usually associated with heroic characters, yet there are many examples of such - from giving of arms and armour to a hero (e.g. Beowulf) to questing for the perfect gift (e.g. Culhwch and Olwen), something any shopper during a primary gifting period can empathise with.  Even those you'd expect to be altruistic may grumble at the expense, especially if they receive no in-game reward for doing so. Hero as provider is an older than dirt trope yet effective.

    Building expectations of generosity can be a function of fluff and/or crunch.  In Mongoose's Slaine RPG  heroes can gain or lose face by their generosity (or stinginess) being expected to change clothes every season (how many fantasy RPGs does that happen in?) or face accusations of being cheap.  The extravagance of the nouveau riche protagonist is a staple of fiction from Conan to Mr. Deeds Goes To Townand lampooned in many RPGs.  Old School Renaissants will no doubt recall The Dragon's #10 article Orgies Inc.

    Living a larger-than-life lifestyle must carry it's own perks and hazards.  Canny DMs will consider bonuses or additional options to social situations for those who make an effort.  In some cases, a certain amount of bling may be mandatory.  Discussions whether such generosity has a place within the game in the context of religion have led to contention; spell out such expectations up front or introduced as a story element rather than spring them on an unsuspecting player as a pit trap.

    Where social mores demand player participation, it is down to the DM to communicate and manage those expectations by backstory, lore or NPC attitudes.  Show don't tell is a powerful method of reinforcing the message, spawning story hooks and opportunities for players to exercise ingenuity.  Where games have a reputation mechanic, this can be enhanced or even detracted from depending on their actions - even a generous individual can be seen as insincere, insane or manipulative.

    Lavish generosity can also be seen as indicative of a culture's decadence.  Gifts can indicate ethics or morals of a culture - an imperalist martial culture that uses slavery has very different ideas about a suitable honour to the egalitarian philosophers in the next city-state.  The attitudes towards such gifts also provide insights into how adept the culture with intrigue and secrecy.  There are proverbial examples of such (the Trojan Horse) and these endure to this very day.

    Friday, 1 January 2010

    inns and taverns: the wooden sword

    The Wooden Sword is a drinking house run by a former manager of gladiators who escaped a slave rebellion with enough coin to set up an inn and change name to something less noted.  Neighbours protesting noise and revelry met drunken, likely violent gladiators and promptly moved on.  Now the Wooden Sword jostles amid decaying, graffiti-strewn tenements haunted by changing faces and muted voices.

    The Sword is a three-storey house made of coarse concrete, timber beams and stucco, outer walls painted with crude graffiti and frescos showing martial conquests and monsters.  Each floor has a rough concrete stair from the ground so patrons need not jostle each other unduly on the outside.  The roof is flat and surrounded by plants, when it rains it is often covered in a red awning and customers drink away the cold.

    The Sword primarily has exterior chambers, the upper floors are mainly narrow corridor-like chambers thick with tallow smoke, the smell of alcohol and unwashed bodies hunched over benches or stools.  Each floor has a bar tended by staff who know their clientele well.  Strangers draw wary attention.  Any doors are locked and lead to the interior providing access between floors, to the cellar and staff living quarters.

    Only staff have keys.  All staff are armed with daggers and capable of giving a nasty wound to anyone trying their hand or luck.  Each floor also has a burly ex-gladiator armed with cestus and club paid in drink and a blind eye to their activities.  These thugs know a good thing and rarely provoke the staff or clientele but will finish any brawl just fine.  Their former manager is not someone to annoy.

    Each bar serves (in order of strength and ability to sicken) rough red wine, a sour-edged brandy or fermented whey curd in crude wooden cups and clay jugs.  The ground floor has a central common room occupying it's northern face with a firepit serving as a basic kitchen selling saltfish, cooked meat and cheese.  On cold nights, the firepit is banked high and those sleeping there find it uncomfortable, infested with lice and thieves.

    On hot nights, the pit is extinguished and external rooms on the ground floor closed off (with claims of sewer problems backed up by discreetly hidden chamberpots behind the bar).  Those trusted by the staff are led via the internal stair to the common room which holds illicit pit fights as the ashes soak up the blood of the loser who doesn't always make it out alive.  Barrels of cheap wine are placed at each corner of the room.

    The cellar has hidden passages to the cellars of every house in the block and the local sewer.  These are used for the business of fencing stolen goods and body disposal.  The owner is seen every night by the staff and is keen to keep their presence suitably low-key.  Despite this dilapidated exterior, a fair amount of coin turns in the Wooden Sword and the illicit pit fights make the owner wealthy enough to maintain a respectable distance while learning what the gutter-rats of the city are doing.
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