Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Zeppelin

Because every hero aspires to have a friggin' air ship! Yes, I realize that Zeppelins are technically those machines invented by Ferdinand von The Same Name for the company of His Name, but to me, Zeppelins are like Kleenex or Q-tips. Get over it.

Anyway, it seems like one of the long-term goals of many a game group is to talk their GM into giving them an airship. My group is no different. As soon as I let them hitch a ride on one, they started salivating over the thought of putting it to their own use. Fortunately, I managed to keep it in the hands of its rightful owner for now, but my players have brought up the idea of calling their old buddy Gatwick Rugely to see if he could drop them off somewhere.

I'm not sure what the allure of airships is. They aren't particularly fast, and must be a pain to fly. It must be that they're big... and the whole "freedom to go anywhere thing" Plus, they work for pretty much any genre.


The Jerle Shannara from Terry Brook's Shannara series

WWII Alt History:

Action Serial:
The Rocketeer

Post Apocalyptic Space Opera:

Space Battleship Yamato

American kids' cartoons

The Iron Vulture from Tale Spin
Japanese kids movies
Dola's Ship from Laputa, Castle in the Sky

Spy movies

Zorn's blimp from A View to a Kill
And, of course, Sci-fi TV shows

From Doctor Who, Rise of the Cybermen
So, congratulations. For joining me on my journey from A to Z, I leave you with the above collection of Zeppelin "porn".

And of course, I would be remiss if I did not include a nod to fiction's biggest Zeppelin fan.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y is for Yawp!

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, 
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Which makes me think of this, for some reason...

Every good action hero needs a catchphrase or battle cry, a yawp that they sound to make their presence known. Why should characters in an rpg be any different? For a GM, a battle cry or favorite saying can be an easy way to quickly set apart different characters as you act them out. An audible hook to affix that character in your players' memories. Besides, coming up with battle cries, epithets or favorite curses is a lot of fun! Probably the best one I've come up with is for a gnomish foreman who can regularly be heard calling "Garl's Nuggets!" a sort of gnomish equivalent of "God's Bollocks"--the god of the gnomes being Garl Glittergold in the standard Greyhawk pantheon.

A battle cry can be particularly potent preceding a dramatic entrance or exit. When one of my players had to leave our game group, I wrote up an exit scene which involved her character (a paladin of a nature goddess) delivering this final power-up speech before charging into an onrushing tide of orcs.

"I am the tempest over the sea. I am the quaking of the mountains, I am nature's wrath! For the glory of Ehlonna!"

It's much more impressive when delivered from the back of a unicorn.

Anyway, enough examples from my stuff that nobody else cares about. To illustrate my point, here are some notable yawps without the speakers identified. How many do you know?

We'll start with an easy one
"Hallo, my name is Inigo Montoya, you kill my father, prepare to die!"

Okay, now for reals.
  1. "Get away from her, you Bitch!"
  2. "Go for the eyes Boo! Go for the eyes! Raaaaugh!"
  3. "Freeedom!"
  4. "Spoon!"
  5. "I am the terror that flaps in the night!"
  6. "By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!"
  7. "Yippie-kai-yay, motherfucker!"
  8. "I am a leaf in the wind"
  9. "I am no man!"
  10. "Oh YEAH!"
  11. "Crom!"
Just one more AtoZ entry to go! Monday you all get your big reward for sticking with me!

Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for XP

Non-gamers be warned. This post is really crunchy.

Experience Points, or XP is one of the more common metrics for tracking a character's advancement and power gain in a roleplaying game like D&D.

In D&D characters gain XP for killing monsters, completing quests and doing otherwise awesome things. When they gain enough, they go up a level and get a bit beefier. This system works well enough, but has some definite drawbacks.

First off, at least in 3.5 edition D&D, the only clearly established method of assigning XP is to dole it out according to an encounter's challenge rating. The only hard and fast rules for determining an encounter's challenge rating are based on how hard a particular monster, or trap is to defeat. Ergo, the only cut and dry method for assigning XP is related to encounters where the players beat up a monster, or disarm a trap. Well, what about all those other encounters? You know, like the ones where they roleplay?

Truth is, assigning XP for non-combat encounters is pretty ad hoc in 3rd and 3.5 edition D&D. 4th edition introduced non-combat skill challenges as a way to create a non-combat encounter with a clear challenge rating, but this system also substituted dice rolls for time that would otherwise be spent roleplaying a character. Instead of the players trying to convince the stormtroopers these are not the droids they're looking for, they let the dice do the talking.

Over the past several years, I have managed to kajigger (technical term) a system, by which I can assign XP for non-combat encounters in a way that I feel helps keep their rewards on par with those gained through stabbing things with claws and teeth. Here's how it works:

First: I determine how important and/or dangerous a given encounter is. If it is directly related to advancing the main plot, or if it could potentially devolve into combat if handled poorly, I assign it an XP value equal to the party's level. If it is not as important, I give it half that amount. HOWEVER. Because my group is larger than the baseline 4 character party 3.5 edition is built around, I make sure to give each of my players the equivalent of the xp / 4 for roleplaying, puzzle or other non-combat encounters. I do this, because, while having an extra sword arm might make a fight less difficult (thus worth less xp per person) it does not necessarily help with roleplaying or problem-solving challenges.

Second: For encounters that rely heavily on the actions of one particular player, such as the rogue for disarming traps, or if one player does all the talking or puzzle solving, I typically give the active participants full points and the passive party members 1/2 points. Why give the non-participants any XP at all? Mainly to keep the group fairly close in their advancement. Balancing an adventure for characters with a broad range of levels is a real pain in the butt!

Third: I give bonus XP for awesome roleplaying. I typically dish this out to one or two characters per session. The total bonus is usually 10% of the XP total for the night, and I make sure to let my players know who got it and why. This encourages them to dance for me like the greedy XP monkeys they are. >: )

Fellow GMs, how do you go about rewarding your players for stuff not otherwise covered in the rules?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W is for Warfare

Every epic adventure needs to have at least one equally epic battle. Often coming at or near an adventure story’s climax, such a battle often serves to highlight the full realization of a hero’s badassery. Battles serve as an occasion for great speeches, massed charges and desperate last stands.

Working epic battles into a game like D&D is surprisingly tricky. The mass combat associated with such events is an ill fit a tabletop RPG, which is designed for playing out the activities of small groups of adventurers. Incorporating a cast of thousands can quickly bog down the game if you treat that cast as though it is made up of characters.

The trick to effectively incorporating battle scenes into your game is to treat the battle not as a conflict of supporting characters, but as a sort of dynamic dungeon. The battle is setting, not cast. The 3.5 Edition supplement, Heroes of Battle sums up the best way to do this as “think big, play small” Focus on the specific missions given to the PCs while the battle rages around them in the background. Their success or failure may change the dynamic of that battle-turned dungeon, but the focus is squarely on the heroes.

The D-Day scene from the movie, Saving Private Ryan provides an example of this sort of framing. Though on one level, the scene is about the allied landings in Normandy, it is essentially about the action of John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his small unit of men attempting to complete their small part of that mission. Their objectives are to get off the beach, scale the cliffs and clear the enemy positions on top. All of these things, which can be accomplished by a small group contribute to the success of the whole. The artillery barrages, machine gun sweeps of the beach and the carnage all around become the setting against which their actions take place.

Another thing to consider when working a battle into a game like D&D is the way a high fantasy setting changes the nature of warfare. Though D&D is probably most similar to a medieval setting, it adds things like magic and monsters to the mix. A massed unit of sorcerers hurling fireballs, or a flight of griffin riders could very-well make mincemeat of units relying on mass formations and other tactics used in actual medieval and renaissance combat. Tactics closer to those used by contemporary armies might actually be more appropriate. Fireballings could take the place of artillery barrages and wingriders could launch strafing runs of the field.

The mortality rate of such a fantasy battle is likely to be an even stranger beast. The presence of clerics with the ability to magically heal the wounded would certainly have a major effect. Ranks of troops might rotate off the front line as they get injured to be healed before working their way back up through the queue. Clerics, protected by powerful abjuration spells might pick their way unscathed through the ranks of the dead and dying in an attempt to save as many as possible, perhaps even to the point of raising fallen generals from the dead, or in the case of evil clerics, raising the dead soldiers of their enemy to turn against their own.
I’ve been thinking a lot about large-scale warfare a lot as my campaign seems headed towards its own set-piece battle. Have any of my fellow GMs run this sort of thing before? If so, what worked well for you? What traps would you recommend avoiding?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Vengeance

Vengeance is about as common as orphans when it comes to tales of heroes. Whether it is the Inigo Montoya type out to right a particular wrong, or the Batman type who is just out to make life as miserable as possible for people similar to those who have hurt him, or the mad scientist type who is really torked that his plans were foiled once again, the need to get back at others drives a lot of stories. A desire for vengeance is not a trait specific to good guys or bad guys. It is a strong and potentially endless cyclical desire for retribution.

Katniss Everdeen is often motivated by vengeance.

So, chances are, once your heroes have made a name for themselves, and built up a bit of a reputation, they will also have built up a pretty good supply of enemies looking for payback. These enemies might be previously vanquished foes who got away with their lives, or the friends or relatives of vanquished foes who didn’t. They could even be individuals nursing a vindictive streak born of more subtle stuff. Perhaps your heroes failed to save someone, or lost an ally under their charge only to gain great glory from their sacrifice. These things could also drive someone to seek revenge.

When working vengeance into a book or game, it is vital to raise the stakes with each attempt. A vanquished villain is not likely to execute his revenge plot unless he feels comfortable of victory, especially if it requires that he put himself in harm’s way. He's dealt with the heroes before and should be fully aware of their capabilities. A smart villain will put that knowledge to good use. He might also elect to enact a more subtle form of revenge, perhaps targeting people the protagonists care about, or attempting to sully their reputation rather than attacking by force. Some may come up with even more creative ways to enact their ultimate revenge, beyond boring old death.

Have you incorporated any particularly interesting revenge tales into your books or games?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Unbelievable

As in, unbelievable feats! Unmatchable accomplishments! The unquestioned stuff of true legend. Today I would like to highlight a rule that I have added quite successfully to my game that encourages my players to think outside the box and to think beyond, “what will the rules let me do” to “what would be really awesome right now?”

Axe Cop knows awesome, personally.

I call it, “The Rule of Awesome.”

Based on the core game mechanics, any player’s turn represents approximately 6 seconds of game time (1/10th of a minute). A character is allowed to move and complete a single standard action during that time, or move twice as far without otherwise acting. A standard action is anything from casting a spell, to hitting a guy in the face, to leaping onto the back of a troll. This move/act mechanic is at the heart of 3rd edition D&D, and was fully sloganized in 4th edition by the phrase “move, minor, standard” (a minor action being something less than a standard action).

Well, while this keeps things fairly simple to remember, it can also cause things to get boring really fast. My custom Rule of Awesome allows players to go beyond these rules to do something that might take the same amount of time as running 30 feet and stabbing someone, but that is considerably more epic.

Here’s a real example from my game: My players were battling some wyvern riding orcs while riding on an airship-like ya do. One of the wyverns was carrying off the ship’s pilot. In an effort to rescue the pilot, one of my players asked if he could activate his magic earring that caused him to double in size, charge across the upper deck, leap off the cargo crane and onto the back of the fleeing wyvern. An UNBELIEVABLE FEAT OF AGILITY, right!?

Well, if I had stuck with the rules, he would have had to make a jump check to get on the crane, a balance check to run along it a second jump check to leap off and an attack to hit the wyvern. Lots of rolling, lots of time taken, lots of opportunity for failure. Using the Rule of Awesome, however, all of this was accomplished with a single roll.

The rule works like this. If a player wants to do something really unbelievably epic, they first narrate their intended feat of derring-do. If they have a relevant skill they will be using, they let me know. I then roll a d100 percentile dice and mentally adjust the median according to the difficulty of the task, the character’s skill level and how awesome the thing is that they are going to attempt. The closer to 100 the roll, the greater the success, the closer to 1, the greater the failure. In this case, the player rolled a 98. His character vaulted flawlessly off the crane, landed on the back of the fleeing beast, driving both fists into its shoulders and sending it crashing to the deck with him on top of it.

My players have taken advantage of the Rule of Awesome on several occasions, sometimes leading to a truly epic moment of gameplay, other times leading to a facepalming moment of defeat. Either way, it sure beats. “I run over and hit that guy.”

Don't ask. Just let it happen.

Monday, April 23, 2012

T is for Teamwork

Edit: Be sure to check out Saturday's post, S is for Spell Selection! I've noticed my readership dips a bit on the weekends, so I want to make sure those posts get some lovin' too.

A typical tabletop game like D&D tends to tell the tale of a team of... heroes. As such, the game is structured so that its default mode works best when each member of a group takes on a particular role. 3rd edition D&D is based around an assumed group of four players, though scaling the group size up or down is certainly possible. I personally believe that 5 players and a GM is ideal. This post is a mixture of talk of teamwork, tactics and thinking outside the box.

Within the 4-person structure, the most basic group breaks down as follows: a fighter or barbarian to handle the fighting up front, a rogue to handle scouting or and to disarm traps and open locks, a wizard or sorcerer to chuck spells from a distance and a cleric to provide healing and act as a support fighter and/or spell-caster.

I have noticed that gameplay and growth as a player tends to progress similarly to a kid learning to play a sport. At first, it’s a bit of bunch ball. Everyone wants to be the one to deliver the killing blow. At this stage, teamwork tends to be fairly rudimentary. The cleric will heal others between fights, or if someone whines that they’re about to die. The spell-caster typically stays near the edge of the fight, sending spells in beyond the reach of the enemy. The rogue might try to flank with the fighter to get some bonus backstab damage, but that’s about it. Otherwise, the game remains pretty hack and slash, with everyone hacking and slashing as they feel is best.

After a while, however, a group hopefully starts to work out some more distinct tactics that highlight each character’s strengths. In the game I run, for example, the first thing that happens during any major fight is that the sorceress or wizard drops a haste spell on the group to speed up their movement and attacks. In the last game I played, my wizard developed a magical equivalent to the Wolverine/Colossus hurling attack. I would open a dimension door for the barbarian to step through and get at the chewy center of an enemy formation.

Even when a group starts putting together their battle routine, the temptation to fall into free-for-all hack-and-slash can remain strong. After all, because D&D is a turn-based game in which each round of actions can take 10 minutes to half-an-hour or more, and because a fight might only last two or three rounds, every player wants to feel like his or her character contributed in some way. Nothing feels worse than having your character reach the fight just as it’s ending, or whif every single attack due to unlucky dice.

Sometimes an encounter is just not meant to highlight a particular character in one-on-one combat. Maybe the GM wants to give the cleric a chance to nuke a bunch of zombies with her divine righteousness. This could very-well frustrate the rogue who can’t get backstab damage against the undead. In such situations, it is easy to become frustrated as a player. However, such times might also be a great chance to get creative and move beyond the desire to deal as much damage as possible with your weapon in hand. Think outside the box, think how you can assist your team. For example, during a fight in a wooden building, the pyromancer might get annoyed that the GM is preventing her from hurling her favorite fireballs. It might be a perfect opportunity, however, to fly up to the rafters and start cutting down chandeliers onto badguy’s heads, or to kneel down behind the guy who has cornered the rogue so he can push him over for some extra stabby goodness.

A good GM should always try to foster such creative thinking. After all, it’s much more fun to run a chandelier-swinging bar brawl than a toe-to-toe hit, return hit, slugfest. So, when your hero finds his or herself outside of the spotlight, either find a new spotlight, or try to find a way to make someone else’s spotlight a little brighter.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for Spell Selection

This is my 6th post in my Building a Better Villain thread that runs throughout April A to Z

Just a warning to non-gamers, this post is a bit crunchy (heavy on gamespeak and rules.)

Spell-casting in D&D is an odd beast. Up until 4th edition, the game used a system commonly known as Vancian magic* With 4th edition, the game scrambled it’s spellcasting, shifting to a more Magic the Gathering-style system of powers with set recharge rates, combined with ritual
(for magic-users, these were still called “spells”, but were no longer unique from the new powers given to fighters or other non-magic classes).

For this post, I would like to focus on managing spells in the older Vancian system. Vancian magic basically treats spells like ammo. You have a specific number of spells you can cast each day, and for wizards and clerics, they must be prepared in advance at the beginning of that day. This means that if you want to be able to cast 3 fireball spells, you need to memorize the spell 3 times. A friend of mine described it as fixing the magical patterns in the wizard’s brain. When the spell is cast, the pattern burns itself out in the process.

Most players try to select spells to cover a broad range of potential situations. Since they don’t  know what the GM has in store, this is a wise way to go about it. For a GM, however, taking this same approach might not be the best choice. Players spend a lot of time with their characters, they get to know the spells they have at hand, and become familiar with their mechanics. The GM, by contrast, may roleplay several NPC spellcasters during the course of a single game session, and several more the next game. Becoming familiar with diverse spell sets for each of these NPCs quickly becomes cumbersome for any busy GM who hasn’t had 20 years to memorize the Player’s Handbook by rote.

As such, I recommend taking a different approach with NPC spellcasters. Don’t try to optimize them to meet any possible challenge. Optimize them instead to a.) present a particular challenge or asset to the PCs (depending on their role as support or adversary) and b.) give the magic user a distinct style (e.g. pyromancer, summoner or mentalist), characterized by fewer spells with more of the same spell prepared. This gives you fewer spell descriptions to memorize and adds a distinct feel to the NPC. I would try to give them a couple protective spells, a couple attack spells and a few interesting effect spells they can throw into an encounter. In general, a caster will use more attack spells during combat than defensive spells, as the latter typically get spent while buffing up in the early rounds. Therefore, it is important to have at least 1 low-level attack that can be cast a bunch of times, while fewer self-defense spells might suffice.

Here’s an example:
A 10th level wizard will likely be able to cast at least 23 spells each day. Rather than giving them 23 different spells, do something like this:

10th level necromancer
0 level (4 spells) Detect magic x2, Touch of fatigue x21 level (5 spells) Ray of Enfeeblement x3 (low level debuff) Shield x2 (defense)2 level (5 spells) Melf’s Acid Arrow x5 (low level attack)3 level (4 spells) Vampiric Touch x4 (stronger debuff/healing)4 level (3 spells) Animate Dead x3 (summoning)5 level (2 spells) Cloudkill x2 (powerful area of effect)

With the above example, you only need to be familiar with 8 spells instead of 23. It still has a mix of direct damage attacks, area attacks, defense and other interesting effect spells, but should be much less cumbersome to run. The above necromancer also focuses on spells that either drain an enemy’s life force, or summon undead to assist the character. You could also throw in a couple extra spells that have simple mechanics or that you are already familiar with if certain types of spells are missing (e.g. mage armor to further beef up defense)

*named for its similarity with the system found in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series.

Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Reputation

When I started my current D&D campaign, my player characters were lowly little level 3 adventurers. They were sturdy enough that getting sent on the archetypal rat hunting mission was beneath them, but fragile enough to get nervous about a cabin full of giant spiders. Today, they have grown to level 12 out of a total of 20. They are a force to be reckoned with, something akin to the Green Berets or the Navy SEALs of their world.

This is all part of the classic hero arc that resides at the center of the roleplaying genre (both tabletop and videogames). Through the course of their adventures, the heroes gain experience, powerful tools of the hero trade, begin to more fully realize their powers. They also likely begin to gain a bit of a reputation.

Reputation is one thing that many videogames have tried to capture, though I'm not sure any have gotten it quite right. Some, like Mass Effect and Fable incorporate a morality metric that affects peoples' opinion of you based on your past actions. In the Elder Scrolls games, you can move up through the ranks of certain organizations and grow your powers of persuasion, and in the Fallout games, you might even hear radio broadcasts about your antics, but I feel like none of these fully captures the changes that take place as a character's fame or notoriety grows.

Fortunately, in a tabletop game, you are only limited by your imagination, and so there is a much greater capacity for exploring the ramifications of fame and fortune.

Some of these ramifications may be good. As your heroes make a name for themselves, once closed doors may open up. After slaying the giant who was bowling for sheep in the countryside, they may no longer need to deal with the royal seneschal, they might have a direct line to speak with the king. If their reputation is honorable, restrictions on carrying arms or spellcasting within city limits might be waived. They might get discounts at stores, invitations to join guildhalls or even lands and titles.

Wizards traditionally have low fortitude saves

However, as so many celebrities can tell you, fame isn't all wine and roses. It becomes difficult to go out into the world without being noticed. Gathering information about neer-do-wells from the local tavern might require a trip out in disguise. You will likely face petitions for help from strangers in the street (just ask the Three Amigos). Fame also carries with it an assumption of wealth. Rather than offering discounts, some shops might actually jack their prices up. After all, you just took down a dragon, you must be loaded!

Celebrity can also bring resentment. The relatives of vanquished foes may seek you out, and the better known your whereabouts, the harder it will be to hide. Some previously unmet challengers might also seek you out in an effort to prove their own mettle. It is a truly precarious perch at the top of the heap.

Fortunately, for a DM, all of these things represent new and exciting adventure hooks and challenges to throw at players flush with the glow of their accomplishments.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Questionnaire

Last year, my Q post was all about questions, and included a number of things I ask myself when creating non-player characters for my game. This year, my post is also about questions. However, this time I would like to focus on questions that might help my players build a better hero, and help me as a DM build a better game that caters to their vision of that hero.

One tactic that some DMs use to ensure that their game is everything their players want is to create a pre-campaign questionnaire. The players typically fill this out when creating their characters, or while the DM is planning the arc of the campaign. My noob self was not aware of such tactics, and so did not utilize a questionnaire when starting my current campaign three years ago. However, I like the thought and expect to give it a try in the future.

So, what kind of questions should you ask on these things? Well, that depends on what you hope to answer. Back in 2009, Newbie DM uploaded his pre-game questionnaire, which asks a lot of good questions aimed at determining the gaming styles of his players. What sort of things do they want or expect from a DM? How do they feel about certain game mechanics? that sort of thing.

The questionnaire I envision myself using is focuses more on drawing out details about the characters my players are putting together for the game. The questions are intended to give me hooks for drawing them into the storyline, for poking at their tender spots, and also for making them feel well rewarded. So, without further ado, here's what I'm thinking:

Player Name:

  1. Character Name:
  2. Who raised you?
  3. Where do you call home?
  4. Who is/was your best friend?
  5. Who is/was your worst enemy?
  6. Who taught you your skills?
  7. What did you do before you became an adventurer?
  8. Why do you adventure?
  9. What is your proudest moment?
  10. What is your darkest secret?
  11. What is your greatest fear?
  12. What do you value most in life?
  13. What do you despise most?
  14. List three things your character would like to achieve in life
  15. List three treasures (magic items or other unique goods) you would like your character to acquire at some point
The answers to these questions can be as simple as a single word, or as complex as a short story. Even stating, "I don't know" gives the DM something to work with. The questions are not intended to paint a comprehensive picture of the character, but to inspire a tighter collaboration between the DM and the player in order to make the character an integral part of the story.

Do any of you have questionnaires that you use when creating characters for a game, or even a book? What sort of questions do you ask?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Play it Up!

When I first started running my own D&D game, I promised my players they would not be expected to come in costume or talk in funny voices. Almost all of them were new to the game and to some degree had bought in to the stereotypical image of a dice-rolling gamer. This made them tentative about having that image applied to them; a promise of no funny voices helped ease their way in.

As a new DM, I also didn't think I wanted to "do voices" or play in character. The example descriptions of gameplay from the sourcebooks, in which example players communicate as though they are they characters always gave me horrible flashbacks to grade school fieldtrips taken to see condescending children's theater. These example players were entirely too enthusiastic to be believed. I mean, nobody talks like they talk!

Despite my intent to play things cool. "Yeah, you see a dragon... it's like, sup? I'mma eat you now." I soon found myself getting into the characters I had created, playing them up. I actually enjoy acting... enough to have a degree in it, so when presenting an interesting character, I instinctively start to slip into their character. However, in my opinion* D&D is not a play. It's not even an improvised play. I think the hackneyed examples of gameplay in the sourcebooks present it too much like it is.

For me, D&D is partially improvised, participatory storytelling. It is a mix of dialogue like you would find in a theater performance, intermingled with narration like you would find in a book. While the skills of a good storyteller are very similar to those of an actor, a storyteller must be simultaneously in and out of character. For example, my 5th grade teacher was one of the best storytellers I've known. She read Brian Jacques' book, Redwall to our class, getting completely into the telling. She had distinct deliveries for all of the different types of animals, from the mice, to the earthy speech of the moles, to the frantic chatter of Warbeak, the bird and the sinister hiss of Asmodeus the snake. However, despite playing up these characters, she maintained a slightly heightened version of her normal persona while reading the narration. This balance between being a distinct character and being a storyteller describing a scene from outside the story is the balance that I began to find in my DMing.

So then, I poked the beholder in the eyeball, just. like. THIS!

Now, my players are not largely the sort to slip into character. Don't get me wrong, they get into the game. My fiance has been threatening to have her sorceress go postal ever since cultists kidnapped her in-game boyfriend. My players, however, tend to refer to their characters mostly in third person. They do not "do voices". This level of buy-in is perfectly fine. We are a beer-and-pretzels sort of casual group. I can tell they are into the game even if they are not in character.

I have also noticed, however, that they seem to enjoy themselves the most when I am playing up the characters... like a storyteller. When I get into this mode, I start to play on my feet. I occasionally slip into accents, but more often simply play each NPC's intent and emotional state. Listening to my players and trying to react according to what they say and do. When I do this, I notice my players lean forward, put their cellphones down, react more quickly and, on occasion, will slip a little further into their characters than they might have been comfortable with when we first started playing three years ago.

*Anyone telling you they know the proper way to play D&D is either a generation warrior, a pompous ass, or both. The game can be played an infinite number of ways depending on the dynamic of the group.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is also for...


That's right, I set up an A to Z Archive page where you can browse all of my A to Z posts from this year and last! Simply click the A to Z Archive button at the top of the page, or follow this link:

Click to get Organized!

O is for Orphans

This is the 7th post in my Building a Better Hero thread of A to Z with Character

On this day, I feel obliged to opine, and so, I offer up the following:

What the heck is it with authors making their heroes orphans!? From comics, to books, to movies, to players in tabletop roleplaying games, it seems like a disproportionate number of protagonists come from broken families. Let’s do the list:

  • Batman - parents murdered
  • Superman - parents went down with the planet
  • Spider-man - raised by aunt and uncle, uncle gets murdered
  • Luke Skywalker - also raised by aunt and uncle, both get murdered
  • Harry Potter - parents murdered
  • Katniss Everdeen - Father killed and mother becomes a deadbeat
  • Tarzan - raised by gorillas
  • Rand al’ Thor - Foundling, has a relatively normal father figure
  • Kvothe - entire extended family murdered by supernatural boogiemen
  • Garion - Raised by wizards masquerading as his aunt and uncle
  • Lyra Belacqua - Are her parents even mentioned?
  • Momotaro - born out of a peach to an elderly, infertile couple
  • Just about any Disney hero has something unusual about their parental situation

I could go on, ad nauseum. 

It seems like the majority of heroes, especially in fantasy literature, have at least one parent missing, and if they don’t at first, they lose them in the course of the story. Even among my game group, my players’ characters exhibit incredibly dysfunctional childhoods. The PCs in my game include 

  • a parentless street rat 
  • a sorceress driven from her home at a young age because of her powers 
  • a woman whose parents were murdered by zombies 
  • a monk who was born of a rape, and whose only connection to his father is part of a demon’s soul that has possessed both of them

past characters have included two children born of illicit trysts by their mothers. The remainder have no backstory at all. The propensity for creating heroes with messed up childhoods actually prompted me to create a character in the last D&D game I played who had been raised by two loving parents before going off to wizard school. Guess what? The GM killed his father in a horrible way.

Terri Windling has a three-part post that explores the archetype of the abandoned child hero in great detail. She posits several different reasons for this common thread, based largely on the form of the story. In myths, an abandoned child is often of noble or supernatural birth. Raised in meager settings by foster parents, their true greatness manifests as they come of age and go on to become truly powerful leaders. By contrast, in folktales, the abandonment of a child sparks an act of forced maturation. As the child is abandoned in the woods, or persecuted by their ubiquitous evil step-mother, they are forced to overcome their situation through their own wit. Folktales differ from myths in that the abandoned child is not necessarily of noble birth.

Anyway, it’s an excellent and enlightening read. I highly recommend you check it out. Fellow authors and game players, do you find yourselves creating orphaned protagonists?

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for Names

We are officially starting the second half of April A to Z people! Are you psyched!? I know I am!

Authors and game masters alike regularly face the task of naming characters, places and any other proper noun they wish to incorporate into their story. Choosing a proper name is a task fraught with pitfalls. What if it’s unpronounceable? What if it’s easily confused with the name of a different character? What if it is easily corrupted into something giggle-worthy. This last actually happened to me when I ran with a pre-named villain called of Dekelor. From the first time I uttered his name, my players have responded with an enthusiastic “Dick Lord!” and this wasn’t even a name I made up! This was Wizards of the Coast’s doing... jerks. Granted, WOTC has included poor name choices in its publications before. (see my previous post, Hack & Slash for examples.)

A well crafted name is a powerful thing. It’s memorable, summarizes the essence of the character, is consistent with the language convention for that culture from which it arose, and it rolls trippingly off the tongue. For a GM, however, crafting a fine name for a fine character can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. While authors can take the time to massage their character names into a well molded form that fits the character like a second skin, a GM might have only seconds from the time his or her players say, So what is the shopkeeper’s name to come up with a response without causing a noticeable hiccup in the game flow.A wise GM should have go-to sources for creating character names on the fly. Some might keep a list of interesting names as they hear them, and tick them off as they get used. I have already posted about my go-to sources for names, and I encourage you to check it out. I would, however, like to add a new source to that list.

Metal Singers... specifically, European metal singers often have names that would fit right into a fantasy world. I actually realized this while checking out the blog Mithril Wisdom, another participant in this year’s A to Z. The author, Jamie, has been posting nerd metal songs as his entries. While the videos are mindblowing in their own right, checking out the bands’ websites has yielded a wealth of truly epic names. Names like Peter Stålfors, Jesper Strömblad and Magnus Linhardt. I could populate a dwarven empire on metal singers alone!A wise GM should have go-to sources for creating character names on the fly. Some might keep a list of interesting names as they hear them, and tick them off as they get used. I have already posted about my go-to sources for names, and I encourage you to check it out. I would, however, like to add a new source to that list.

Metal Singers... specifically, European metal singers often have names that would fit right into a fantasy world. I actually realized this while checking out the blog Mithril Wisdom, another participant in this year’s A to Z. The author, Jamie, has been posting nerd metal songs as his entries. While the videos are mindblowing in their own right, checking out the bands’ websites has yielded a wealth of truly epic names. Names like Peter Stålfors, Jesper Strömblad and Magnus Linhardt. I could populate a dwarven empire on metal singers alone!
Metal Singers... specifically, European metal singers often have names that would fit right into a fantasy world. I actually realized this while checking out the blog Mithril Wisdom, another participant in this year’s A to Z. The author, Jamie, has been posting nerd metal songs as his entries. While the videos are mindblowing in their own right, checking out the bands’ websites has yielded a wealth of truly epic names. Names like Peter Stålfors, Jesper Strömblad and Magnus Linhardt. I could populate a dwarven empire on metal singers alone!

Edit: Another technique that works well for generating names... especially for non-human races is to begin with words related to a culture's primary interest. Tolkien did this extensively when naming the Rohirrim (and other characters from his books, I suspect.) Anyway, someone who is not an obsessive linguist could still start with the names of minerals when crafting dwarven characters, or plants for elves. Using this method, I quickly came up with the following:


  • Dendra - from "dendrite" the tree shaped branches of a crystal
  • Auric - from the latin for gold
  • Palladir - derived from Palladium


  • Bromelia - from "bromeliad" plants that include artichokes and pineapples
  • Lauralus - from "laurales" the order of plants that includes cinnamon and sassafrass
  • Commeline - from "commelinaceae" - the "dayflower family"

Simple as that. What are your go-to sources for picking memorable names?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Masses of Minions

This is the 5th post of my Building a Better Villain thread that runs throughout the April A to Z Challenge.

Let’s talk about minions, that wonderful staple of archvillainy. Most exemplars of evil strive to command hordes of lesser baddies to do their dirty work for them. Minions act as an arch-villain’s eyes and ears, his/her mischievous hands and, when necessary, a living shield to cover a quick getaway.

My favorite minion scene ever. (Yes, I know they are technically, "henchmen".)

The mechanic behind minions in D&D 4e is one of the things I like about that particular edition. Minions are basically 1-hit bad guys that are only really encountered in the company of other, tougher antagonists. While they can dish out some damage to the heroes, they can also be mowed down like wheat, allowing the good guys to feel like a bunch of real badasses. The disposable minion mechanic helps mitigate the problems associated with mass combats in D&D. However, it can be taken further.

Mass melee with minions
When the heroes finally wind their way through an archvillain’s tangled, trap-filled lair, chances are, the boss baddie isn’t going to face them on his own. He’s gonna want backup in the form of as many minions as he can muster. If the heroes caught their arch alone, chances are, he would drop a smoke grenade, or a bag of bees and get out of Dodge, lickety split. Unfortunately, working sufficient backup into a battle is problematic.

First off, the baddie will ideally want to outnumber the heroes. In a typical D&D situation, this means at least 6 bad guys to a group of 5 heroes. The arch will likely want to tilt the scales even further, perhaps an order of 2 to 1 pushing things into the realm of a dozen bad guys staring down the heroes. By a strict reading of the D&D mechanics, such a situation will likely turn into an hours-long slog at the gaming table and-despite the exciting premise of a massive battle- will end up being no fun for anyone.

The biggest challenge to mass combat encounters, especially boss+minions is the sheer amount of dice rolling that has to take place. If a DM makes every individual roll for a big brawl between a party of 5 adventurers and a dozen bad guys, things get really boring reeeally fast! First, the GM will be rolling about twice as much as the players, and second, even if each character’s turn (declare an action, roll and move) is resolved in a minute or less, a round of combat (representing 6 seconds in game time) can take 15 minutes or more. That minute per turn mark becomes nearly impossible to hit when you factor in additional rolls like saving throws made in response to attacks, hunting for individual minion’s stats, etc.

Well, I have a couple tricks that I use to speed up these big brawls and keep the focus on the players.

1. Do hitpoints by the fives: I calculate minion hitpoints with tally marks, each representing 5hp. When one of my players lands an attack, I round to the nearest five and make the corresponding mark. This really speeds up my mental math when trying to calculate damage to a minion.

2. Forget the dice: Though I roll dice for unique actions taken by minions, if I am calculating saves for a whole posse caught in the PC pyromancer’s ubiquitous fireball, I instead rely on a pregenerated sheet of random D20 rolls. I use the WOTC online dice roller to generate a single roll of 1000 d20 and then copy and paste the breakdown into a Word doc. 12 minions caught in a blast? I simply calculate the minimum roll needed to save and then tick off the next 12 entries on the list. I do the same when a dozen minis go after the PCs with swords. tick off the attack rolls down the line. Speeds things up like you wouldn’t believe.

3. There is no I in Team: Have the minions work together as a group. Combine attacks into single actions like a unified volley of arrows. Turn avoidance into a single reflex save with the minion’s attack roll as the number to beat.

4. Minions + Minions cancel each other out: Sometimes, the PCs also bring friends to a fight, swelling the combat numbers to truly unwieldy proportions. In these circumstances, I simply narrate the flow of minion on minion violence. The groups of support characters become a sort of dynamic element to the setting, rather than fully realized participants. The focus is thrown to the players and their nemises while the battle swirls around them.

My particular game is full of massive minion encounters, and these shortcuts allow me to keep things exciting for the players while maintaining a feel of a full, frenetic fight.

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Layers of Legend

This is the 5th entry in my Building a Better Hero sub-thread of my A to Z with Character.

When creating a fantastic world, centered on a fantastic hero, or heroes, you will likely also find yourself creating layers of legend within your legendary tale. I believe it is human nature to mythologize our history and to draw references to that mythology when crafting our own behavior, or attempting to emphasize significance or summarize a remarkable person place or thing. The same goes for our fantastic fiction. I can’t think of a single fantasy, or space fantasy story that doesn’t include some aspect of legend within the story.
Legends found within stories help deepen the world, or plant hooks for adventure. Cultural origin myths help define the character of a particular society, their values and social practices. Tales of monsters or ancient ruins warn away the cautious or point the way to adventure. 

Often, the protagonist of a fantasy story is associated with a legendary figure from his or her own fictional culture. Paul Atreides from Dune is the manifestation of the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach, Rand al’Thor from the Wheel of Time is the Dragon Reborn, in the Elenium, the child Flute is actually the Goddess, Aphrael. In these fictional examples, these characters are legend made real. The real world also has examples of such spectacular comparisons from the divine origin stories of the Pharaohs and the Japanese Emperors, to more everyday comparisons like, Natalie Portman is the new Audrey Hepburn, or [insert politician’s name here] is the new Abraham Lincoln or Hitler, depending on the comparers point of view. 

If a GM wants to tap into the "hero as manifestation of legend" theme, he/she could work directly with their players to build those comparisons from the time of character creation. A lucky GM might be able to convince his or her players to write or outline a legend in tandem with their character's backstory. Even a sentence like "Bob the skulk got into his sneaky business after reading tales of Jak the Shadow as a child" can potentially provoke an interplay in which the character's arc becomes an intricate interweaving of the player fleshing out his character while the GM fleshes out the legend. Of course, such an approach would require close communication between the GM and the player.

Perhaps even more fun are the legends that arise directly from the action within a story. As the protagonists grow as characters, and their deeds become known, they are likely to spread across the land. As things tend to do when spread by word of mouth, the stories will change and grow, giving birth to legends of the still-present heroes. They must live within their own ever changing legend. Of course, some of the details are likely to get distorted, which can have all sorts of implications for the story.

Here’s an example of a legend in progress from my own game: Once, my players were helping a prince retake his manor house. During the assault, one of the PCs decided to sneak around back in an effort to cause a distraction and hopefully draw some of the guards out the back door. His distraction consisted of casting a spell that raised the phantom sound of women screaming horribly in distress (her character was invisible) When no guards checked the back door to rescue the phantom damsels, he gave up and began pounding on the locked portal while shouting the group’s secret code word, “bunk-bed”. Well, when the story got out, rumors of a fiend called the Bunk-bed Banshee began to spread across the land. Supposedly a malevolent spirit that signals impending doom, the Banshee makes her presence known with horrible wailing and repeated cries of “Bunk-bed! Bunk-bed!” Thus, a legend was born.

Did someone say, wailing?

A GM can leverage this last type of legend to any number of ends. He/she can have the heroes’ celebrity grow, changing their very relationship with the world around them. They may be dogged by petitioners pleading for help, stalked or confronted or defamed by rivals. They may also be able to leverage their own growing influence to achieve things they couldn’t have done before, marshalling whole armies to their cause, or even drawing the direct attention of the Gods.

I plan to take a deeper look at the effects of a character’s deeds on his or her reputation a week from now in “R for Reputation”.

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