Thursday, March 29, 2012

April A to Z with Character

My strategy for tackling this year's A to Z blogfest is coming together nicely. I am going to focus on character development and roleplay issues. To help me organize my thoughts, I put together a list of my anticipated topics and began to notice three intertwining sub-themes to my character posts. I have labelled these themes 1) Building a Better Villain 2) Building a Better Hero and 3) Interactions (the last category might need a snappier title)

The posts will focus on moving beyond stat sheets and dice-roll mechanics to develop characters an interactions that are deeper, more memorable for your players and which will hopefully result in a more exciting story and/or experience at the game table.

The first week's topics are pretty solid at this point and will hit the following subjects:

  • Arch-enemies
  • Back stories
  • Companions (alternates still under consideration are "Code of Honor" or "Causes")
  • Diplomancy (one of the stickier points on the dice vs. roleplay continuum) - This post may also need to do double-duty for the monthly Insecure Writer's Support Group
  • Evil
  • Flaws
  • Get-aways

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Steampunk Shakespeare

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!
A factr'y for a stage, print-setters to act and mechanix to behold the swelling steam.

What would happen if ren-faire nerds and steampunk nerds had some sort of bizarre frankenbaby* who grew up to be an author?

This?... perhaps?

My friend, Olivia Waite is one of the Omnibus drivers, and I have no doubt this book will be a rollicking good read.

*or several babies

Monday, March 26, 2012

April Draws Nigh!

Nigh! I say!

Not to be confused with "drawing Nye"
The impending Apriling means it is once again time for the April A to Z blogging challenge! Per the rules of the challenge, I shall try to post every day except Sundays throughout the month of April. Each post will focus on a subject beginning with the various letters of the alphabet in sequence. April 1* blog about an "A" thing, April 2 "B", et cetera.

I managed to complete the full challenge last year and attracted many of you lovely readers to my blog in the process. Hopefully this year will be as fruitful. I also plan to challenge myself further by adding a theme to this year's blog hop. I am currently leaning towards character-related posts, which should have some interdisciplinary appeal for both my writer-readers and my gamer-readers. I could also go with a whole month of creative interpretations of fantasy art prints... though, I suspect the alphabetical nature of such interpretations would be really arbitrary. If any of you have a brilliant idea for a theme you'd like to see me tackle, let me know! I am open to suggestions.

Now, I leave you with this:

*I believe we will need to blog on April 1, despite it being a Sunday in order to fit the full alphabet.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Circle of Life

Shit's about to get real!

After pondering the sociological impact of divine magic earlier this week, I shifted gears to start pondering the impact of bizzaro fantastic critters on bizzaro fantastic ecosystems. I think most people, like me, who watched a lot of nature documentaries when they were kids, developed a basic understanding of food webs. For those who don't know, a food web is similar to a food chain... but after it's been stuffed into a box with the Christmas decorations to get tangled up for a year. It's basically a map of what-eats-what for a particular ecosystem.

A basic food web
Fantasy worlds like those created for D&D offer an odd mix of real-world critters like horses (for knights to ride) cats and bats (to follow wizards around) deer, wolves, rats (for level 1 characters to fight) and much more unusual beasts like dire versions of all of the above, as well as dragons, griffons, fiendish dire weasels, and monstrous spiders. The question then becomes, how would introducing such magical creatures into an ecosystem affect its structure? Then, if you care about such thoughts, how can you use this to make your game world deeper and more interesting?

Building the fantastic food web

If you want to build a food web for an area of a game world, the first thing you need to understand is the underlying structure of an actual food web.

At the bottom of the web are the plants: These are the things prey animals eat and hide in, that predators climb to spot prey, or use to launch an ambush.

Next come the prey animals. These can be small things like bugs and rodents that feed slightly larger predators, or they can be large herd animals or other herbivores that munch on the plants.

The secondary predators are critters that might be omnivorous, that might dine exclusively on the small prey critters, or that might scavenge the leftovers of the apex predators.

The apex predators are the creatures at the top of the heap. They can potentially eat everything below them, or even each other. Apex predators tend to be territorial and most places probably only have between 2 and 5 creatures that fall into this category. The apex predators near where I live are bears, mountain lions, wolves and eagles.

A Note on intelligent beings. For the purpose of this exercise, I am considering all tool-using intelligent beings to be exterior to the food web. The D&D bestiary includes intelligent beasts like unicorns and deviously clever critters like worgs. These are fine to work into a food web, but things like people, trolls, dragons or giants can actively manipulate the food web, and are best taken into account after performing this exercise.

So, now that we've considered the basics, its time to start putting things together. First, pick a region (mountains, plains, swamp) For this exercise, I'm going to choose a temperate forest as my environment of choice.

Start with a basic idea of plant types: A forest has trees (duh), probably berry bushes and other undergrowth, but not a whole lot of grass except in glades and clearings.

Next pick a handful of prey critters: (I'm going to pick two largish herbavores, some small climby types and at least one form of vermin) Deer, unicorns, stirges (overgrown mosquitos), squirrels, centipedes

Then some secondary predators to eat the smaller prey animals and/or each other: pseudodragons, dire badgers, snakes, owls

Finally, pick two to four large predators that might feast on everything else. Wolves, giant spiders, owl bears

Take a couple minutes to figure out who eats whom aaand voila! We have a basic food web.

While this food web is far simpler than any actual ecosystem, it is perfectly adequate to start getting the feel for an in-game region.

If you are the sort to build random encounter tables, a food web like this can provide a jumping-off point for populating said tables.

A couple considerations to take into account when building your web:

A Dire Situation?
D&D, like many fantasy worlds is full of "dire" animals. These are essentially larger, more powerful versions of the regular variety. Their large size implies that they will need either larger and/or more food than their run-of-the-mill cousins. The presence of dire badgers in my example list might indicate large numbers of centipedes. Enough, perhaps to form frequent swarms, which the badgers keep in check. Alternately, perhaps the badgers raid the stirge hives (essentially overgrown mosquitos.) Dire animals might exist jointly with their regular cousins. They might occupy a slightly higher spot on the food chain, or might simply arise from a particularly rich food source.

Who would win in a food fight?
The other thing to consider in a fantasy food web is how species might compete for the same niche. For example, a mountainous environment might include cougars as one of its apex predators. Now, imagine an influx of displacer beasts (evil cat-like creatures with the ability to phase slightly out of the material realm in order to avoid attacks). If the primary prey in these mountains are mountain goats, which can potentially defend themselves with their horns, the displacer beasts would likely have a higher survival rate due to their phasing ability. They might even be able to prey on their chief competition, the mountain lions. A similar competition might take place between owlbears and regular bears. While bears are omnivorous, an owlbear's beak is only really good for tearing meat. It might provide some advantage against creatures with shells or exoskeletons, or for grabbing wriggly prey like snakes.

Running through this food web exercise has already given me several ideas for descriptive scenarios and adventure hooks. Perhaps the heroes stumble on a webbed-over grove of trees with stirges and maybe even a pseudodragon caught in the webbing. While any player would immediately think "spiders!" upon seeing webs, the larger prey in the webs adds to the sense of danger and the expectation of "BIG spiders!" Another idea: Perhaps the owlbears are an invasive species that is driving out the regular bears and killing off the unicorns that otherwise protect the forest. The local druids might hire the PCs to cull the owlbears or eliminate them entirely.

Wow, I really managed to babble on through this one... hopefully in a useful sort of way.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mental Tapas

Dear readers, my mind is a whirly-twirling with unfocused inspiration which has left me unable to settle on a single topic for today's post, so I'mma give you several small tastes of the stuff all up in my gourd.

My players in my weekly D&D game are drawing ever closer to the climax of a campaign arc that has spanned three years! I am especially stoked for the upcoming leg of their adventure because I had a brilliant bit of inspiration to base it off of a particular work of literature. Unfortunately, because several of my players read this here blog, I can't reveal that work yet. I can, however, tell you that it is a work often read in high school English classes, and there is a movie based on it. I'm excited to see how it works out and may begin feeding y'all clues to see if you can guess the work.

I really enjoy basing adventures on movies, plays or other works of literature. My PCs just wrapped up an arc that was a mix of Hamlet and Macbeth. The classic story of princess kills the king setting her husband the prince up to be his successor. His brother, however ends up bringing back the king's ghost to reveal the true murderer (okay, so maybe it was a Michael Bay-esque interpretation of the bard.) So, there's your first clue. The current adventure will be neither Hamlet, nor Macbeth. In fact, it won't even be based on Shakespeare.

DNA Phil over at Gnome Stew posted an excellent post earlier this week about the GM's high. I for one definitely experience this heady sensation after a particularly well run session. If you've ever been on stage, it's very similar to the high that occurs after a performance. Your mind has been so focused and running in high gear for a sustained period of time. The mental momentum that has built up takes time to dissipate. Phil posts that it makes it hard for him to sleep after playing until 11:30 on a Sunday night. I have the same problem after my Wednesday night games. Though the fiancee would prefer if I came to bed immediately after everyone goes home, she understands the wind-up and knows that I would just end up babbling about orc ambushes or something.

Vanir from Critical Hits also has an excellent post from last month -BTW, I am really behind in my blog reading!- It lists out several of the less obvious epic-world problems. I found myself chortling heartily at several points. I recommend you check it out for a larf (laurgh?)

Finally, I stumbled on this gem over at ATIAC.

It's funny because it's true... and a cat in a goat costume.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Say Five "Hail Marys" and Two "Hello Dollies"

"Face it, the cleric is usually the guy who shows up last to the gaming table, a big, stupid smile on his face, saying 'Hey, guys, I want to play. What's the party need?' To which, everyone replies, 'We need healing. You're the priest. Shut up and sit down.'"
-Foreward to The Cleric Quintet by R.A. Salvatore

In D&D, the cleric is arguably one of the most important character classes to include within a group of would-be adventurers, while also presenting a number of problems for a DM. Possessed with the ability to channel divine energy into healing and curative spells (as well as other fun stuff like fire and brimstone), a cleric is a must-have for any group planning to go off in search of bitey, stabby and/or other types of killy things. They are often seen as heal-bots by players... so, what about by NPCs?

Making the rules for cleric powers mesh with a dangerous and exciting fantasy world becomes problematic when applied to the world as a whole. The rules for cleric PCs assume that the character has a direct conduit to his or her god with the ability to use that divine influence to answer prayers in the form of spells. As long as the cleric isn't doing something heretical or otherwise naughty, these prayers are expected to be answered, no questions asked.

PCs also seem to expect clerics to be readily available in local cities, towns and villages to disperse healing potions and handle any maladies they are not equipped to resolve themselves. (i.e. they expect town heal-bots to be higher level than they are.)

The structure of these rules makes a lot of sense from a gameplay standpoint. Adventuring groups need a way to recharge and stay alive during dangerous delves and overland excursions. Making the gods' wills more capricious or the nature of their existence more nebulous would likey prove frustrating (maybe they only answer 1 in 10 prayers) resulting in frustrated players and a loss of fun.

From a worldbuilding standpoint, however, such rules raise the question, "What do these clerics do when they aren't healing heroes. Do they use their healing powers on the regular townsfolk?"

How would such access to divine intervention affect the mortality rate of a medieval fantasy world? Looking at the numbers, a good-hearted 5th level cleric (probably a pretty standard church leader for a small town or village) would be able to heal wounds and/or bring at least 11 people back from the brink of death from physical injury EVERY DAY, plus a couple extra depending on their wisdom/in-touchness with their god. They could also cure the blind and deaf, the diseased and the cursed. While they could only do these things once or twice a day, the next blind person could just come back tomorrow.

When one assumes that such a cleric would likely have a couple assistants, the accidental mortality rate in our hypothetical town would likely drop to almost 0!

Now, take the high religious adviser to a royal court. Such a high-ranking figure would no doubt have access   to Raise Dead, Resurrection, or even True Resurrection spells. While the material costs of such spells (diamond dust between 5,000 and 25,000g) would be too much for your average sod farmer, a regent, whose castle cost upwards of 100,000g would surely have the cash on hand to ensure his/her reanimation in the event of an untimely demise. Assassination suddenly seems far less effective.

Suddenly, it appears more difficult to create a world with a tone like this:

There's some wonderful filth down 'ere!

and more inevitable that it will end up like this:

A little of Moradin's wake-up juice and she'll be right as rain!

So, what are the options for a DM wishing to mitigate an otherwise sunshine and roses world free of death by anything other than old age or complete disintigration?

Make clerical powers a rare gift: Perhaps most healing in the world is done with alchemy and herbalism. Those with clerical powers are few and far between, making even the lowest-level cleric a truly remarkable individual. This could certainly boost the grit and mortality of your world, but might irk your players if they expect to be able to restock on potions, divine scrolls or get other healing any time they go to town. It would also make clerics a rarity among encountered enemies.

Wear out your welcome: Perhaps even the most healing-oriented gods get irked by repeated requests for healing. After all, they are supposed to be the power behind reality, not just the spigot of life-juice (euphemism!) for the injury-prone masses. If this is the case, would they start ignoring magic-based hostpitals or would they first turn on those who reached their lifetime cap on orc-inflicted axe wounds?

Demanding Deities: Perhaps certain deities have restrictions about the circumstances under which they will heal an individual. Some might only heal their own followers, or might only tend certain types of wounds. A god of war might care less about billy, the kid who got kicked by a mule, and a god of nature might be completely averse to resurrection in any form. Again, it is possible your players could balk at such restrictions.

When you got it, flaunt it!: Let the divine conduit flow strong! Use it as much as your players do. Have town constabularies use "Speak with Dead" to get the descriptions of killers and accounts of murder. Have a feud between kings slowly trying to bankrupt each others kingdoms with repeated "successful" assassination attempts. Create a population problem that forces a good-aligned church into a moral dilemma between letting the mortally injured pass naturally and dealing with an increasingly unsustainable food crisis.

I haven't yet worked out the kinks of this problem, even in my own campaign. If any of you have unique ways that you have used to balance gameplay dynamics with a more mysterious divinity, I would love to hear them. If not, perhaps the ideas I have presented will help shake stuff loose.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Happy Pi Day!

John Carter by Frank Frazetta

The party had reached a certain level of drunk when Dr. Hugo Peck began attempting to calculate the length of the arc along the visible edge of the moon running between the hilt and tip of his sword... only to realize that he was facing the wrong direction.

Fortunately, the Lizardos were already passed out at this point.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Clothes Make the Man

Beware the orc wearing panties on his face

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between clothing and roleplaying games. Not in the sense that I have two t-shirts that say, "My other shirt is chainmail"* (true story) but in the sense that the characters in my game seem to spend an awful lot of time running around in full-armor, and armed to the teeth, no less. This is certainly not an uncommon occurrence in tabletop gaming. My characters have been the sort to eat, sleep, shop and woo the ladies in their robes and wizard hats... in-game, of course. However, I feel that, while there are several possible reasons for what I suspect is a common and imaginatively odoriferous trend in character behavior, the choice to “change 'yo dang pants!” can potentially add some richness and/or challenge to a game.

First, the reasons that I suspect lead to 1-outfit characters:

1. “Math is hard, let’s go shopping.” There is something to be said for having one set of stats when playing a tabletop RPG. Changing a character’s clothes, especially in a game like D&D, can alter a number of stats. Most prominently, it changes a character’s armor class, but might also affect how well they run, jump, climb, swim or sneak. Players have a lot of stats to track with just one outfit. Adding additional load-outs is just asking for a headache.

2. Video games. Having not achieved sentience before the existence of rudimentary videogames, I may be talking out of my ass on this one, but I suspect that the merging and interplay between the digital and pen-and-paper RPG worlds has contributed to a sense that it is okay to have tea with the queen while wearing full plate. After all, characters in games like Skyrim, WoW, etc. go everywhere in their battlefield best, waving glowy implements of death and dismemberment, no less.

3. CONSTANT VIGILANCE! Players think/know their GM is out to get them, and as such, feel it is perfectly appropriate to lug 200 lbs of adventuring gear on every jaunt to the corner store to buy more troll jerky. They sleep in their armor and likely would even wear it in the bath if they could. In essence, they are playing the stats, not the character. Never mind how uncomfortable and stinky perpetual existence in armor would be, taking it off would lower my AC by 4!

Now, some would argue that worrying about what a character is wearing/carrying is a level of nit-pickiness that detracts from the ultimate purpose of a roleplaying game, which is to have fun. Well, what about the expanded purpose? to have fun while roleplaying? Something as simple as a change of clothes opens up a lot of potential for new and unique encounters and roles played. A barbarian from the steppes just saved the kingdom and is to be honored at a high-court banquet... huh? big earthy guy in cummerbund and fur briefs? The situation practically writes itself!

I believe that a story and a heroic protagonist is much more interesting if they are not always fully prepared when a sticky situation arises. Getting caught unprepared gives them an opportunity to show their versatility and emphasizes that this person is a badass even without their gear. The Indiana Jones movies have several great examples of this sort of situation. During the opening scene from Temple of Doom, Indie gets poisoned in a swanky nightclub. He doesn’t have his hat, whip or even a gun. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s unprepared, just that he has to approach the situation in a different way than if he was fully kitted out. The scene in the Venice library from Last Crusade is similar in a lot of ways. The situation and resources at hand become part of the challenge and add to the excitement.

So, how do you implement this in a tabletop RPG without bogging down the game and becoming the enemy of fun?

1. Take the number-crunching burden off of your players. I recommend having your players come up with just three alternate outfits. Each requires only a brief list of stats, mostly modified AC and movement stats. They should also make a list of weapons/gear they keep with them, but a single listing of bandolier, baldric, backpack or utility belt should imply that they have everything they usually carry therein without need to list it separately. The alternate outfits I suggest are as follows:

Around Town: This is the shopping, drinking and general personal-time outfit. It may involve armor or weapons, but probably would not include full 50 lb backpacks and the like.

Schmancy Occasions: Meeting the king? Gathering info in the noble district? Your PCs will probably need to look respectable to avoid sideways looks and questions from the guards. Most armor and things like blood-crusted greataxes are likely out, but rings of protection, other magical aids or a dagger in the boot would be perfectly acceptable.

Sleepy Time: This is probably fairly straightforward. Though PCs on the road might stay at least partially armored, if they’re crashed out at an inn in the middle of a friendly city, chances are they’ll want to be comfy, though propping the trusty broadsword by the bed isn’t beyond reason.

Once you establish these baselines, it should be quick and easy to reference or modify the list without having to grill your characters everytime they walk out the door. Are you really bringing your 10-foot pole to visit Madame Ruby’s brothel?

2. Make your characters’ appearance matter. If they go out in full kit, have NPCs react to what they see! Poor villagers might run up to them 7 Samurai-style and beg for assistance with the bandits raiding their village. Bouncers and thugs might think twice before messing with them, but guards might ask a few extra questions and wealthy shop-owners might balk at letting armed strangers into their fine boutiques.

I haven’t yet attempted to implement such a systematic approach to these matters in my campaign, and really my players have been pretty good about policing themselves, but I think I might run the idea past them and see how it works.

Any thoughts or stories from my fellow players or GMs about 1-kit wonders?

*After writing this I realized the bizarre feedback loop established by such a situation. "My other shirt says "My other shirt is chainmail"... add "other shirts" until space-time tears itself asunder.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Play's the Thing

Being my sixth submission to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group.

During my creative life cycle, I go through periods where my work loses a sense of play that it previously had. The first time I became conscious of this cycle was during my "aspiring actor" days in high school. My trajectory as an actor went from a kid who loved to get up on stage and revel in trying on unusual skins and squirming around in the moment to a college student, considering acting as a career, who had become concerned with words like "authenticity" and "craft". Ironically, the more I attempted to consciously improve my skills as an actor, the more my acting suffered. I had lost the daring spirit to just play on stage.

A similar thing happened with my drawing. As a child, I filled tablets, rolls of butcher paper and any scrap of drawable surface with an array of material from pencil doodles to full-color, matted works of adolescent art. I still have a lot of my old art, and by 30-something-year old standards, a lot of it is derivative, sloppy, or reflective of a disturbingly violent part of my childhood psyche. I should note that I consider myself an amicable and well-adjusted individual who had an amicable and well-adjusted childhood, but the amount of carnage depicted in my drawings from about age 8-13 would likely have constituted a "credible threat" by today's standards of school-place safety. Anyway, by the time I reached college, I became more concerned with drawing well, and anxious over whether my tendency to sketch eyes and leafless trees was too shallowly emo and whether my love for anime characters with swords was some sort of freudian issue with my subconsciousness. The amount of time I spent drawing began to taper off, and has still not recovered.

The same goes for my writing, though this took a bit longer to fall into the seriousness trap. In college, I made a dedicated decision never to give my academic papers serious titles. All the research and information I needed to convey was in there, but I kept my voice decidedly goofy. I think my professors actually found it to be a breath of fresh air because my grades never suffered for my decision. By the time I reached grad school, however, propriety and proper academic decorum began to weigh heavily upon my voice. I still have my old undergrad papers, and looking back, some of them really hold up well. I have found myself lamenting the apparent decline of that whimsical voice. I think, "damn! that was surprisingly good! What the hell happened?"

And so, now, I find myself going through yet another seriousening, in of all places, my game-mastering for my D&D campaign. I mean, it's a game! It's all about "play", right!? Yet, I find myself struggling to match the creative experimentation that marked my early adventures. It's been years since my players had to talk their way past the pixie highwayman with an addiction to shiny things, or battle the crazed pigs that had broken into Fenwatch's potion shop. My moments of "you know what'd be neat?" have been replaced by endless poring over articles on running efficient combat and plot structuring rubriks. I search for tricks that will help me be "better" instead of letting my inspiration lead the way. Perhaps my awareness of this pattern will help me break out of the funk, but for now, I find myself decidedly mired.

Have any of you experienced a similar counterproductive shift towards perfection over play in your own creative work? If so, what did you do to overcome it?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Add a couple zeroes!

Borrowed from George Takei

Or triple damage if wielding a great axe. Thank you to all my readers. I cleared the 2,000 views mark (2,083 to be preciese) for the first time in February. My previous high came in July of last year... both months had the same number of posts, but February also hit the mark with two fewer days.

Anyway, I know 2,000 views is the tiniest of potatoes in the blog world, but it's a big number for my little corner of it.

Onward and upward. Level up!

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