Monday, June 30, 2014

Inspired by Other Bloggers - Back in the Day and Now

  Last night I saw an interesting article in my Google+ feed - this fun bit. Inspired, I will do the same and related my experiences.

  I started D&D in '77 on March 15th. Yes, I remember the specific day because there was a Shakespeare play going on at the time. The guy running it was a college freshman at Ball State and was using the white box rules for a game with his girlfriend, some high school kids - and me. I am forever grateful to the two girls who insisted I be able allowed to play even though I was 9.
  I remember setting as fairly important; the DM used French to indicate when we were speaking to traders from other lands and his girlfriend used German to represent the barbarians from the North. I was soon with a group of middle schoolers with a high school age DM and he also had a fairly detailed setting with the politics between the elves and the dwarves really setting the tone.
  By the end of the year I had Traveller, the Holmes basic set, and Chivalry & Sorcery. C&S has a huge impact on me because it was very focused on setting and on background. And Traveller added skills! I loved the snap and crunch of Traveller with all the math, the ship design, etc. And I liked the complexity of C&S. But I played D&D the most, with a bullet.
  In '78 I started working on a setting for my own D&D campaign, a port city called Seaward. Originally it was a crude map of a small city, a nearby set of smugglers' caves, and where the wizard's tower was. My players seemed to love the background and settings. The style of play for us was similar to this;

-Make characters (3d6 in order, roll 3 sets and pick the one you like)
-Make the new character part of the setting with backstory
-Have fun.

  Character death was fairly common.

  Around 1980 I noticed that the modules I had gotten had really changed the map - figuring out where to put them, how they fit into the world, etc. really spread out the map and added a lot of depth. My house rules were both well begun and under constant revision. I was actively trying to figure out how to get Traveller-style rules in my D&D setting when three things happened in quick succession; I moved, I received the World of Greyhawk folio as a gift; and I received Rolemaster as a gift.
  The impact of Rolemaster on how I thought about gaming was huge, bigger than C&S had been. The Greyhawk folio made me look at the Seaward setting from a 'top down' perspective; my new set of players were very, very strong on the rules without being rules lawyers.
  Before you know it I was running two campaigns; one in Greyhawk where it was official modules and Seaward where it was original stuff. This was also the time of my first 'reboot' of Seaward - much like Crisis on Infinite Earths I fixed continuity errors and cleaned up the maps and storylines. Another interesting development was how the players wanted to move characters between the two campaigns. We also all used what we called 'strict time'; sometimes characters were unavailable so we began having henchmen go as adventurers when their boss was out - the beginnings of what I call jazz band adventuring although not nearly as sophisticated as it became later.
  During this time;
-setting was still very important as a tool for adding depth to the game
-a lot of my players had henchmen as quasi-substitute characters
-When character death was a little less common character 'so messed up he is out for months' was more common than ever

  After joining the army I was all over the map in more ways than one. My looooong training schools allowed me to participate in a very, very fun game of Champions and play in a campaign where the GM had only ever played Rolemaster, knew every rule inside and out, and was running in a homebrew setting. Those two GMs taught me a great deal about being prepared, session prep, plotline development, and collaborating with the players. I was also playing a fair amount of D&D including a number of very memorable 'one shots' with someone who went on to win several prestigious awards as a movie producer.
  Then I was lucky enough to join Lew Pulsipher's D&D group. As I have mentioned before, Lew had already solidified what I call 'jazz band adventuring' and his setting, Tonilda, was a revelation in its simplicity. Most importantly, he is a full-blown game theorist and we often had long discussion about theory and did a fair amount of experimentation.
  Of course, 2e cam out shortly thereafter and I did my second reboot of Tonilda to incorporate a lot of the things I had learned.
  During this time;
-setting settled in as what I still consider it to be to this day - a framework for plot development that allows various stories, characters, etc. to interact so that there is a feeling of verisimilitude to the game and more depth for all involved
-I realized that the balance between complexity and simplicity should vary and that the difference in 'feel' between systems is often about this balance

  I wanted to insert a little note, here, about my experiences as a gamer.
  I feel like I am a bit unusual as a gamer - I have been to two RPG conventions ever and while I enjoyed them well enough I doubt that I will ever be to many more. I have never, ever had any experience with being bullied, etc., about gaming. I had motorcycle racers and football players in my games from day one and a small majority of all of my players were special forces, airborne, or rangers. With a few exceptions I have always had girls or women in my gaming groups. I sometimes feel that this is anomalous since a fair number of my peers talk about their experience as very different than this.

  Storytelling/White Wolf/WoD came along just as I was transitioning from the army to civilian life. I have mentioned other places that I largely enjoyed WoD as a concept but I did not ever run it and was not a fan after playing it. Story and setting had been a part of my campaigns from the beginning but were always secondary to adventure and fun.

  I did run 3e for a number of years and used Seaward (not the main campaign area) for those games. While there are certainly great elements in 3e the complexity level was a bit too high for my players and I to enjoy it as much as earlier versions. We kept largely the same attitude; fun and adventure is first, story and setting add to fun and adventure, rules need to be balanced between simple and complex. My 3e campaign died a neglectful death since my players were always asking to play something else.

  I experimented pretty heavily in this time with Rolemaster, Fantasy Hero, new C&S, etc. but always kept coming back to 1e and 2e. I was an eager fan of HackMaster 4th and really enjoyed it. My wife is a huge fan of AD&D 2nd edition Skills and Powers so I eventually created a new campaign world, Blackstone, to run a dedicated 2e S&P campaign.

  Blackstone was the primary campaign for a few years while Seaward lurked about. Eventually my kids wanted to play more 1e and Seaward was back out in full. We still keep story and setting in support of adventuring and fun, as the kids age we use jazz band adventuring more and more, and we like the level of complexity between 1e and 2e S&P.

  4e went by pretty fast and it was some time sbefore I got the books - my sons play it as a tactical warfare simulator. I heard of and acquired OSRIC, S&W, etc. all pretty early and enjoy them a great deal.

  I currently run a 1e campaign (Seaward), a 2e S&P campaign (Blackstone), and a Champions campaign (Champions of Atlanta). I still wish I could figure out how to play Rolemaster more. I still wish I played as much as I GM.

  What are your histories like?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Magic Item of the Week - Familiar's Hat

  The debate around my house on familiars is never-ending. Yes, we all admit they are useful. Yes, they are certainly cool. No, no one has one.
  [That is not quite true; two characters have special familiars from a specific spell - I should post that and the unique familiars some day. Or they are in the book Mage Guild already. Very, very broad hint.]
  Of course, we aren't alone. While those extra hit points and such are really handy at 1st the idea of taking all those penalties when your toad get's hit with a Fireball is terrifying. WE have a lot of ideas floating around, like; having spell-like rituals that can be researched so that familiars get tougher at 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, etc. levels; higher level variants of Find Familiar that get you tougher familiars or make sure you get a special one; or making magic items for familiars.
  That last one led my two oldest sons to think up the Familiar's Hat;

  The Familiar's Hat is usually in the style of a capuchon, hennin, or even capirote but may also resemble a kalpak, bashlyk, phrygian cap, dhaka topi, or even a busby or akubra. The hat may be simple or fancy, battered or crisp, plain or embroidered and bejeweled.
  Regardless of appearance all Familiar's Hats share the trait of containing an extra-dimensional space meant as a form of dwelling and protection for familiars.
  When first found the Familiar's Hat will typically be inactive; the extra-dimensional space will be inchoate and unformed. But when touched by the owner and his familiar at the same time the Familiar's Hat will both assume a specific 'interior' form and both the familiar and owner will be mystically aware of its powers.
  Once activated the familiar may enter the hat in one of two ways; they may open a magical 'door' and enter normally or they may be whisked into the hat via a very limited form of teleportation.
  When entering normally the familiar opens what appears to be a small, hinged door that appears on the side of the hat. This takes a total of 4 segments and allows the familiar to take things into and out of the extra-dimensional space. The familiar can open the door at any time and may move back at forth at will.
  To be whisked into the Hat the familiar must be on or within arm's reach of the owner and the owner must be wearing the hat. The teleportation can be triggered by thought at any time the familiar is not surprised and takes only a segment. The experience of being whisked inside is disorienting and leaves the familiar stunned and disoriented, unable to perform any action for 19 full segments.
  When inside the Hat the familiar may still communicate with the owner so long as the owner is wearing the hat. The familiar may see, hear, and communicate otherwise by opening one of 4 'windows', one each to the front, rear, and each side. When opened these windows appear on the surface of the hat and a brief glimpse of the interior and the familiar may be seen. Nothing may be passed through these windows but light and conversation; items and spells (including such things as Charm) are blocked. While inside the Hat the familiar may be harmed by no outside force.
  As mentioned earlier the interior of the hat is configured when activated and is based upon the type of familiar as well as the personalities of the familiar and owner. A toad will have a (very) small, moist glade, a raven an open area with a perch, a cat a cozy little den with a few ledges, etc. At the extreme ends an imp or quasit will have a tiny chapel of evil with a miniature altar and a brownie will have a snug miniature cottage complete with a fireplace. The owner may place nothing into the Hat directly, all will have to be taken in with the familiar directly or indirectly; the toad may be accompanied by insect and such, 'stocking up' the Hat with food while the brownie may take in tiny furniture, firewood, etc. The Hat cannot be used as another extra-dimensional storage space for loot, etc., unless it is the property of the familiar.
  The hat will always have an encumbrance of 3 lbs. It makes all saving throws as the best possible material and at +3. If the Hat fails a saving throw it is destroyed and, if inside, the familiar is immediately ejected; in this case the familiar is unharmed but is stunned for 3 rounds.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Good Isn't Stupid, or weak, or nice.

Note: Minor edits to clear up a point about the Arthurian tales.

  Many years ago I had been only DMing for months when a guy I knew invited me to sit in on a game he played. He said it had a ranger, a cleric, a magic-user and two thieves. I sat with him and rolled up a paladin on my first try. I was very eager to play and described how my character rode up to the small country home they used as a base and dismounted, and introduced myself as So and So the paladin.
  At that point the entire party attacked my character and killed him in a single round.
  "What was that all about?" I asked.
  "Paladin," said one of the players, "We hate paladins. Can't stand that lawful good bull."
  "But I thought you were a ranger?" I said.
  "I am! But we're all chaotic neutral - the DM let's rangers be neutral." he replied.
  The DM felt that killing a good person for no reason was at worst a chaotic act, which surprised me even more until, sitting in (I had a spare character because that is the way I roll) I watched this party ofchaotic neutral players loot and pillage a hamlet because one of them only needed 80 experience points to level up. When they were done they even burned the farms and barns. When I asked what they thought would happen to the 60-80 innocent men, women, and children whom they had just left foodless, penniless, homeless, and without any livestock, tools, or weapons since Winter was less than a month away they replied 'who cares? Just NPCs, man'. When I asked them why they never played or liked good characters they were near universal in saying, 'Good is stupid and weak'.

  I was once sitting in with a party, just observing, as the DM ran an NPC paladin who was guiding them. The party was neutral but on a mission from the Bishop and the paladin was the only guy that knew the way. The DM rolled an encounter and boom! red dragon attacks the party. After the first round I quietly asked the DM,
  "Did you forget the paladin? He's just sitting there."
  "What? He would never help neutral people!"
  The paladin sat there on his horse, sword in its sheath and lance rested doing nothing until the dragon breathed fire, killing half the party as well as the paladin and his warhorse. The party, with no guide and too weak from the encounter anyway, turned back. When I asked the DM why he did things that way he said (as close to a direct quote as I can get after the years),
  "Have you read the books? No paladin would ever help a neutral person, ever!"
  "But his inaction let an evil creature triumph! That wasn't about helping neutral people, that was about destroying evil!"
  "The lawful part means he has to do that even if it is stupid."

  As I mentioned here, there also seem to be a lot of people that think "good" = "chivalry" = "courteous" = "doormat"
  And as I mentioned here, there are plenty of lawful stupid and stupid good characters in the official novels and modules.

  Time for more personal revelation - that is what a blog is for, right?
  I had been running my Seaward campaign for 6 years before I read The Hobbit and for 8 before I read The Lord of the Rings. I had spent my early years reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Le Morte D'Arthur, and (especially) the stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers. Heck, I read Vance's Lyonesse before I read The Fellowship of the Ring.
  The great thing about the books that I read first and most, from the Twelve Peers to the Return of the King, was that they all give a very clear idea of what is meant by good and evil, especially within the milieu of fantasy, be it literature or tabletop role playing.

  The Twelve Peers, John Carter, Allan Quatermaine all shared a few traits - they were brave, they were honest, the protected the weak, and they were decisive. They also laughed, had close friends, drank, and fought. But they also were champions of the weak, loyal friends, fierce enemies, and able to judge others by their words and deeds rather than being bigoted (John Carter not only has friends of all of the races of Mars he forges close ties between them for the first time in millenia; Allan Quatermaine admires and supports Umbopa/Ignosi long before he learns he is a king; if a man is a good fighter and a Catholic his past is his past to the paladins.

  Note that I didn't mention King Arthur or his knights here. This is because in Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur (and unlike the earlier source material) Arthur and most of the rest are actually cautionary figures; Arthur is a deeply flawed man and poor king who begets an illegitimate son with his own half-sister, then kills all of the newborns in his lands trying (and failing) to hide this sin; Merlin is capricious and advises Arthur to hide his sins through mass infanticide; Lancelot is portrayed as not very clever and, essentially, a plaything of Guinevere who believes his sins are not sins because the queen says so; Gareth is underhanded and deceitful in his quest for fame and tries mightily to break his chastity; the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Le Mort D'Arthur was written during the Wars of the Roses and was meant to be a warning about men who claimed to be good but were not. It is truly unfortunate that Malory's work is so popular that many modern readers mistake the figures in his version of the stories as examples rather than warnings.

  And I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the confusion some have over how to play good - modern culture is saturated with King Arthur and the Knights as being exemplars of knighthood when they weren't.

  I think that there is also a tendency to look at a guy in black armor covered in spikes with glowing red eyes

 and say,
  "ooooh! Badass!"

  Then look at a knight in shining armor

 and say,
  "Meh, not as scary looking".

  One of the best (and funniest) examples of this was the South Park episode "Damien" which features a boxing match between Jesus and Satan. All of the townspeople, who call themselves Christian, bet on Satan because he is big and scary looking. Never mind that in Christianity Satan has no chance of even surviving the presence of Christ if He we to so will....

  So let's talk about how "Good" doesn't mean "soft", stupid", "nice", or "weak".

  Please Read This Personal Note
Full disclosure; I am a Catholic Systematic Theologian with formal training in theology, philosophy, morals, ethics, and logic. AD&D is explicitly based on European culture, among other things. In AD&D and similar games Good and Evil are objective truths within the game. The following statements are not statements about you, your beliefs, your religion (or lack thereof), or your status - I don't know you. The following statements are about making RPGs more interesting, about making game play more engaging, and about adding depth to your characterizations. Before you comment please be careful to read my comments policy (the tab at the top of the blog) and any comments about Real World religion may be deleted without warning or comment regardless of their content, positive or negative.
  Thank you for your attention.

 I am far from the first guy to point out that Good is not Weak. C. S. Lewis directly addressed this more than once, perhaps most famously in this quote,
"Then he is safe?" asked Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver, "Didn't you hear what she told you? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good."
  Or this one, more detailed is less famous,
“Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion."I am dying of thirst," said Jill."Then drink," said the Lion."May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic."Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill."I make no promise," said the Lion.Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer."Do you eat girls?" she said."I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it."I daren't come and drink," said Jill."Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion."Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.""There is no other stream," said the Lion.” 
  Both of these quotes from C. S. Lewis are concerning Aslan the lion who is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Lewis was eager to dispel the mistaken concept that being good means being soft, weak, or harmless. 

  Another fiction writer eager to dispel the notion that good is soft or dumb is Terry Pratchett. Two of his quotes are,
"Just because you are an angel doesn't mean you have to be a fool"
"Something Vimes had learned as a young guard drifted up from memory. If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you're going to die. So they'll talk. They'll gloat.They'll watch you squirm. They'll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar.So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.”
   And other sources are also pretty clear that Good is not Weak,
"I will bless them that bless thee and curse those who curse thee..."
    -God, Genesis 12:3
"Then said he unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip; and he that hath not, let him sell his coat, and buy a sword. For I say to you, that this that is written must yet be fulfilled in me: And with the wicked was he reckoned. For the things concerning me have an end. But they said: Lord, behold here are two swords. And he said to them, It is enough. "  Luke 22:36-38
    There are many other examples to demonstrate that Good is not about being weak or completely pacifist. I would also like to point out is that while the modern understanding of angels is like this;

the Medieval image of an angel was like this;

  That is St. Michael the Archangel beating Satan like he owes him money, by the way. 
  Traditionally, while demons might be able to overwhelm any human they stood no chance against angels and typically fled at their approach. While movies like The Prophecy and Constantine change this in the hopes of good storytelling they skew the traditional concept of the power of angels and nerf them pretty badly.
  In the bible when an angel appeared to a human their mere presence was so overpowering that the first thing they usually said was a variation of 'don't be afraid'. John Milton mentions this in Paradise Lost, book IV, when he wrote,
"Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is."
   Medieval books of magic warned would-be summoners to never attract the notice of an angel and certainly never to summon one, because angels would destroy them for attempting to make pacts with evil and their power was so vast no warding circle could stop them.

  "But Rick," you ask, "what does this have to do with making my campaign or characters more interesting?"

  Simple! Two things:
  First, making Good something other than 'not evil' and making it not-stupid, not-soft, and not-nice can easily make your campaign much more balanced and believable.
  That's right - believable.
  How often have you seen a campaign where each and every top villain is lovingly detailed - every spell, every item, every foul minion, every dungeon cell - with multiple sketches of just how AWESOMELY BADASS the villain looks?! There are tales of how deadly the dragons are, how evil the evil cultists are, how depraved the anti-paladins are, etc.
  But not a word about how great the good guys are. No floor plans for the cathedral; no list of minions for the archbishop, not sketch of the head of the paladins abbey, no legends, or tales, or songs about good guys.

  Sure, sure, I get it; the players won't be looting the cathedral and fighting the archbishop to the death some day (we all hope) and you could look at that list of magic items the Dark Emperor's Bodyguard has as a loot summary. The songs and stories are supposed to be what the party is going to build, etc.
  But this makes it look like there is no Good other than the party. If you know how the evil overlord got that way, do you know who opposes him while the characters are first level? If the characters fail (there is the possibility of failure in your campaign, right?) then is the world doooooomed because the next guy is an incompetent 9th level non-adventuring abbot?

  In short, a campaign with an 'ecosystem' of good guys to match its 'ecosystem' of bad guys is going to make a lot more sense and add a lot more drama. I know that 'a story is only as good as its villain' is a truism, but how threatening or scary is the villain if Good sucks? How rewarding is being 'the best paladin' when paladins are dim?

Second, I am personally offended by so many bland, boring, uninteresting good guys! Being a paladin should NOT make you one of the less-memorable members of the Osmonds! Punch it up a bit; good guys can be quirky, odd, funny, you name it. But far too often I see Good characters played as boring, vapid, banal,  bland, stupid, and nice.
  One of the more humorous takedowns of 'good is stupid and soft' in recent literature is Captain Carrot of the Terry Pratchett books. Here are some quotes about Carrot;
"You're being reasonable again! You are deliberately seeing everyone's point of view! Can't you be unfair even once?"
"Colon thought Carrot was simple. Carrot often struck people as simple. He was simple. The mistake people made was thinking 'simple' meant the same thing as 'stupid'"
  Let's look at a quote from Carrot,
“Have - have you got an appointment?' he said.'I don't know,' said Carrot. 'Have we got an appointment?''I've got an iron ball with spikes on,' Nobby volunteered.'That's a morningstar, Nobby.''Is it?''Yes,' said Carrot. 'An appointment is an engagement to see someone, while a morningstar is a large lump of metal used for viciously crushing skulls. It is important not to confuse the two, isn't it, Mr-?' He raised his eyebrows.'Boffo, sir. But-''So if you could perhaps run along and tell Dr Whiteface we're here with an iron ball with spi- What am I saying? I mean, without an appointment to see him? Please? Thank you.” 
  This is a wonderful example of how a good person can be courteous and intimidating all at once.

  And let's pause and think about paladins in D&D for a minute. I mean, really examine them, shall we?
  Paladins are as good at combat as fighters and ever-so-slightly better than rangers (that delayed multiple attacks thing). They are as tough as as a fighter in hit points and armor class. They can heal themselves or others once a day by touch. They are immune to disease. They get a +2 on all saves. They can (eventually) turn undead and cast cleric spells. They can Detect Evil at will. And they are surrounded by an aura of good power that repels evil, an aura that can be boosted by the power of a holy sword until it can negate magic.
  Or, put another way, a paladin is a professional warrior who is tougher to kill, faster to heal, and eventually capable of magic - because they are so very Good.
  Or even simpler; they professional killers that hate evil and that evil can't hide from.
  When a paladin rides into town evil people should be scared. Of course, the paladin also knows that he is the #1 target of every miscreant, cultist, and were rat in his vicinity. Remember that minimum Wisdom requirement? Paladins may be polite, and even kind, but they are not fools.
  Why not have that hooded figure in the dark corner of the inn be a cold, quiet paladin? He is courteous (if very quiet, cold, and distant) but comes across as an implacable, driven killing machine - which he is.
  The guy in the inn laughing and telling jokes in between singing drinking songs and playing the lute can certainly be lawful good, so why not have a happy, jovial paladin that gets rid of excess wealth by spending his money freely on buying others drinks and food, giving gifts to his friends, and with generous charity to strangers and the poor?
  And mix up your NPCs; Archbishop Turpin could cleave an enemy in twain with one blow of his sword - what if the local bishop who gives your party their 'go fight evil' missions is also the swordmaster that trains the party's paladin when he levels up? The really obnoxious city guard can be very dedicated to fighting evil, he just has a short temper. You get the idea.

  So please - make those good guys stand out!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chivalry - It Isn't Good Manners

  Many of us have at least elements of European Medieval culture in our game worlds. This makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons. But just like how Chinaland, Japanland, Egyptland, Vikingland, and MayincatecLand in campaigns are often muddled, so too Europeland can be a little - off. So let's talk about the Real World, Chivalry, Courtesy, and your campaign.

  In the Complete Paladin's Handbook it describes a paladin encountering a rude barkeep. The barkeep insults the paladin and, finally, spits in the paladin's face. The paladin simply wipes his face and leaves. This is meant to exemplify a paladins courtesy.

  A very common mistake in the modern world is to think 'chivalry' and 'courtesy' are synonyms. They aren't.
"Chivalry: Bravery in war; warfare as an art; a body of armed men. Those qualities expected of a noble knight."
  As opposed to,
"Courtesy: The showing of politeness in one's attitude and behavior towards others"
  These are different things, obviously. So when I hear a woman state something like,
  "I was carrying a heavy bag and none of the men standing around helped me; chivalry is dead!"
  I reply,
  "No, courtesy is. Unless someone there was of noble birth and trained as a warrior chivalry had nothing to do with it."

  Chivalry was (and technically still is) a code of behavior very purposefully designed to channel the energies of highly-trained, highly motivated, heavily-armed professional killers into protecting the weak and innocent. It is not about tipping your cap or wearing cologne.

  The actual elements of chivalry are pretty well documented. They are;

  • Defense of the Holy, Catholic Church
  • Defense of the weak, the poor, the helpless, and women
  • Obedience to you lord and your king
  • Honor in the pursuit of Duty
  • To exemplify the seven knightly virtues-
  1. Courage
  2. Temperance
  3. Prudence
  4. Justice
  5. Faith
  6. Hope
  7. Charity

  The seven knightly virtues look an awful lot like the elements of the code of Bushido, don't they? Of course they do, they both have the same goal. Feudal Japan and Feudal Euope were both hard,violent places and both knights and samurai were the toughest, best-trained professional warriors of their respective culures. Both chivalry and bushido are meant to channel the incredible power of these classes into being forces for good. European knights can be thought of as samurai with better horses and better armor.
  So, here is a question. Imagine if that barkeep in the Paladin's Handbook had spit on a samurai? Do you think the samurai would have just walked away? Did you know that the code of Bushido specifically mentions 'courtesy' while the code of chivalry doesn't?

  Let's back up a bit. Another element of chivalry is the simple fact that those who were part of chivalry were at least nominally nobles. This means that in a very real sense commoners cannot be chivalrous. it also means that knights had and expected certain privileges in society and also had different norms of behavior. A knight might very well never curse, especially in public; if he were to do so it would probably harm his reputation a great deal. A commoner, however, might very not face the same, or even any, repercussions for coarse language [thus the phrase 'not worth a tinker's damn' - tinkers were low-class people and known for coarse language]. Other habits expected of nobles, such as dress and such, were different from those of the lower classes and since they were related to attending at a noble's court, these are very directly courtesy ['courtesy' means literally 'how you would act at a noble's court'].
  It is very easy how chivalry came to be confused with courtesy even though they are very different. The fact that the chansons de geste, the romance novels and emo music of their day, confuse many with their fictions about courtly love, etc. But this does not mean that courtesy is chivalry nor that courtesy trumps chivalry.

  Let's look again at the barkeep and the paladin but through the lens of actual chivalry. Let us listen in on the paladin's thoughts.
"A commoner being rude in speech? To be expected from an uneducated lout; perhaps a coin for this unfortunate person will sweeten his mood? No? Ah, well, I shall-
This cur spit upon me?!  That is an offense to my honor!"
  At that point he would probably have his squire thrash the barkeep. If he were alone he would do so and if the barkeep struck back, well....  The barkeep might face prison. If the barkeep took up a weapon he might very well die.

  Here is a quick comparison of chivalry vs. courtesy.
  - Leading a lance charge against overwhelming odds with a smile on your face? Chivalry.
  - Holding a chair out so a lady may sit? Courtesy.
  - Being polite to others when speaking? Courtesy.
  -Allowing others to insult or strike you with impunity? Neither.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Worldbuilding and You! Nobility, Authority, Wilderness, and Who is in Charge?

  For a large number of reasons, many of which stem from my hobby of choice, fantasy RPGs, I have done a lot of reading on Medieval Europe in particular and general history overall. One thing that I consider carefully when making a new campaign world, or section of one, is - who is in charge?
  A friend of mine once told me (a paraphrase) that all of history can be divided into three phases: 1) someone is in charge - this is usually peace; 2) someone wants to be in charge - this is usually war or tyranny; 3) no one is in charge - this is chaos, anarchy, and war. Because of this, I try to figure out what power structures look and act like, how they relate to each other, and what they actually mean.
  The first thing i had to do was be very careful about the word 'feudalism'. One scholar I read stated (another paraphrase) ''Feudalism' is a term only used to describe systems long after they were begun or even ended. The popular idea of what the term meant is so broad and ill-defined that if you accept it then all people at all times everywhere were, are, and will always be in a feudal system'.
  The Saxons in England had kings ( I am descended from 2 or them), but the term was very little like we imagine. In a number of cases there were kingdoms with three kings - there was a man called King because his father was a king, a man called King because his sonless brother was a king, and a man called King because the warriors would actually follow him into battle. This dynamic, fluid understanding of what a king was contrasts sharply with the views of 15th Century France where the king was king by divine right and through purity of blood and considered the absolute ruler of all of France.
  Unless you asked the Duke of Burgundy for his opinion, of course.
  Various Chinese emperors were likewise seen as divinely appointed and favored - as long as the famines were dealt with, invaders, kept out, and the taxes not too high, of course. otherwise the peasants might stage another revolt, end another dynasty, and start another new dynasty. And this new emperor would probably be just as incapable of dealing with a corrupt civil service and most others were....
  The Japanese are in a unique position - their imperial line is unbroken for over 2,500 years! Of course, while the emperor has always been there there were often others ruling 'in the name of the emperor', meaning the emperor may have been far from in charge.
  Just within Medieval Europe during the "Feudal Period" there were a dizzying range of types of leadership. There were [deep breath]: effectively independent robber barons on the edges of the Holy Roman Empire;  the confederation of merchant and trade guilds of the Hansa which had its own armies, navies, and colonization efforts; Imperial Free Cities run by local oligarchies/plutocracies; a large region ruled by a religious military order of knights; cities or nations ruled by an archbishopr or cardinal of the Church; regions dominated by clan and tribal affiliation (effectively extended families); and a parliament in Iceland.
  And an empire. And lands conquered and colonized by invaders from a distant land. And more, beside. 

  The reason that this matters to world building is simple - in the Real World either there is already someone in charge or there is no one in charge: the alternative to someone already claiming it is that the land you are on is howling wilderness. I think it is safe to assume that a game world would be similar. The characters will be forced to deal with these power structures every day unless they remain in the wilderness!

  What if the elves, or at least the local ones, have a Saxon-like arrangement? Let's say the players need to cross the elven Kingdom of Argalen to get to the dragon's lair. They meet with a group of elves, talk for a while, pass around some wine and gold coins and meet with King Maeglin. More wine and gold later and, well, the King has given them permission to pass through - great! Next day the party goes on and soon enough smack into some elves that demand a toll. The party explain that King Maeglin gave them free passage. These elves laugh heartily, toss the 'free passage medallion' Maeglin gave you into a box full of duplicates, explain Maeglin is 'only' the son of the last king, and tell you King Edhelcu demands 20% of the wealth of all non-elves crossing through is kingdom. The party grumbles, coughs up the cash, and keeps going. Two days later they are invited at arrow point to meet with King Finan and explain why they are trespassing in his kingdom....

  Of the party's home base is an Independent City? They are listed as 'visitors' and must pay a yearly tax, face higher exchange fees, etc. To get out of this they must be sponsored by an existing citizen and buy citizenship, a long and expensive process. But even after doing that they find that the city council is only open to the Big Families, the 7 richest merchant families in the city. 

  On a much grander scale these decisions are going to impact the campaign tone a great deal - a tyrannical plutocracy surrounded by robber barons, grasping merchant leagues, and hordes of tribal humanoids is going to have a very different tenor and morality from a paladin-run crusader state bordering an invading colony and backed by bucolic Late Medieval French clones....
  So when thinking about world beulding remember - there is a lot more out there in the Real world to draw from than Hollywood Vikings and Hollywood Princesses!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Play Report - Three First-Time Players

  As I mentioned earlier yesterday evening I hosted a family of friends. The dad, D., had played 1e in high school and college but had no group when he moved for his first job 20 years ago. He came over with thee of his kids: son M. (14), daughter T., 12, and daughter C., 9. My sons J., A., S., and N. all assisted in setup and character creations.
  We started by just talking about RPGs in general over snacks and lemonade. The kids were eager, having heard tales from the table from their father all week. M. is a Full Metal Alchemist fan and had some general ideas about character motivation; T. is an artist and had character concept sketches; C. was just ready to have fun.
  We moved on and J. rolled up a character as a demo; he rolled Str 17 Int 11 Wis 9 Dex 11 Con 14 Cha 9 - a classic 3d6 in order fighter. We took our time and explained hit points, armor class, weapon proficiencies, etc. as we went. Total time to roll up, equip, and discuss creation was about 25 minutes. Then J., A., S., and N. helped all four of the visitors make characters. We ended up with:
  C. - human magic-user with 1 h.p. and A.C. 10
  T. - elven fighter/magic-user with 5 h.p. and A.C. 10
  M. - human thief with h.p. 2 and A.C. 5/8
  D. - human illusionist with h.p. 4 and A.C. 8/10
         Yup, a 3d6 in order illusionist.
  and J. with his new fighter, u.p. 8, A.C. 5

  With the heavy skew towards casters I was really glad J. had done a straight fighter.
  I then took them aside in ones and twos and explained how some of them knew each other ["J., you and T. have the same swordmaster trainer; C., you and T. have the same wizard mentor; T., and C. you have met D. who is mentored by your mentor's husband; J., you and M. have done some 'little jobs' for the town guard captain every now and then", etc.]
  Once that little web of acquaintance was established the town guard captain dropped a story on J. about how a small village had a reward for people willing to figure out some missing people. In a few moments the web of acquaintances had resulted in a team on its way tot he village of Stowanger.

  Note: Normally I give each character a sheet of things they know, rumors they have heard, secrets they are keeping, and people they know at the end of character creation, but I also usually spend a fair amount of time with each person over each character. Since this was a 'training session' I abbreviated this a lot! Still, I made sure they didn't 'all just meet in an inn'. I also slipped the human magic-user a tube of salve from her grandmother.

  Note: My son, J., wrote a list of 'basic adventuring equipment for 10 g.p.' and 'basic riding horse package for 45 g.p.' and we printed this out - a great help for newbies!

  Off they went on the River Road, eventually stopping in the (soon to be) famous Sad Wolf Tavern in Ham-on-Wye. After spending the night they set out south to the sleepy village of Stowanger and its only public building, the Church of St. Aledhel of the Elves.  They asked good questions, spoke to the locals, and eventually figured out that the people going missing had all recently come into money. They asked if anyone had recently come into money and were soon camped in the Brownside family barn, watching their house.

  The next day it rained all day and night. At the end of first night watch the fighter/magic-user spotted movement in the rain-soaked night. Like many first-time players she almost didn't think to wake anyone else up before going out, alone, to investigate. She remembered, though, and the group soon identified the shapes as kobolds trying to pry open a shutter of the house. The party developed a fairly interesting plan of the magic-user casting Dancing Lights as a ghostly figure appearing amidst the main group of kobolds and then the party attempting to capture one of the isolated kobolds on lookout.

  The sudden appearance of the spell effect startled the kobolds enough that the main group fled (pretty badly failed morale check) and the party did try to capture a kobold, ending up with a dead one and one at -3 but stable.
  No cleric, so no way to get the wounded kobold to interrogation ready in decent time.
  The party then quizzed Farmer Brownside about where the kobolds might be; he eventually mentioned the 'haunted mill'. The party set off for this building after using the salve to heal a hit point or two and getting some sleep.

  Note: I was using Syrinscape with a bluetooth speaker set in the middle of the table- the players, new and experienced alike, loved the weather and battle noises; they said it added a lot and kept the in-game conditions in their mind.

  The old mill is a 30' deep, 40' wide 2 storey structure with no windows on the first floor (but a broken old door hangs from from the only entrance, on the ground floor. There are windows all around the second floor.
  The thief decided to climb up to a second floor window and scout - one failed climb walls check later and the entire party is creeping up to the front door and another use of the salve is gone.
  The ground floor of the mill has the broken machinery of the milling process and a number of areas for stacking grain sacks - 10' x 10' stalls with 2' high walls. The floor is covered in dried leaves, rotted old burlap bags (empty), and such debirs and their is a staircase to the second floor in the corner.
  The thief decides to scout ahead and promptly steps into a bear trap hidden under the debris. The noise prompts 6 kobolds to rise from hiding in the stalls and unleash a storm of javelins! My dice hate me and they all missed.

  Note: The three bear traps are in very specific places on the map - don't walk there, no trap. This is the 11th time I have run the old mill for new players. The thief was the first to go in every time; the thief failed to search for traps every time; the thief hit one of the three hidden bear traps every time.

  The prepared illusionist immediately cast Darkness, covering half the first floor and shielding the party from 1/2 the ambushers. J., and T. immediately close with the other kobolds. In the next three rounds of combat the party deals with 4 of the 6 kobolds they had seen and one kobold escaped up the stairs. They also (finally) got the thief free, but he was down to 0.5 hit points (yes, I keep track of 1/2 hit points) and unable to fight.

  Note: In the past I have typically explained 1e combat starting with rounds and then breaking that down into segments. This time, after thinking about HackMaster Advanced, I explained combat starting with segments and then moving on to rounds. One group isn't "data" but they seemed to grasp the basics of combat a lot faster this way.

  Then a secret door opened and a lot more kobolds started coming in. Then more started coming down the stairs. J., ordered everyone out while he held them off, but they insisted he go and actually held off the hordes long enough for him to get away with just a little javelin hit.

  Note: When running the old mill I prefer to have one of the experienced players do a 'heroic last stand' and die. Why? Well, to show that it is just a game and characters die. And to show that an awesome, courageous death in a game can be pretty cool. Also, I coach the player a little bit - when the death happens they talk a bit about how that was pretty cool, then pull out another character and let me know they are ready if I need to introduce  the new guy. This, again, stresses that this is a game, that characters die, etc. it also sets them up for jazz band adventuring where each player has a stable of characters that they mix and match.
  Since I often am teaching younger players (under 10 fairly often, like this time) this, in my own experience, gives them the emotional distance they need; people that age naturally and properly become emotionally attached to characters and don't like Bad Things to happen to their family and friends. The staged 'heroic death' helps teach them that, once more, it is just a game. If they seem really upset? The party retrieves the body, they visit the bishop and they all learn about Raise Dead, too!
  This time, though, the party's actions had set up a viable escape plan - J. didn't want to act totally irrational and I didn't want to 'punish' the party by just dumping new critters on them until their foresight and planning didn't matter so - he lived.

The party rushed back to the village and sent word to the local baron - before sunset troops arrived, the remaining kobolds were cleared out, and the party had its reward money.

  This was obviously a short, sweet adventure designed to quickly introduce new players to ideas ranging from searching for traps to cover to roleplaying asking locals questions. It went well, they all had fun, and they all want to play again.

  Mission accomplished!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

This Weekend - Tools for Teaching New Players

  This weekend will be the first of three over the next 2 months when I will be teaching people to play. This set is a dad (who played D&D in college) and his 3 teenagers. The next set are 4 teenage friends of my sons. The third will be three teenage brothers, also friends of my sons.

  I've been teaching new people how to play for about 37 years and I have slowly but surely built up some tools and ideas. Yes, I used to just throw them in the pool, but I am not 14 anymore.

  Since my main campaign and my main experience are with 1e I will be teaching them 1e. In my own opinion, it is one of the easiest systems to teach people - the stats are easy to explain, you can point to Tolkien about the races, classes are simple, etc. 2e adds skills which can really slow down character creation; 3e adds feats, too. I stick with 1e. Feel free to disagree.

  The first thing I do is send the people a copy of OSRIC and of my house rules. I also tell them I don't expect them to read them all (OSRIC is what? 404 pages? And my complete house rules are 64). But there is almost always a 13-15 year old kid who reads and understands a lot, which is nice and helps the others realize it isn't that hard.

  I also print out N+2 character sheets (N is the number of players making new characters) so that errors are OK. I usually make a custom sheet for each of my characters but for new players I love these free sheets from Dragonsfoot. Jon Woodland, thanks for making my life easier.

  I then press-gang 1 to 4 of my sons to help. When things are humming I have one of my kids helping each of the new players roll dice, select race and class, write things down, etc. while I supervise and answer questions.

  For new players I hand out some of these from my custom Massive Bag O' Dice handmade by my lovely wife. She made me a dice bag large enough for two pounds-o-dice and, by Heaven, I plan to fill it!

  I am trying something new this time. One of the most time consuming things for experienced players and most frustrating for new players goes a little something like this,
  DM: 'Roll 'to hit'"
  Newbie: "Which one is that?"
  DM: "The d20"
  Newbie: "Um, which one is that?"
  Experienced player: "That one"
  Newbie: "This one?"
  Experienced Player: "No, that's a d12, this one"
  Newbie: "Oh, OK"
  Wait 5 minutes. Repeat with same newbie.
 I call this new tool a 'dice sorter'. It looks like this;

  I will print our a copy for each new player and then place the appropriate die or dice on each image over the test and the newbie can just pick them up, roll them, and put them back until they know which die is which.

  I found out a long time ago that many (not all) new players are helped by things like lighting and music; the setting and ambiance can go a long way in helping them feel the immersion in the game. So this last week I picked up this to go with Syrinscape. Syrinscape is my gaming music app of choice and my review of it can be found here.

  I will use my 'standard method' for character generation, which all my players use: 3d6 in order, roll three full sets and take the set you prefer. Any set with 3 or more sixes or 2 or more five or less scores may be discarded.

  The first group is a bit on the younger side so they will face a scenario I call The Old Mill starring Clarence and His Kobolds. It will be three new player kids, their dad, and my oldest son. My oldest has been through the Old Mill 5-6 times like this, but he is very good at encouraging the others to lead and learn.

  The second and third groups are older so they will each have a unique encounter, probably with goblins and bandits, respectively. These other groups will also have my oldest son and probably second oldest to help them play.

  All three scenarios will involve tricks, traps, and combat and have 'plug ins' as needed (a place where tracking is valuable if they have a ranger but changes nothing if taken out; NPCs that react well to paladins or nobles; etc.).

  Anyone else have tips, tricks, or tools for teaching new players?

New Spells - Ember's Firestrike

  I like Hackmaster 4th for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it is really 1e with stuff [another reason is the amazing GM screen). But I and my kids love the spells, too. In my 2e campaign one of my sons plays a fire elementalist called Ember. He wanted to have the entire huge list of Fireball variants from Hack4 but some of them are a bit - over the top. He did his own versions of a few of them (with my help) and here is one of his favorites for outdoor adventuring.

Ember's Firestrike
Level: 3
Range: 5,500 yds.
Duration: Inst.
Area of Effect: 10' diameter sphere
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 5 seg
Save: 1/2

  When cast the spell hurls a tiny point of flame at great speed towards its target and, once it arrives, it detonates into a relative small but hot Fireball doing 1d4 points of damage per level of the caster; a successful save vs. spell reduces this damage by 1/2. At ranges of less than 100 yds this spell otherwise acts in all ways like a Fireball spell.
  It is, however, capable of striking foes much further away. With a line of sight and no obstacles Ember's Firestrike has the potential to cause damage up to 3 1/8th miles away.
  Note that at sea or on flat, level terrain the horizon appears to be about 3 1/8th miles away for a human male of average height.
  For any target area past 100 yards the caster must roll 'to hit' vs. A.C. 10 as if performing a melee attack as a fighter of the caster's level. There is no penalty to this roll within the first 500 yards but the roll is made at a -1 for each additional 500 yard to a maximum of -10 to hit for targets between 5,001 and 5,500 yards away. At 5,501 yards or more Ember's Firestrike dissipates.
  Example: Ember (11th level) and his henchman Firewing (7th level) are defending a mountain pass from an orcish army. The vanguard is 600 yards away and the leader is a mile (1,650 yards) away. Firewing targets the vanguard, Ember the leader.
  Firewing's target is more than 500 yards away but less that 1,000 so he rolls to hit vs. A.C. 10 with a -1; he rolls a 15 and strikes the area he aimed for doing 7d4 damage vs. all the orcs in a 10' radius.
  Ember's target is more than 1,500 yards away but less than 2,000 so his to hit roll is at -3. he rolls a 19 and strikes the leader and all other orcs within 10' for 11d4 damage.
  Misses are resolved as grenade-like missiles with distances of scatter in tens of feet.
  Example: Although the death of their warchief has shaken the orcs, they press on. Ember launches another Firestrike against a cluster of shamans directing troops from the rear - they are 2,100 yards away, giving Ember a -4 to hit. He rolls a 5, a miss. He rolls a d8 to determine scatter direction: 4, or towards Ember. He rolls a d6 to determine scatter distance; 3, or 30'. The Firestrike detonates at 2,090 yards directly between Ember and the shamans, doing 11d4 damage to a lone runner carrying orders to the front lines.
  Feel free to use the spell in your own games, please just keep Ember's name associated with it. It will be in my upcoming book Far Realms, as well.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Personal Rant - Dragonlance, Vampire, Story, Plot, and the Sandbox

[Since more than one person got a mistaken impression, mild edits were made]

  There is a fair amount of love in the world for the Dragonlance setting. And a fair amount of hate. My personal opinion is... it isn't good enough to hate, but it sure impacted my favorite hobby.
  Personal revelation time (again). I was 16 when the first Dragonlance book came out and, oddly enough, was already living outside the home while going to school and working. I had three great room mates who were all brothers and big gamers who were going to school and working, like me. I was running two games a week, one in my own campaign, called Seaward, and one in Greyhawk where we essentially played all of the official modules plus some unique stuff of mine. One of my room mates would also DM from time to time, usually his own stuff in Greyhawk.
  When Dragons of Autumn Twilight hit the shelves we, of course, bought a copy. It was, frankly, bitterly disappointing. The characters were flat, the story line was terrible, the tension wasn't and if the companions were examples of what TSR employees thought was interesting and engaging PCs I'm surprised they lasted as long as they did.

  Before we continue, let me make a few things clear.
  1) This is my opinion. Feel free to disagree.
  2)  My wife and I have worked as freelance, professional editors for large firms and authors whose names you know; we even had our own editing company and it was our primary source of income for some time. This is my personal AND professional opinion.
          [If I am a professional editor why are there so many errors in my blog? One, this is for fun; two, the cobbler's kids go barefoot]
      [still feel free to disagree]
  3) Yes, I know the authors have written a ton of books, sold a ton, and have made a ton of money from this. My reply is - Flowers in the Attic has sold more than 40 million copies and it sucks, too

  From the mary sue characters (Weis felt she had to tell us Raistlin was her favorite character?) to the eye-rolling cliches like: the twins (one is physically sickly but smart, the other strong but dull; the weak one is an evil wizard who resents his brother, the strong one is a good warrior who is blind to his brother's evil etc. (my then-nine-year-old sneered at this); the hot, dim, but feisty! barmaid; and the absent minded wizard who has vast power but can't feed himself - but is he really crazy?! (hint - of course not) I feared permanent eye strain.
  And it got worse, of course. My mother bought me the next one, so I read it (dutiful son and all) and I received the third as a Christmas gift so I read it, too (I am older now and might not do it today). The writing was clunky, the story boring, the characters terrible, and the details like gully dwarves and tinker gnomes infuriating. I came to the conclusion that they were poorly written children's lit and was amazed at the love showered on them by the gaming community.
  And let me add that it is my belief that the depiction of Sturm did more to cement the idea of Lawful Stupid in the collective mind of gamers than almost anything else.
  The modules were worse; focused on either being the basis for later novels or (after the first few) being based on the existing novels they are almost the definition of 'railroad adventure': the modules must have certain things happen certain ways with certain conclusions or the rest of the modules don't work.
  We will come back to this.
  There were a lot of Dragonlance books published - more than 100 if the internet is accurate. And many modules and source books - probably also over 100. There were action figures, and miniatures, and all sorts of stuff.

  Interestingly enough, even at the time when I would complain of the terrible quality of the books and modules a fair number of my gaming friends would reply with some version of,
  "Well, sure, but it is bringing in a ton of new players!"
  The argument was that the Dragonlance books and modules might be objectively terrible in and of themselves but a lot of younger people would read the books and then play D&D so, well, that was good! More players is good for The Community therefore, no matter how terrible the books or modules, Dragonlance was good for Gaming.

  Now, since I haven't read anything Dragonlance in almost 29 years, why am I bringing this up?
  Besides the fact that a lot of other OSR bloggers are talking about it, of course.
  Because of story, plot, and sandbox.
  Walk with me for a moment

  In 1991 Vampire; the Masquerade was released and I, like many others, picked it up. I thought the stripped down mechanics were interesting (stripped to the point of being hard to use, in my opinion) and the setting interesting, if rather highly derivative of a certain author's works, I didn't like the game itself. Mainly because of its incredible focus on 'storytelling'. It reminded me a great deal of Ars Magica.
  Ars Magica was an interesting system with a clever mechanic for spells, and interesting 'almost real world' setting, and a lot of potential but also a heavy emphasis on 'storytelling'; I liked a lot of elements of the system but didn't like it as a game entire.
  I remember finishing reading Vampire and digging out Ars Magica and, boom! same guy involved in both, which I had suspected.

  The World of Darkness concepts that flowed from the old Lion Rampant and White Wolf systems were wildly popular at the time and very influential. I believe that a fair amount of this was because of the 'advance work' done by Dragonlance; in those wildly-popular books and modules the goal was completing a story. In the WoD settings the goal was completing a story.
Quick Aside: a 'story' is defined as "an account of people and events told for entertainment. May be real or fictional"
The definition of ;'plot' is "the events that make up the main part or parts of a story"
Don't forget the difference! 
  But how does this affect actual gaming? Not just game play itself, but the metagame around it: GM prep, adventure and world design; post-game work, character design, party dynamics, etc.

  Let's start with the GM: if he is focused on story he must arrange for the entire dramatic structure: exposition; rising action; climax; falling action; denouement. Since the GM is supposed to have an overall story to tell ( the War of the Lance or whatever) the exposition, climax, and denouement of each sub-story, or 'adventure' must have certain things happen for the overarching story arc to be met. In the end this essentially demands that one of two things happen - either the GM places strict rails on certain elements of the adventure or the players willingly participate in the story telling effectively constraining themselves to the needs of the overall story.
  It logically follows that character creation, design, and development is subject to and inferior to the needs of the story. If you have to have a Sturm to check of the boxes for 'knight of solamnia',  'lawful good', 'noble hero', and 'tragic death', well - someone better roll up a Sturm or the story ain't happening. And you better hit your marks, utter your lines with conviction, and sell that death to the crowd.
  Further, the plot may well demand that you do create friendships with certain NPCs, dislike other NPCs, do certain things within certain time windows, realize certain facts within other time windows, etc. This constrains everything from the weapons selected and skills taken to even the appearance of a character. Just a few years after storytelling was seen as a prime paradigm of RPGs you saw articles on how to design characters level by level, stat by stat, skill point by skill point, in order to 'maximize' them.
  There are obviously a fair number of people who enjoy this sort of play; damn near everyone in the Drama department of the local college was playing LARP Vampire within a year.
  But to me this was instantly an Issue - I don't play RPGs because I am a frustrated screenwriter or actor, I play RPGs because I like RPGs. Yes, there are clearly elements of mutual storytelling in any tabletop RPGs. No, the goal isn't telling a story!
  The goal of RPGs is for the players to have fun. For me and for a lot of people the railroading/constraints of the RPGs=Storytelling approach leach out the fun.

  Personally, I have run what I call a 'near sandbox' for 36+ years. Seaward and Blackstone are both highly detailed, well-stocked, etc. with a large number of detailed NPCs, plot hooks, etc. scattered all over. The players are free to roam as they wish, if they wish, set their own agendas, change character goals on the fly, etc. Sure, the occasional adventure has a time limit imposed, but if the characters give that room a miss, meh. If they thwart the dragon without ever seeing it, great!

  But I have seen a small handful of bloggers advocate something I will call 'pure sandbox'; the GM stocks the world, restocks it as necessary, etc., but gives no plots or any such thing to the players. New players with a 2nd level party of 5 in the campaign decide that Mount Thunder is a low-level goblin clearing when it is really home to the King of the Ogres?
  "If you give them a hint, you aren't really 'Sandbox'!"
  A particular player really wants to quest for such-and-such an item but you don;t have it in the mythology of your world?
  "If you add it in you aren't really 'Sandbox'!"
  I disagree. This is tying the hands of the GM and the players almost as much as the railroad style.  Oh, I don't dislike it as much as 'well, I am 4th level so I better take Cleave or I will never be able to compete in 7 more levels' or 'OK, I get it - the dodgy alcoholic is a critical plot element or exposition center - I will sit and listen to him talk rather than follow that mysterious stranger'. But taken to this extreme it can seriously hinder the development of a campaign through ongoing co-creative work of the GM and players.

  Are these extreme types of 'pure Sandbox' advocates common? No, but I see them and I suspect it is largely a rejection of storytelling as goal taken too far.

  Remember those definitions I posted earlier? In my opinion any dynamic, internally-consistent, campaign world with a healthy, vigorous interaction between players and GM will "generate" plot lines for the characters to be exposed to that will naturally lead to a dynamic structure - it is just that the pace, climax, and denouement of the dynamic structure is not pre-determined and aimed for. Indeed, this dynamic, collaborative structure will result in better results than either extreme will ever be capable of.

  The space between "story is goal" and "pure sandbox" is vast and most of us fall in that range already.

  In my opinion, the thing to remember when GMing and playing is that there is a tacit agreement between all members of the group that a minimum level of cooperation is required to play and also that a minimum amount of latitude is also required to play: the GM can't have a story arc that from before anyone throws 3d6 in order requires a 9th level thief with Boots of Striding and Springing, a 67% Open Locks ability, and a volatile relationship with an NPC barmaid from 3 levels ago be standing at the altar of Baal at moonrise on MidSummer exactly 100 years after the paladin Gervine died. On the other hand, the GM also has to provide a bit more than 'you are in an inn, there are 6 other people in the room, you know no one, what do you do?'. Both represent extremes that take away from the core goal of RPGs.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Character's Log: Seaward - Fiona goes to Dwarf Hill

Real time: June 14, 2014's adventure

Je played Fiona

Ja played Athanasius

A played The Sparrow

S played McCloud

N played Thorin

Fiona's Diary

Day 1: My dear friend Athanasius came to me today and requested my assistance. The bishop
has asked him to investigate some trouble in the northwest, and he wants to gather a group
together to go and see what is bothering the villages up there. Of course, wishing to further my
devotion to our one true God, and in the interests of our shared faith and friendship (I will never
forget how welcoming Athanasius has been to the lone little elf in his mostly human parish), I
agreed to assist him with the Bishop's request. Perhaps my humble magical talents and trusty
bow will be of some use? Athanasius asked if I knew of anyone else who would help, so I
approached that odd half elf I visit with in the Tavern frequently, The Sparrow. Seems like he is
always ready for an adventure. As expected, he agrees to come with us to help, and he knew a
couple people that, interestingly, Athanasius knew, too. A human Druid named McCloud, who I
really don't quite trust, and Thorin, who I actually vaguely knew, a huge half orc who is
delightfully dim of mind, but seems to have a big heart. Before we head out, I must check out
the magic shop and make sure I have my spell components. I think I will memorize the Jump
spell, plus the cantrips Distract, Flash, Spark and Mute.

Noted: spent 2 cp on a vial of grasshopper legs, and a bag with 10 doses of powdered iron.

Day 2

We had barely gotten started on our adventure when the Druid told us that a big thunderstorm
was approaching. We hurried on to the next village, called Ham on Wye, where we stopped at
the Sad Wolf Tavern. And just in time, too, a huge storm pounded us for several hours while we
were there. I guess that Druid is good to have around after all, despite his disturbing lack of
faith. We had a good meal there, talked with the locals who have heard tales of trouble in the
Northwest villages, but didn't have any helpful details. After the storm passed, they
recommended we continue on to Old Bridge, where there is an inn we can stay in for the night.
Thankfully, the stables took good care of our horses, including my dear pony, Hamlet.

Noted: Spent 3 CP for a meal and the care of Hamlet

Day 3

We spent the night at The Lost Dog Inn, where they gave us a nice dinner last night and
breakfast this morning. They also took good care of my pony, I am so glad he has had an easy
time of it thus far. It isn't always easy for a pony to keep up with the big people, you should see
the size of Thorin's draft horse! Anyway, earlier this morning we crossed the old bridge and
took the road northwest towards St. Johan's parish. About noon we stopped at The Happy Fish
tavern, where we had a good meal. It is great that we can save our rations for when we really
need them, which I am sure will be happening soon now that we are off the King's Road. This
evening, we arrived at the village of Wilburn, and unfortunately, there was not an inn for us to
stay in. Athanasius went to the local parish, The Parish of the Holy Crown, and when he told
them we were on our way to help the troubled villages, they offered to let us stay the night in the
rectory's guest room. The Druid isn't happy, but I am comforted.
Noted: Spent 2 1/2 silver pieces in Old Bridge for our meals and stable care. Spent 5 CP for
our noon meal, and I donated 2 CP to the Parish of the Holy Crown for their hospitality.

Day 4

The strangest thing happened today! We had travelled for several hours, and we stopped at
mid day to rest our horses and have some lunch. We were just about to pull out our rations
when tiny little loaves of bread and butter just sort of - appeared! I went ahead and tried one
and it was delicious! Brownie food, how wonderful to meet those tiny little friends again.

Noted: I left 1CP in gratitude for the Brownie's generosity.

Later that evening...

What a blessing! We have run into a pilgrimage camp! The Bishop of Riverhearth is taking
about a hundred halfings to the Cathedral of Ekull. They have invited us to camp with them
tonight, I am so looking forward to mass in the morning.

Day 5

After mass this morning, it started raining almost immediately. Thankfully, it stopped around
9am, and we even saw a beautiful rainbow. Around mid day, we got to Kirkby Village, and
stopped at their tavern, The Unicorn and the Giant. We were disturbed by the rumors we heard
there, they told us that there is a lot of strange goings on up at St. Johan's Parish. People are
missing, farmers who just don't come back. Very troubling, we are headed that way to check
things out.

Noted: I spent 5 CP for my mid day meal. Travel is so expensive!

Late that night...

Goodness, what a day! We arrived at the village of Kirkby where we met and talked with many
villagers who were just leaving. Eight people have disappeared from the village recently, and
everyone was scared. The Druid talked with a bluebird and a raven (I still don't trust him, but he
sure has been useful), and they said that big bugs have been eating people! The villagers said
that people had been disappearing in the fields just past a copse of trees, so we went out to
look around. We saw a very unusual and suspicious ditch and mound of dirt in the fields, and
before we could investigate further, a huge, wingless mantis type of bug reared up in front of us!
Thorin and I immediately shot our arrows, and it quickly died. The Sparrow and Thorin went to
clear out the bug's tunnels and unfortunately found a half eaten human corpse (May the souls of
the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace), and a mummified Dwarven
corpse with 2 silver ingots and stamped with a clan symbol no one recognizes. They also found
and destroyed four eggs - thank God we were able to spare this poor village more sorrow! In
addition, there was a note on the Dwarf's body, and I can't believe that no one with me can read
Dwarven! Thankfully, the village priest was able to help us, and it said, "This is the last from the
mine. The rest will follow when we close the camp." I guess there must be an old Dwarven
silver mine nearby? We decided to leave the silver ingots with the local parish, along with a
copy of the note. The village threw a party for us tonight, celebrating the end of their fear, while
they mourned in sadness for their lost friends and family members. A bittersweet night, to be

Noted: Killed an Ankheg, and destroyed four of it's eggs.

Day 6

We assisted at mass this morning in Kirkby village (and that Druid keeps disappearing during
masses, I just don't think I will ever trust him!), then headed out towards Estham. It wasn't far, we arrived quite early in the morning, thankfully the weather has held for the last couple of days,
though it has been quite warm! When we got to Estham, we immediately talked with the local
priest, who filled us in on what he knew about the disturbances. A young girl was the first to
disappear, but everyone just figured she ran off with her boyfriend. But then, her parents
disappeared while they were out looking for her. People still wondered if it was just a family
problem, until another family disappeared. Parents and their six children all just vanished! They
lived in an outlying farm, about an hour away from the village center. The villagers went to
check things out, and found that not a single thing was missing, the father's sword still hung
from the fireplace, and the dinner table was set with 12 plates. Very odd. We are going to head
out to the farm to check things out there.

Later that day...

We got to the farm, it is quite a ways outside the village palisades. It is quite an impressive little
place, almost like its own freehold. When we got there, it looked like someone had searched
through their things, which is kind of strange, as the priest didn't mention anything. We also
found an unholy symbol under the wood pile. And, we found a loose stone in the fireplace that
held a scroll case. It held discharge papers and an 8 GP pension, nothing more. We decide to
leave the scroll case, papers, and gold in the fireplace, in case this family is able to come back.
We will take the unholy symbol back to the local priest, though, and ask him to destroy it for us.
Plus, we need to talk to him some more.

That evening...

The priest told us that the local villagers have talked about seeing strange things in the trees,
just movements, really. He also said that there is a place of local legend nearby, said to be
haunted by ghosts, an old Dwarven silver mine called Dwarf Hill. Tomorrow we will go check it
out, see if it has anything to do with the troubles around here. For tonight, we are staying in that
remote farmhouse, it is on the way to the old mine. We will be very careful, and expect trouble.
I am planning on taking the second watch. The others who aren't on watch will sleep in the
upstairs room, and we will block the doors with furniture and pots and pans. Those on watch
will make rounds throughout the house, checking the windows and doors and periodically going
up to the tower to survey the surroundings. I am hoping for a quiet night.

Day 8

Well, my wish for a quiet night was not granted. Four humans in leather armor, with crossbows
and shortswords, approached the house on my watch in the middle of the night. They rattled
the doors, and tried to get in. We were very quiet, but ready. In the end, the humans just went
away. Or so we thought. When we tried to leave the farmhouse this morning, they had set
traps on the doors! Thank heavens Thorin and The Sparrow at least thought to look for traps,
and were able to partially disarm them. I was able to pick up the trail of the humans, but once
we got to the edge of the Stone Hills it because impossible to follow. We thought we saw Dwarf
Hill in the distance, so we found a nice rock cove where we can leave our horses. It looks like it
will be an hour's walk, Thorin and The Sparrow are going to go check things out...(a little
later)The thieves are back, they said they found a stone house built into the side of a hill with
smoke coming out of the chimney, closed stone shutters, and they heard people crying inside,
moaning about being slaves. We must go check things out now!

Later that evening...

What a battle we've had! We went to the stone house, and Thorin broke down the door.
Inside, there was an old woman and a young woman, chained and making dinner. Four bandits were sitting at the table playing dice - luckily, we surprised them! We killed the bandits, and
more bad guys came through the doors. I cast Flash on one of them, and was able to distract
him a bit, and I killed a couple more with my shortsword and bow. But I am so frustrated with
the slow pace of my magical training, I wish I had better spells to help out! Anyway, after we
killed all the bandits and bad guys in the front room, we explored through some of the doors. It
is quite an impressive place, I have attached a map that we drew, for future reference, as we
have much more to explore there. We encountered a hedge wizard and another bad guy, the
wizard was able to stun a couple of my friends, but we prevailed in the end. We actually have
captured the wizard, and we found notes indicated that the bandits were running a slave trade,
sending the poor slaves to the Orc kingdom in the west. Those poor people! We freed the
slaves here at the house, of course. We found some treasures, too. We are going to take our
stuff, the notes and our mow, plus the captured wizard, back to the village.

Noted: I broke four of my arrows, but was able to get 11 of them back.

Money: After sales of equipment, after expenses – 386 g.p. each

 Longsword (magical, unknown)

Cloak (magical, unknown)

Blank Spellbook

Human-sized chainmail

Spellbook with these spells

Cantrips – Clean, Cool, Flinch, Gather, Palm, Present, Redlight, Spice, Sweeten

1st level – Detect Magic, Read Magic, Identify, Comprehend Languages, Charm Person

2nd level – Forget, Wizard Lock

Note: I tried, but totally, utterly failed to learn the Identify Spell. We must go in search of
someone to identify these magical items!

(From the DM:

952 experience points - must allocate for my multi class character.)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Campaign Tone - What is the Morality of your World?

  Part II in a series of articles on campaign tone, the first can be found here.
  Where the first was about what I call the tenor of a campaign, this one is about the morality. If 'tenor' is 'the emotional foundation' then 'morality' is the 'moral foundation'. In short, the overall morality of your campaign world has an effect similar to the tenor t by setting the boundaries of plot, conflict, character development, and overall arc.
  If your tenor is humor you will not have a lot of character development towards, oh, being a better person. Let's contrast the tenor of two films: Liar, Liar and The Firm.
  Yes, really.
The protagonist of Liar, Liar is a relatively amoral lawyer heavily focused on making money. By being forced to confront the manner in which he earns his living he grows to understand the importance of moral courage and honesty and saves his family, becoming a better man.
The protagonist of the The Firm is a relatively amoral lawyer heavily focused on making money. By being forced to confront the manner in which he earns his living he grows to understand the importance of moral courage and honesty and saves his family, becoming a better man.
  That's right, the character arc of Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise are the same. But we know very well that the actions, conflict, and depth of growth for the character Mitch McDeere was much greater than for Fletcher Reede. Why? because the tenor, or the emotional foundation, was different.
  In the film with a tenor of humor the threats facing Fletcher were having his ex-wife marry an objectively better man. losing a case where the person he was representing was scum, and not making much more than his already large salary.
  In the film with the tenor of drama Mitch faced the the murder of his wife and brother, his own death, or (at best) the loss of his livelihood and the potential of years in prison.
  At the end of his particular character arc Fletcher is vaguely back with his wife and son, won the case for his scumbag client (but felt a brief pang of remorse over it), and is making a bucket of money.
  Mitch's arc concludes with him avoiding his own death or the murder of his wife, the death or imprisonment of his co-workers, a reconciliation with and redemption of his brother, and the life-long spectre of his own death at any time.

  I hear you say,
  "The title says 'morality' and you're talking about 'tenor' again. What gives?"
  Trust me, we're getting there.

  As I just showed you the tenor of a story is important because it helps define and limit the cpacity for the DM and players to generate and maintain conflict, to motivate PCs and NPCs, and to determine and define character growth.

  Morality is much the same. In addition to helping define how GMs and players can and do emotionally interact with the setting the setting's morality defines and limits the potential conflicts, motives, and growth of characters, PCs and NPCs alike.

  Before we go on in this vein let me do my usual self-description. I have a degree in Systematic Theology and part of my day job involves business consulting on ethics, morals, and similar issues. I read about, think about, study, compare, contrast, teach, and talk about ethics and morality all the time.

  OK, now that that is out of the way.

  What is it that defines the morality of your campaign? Like I did with the tenor, let's look at the Dying Earth;
The picaresque Dying Earth is set in an Earth about to be snuffed out as the sun goes dark. The characters are morally repellent. The clearest example is probably Cugel "the Clever": he is a liar, thief, con man, swindler, rapist, coward, fool, and malingerer. Of course, the majority of his victims are likewise, only more clever than he.
    Just as the tenor of the Dying Earth is grimness, loss, and despair its morality is dark, evil, and ambiguous.
  Compare this with Barsoom of Burroughs;
John Carter is a gentleman and man of honor who would rather die than break an oath. His captor, Tars Tarkas, a savage Green Man, is likewise honorable and true to such an extent the two men of vastly different species become fast friends. Even among the First Born, a society of priates and slavers, the character Xodar, himself a man of great honor, reacted tot he virtues of John Carter and faced off against his own people to ensure that Carter, to whom Xodar owed a debt of honor, could survive and escape.
  Again, Barsoom's tenor is optimistic and positive its morality is also good, positive, and honorable.

  There are many more protagonists in both worlds than Cugel and Carter; a number of other viewpoint protagonists exist in both worlds. The fascinating thing is that in the Dying Earth there is very little character development compared to Barsoom. Some of the later novels set in Barsoom are effectively roman a clef tales.
  Yes, some of this is unavoidable; as I said, the Dying Earth stories are essentially satires while the Barsoom tales are largely drama (and the origins of Planetary Romance, might I add). But please consider this - Vance, a skilled author, picked a grim tone and moral ambiguity specifically to prevent his characters from developing very much. Burroughs, also a skilled writer*, picked an optimistic tone and moral clarity because his goal was character development.

  Just as tone can really impact how others see your campaign world, so can morality.

  One of the campaigns I played in longest was Lew Pulsipher's Tonilda campaign, set in a unique world of his own make. Tonilda is a remote frontier city far from any other real civilization. It is physically isolated and threatened almost constantly by foes. The local political leader, the baron, vanished inside his keep over a decade ago and the collapse of authroity left the Bishop in charge of the eastern portion of the city, an evil cult in possession of the western portion and a 'neutral' area in between rife with everything from spies to street fighting between factions. Several days tot he north was the keep of J.C., a retired cleric adventurer and the lst safe spot for anyone to travel.
  The tenor of the campaign was one of isolated struggle; the morality was clear - the Bishop and his forces were good, the cultists were evil.\
Another campaign  I played in was Jim henson's (no, not that one!) Iron Mercenaries campaign using Palladium FRPG rules and set in the official Palladium world. The players were a loose band of amoral mercenaries whose goal was the amass as much money as possible. Our employers were often treacherous and far worse than any villains we faced. The tenor was a dark one of collapsed empires and rising evil, the morality grey on grey. 
  These two  campaigns were radically different in tenor and in morality while ostensibly both being about bands of brash adventurers teaming up to creep through dungeons.

  So how do you build a campaign morality? I think there are four elements to doing this on purpose:
    1) Are there NPCs who are good and trustworthy? Evil and devious? Is every 'good' bishop really greedy, corrupt, or stupid? Is every noble an avaricious scumbag? is every wizard a necromancer wannabe?
    2) When the GM puts moral choices before the PCs are they always murky or unclear? To save the princess must they always sacrifice a village to the dragon? Must they kill the orc children to clear the dungeon every time? Are they never sure that their mentors/employers have good ends?
    3) Much like with tenor, are 'day-to-day' NPCs, like barmaids, trustworthy or not? Is every lovely girl flirting with a PC really a prostitute? Is every linkboy a spy? every beggar a thief? etc.
    4) Do characters have the ability to have a character development arc based upon morality, good or bad?

  Talk with your players and visitors - is the morality of your world clear, ambiguous, of indeterminate? Do the players feel like they can make moral and ethical choices in a way that matters?

  *Yes, ERB was a skilled writer. He wrote in a variety of genres, including non-fiction and journalism, and sold 60 million books in his own lifetime, at least that many since. He experimented with a number of styles and was the most-read writer in English of the first half of the 20th Century.