Friday, June 19, 2020

A Serious Note On Playing Pretend

So it seems inevitable that I’ll have to address this, as every other blog in existence is currently, and days of seeing it repeated across every nerd-ball and elf-games group I belong to has it entrenched in my brain. 

Wizards of the coast finally addressed the elephant in the room a lot of us have been talking about for some time in that some of their depictions have been racist. In this case, they focused a bit on orcs and drow, but the clearly racist Romani stand-ins from Curse of Stahd are the ones I was the most happy to see addressed. Frankly, the last of those was egregious and something I thought WotC would have addressed before 5e Ravenloft’s publication, but apparently not. 

Orcs’ origins with Tolkien have always had a problematic element. If you disagree, I encourage you to check out the Tolkien Gateway section on such, and read the article on The Conversation written by Dimitra Fimi. While I don’t think Tolkien was a bigot, I also don’t pretend he didn’t write some of the things he did about people that looked different. I also don’t inherently think D&D orcs are the same as Tolkien’s orcs, the same as Warcraft Orcs, and definitely not the same as Warhammer Orks, but that’s a whole separate post on the “our orcs are different”.

Drow frankly have been through the wringer. The earliest art I ever saw of drow depicted Drizzt as an old wrinkly white dude with purple eyes and white hair. It wasn’t until I read the book that I knew his skin was black, and the first art I saw depicting thus had him as a brown skinned elf. I thought it was cool that elves, like humans could be of every different skin color, and that anybody could be what Tolkien described as the “fairest of all people.” Representation is important, and people of color deserve to see themselves as part of a magical world as much as anyone else. But like... except for Drizzt, canonically almost all drow are evil. Which is, frankly boring as fuck and reads like race hate propaganda from the High Elves or Eladrin or whatever they’re called in Faerun these days. And then drow went from being like, black skinned to grey to bluish purple. It was a tacit “we know this is offensive to people of color so let’s change it” without a direct apology or admission that it was. 

I’ve also admittedly been too vague on this blog in the past that elves are among my least favorite elements of the game. They smack too heavily of tolkienic fantasy, and the lazy world building “race-as-monoculture” too often associated with D&D. I think the drow suffer the heaviest from this. I’ve stated before to others I see little difference between considering yourself better than another species and actually acting that way, which is definitely a feel I get from elves. This is why in my home-brew I often move all elves to True Fae adjacent, like Material Plane cousins to their monstrously extradimensional kin. But further and greater than lazy world-building, I think writing “all of X species are baaad!” is piss-poor writing, and I’ve seen so, so much of it in RPGs and LARP and other locations. Moreso, what you’re saying is that, even if it is fiction, you’re willing to entertain the idea that all people of X are evil. X in the previous sentence being whichever factor (ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, identity, etc) is most likely to get under your skin. Think about that for a few seconds.

Not that I think that evil cultures and societies can’t be written well, or don’t exist. I have a friend who models her drow society on Nazi-era Germany, which is absolutely horrifying and (in my opinion) thematically on-point for elves. I’ve spoken before in my blog about the inclusion of cannibal cults and moving away from orcs as Villain-employed Cannon Fodder. You can have bad-guys who are bad, just make them bad due to their actions not due to the way they look or their species. Don’t build lazy worlds. Don’t fall into the species=monoculture trap.

You may also note I’ve made it a habit to say species often here when talking about the difference between humans, elves, tree-people, or what-not. If you’ve read this blog before you know a heavy influence on my style of gaming is “Perdido Street Station” by China Miéville, which features a whole host of different peoples living together of weird, wild assortment: Ant-headed insect people, walking cactus people with wooden bones, gargoyle creatures that can fly and all kinds of not-human fantasticness. Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, The Justice League, all sorts of stories have fantastic non-human characters we love, and I believe that’s part of what makes fantasy so fantastic is our inclusion of non-human peoples. I’m largely of the opinion that the more the merrier with weird things to play, and that having an assortment of living beings makes your fantastic setting vibrant and bright.

Even then, “species” is only a temporary fix, as that puts the focus on biological differences. I’ve read some players opting for the term “ancestries” or “heritages” which I think is probably stronger. If I’m not mistaken, the second edition of Pathfinder works like this, but I admittedly haven’t touched the game in a few years. 

To this end, I think Holmes’s had it right: make your character whatever kind of person you want, skip any dumb “bonuses” and keep the dice and numbers small. This is also why I’ve mostly ran exclusively human games lately. Full Disclosure: this thought comes at a time when I just finished writing three non-human species for my own world, and deciding what bonuses both they and humans get (surprise surprise, no ability score bonuses). I’m wondering if I’m going to include species as a game-play affecting element now.

If you’ve made it his far, I really encourage you to track down The Public Medievalist and read their post “Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre”. It outlines, and links to even more, problems with a lot of the inclusions of the term “race” within the game and the malign stereotypes it’s yet to distance itself from, and does a great job closing on some inclusive modern fantasy. 

I think Wizards made the right call here by admitting they were wrong, and stating they’d work better towards a brighter, more inclusive future. I think there’s always more room at the table, and that a more diverse and strong host of fantasy worlds leads to a more diverse and strong real world, for all of us. I also hope that if you’re reading this, you too choose to do the same. 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Homebrew Happiness

Part One: The Perfect System Doesn’t Exist

So I’ve been reading my older Red Box and Holmes Blue book, and thinking a lot about what characters and what players get out of D&D (because they are very different things). 

Moreso, I’ve been thinking about the OSR in general, and am looking to reread my copies of Mörk Borg, Swords and Wizardry, and the monumental task of rereading DCC. I’ve also been playing a lot, mostly some 5e as well as some Wrath and Glory, which seems like a very re-skinned Shadowrun with some elements from Don’t Rest Your Head and World of Darkness. 

So I have a lot of systems in my brain fresh right now. And a lot of thoughts about various systems, but mostly pertaining to “General Fantasy” Gaming. Take your pick of high, low, or anywhere in between. All of them are great. All of them have flaws. A lot follow that cool new minimalist trend, which as a busy adult with a 40+ hour a week job, I’m grateful for. Some of them have EVERYTHING written down, which is glorious, especially when I can sink some real teeth in. None are perfect. And that’s ok. 

What I find troubling currently is my current habit of making the game fit my personal tastes in fantasy, some of my preferred mechanics that highlight character mechanical diversity (often through various plug-and-play options, though as time goes on I’m eschewing this for player creativity), and the tar-pit of making everyone happy. 

Finding the right mix of rules that reflect fluff and vice-versa is tough. My current homebrew world currently has only  humans as a playable option. Further, they don’t receive racial bonuses as described in the book. I get a lot of flak for this. “Is this a low-magic world?” No. “Is this low-fantasy?” No. “This is lame. 5e is baked-in high fantasy. There are other systems that do this better.” No. No no no no no no no. No. D&D always has been whatever kind of fantasy you want it to be. They wouldn’t have supplements for other, non-generic settings if it wasn’t. In my case, I want Weird Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, Non-Tolkienic Fantasy. I want my world to feel “Vaguely Familiar, Yet Wondrously Fantastic.” And I do want my rules to reflect that. 

I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to have an entire party of X Class and have them all feel and play different. Conan and Fafhrd are both barbarians. Elric and The Gray Mouser are both sorcerers. All of them are swordsmen. None of them feel the same, I’m sure they don’t play the same either. The current option(s) put out by The Big Publisher are many-fold: class, sub-class progression, the option to include feats, etc. Also multiclassing, but honestly I’m so burnt on this from 3e powergaming, it just feels boring to me, narrowed down to niche builds and chicanery, one or two trick ponies. Plus I really like the party roles filled by the big 4 of classes, and dislike characters who are good at everything. A team of specialists is vastly better than one superhero, in my humble opinion. This has had several workarounds in the past, but I’ve yet to find one I like that other gamers do too. A lot of my friends have a power gamer or tactician streak and making their character mechanically is one of the most exciting parts of the game (which for me, is boring).

And as you can already tell, I want my friends to be happy too. A referee who’s players aren’t happy soon finds themself without players, as the age-old adage goes. But you can’t please everyone, and if I tried to make all my players happy, none of them would be. Even I have my limits, and I think that establishing firm boundaries within your homebrew world is a smart plan. Not that I’m not open to having my players influence my world. If a player comes to me with, say a homebrewed class or something they think would fit, or they just really really really really want to play an Elf, I’m always more inclined to say “yes, but” rather than “No.” 

This all hits home doubly hard when expectations comes into play. If I say I’m running a game of Shadowrun, you expect troll samurai and hacker wizards. If I say I’m running a game of World of Darkness you expect vampires and werewolves and dark alleys and horror. If I say I want to run a game of D&D... well, what most players expect likely isn’t  Fritz Liber meets China Miéville, let alone Darkest Dungeon meets Skyrim with a dose of Heavy Metal Magazine. And that’s just fluff, if you say you’re running 5e... then all kinds of mechanical and crunch expectations come into play. 

Which I suppose brings me to Part Two of this whole Mess:

Part Two: Frankensystem

That’s right, we both knew it was gonna come to this.

If I want my rules to reflect the fluff and vice-versa I’m gonna have to use my brain some, and not just cutting things out of 5e. I’m gonna have to start from the ground up and put together a Frankensystem. I’m 100% cool with stealing liberally from the various incarnations of D&D throughout the years, and likely most comfortable with AD&D elements, but maybe also some B/X and BECMI, mostly Holmesian stuff. Honestly, I’m stone cold stealing from other games’ systems or just making up rules, as I’ve done in the past. I’m heavily inclined to “Rulings, Not Rules” and most of my friend circle is fine with “Weird Hipster D&D” as they’ve called it, or at least they know I’m doing this.

Now why? Why this much work? Because I’m unhappy with RaW. Because I don’t want to tell a story about Tolkienic Marvel’s Avengers. Because the math is just terribly huge for my itty-bitty old-man brain. Because combat isn’t fast and I’m not scared no matter which side of the screen I’m on. Because the math is faster and easier when played on a computer instead of with friends. Because nobody does anything besides hit with weapons or cast their spells or sneak attack in combat encounters. Because the mechanics reward this. Because I go shopping for magic items instead of plumbing the depths of some crumbling ruin or an archaic deathtrap for them. Because I want my players to feel a sense of wonder and exploration. Because I want them to have a sense of genuine discovery. Because I want magic to feel magical again. Because I want to be 11 year old me sitting down in my friend’s house during a thunderstorm to play for the first time in every game. Because I want 11 year old me to be able to play the game, and love the world that’s built for it. Because I want it better than the games I was actually playing and running at that age. And because, in my experience, I tend to always run the games I wish I could play, and that seems to make my friends the happiest.

Now, Frankensystems can be pretty terribad and clunky, but I’m gonna try to minimize that. The simpler the rule, the easier it is to learn. May not be the better for X purpose, but that’s ok. Generally, simpler is better for me, as an adult. So I’m gonna try to focus on Ease Of Use without sacrificing too much depth. Personally I find Frankensystems (or regular systems) get weird and awkward and awful when they try to do too much, too fast; or when they focus on balance first instead of fun. “Balance” in a game can go out the window unless something is magnificently broken at face value. If the janky game-break requires your character to purchase a thousand shields kept in a bag of holding, the rule isn’t broken, your GM is too lax on the magical and mundane items they’re handing out, and your adventurer should be out adventuring instead of living in a tavern and waiting on their private smith to deliver their weekly dose of shields. Openly broken isn’t the same as stacking synergies either, and power gamers and munchkins are gonna find loopholes and gaps no matter what. I, personally, am grateful for their assistance in patching the bugs in the system.

A big advantage is that Frankensystems are extremely flexible, gloriously so. Especially if they’re just bolted together from other systems, blogs, rulings, and home brews out there. Dislike the skill system? Yeet it and pick another from a different game. Want to play a classless system? Let’s players choose either any “class” ability for that level or a feat every time. That doesn’t work? Try something else. If anything trying to make a Frankensystem will get you experimenting and home brewing on your own. I’d say be cognizant though that what works for one group may not work for all. So be open, be responsive, and be flexible.

I don’t know when I’m gonna be done with this, or if I ever will be, but I do know that as I progress, I’ll try to put a google doc up of all my homebrew rules for all of you all to steal and experiment on to your heart’s content. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

A Fistful of Woodland Hex Happenings

For those who don’t know my personal life, I have a younger sibling who’s going to be introducing their significant other to D&D soon. They’ve asked to play a game where they’re a woodland ranger type, and a gnome. My younger sibling asked me to help them craft a small hex crawl for their paramour, and knowing them I thought it best that it be kind of... fairy-tale-esque. While I do specialize in folklore type worlds, I imagine they are looking for something a little more idyllic than my usual fare. My worlds are a little less like Disney and a little more like The Brothers Grimm. I also know my sibling plays a bit more on the mainstream side, and is only really just now dipping their toes into the OSR. 

So this is largely taken from myself spitballing ideas, and once I hit a roll I asked my sibling’s permission to turn it into a really raw blog post. I can’t even figure out how to get my fonts the same size today.

Anyways, here is a hunch of hexes or points or squares and some content for a hex crawl for a gnome ranger in a more standard game. You could easily port any of this into your own world, especially if you were looking to do something a little less Elmore and a little more Froud.

So when doing hex crawls, I lay out my terrain with an event or two happening in the hex. Typically I list what players can see, hear, or otherwise notice (smell, magic, etc) from the hexes around them. This means they’ll go in one of those six directions.

I should also specify I tried to throw some hooks in here to more typical D&D fare, including a likely dungeon and some larger and nastier baddies where combat will likely be unavoidable, as well as a few gribblies. 

So I would start with the character’s home hex. Like, a hollowed our tree. Likely under the tree/stump is a home, similar to Gummy Bears/Hobbit homes

I would also describe the trees as huge. Redwoods. These are Primordial woodlands. Bumblewort lives under a stump with his family. He is a Knight Errant of Badgers. His father, King Brindlewood, and his mother, Queen Bramblewyrd, rule gently and strongly. They have an excellent pact with the local druids.

Bumblewort, Prince of All Badgers is a L/G Celestial Dire Badger who Rages 1/Day (Totem Warrior Bear Powers) and Smites 1/Day (2d8) his HD (d12) are double the PCs. At 4HD his powers increase to 2/day, 6 HD 3/day (max). STR 18 Dex 10 Con 20 Int 8 Wis 12 Cha 14. Proficient In Survival, Diolomacy, and Nature. AC 16

I’m thinking that the Badger family is a lot like the gods of Princess Mononoke. Something more than just physically large beasts, something Spirit-worldly as well.

The Druid Circle’s hex contains their Nemeton, centered with a menhir and a sacred Oak, and all their tree-house homes. One Druid should live outside the hex, and your character is on good terms with him. 

There should be a hex that’s a gnome village with like, civilization in stuff, but rural and pastoral.

You can use any of these NPCs for rescue ops, fetch quest contacts, or just flavor.

Two to three hexes should have a river passing through them. One should have a mill, whether for grist or for lumber is up to you. 

One should be home to a family of giant otters because those are adorable: Misses Fishes

One hex should be a Bog, and in it is a Hag’s Hut. The Hag doesn’t cause trouble for the forest, cause there’s humans with a farm closer to her. She IS causing trouble for them. But the humans just moved in, and haven’t invoked the protection of the druids. They likely don’t even know. It would be the character’s job as ranger to inform them. Magatha has been trouble from the start.

There should be a hex with a cave. That’s where the Nailbiter Goblin Clan lives. They recently had to boot out a bunch of their clan due to 1) Not enough food and 2) they caught ten of them or so cutting deals with Magatha for magic sticks.

Clan Chief Pewpsiedaisy Nailbiter the Second explicitly says only Refluxicus Farts the Shaman can have a magic stick. It isn’t fair otherwise. 

Refluxicus has lost his magic stick, as it was stolen by Giant Crows and put into their nest. Weird things might happen if it’s left there. Bad weird things. Or he could get a better magic stick from the the newly formed Handbiter clan.

There may also be a hex with a lake. This is pertinent because Athalariel the Water Nymph lives here. She desperately wants to fall in love, but insists she fall in love with a Knight. The only Knight available is technically Sir Scabzalot, a goblin paladin of (deity of love and poetry)... but he’s a goblin, he doesn’t count. That farm boy might make a handsome knight... 

She’ll likely drown him though unless someone can fix that. Maybe a Druid?

The farm has a pickle. And by a pickle I mean a lot of pickles. They win the blue ribbon at the county fair every year. They have enough to feed a small army, or maybe some hungry goblins. Especially if you swapped the cucumbers for fish heads.

The gnome village also competes in the county fair every year. And Ingleglitz Edgecutter is tired of losing to the humans. He’s willing to pay for “an accident” to happen to the pickles.

Fritz Glittergleam is a heartbroken gnome who just sighs and shirks work all day. He was in love but rejected. Maybe a date might help him back on his feet.

At the edge of the forest, where it meets the mountains, Garaz Skulltaker, orc Hunt-Master, has had several of his finest hunters go missing from their latest boar hunt. He fears they may have met a terrible fate seeking a glory hunt of the local Owlbear, Night-Scar, rather than Wild Boar. 

Far to the East and north of the farm, Captain Brighthelm of the Kingdom’s Leonine Guard has captured several armed Orcs he believes are raiders. He is mistaken. He has four armed watchmen with him, and three captured orcs. The orcs are no raiders, they can’t even hunt. They got caught inside of one of their own traps.

In the mountains to the north, just above the forest overlooking the near-frozen stream where most people fish for salmon and trout, lies the cave Night-Scar the owlbear calls her home. Inside is a clutch of three eggs. She must find a way to feed her young when they hatch, and boar carcasses are hard to find due to increased hunting by the Skulltaker orcs. 

Further north in the mountains, lies the sealed entrance to Doomsayer Crypt. 

At the bottom of the mountain, opposite the side of the Skulltaker Settlement, lies the secret entrance, now opened by a poor Dwarven spelunker, to Doomsayer Crypt. 

Once Men Dug the Earth for gleaming gold here, and a king arose among them. Through sorcery he took his throne, asking dark gods for power and sight beyond that of his mortal men. He was granted such, but only to see Ill-Fates, and began to prophesies the down-fall of the peoples who lived here. Not content to be a pawn of fate, he began to act as its instrument, commanding his warrior cult and spectral minions to bring ruin to the land. But among the folk that lived here noble gnomes, fierce orcs, and wise druids, and cunning elves banded together and brought forth their champions to defeat him. The last black fate the sorcerer-king was allowed to see was his own. But using evil magic, he swore to return a thousand years after his demise. This was why he was interred so deep in the mountains, and why his remaining lackeys carved the secret entrance themselves. 

Far to the south, in his tree-home of sculpted pale banshee-wood, rests and meditates the elven hero Keltois Lillarien, the same elven archer who’s ghost-touch arrows pinned the sorcerer king to his throne a thousand years ago. He is old, but vigilant. 

Three-hairs Twice-twined is a member of the Druid circle. He’s had a bout of insomnia and has heard that Rhess the Half-Elven has a mushroom poultice that will bring restful sleep. He can’t pay gold, but will happily trade herbs and offer what teaching he can in bird calls for a decent night’s rest.

In a hex to the northwest is an idyllic log cabin, the woods around it felled and filled with carvings, laquered and stained against rain. A woodcutter lives here, brawny and with a hefty axe. He was a warrior once, and now just wants to raise his family. His wife keeps calling for their daughter. It’s not like her to be late.

Frozenfang is a Winter Warg who has taken over the Western Brambles Pack. She longs for revenge against the woodcutter who slew her mate.

Rolled randomly in an adjacent hex is Annadell, a girl of seven who went flower picking alone, away from her father, the woodcutter. She is very lost and tired and hungry. She will be food for wolves if not found. 

There is a hex with a waterfall somewhere. Behind the waterfall is a cave, and inside of it is Rumbletrunks, a troll. He’s been asleep for a long, long time, and wishes to stay that way. If awoken rudely, he’ll be cranky. If awoken politely, he’ll be less cranky, but still want a troll-sized breakfast.

Brilly Grumplelumps is a gnome with a treasure map. All she really needs is a good forest guide and maybe some armed muscle to go deep into the mountain’s entrance. There, in the crypt, are the spoils of war and gold and gems from a thousand years before.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A Belated Bloggiversary!

Four days ago marks the one year anniversary of this blog, so, a very happy bloggiversary to me!!!

Obviously this has largely been a semi-private venture, but I intend on sharing this blog in some public places over the coming days, and may even put a short adventure I wrote up in celebration. I hope that, if you’re new and reading this, that my own imagination inspires yours and you hit the keypad or put pen to page or brush to mini or whatever you do that’s creative with newfound vigor. 

I have a lot more world building I’ve done and to do, but mostly it’s taken a back seat to other projects. I’ve been very focused on trying to get a promotion at work, and also handing a lot of IRL life stuff lately. To say the least of the madness I’m sure most of you are catching from social media and the news these days.

I’ve got several projects on my plate, and my local gaming crew (as well as several of my distant crews) are clamoring for games. And frankly I don’t blame them. The worlds our imaginations can conjure are vast and wonderful. My biggest project is a Megadungeon I’m working on. Half in secret, I’ve chatted with a bunch of people on it. I’ve got eight levels, and am shooting for thirty-five rooms a level, but as I map it it may be bigger. I had one level blow up to forty, and another is looking more like sixty-plus. My dilemma is actually mapping these room titles and scenarios I’m planning, and in all honesty I should just hunker down and get off my ass and make a consternated effort to do rather than dream, if that makes sense. 

Beyond that I need to actually read some tutorials as to how to add a blog roll to this blog so you all know who I’m reading.

Thank you for being kind enough to read me, truly I’m humbled. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Arcane Arcades of the Master of Games

Sometimes Dungeons make people sick. Wizards, alas, seem especially susceptible to this. Perhaps it has to do with their connection to magic, all that primordial power and it’s ability to change... 

In any case, there exist within certain places, those driven utterly mad by their esoteric studies and delves into forbidden realms of blood and gold. The question remains if they are human or not. These beings cultivate dungeons, willingly tearing and tugging at reality, chiseling away at the walls and pulling at the threads of reality’s curtains until their cozy little parasite is just the picture perfect home. Or laboratory. Or abattoir. Taste is subjective. 

Who knows how long they’ve existed, or if they ever truly were or are human, but there exists one being in particular who vexes adventurers like no other: Jubilem Vile, The Master of Games.

Devious, cunning, without remorse or pity, something alien and broken in the manners by which he has laid his traps. Games, a thousand thousand games, lethal in nature and horrific in intent. Even the most mundane now feature something gone awry to cause the downfall of adventurers who wander into his demense. Often adventurers have little no no idea they’ve even stumbled into a dungeon, so crafty are his wiles, while other times his worlds become alien renders of children’s playthings.

The worst part is dealing with Jubilem himself during the events. Like a sadist child at play, everything is “fun”, a comedy of violence, a playtime without consequence for his self, but the highest stakes for mortals. One may feel that the only way to win is to not play, and if it were the material realm that would be true, but not here. The game proceeds whether the players wish it too or not, because adventurers are never playing alone: Jubilem always has more than one set of players, some even champions who’ve won more than one game on his behalf, to say the least of all the pieces he controls on the board.

Which game is he playing with you today?

Lethal Chess: It’s a chessboard, where the players are assigned their piece by class (warriors are knights, mages are queens/kings, thieves and scoundrels are rooks, clerics and priests are bishops). The pawns are helpless farmers and peasants, and the enemy pawns slavering monsters, the rival royal pieces fellow adventurers and bigger monsters. One piece taking another initiates combat, but the aggressor always wins initiative.

Penny Pot Poker: Vile himself leads the game, being played with the worst of the worst: faeries, demons, hags, and other extradimensional horrors. The catch, unspoken truth being that every copper is a day of your life, silvers a year, and golds a decade. Whether spent in servitude or in just life-drained is dependent upon who wins the final hand. There’s even a rumor that Death Herself occasionally plays. 

Diabolical Sliding Brick Towers: Moving the small wooden bricks of a little tower and place them atop the stack. With each brick moved, a larger stone tower in an adjacent room moves with them. Double the tower’s height, but don’t knock it down. The rest of the party is in the room with the stone tower, the exit is within reach of the tower doubles in height. Pulling bricks reveals the creatures Jubilem’s hidden in a pocket space behind them.

Hot Frog Run: The exit and safety is just in the other side of the room, but alas, it’s bisected by a series of roads. Gorgons stampede down each lane, huffing and puffing venomous fumes that petrify those who breathe them, only for iron-shod hooves of the next demonic cattle to crush them to rubble. Between these creep spike-shelled tortoises, impossibly large. The gorgons dodge them, juking left or right into another lane at random. 

The Blind Armada: a shimmering curtain of darkness bisects the room. One adventurer watches from the balcony, while their compatriots sit in boats below along a lettered and numbered grid, armed with flaming arrows. Across the room, Vile plays for the enemy, a similar fate for those he’s chosen. Shark fins break the water, a promise of what lies below the waves. The last boat standing is the winner. 

Shoots, Snakes, and Ladders: the room has been designed as a manifold labyrinth of ladders affixed to long, thickly greased slides above a gaping pit of roiling acid, the exit once again a the top. Each slide terminates in a metal serpent’s face, some of which are animated and hungry. The adventurers must exit at the top again, while other players fire arrows set ablaze at them from balconies on each side.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Making Combat Fun


So the other day I had a friend complain that combat was the least interesting part of their D&D game. Admittedly, I’ve felt this way before too depending on how the game has been ran. This post is mostly me stealing from myself from that chat, to try and give you all a better idea of what’s going on in my games and in my head when I invent a combat scenario, and also a bunch of opinions on combat and other stuff.

So, the first question is “which better describes combat in D&D for you: Final Fantasy Turn Based Whack-A-Mole, or brutal Jason Bourne desperate life-struggle, or riveting Musketeer Style Swashbuckling?”

The second and more important question is “What do you want combat to be?”

Personally, I want swashbuckling and brutality in equal measures, but with a focus on swashbuckling. Leiber, Moorcock, and Howard were the heart of D&D’s fictional inspiration, and I want my fights to mimic theirs in speed, tone, and lethality. Or as much as they can, given that this is a game and not fiction. 

To begin, I always try to remember what The Tome of Adventure Design said about combat: that combat encounters are only ever as interesting as they are as a game-board. Meaning that a mob of ten goblins in an empty room is boring. 

A mob of ten goblins riding giant wasps while you climb a latticework of climbing roses, in order to get to their wizard employer’s tower is memorable and fun. 

Granted, not everything has to be in weird and wacky locations. Currently I just finished running the wonderful Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart, and had an absolutely lethal dinosaur fight, which ironically took place in a mostly empty room, but was super memorable due to just how bonkers it was. Still, the fight should be interesting or exciting somehow, and fights should take place in interesting locales. The environment should be a danger, a tool, or both. The minute my Barbarian gets two attacks in 5e, I flip the script on the caster with minions every time, because I now have the ability to grapple (as an attack action, doesn’t end rage) and YEET a minion (advantage on athletics checks from rage, it’s an attack so it doesn’t end) INTO the wizard. Concentrate on THAT.  It’s an example, but like, why couldn’t I do that with food at a banquet hall? Or if I’m in a bridge, just kick them off the edge? Why can’t that be my Attack? Interacting with the environment is an onus that is on the player, but you as the GM Set that up.

The other tip I have is that, for me as a player, I know what I’m doing before my turn. And as a Game Master, I expect my players to tell me what they’re doing when I call their name. Combat for me is RAPID pace. I do group initiative between the party and monsters, and for multiple opponents split them into chunks. Only the party’s initiative matters, the monsters go in whatever order I want on their turn. If a player, especially a caster, doesn’t know what they’re doing, or starts flipping pages in a book to find out what their spell does, I’ve told them ahead of time that their character has done a brain fart and is flipping in their spell book during combat and they get skipped this round. We did two rounds of combat last night. Just like boxing, I feel a fight should be three rounds or less. A real fight is over in less than two minutes; D&D should feel that short and lethal.

I also ask my players to briefly describe their attacks when they hit, or describe their misses when they whiff. If they don’t want to, I’ll fill in that gap with a short sentence. I also have them describe Crits and Death Blows, as every player likes to describe their Mortal Kombat Fatalities.

Badguys and players should also be encouraged to do and be things besides chunks of numbers. Have villains tangle and trip the players. Have them take hostages mid fight, have them retreat when half their numbers are killed. Let them try to disarm them.

Honestly, this works so well for me, and this is why I veer much more into low and mid level games. At high levels, monsters and bosses just becomes BLOBs of HP, and it’s a whittling game that’s boring as fuck. No offense to some people’s GMing style, but some people’s boss fights are awful trudges through simple math. As a player, I once had had an excellent boss encounter where we fought in an antigravity room with mystic shields blocking LoS for casters, making athletics checks to astronaut push our way around the room and stop ourselves before overshooting enemies (that would have given them attacks of opportunity). Especially for 5e, that was a great fight, and it owed a lot to an interesting location/gameboard.

By comparison, many years ago I once had my players fight a dragon in an empty room. It was a snore fest, and an important learning point for me. Despite all the working up of the boss narratively and the dread and themed dungeon dressings, by the end of it my players weren’t hooked, and one was actively looking for something else to interact with in the room.

Since then, the outstanding article “A 16 HP Dragon” over at the La Torra blog has informed a lot of my personal Dragon fights. I don’t keep them as low as sixteen HP, but I keep most of my monsters under 200-300hp for a reason. And I put them in better locations. 

Here’s my other combat-related opinion: getting “cool things” per level, like action surge, second wind, etc, is BAD for the game and players. It teaches them to think in terms of what the GAME says they can do and not what THEY think their characters can do. Especially as it encourages players to crave numerical bonuses instead of weird and whacky shit that drives the fantasy genre. 

This is why my humans get no racial bonuses. Humans get a Special Thing. Each player chooses their special thing they can do (typically starting out as once a game session, or once a dungeon room/scene) and if they can’t think of one then I tell them to take a feat, they can do that once a game session/room instead.

“I can teleport 30ft in any direction once a game.” 

Cool. 

“I can echolocate twenty feet in front of me once a room/scene.”

Cool!

“I can attack with such fury it gives me advantage to hit once a game.”

Cool!

“I am a kleptomaniac and have accidentally stolen just the right non-magical item once a game.”

Perfection. 

“I wear gloves because once a scene I can use psychometry on an item to find it’s history.”

Glorious!

These are all things humans in my world have done.

They aren’t in any books, and are infinitely better than +1 to all ability scores or a feat.

I’m a firm believer that D&D and combat gets creative when players and GMs do.

The other thing to for me is, combat happens when combat is the 1) only choice or 2) the players’ choice.

Meaning that, when the players encounter a Minotaur in The Crawling Gardens, it will attack them back if they choose to attack it. But if they greet that Minotaur with a friendly “Salutations Horned One!” I’m sure the scene will go differently.

And when they encounter cannibal scum cultists of some torture god, they are gonna have to fight no matter what (unless they get cool with some evil shit reeeeal quick).




Saturday, February 1, 2020

Cursed of Circe

The Moon, and thus The Queen of Night has an... unusual influence on some people. The Moon changes. It should come as no surprise then, that the witches, priests, and supplicants of Her darkling faith are both prone to change themselves and also can hold that power over others.

Enter the tale of Wallor Gloll, leader of a modest mercenary group. The stories vary, but Gloll and his crew were not good people, and transgressed a deal with a priestess who gave them food and shelter. In her fury, she cursed them with a change, but not the usual kind that her Queen bestowed: a permanent change, one that they could not shake, and one that grew. Some say it was not the priestess herself who cursed Gloll, but rather The Queen of Night Herself, taking revenge for those who would act with gluttonous greed and callous indifference to Her half-holy servants. 

Wallor and his lot were malformed into half-swine, porcine faces that walked on two digitigrade legs. Nails replaced with hooves for feet on weak ankles, little nailless hands that can’t scratch itches, layers of choking fat between their tissues, sores, boils, and all manner of skin-lesions. And above all, a relentless hunger that could not be filled despite their ability to devour food. Just as Gloll and his crew blasphemed the comfort they were offered, the life of one of The Cursed of Circe is one of constant discomfort.

Since then they have splintered into various tribes and warbands, scattering across the world and seeking work as foot soldiers for anyone wicked enough to hire them, or foolish enough to allow them into their kingdom. For the curse, you see, is transferred to those who share their food and shelter with the revolting Pig-Men, a reminder that this is a divine punishment, and that mortals need not intervene. 

Which war-band has your party encountered?

1) The Lesionnaires: scab and wart crusted warriors in lorica segmenta and horse-hair helmets. Barely regimented mobs covered in pustules. 
2) Refined Swine: Gloating bloated autocrats and politicians covered in the garbage of the elite and hyper-wealthy. Costume jewelry and gold paint, lipstick on ignorant pigs.
3) Slag Hogs: Tusked raiders in heavy, rusting plate. Bursting at the seams of their armor, they screw hot metal into their flesh to brace their joints. Smells of grease and salt.
4) Wild Pigs: Razorback ruffians with sharply crested backhair, they pierce their porcine flesh, tattoo butcher lines. Won’t stop drooling, as dumb as they look. Gluttons for punishment, and anything else. 

What are their horrible desires this time?

1) A feast of flesh! Animal, man, it matters not as long as they can tear sinew from bone and suckle at marrow. 
2) Wealth by the pound! Buckets of gold, glittering gems and baubles galore!
3) Sloth! To sleep, lazing the days away. They refuse to do their work, or anything but lie around farting and telling crass jokes.
4) Drink! Alcohol, drugs, whatever dampens the mind and produces mild euphoria. Great gallons of the stuff, they can never be drunk enough. 
5) Filth! Whether mud or muck, cisterns or emptied chamberpots, they wish to roll about in the mire or man’s making. 
6) Company! Join them, feast with them, tell them a tale and stay a spell. They’re sure you’ll fit right in.