Saturday, October 22, 2016

Monster Manual Cage Fight!

Alex Schroeder has weighed in with his thoughts on what makes a good monster book. I have to admit, there’s a lot there that clicks with me. As much as I love my weird and artsy, Noism’s book-of-pics-with-no-stats doesn’t sound as useful to me as, well, a traditional MM.

This has led to some introspection on which monsters I use. As I mentioned to Alex before, a lot of what makes a monster click with me is awesome art. It was di Terlizzi who really made hobgoblins work for me, both as monsters and as a PC race. Trampier made both the rakshasa and the pseudodragon must-use races for me in the original MM. So I, for one, will never denigrate the importance of good, inspiring illustration to make a monster not just come alive, but sell it to me as a DM.

That said, no stats? Sure, I could come up with the stats myself, but, as Alex points out, that starts to degrade the verisimilitude of the setting. I could also make up what spells do on the spur of the moment, but soon I’m wondering why I bought a game at all. Spending the hours working out the details for that sort of thing and communicating them to my players is part of what I’m paying the publisher for.

Don’t I want my players to be surprised by the monsters? Sometimes, but not most of the time. Most of the time I’m painting in broad strokes across the canvas of my setting when I put monsters down. I want my choice of monsters to communicate things to the players. They should see (or even just hear about) the monsters and be able to think, “Oh, if Brian’s using them, that means…”

And that’s why I tend to use well-known monsters that come with their own implications for the players. Orcs are tribal warriors, vicious but proud and fecund. Hobgoblins are militaristic conquerors. Gnolls are bestial and savage, destroyers and ruiners. Gryphons are proud and majestic predators. Dragons are powerful hoarders who spread fear and devastation far and wide. Sometimes, all I need to say is the monster’s name and players drop all sorts of assumptions down on the table. That’s great! It allows me to create the illusion of depth with minimalist strokes.

So on the one hand, it would seem I would embrace a book like Volo’s Guide to Monsters with open arms. And I would, if I didn’t put my own individual spin on monsters. Orcs are noble savages (with the emphasis on “savage”) from Sir Frazier’s Golden Bough. Hobgoblins are Romans minus the humanity. Gnolls, like hyenas, are matriarchal. It’s gryphons, not griffons, and they are sentient. Dragons are extremely feline in their mannerisms and sadisms. A book like Volo’s Guide to Monsters means instead of adding on to what the players already know about these races, now I have to walk them back from the official line.

It gets even worse with monsters that have a strong presence in mythology. Trolls, for instance, are guardians of places of transition: bridges, mountain passes, magical gates, etc. This fits with how they’re described in mythology. It doesn’t jive at all with what’s in the MMs.

So what do I want from an MM? 2e’s Monstrous Manual came closest to perfection for me: broad strokes with a few telling details to build verisimilitude. Give the players just enough info that they can understand why I’m using the monsters I’m using, but leave me the latitude to make them fit into my setting.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Story Bricks and Volo

This is an intriguing read. I have to admit, I have very mixed feelings about it. For instance, at one point Mearls says:

In the end, it's still a giant book full of monsters. No one would argue with that. But I just think that if that’s all the Monster Manual is, then we're selling ourselves short.
Ok, cool. I can totally groove with that. So long as what you do is better than a giant alphabetical list of monsters. But he follows that up with:
So the idea was, the kind of genesis of it, was that want to do something that's more story oriented.

Now, largely what they appear to be talking about here is the back-and-forth between Volo and Elminster, which looks to be very reminiscent of the comments by hackers and the like in the margins of the old Shadowrun books. Yeah, I suppose that might make it more fun to read, but does it make it useful at the table? Or am I going to be flipping through the book, scanning the text and trying to find where this or that snippet of info I want is hiding in giant blocks of dialogue?

Mearls bit about living in a “post Game of Thrones” world is interesting. I see where he’s coming from, but I think he’s oversimplified the timeline. I mean seriously, has he never heard of Michael Moorcock, Martha Wells, Steven Brust, Katherine Kurtz, or Ursula K. Le Guin? All of those folks were writing amazing fantasy, far from what we’d consider the standard fare, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Back then, everyone talked about how fantasy as a genre needed to escape the shadow of Tolkien, and they did it. Now you hear a lot about how far we’ve come, and how we need to rediscover our roots in Tolkien, Dunsany, and Howard.

But I can totally see where Mearls is coming from. D&D grew out of a mishmash of pulp and Tolkien and spawned its own thing which has become, in a way, self-referential and self-reinforcing. I’ve heard of this referred to as “gaming fantasy” and when people talk about “generic fantasy” that’s totally what they’re talking about. It’s the fantasy of EverQuest and WoW and, yes, default D&D now.

But the last time D&D attempted to interject more “story” into the game (and, amusingly enough, spawned all those Volo’s Guide books) was the ‘90s. And you’ll have to cast about far and wide for someone who says that was a heyday for the game.

Here’s the thing: if you want story spoon-fed to you, you’re totally set with Paizo’s excellent adventure paths. Even if you’d rather do them as 5e, they’re not too terribly difficult to translate.

I don’t think that’s what Mearls has in mind. He’s more about supplying us with story-bricks we can use to build stories. Which is cool, if the bricks are cool. Here’s what Mearls has to say about mind flayers:

What's the biology of the mind flayer? But no one asked about its feelings. But when you think about, it the game tells me that mind flayer has an 18 intelligence. The highest intelligence a human can achieve, that's their average. Literally, they walk in the room and they are the smartest being there. They are smarter than every human they've ever ate. So talking to us is like meeting dogs, for them. What’s that got to be like?

And here’s where the problems start. Because, as cool as this is, Zak did it better. The web is full of really good stuff, and if you’re not producing stuff that’s better than that, are you doing anyone any favors?

But for a guy like me, it gets worse. Because I’ve been thinking about how mind flayers work for over 30 years. I know how their reproductive cycle works, and while the tadpoles and the elder brain are neat, I’ve got adventures, settings, and themes spanning multiple campaigns about how that works (without any elder brains) and what the relationship is between the mind flayers and the aboleth and the beholders. I can tell you exactly what it means to be a member of a centaur herd, the different sorts of relationships elves form, what makes Abyssal different from Infernal and Common, and literally hundreds of other tiny details that I don’t have to stop and think about because I’ve already internalized them. When I need those details, they’re right there.

Which means anything in a new book must be extremely awesome to get me to do the work of replacing my head-canon. That’s setting the bar really high.

Which isn’t to say it’s impossible to clear; Zak’s thoughts on mind flayers certainly did so. But, again, you need something exceptional to make me interested, and I haven’t seen that yet in this book.

But I’m still going to buy it. Why? Because at least a third of it is an alphabetical list of monsters that I can use in pretty much any campaign I run.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Money, Money, Money!

So, your PCs are at mid-level, they’ve each got a piles of gold large enough to swim through like Scrooge McDuck, and nothing to spend it on. Why bother keeping track of treasure if there’s nothing to do with it? Here’s how I’ve answered that question:

Something Cool
Give the PCs something neat and fun and useful to buy with their money: flying mounts, a cool house, a ship, whatever. Just make sure it’s something that’s actually useful for them. Their house should give them a bit more status in the community, and the human guards and pet basilisk mean the treasure they store there is safe. Never punish them for having spent this money. But do make sure whatever it is requires upkeep. Sailors and guards and servants need to be paid, pet gryphons and basilisks need to be fed, etc. So long as the players feel their getting value from this sort of thing, they’ll be eager to spend the coin.

Let Them Throw Gold at Problems

Let them bribe guards and buy off politicians. Let them hire someone to take care of an annoying side-issue, especially when it is an annoying side-issue that will take up time better spent on something fun. Let them dump a giant pile of coins in the demon-sage’s lap and learn where the secret enemy base is, or the Arch-duke’s hidden weakness. If it moves things along and greases the way to the fun parts, absolutely let them do it. Make it expensive, sure, but not so expensive they decide they’d rather do it themselves.

Bringing Home the Bacon
Page 157 of the PHB lists daily living expenses. As Gygax himself said:
Seriously, this is a good way to keep a low-magic campaign tense. You gotta eat, so you gotta adventure or rob or something.

It also allows the players to say something about their PCs. Are they frugal to a fault? Do they enjoy living it up? When they crash the Duchess’ tea party, are they dressed like they belong or do they look like something even the cat turns its nose up at? In the Real World ™ we spend not insignificant amounts of money to signal our relative social status. There’s no need to go into exactly what colors are in this season; if your PC is spending enough to afford a high-status lifestyle, they (or their tailor) has that all figured out already.

And the PC might not be alone. Characters could have apprentices, dependents, or family. These should be people the PCs can rely on to get the small, annoying tasks done, letting them concentrate on the fun, heroic stuff. Like servants above, the PCs should get value for the money they spend on family and household, through material support, gossip, familial connections, and social status. Avoid the temptation to punish a character for having family; we’re trying to encourage them to spend money, not punish them for having it. Having money (and a house and family and social influence) should all be fun!

Winning Friends and Influencing People
This is kinda similar to throwing money at problems above, except it’s a pre-emptive drip of expense. I’m talking about the sorts of things you do to cement your place in the social hierarchy and secure professional resources. Things like join a guild, attend religious services, take part in political events, donate to charity, throw parties, and all that sort of thing.

Again, make it fun and useful. Let them get access to special tools and knowledge through their guild, allow them to rub elbows with the high and mighty at the temple or get a discount on spells due to their regular tithes and offerings to the gods, have the Duchess show up at their party even though inviting her was more an act of politeness than an expectation she’d attend. And while she’s there, she could let drop a bit of juicy gossip that could lead the PCs to their next quest.

Gold for Experience
This is my personal favorite: PCs get 1 EXP for each gold piece they “spend.” And I use the term “spend” loosely; they could buy something useful, donate it all to charity, or fritter it away on whores and ale.

I love this because it puts the problem of too much money in the players’ laps. They have to decide how they’re going to spend it all. It keeps them relatively poor and hungry, because they need escalating amounts of cash to “buy” their next level. They’re motivated to actively seek wealth-creating opportunities, which gives the campaign a much more Sword & Sorcery vibe (as opposed to KILL ALL TEH THINGS homicidal computer-gaming that EXP for kills creates).

A variation on this theme is EXP via carousing. Building your own personal carousing tables for your setting (or even individually for each player) is fun, and lots of people enjoy the vicarious gambling that goes with rolling on a crazy table with a wide range of outcomes.

In any case, if you go this route, keep a weather eye on how much wealth you’re putting in dungeons. While this might discourage PCs from killing everything that moves, it will encourage them to cart off everything that’s not nailed down: carpets, tapestries, thrones, silverware, it’s all potential wealth (and a new level) for the PCs.

Ale & Whores by Scott Kurtz.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Gleaming Hoards and What They Can Do For You!

Adam Minnie over on G+ asks:

As a 5e GM, I find myself continually under-rewarding my players, with physical treasure that is. I can't seem to find ways to lay on more loot. If it's my GMing style, it's wholly unintentional. At the same time, I'm not sure my players want to keep accounts of coinage. Anybody care to share tips for simply and easily remembering to give out meaningful physical rewards without having enemies explode into coins like in Scott Pilgrim, or unrealistically dropping just the right style of item for the party's particular set of builds?

Here are some ideas that have worked for me:

Monsters Have Homes
These things live some where. They have stuff stored there. For a big thing like a cyclops, it may be some sheep, some barrels of wine, and a few pretty bits of oversized jewelry. For a band of orcs, the chief is going to have a hoard stashed somewhere "safe" that he can use to reward his warriors and bribe his neighbors. A gelatinous cube will have non-digested bits floating around inside it (and other critters might also have undigested bits lodged in their bellies, though if you do this today, you might have to hint to the possibility to the players or they will likely miss it.) What sorts of things do the monsters collect, either purposefully or accidentally? What sort of things are needed around the home that would be decorated or made from precious metals (like all those cauldrons and tripods everyone is gifting around in The Odyssey? That's your treasure.

So that answers the "why" and the "how" of treasure, now we'll look at the "what."

Treasure as Plot
I can't remember which blogger said that the sole time you have the full attention of everyone at the table is when you're describing the loot. Take advantage of this to deliver important exposition. It's never a longsword +1, but a sword of Vekna's crack siege corps the Flaming Gauntlet, or a bride gift between the elven Princess of Andiel and the human Sultan of Kyma, or the work of the famed dwarven smith Oran, son of Abon (and that means, assuming it's not a forgery, that there should be a key hidden inside it somewhere).

This sort of thing is even easier to do with jewelry, books (remember, a blank book is worth 25 gp, more than a longsword), scientific equipment (a spyglass is worth 1,000 gp), clothing, etc. And don't overlook the possibility in simple coinage. That the assassins recently took a huge payday in Aqualonian florins could be a clue you want your players to pick up on. If you make a big deal pointing it out, they'll almost certainly get the hint.

In short, if you've got some ideas about what's next, point the PCs to it with the treasure. If there's something you want them to know, tell it through treasure.

Worth More than its Weight in Gold
Take a page from the computer adventure games of old, and include treasures that, sure, have a monetary worth in the general market, but are worth a lot more to particular groups or individuals. Honey-cakes can get you past Cerberus, the western barbarians highly value dyes, the pantherfolk of the Northern Forest have a sweet-tooth, those ancient coins are worth ten times their face value to a collector, your favorite sage has a weakness of elven love poetry and might give you a discount on his services if you present a scroll or two as a gift.

This is a strong tool to tie your players to the setting. Once they recognize this relationship, they'll look to exploit it (let them) and seek other opportunities to do so (encourage them). Now they'll be asking you for exposition instead of glazing over while you dump it on the table.

You can use this sort of thing to help the PCs get the magic goodies they desire without it just happening to be in the first hoard they loot. Let them find out that the thing they want is owned/manufactured/guarded by such-and-such a person. This could be a sage with a large collection of artifacts, or a wizard of terrible power and poor people skills, or a naga under a sacred duty. Then make it clear to the players that they won't be able to buy the item with simple coinage. They must find something in exchange of equal or greater value to the being that owns the desired magic item. Thus, the sage might trade it if you can add to his collection of complete dwarven chess-sets dated to the Interregnum; the wizard desires the materials needed to complete the enchantment on his Staff of the Magi; the naga will exchange the magical item for an item of evil power that needs to be hidden from the world and kept safe. This feels far more organic than the item just happening to show up in a hoard and can also be used to create quests the players are eager to pursue.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pick a Card, Any Card

Few RPGs use cards. Of those commonly seen today, the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Savage Worlds, which uses cards to adjudicate initiative. This is an excellent use and takes good advantage of the strengths of cards.

What are those strengths? First, they’re easy to use: flip a card and you’re done. No fumbling around with a pile of dice, worrying about them rolling off the table, and leaning in close to read it. Your normal playing card is designed to be easily read from across the table (the job made easier since it only needs to convey two pieces of information: suit and value), which means you can flip your card and everyone can see when your turn comes up.

Unfortunately, using a stat modifier on the card ruins things a bit; you no longer use the value shown, but now have to figure out what an adjusted value is. So you want to use the raw card as much as possible (for instance, using multiple draws for characters with a high stat, allowing the player to pick which of the cards they’ll use).

But if you’re just using the raw data on the card, it’s great for random effects that linger. The card can sit there through a turn, a full combat, or an entire session, reminding everyone of its effect on the game. (This is one of the promising things from Invisible Sun; as silly as the weird hand statue is, the idea of having a card in a place of prominence easily seen by everyone at the table means the design is taking maximum utility from its cards.) This makes cards perfect for ongoing status effects, overarching modifiers (“Light magic is half as effective during the month of Capricorn.”), and play states, especially if these are randomly generated and the players can somehow force a new card to be drawn.

Cards work best, as I’ve already said, when they convey very small amounts of information easily gleaned from across the table. However, you’ll also want all the necessary rule info on the card as well, and those two optimizations can be mutually exclusive. It’s best to keep the effects of cards as broad and simple as possible, or as obvious as possible (such as cards describing the day’s weather, for instance).

You can create some interesting mechanics by allowing the players to hold cards in a hand and play them in mechanically interesting ways. I’m not a big fan of that sort of thing, however; it’s deeply dissociative unless the characters themselves have the things the cards represent and use them just as the players are using the cards. The more overlap between the conversations of the players and their characters, the better in my book. Your own mileage may vary.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What are the Implications of the Lovecraft Universe?

I’m assuming you’re familiar with the basics:

  1. The universe is very NOT human-centric. Not only are we not at the center of things, the vast majority of everything not of Earth is so alien that just looking at it will screw with your mind.
  2. Not only is everything else alien, it’s so inimical to earthly life that just hanging around it affects you in different negative ways, from madness to cellular degeneration.
  3. That all said, there is a sort of universal plasticity to all things, including people. What this means is that while hanging around an alien presence is warping your view of reality and making all your hair fall out, the alien could also actively rewrite your DNA so you sweat the alien’s version of a fine Chianti.

In short, not only is the alien horrific but its effects on you invoke all manner of body horror; the human body is the most alien and horrible thing of all that a human being must endure.

That’s the view from the mountaintops. As you dig into things, certain details have very interesting implications. For instance, Yog-Sothoth is described as “a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness,” which is a wonderful way to describe a being of four (or more) physical dimensions interacting with your three-dimensional universe. It’s also somehow simultaneously outside our universe and yet coterminous with all of space and time. That means that if you could somehow communicate with/tap into Yog-Sothoth, you could know anything that’s ever happened or ever will happen. Likewise, you could travel to anywhere or anywhen. Imagine that as a method for FTL travel. You can get to Alpha Centari in mere minutes, but you have to travel through Yog-Sothoth to do it. Makes 40k’s Immaterium look like River City, Iowa.

Azathoth “blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity” and “gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.” Witches pledge themselves to it for their strange powers. Nyarlathotep is a go-between for humans and Azathoth, and can somehow bridge the divide between the human and the alien.

The Earth is infested with ancient alien beings like Cthulhu, trapped in a death-like sleep until “the stars are right.” It influences the dreams of humanity, inspiring worshipful cults, though just what the cults or Cthulhu get out of it, if anything, is never explained. By comparison, Dagon is much more straight-forward, trading rich fishing and bizarre gold jewelry for breeding-rights.

Luckily, you can escape all this body-horror and whatnot by transporting your consciousness to another body. Unfortunately, that body is likely to be even more utterly alien, like the Great Race of Yith that enjoys swapping consciousness with modern humans and going joy-riding in their bodies. These things clearly are on good terms with Yog-Sothoth since distances of time and space don’t deter their non-consensual consciousness-swapping ways.

And if swapping bodies isn’t your thing, you can always send your consciousness into the Dreamlands, a realm where powerful beings live double existences, where the “gods of earth” might dwell (when they’re not slumming it in Boston) and where the ghouls apparently go when they’re not eating people in the sewers.

And that might explain how you can hop into another body, with its own individual brain and chemistry, and yet retain your memories and personality; your “true mind” (or, at least, a reasonable facsimile thereof) exists in the Dreamlands and not in the flesh and chemicals of the brain and the limbic system. Those are just interface tools.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Romantic Fantasy and the Heroine's Journey

Over on G+, Kiel asks:

So I'm asking anyone who knows more than me:
Does the above paragraph line up with what Blue Rose was/is/is supposed to be? Does it line up with what romantic fantasy is about?

Blue Rose: no, not really. The original, at least, was basically a very nicely streamlined version of 3.5 D&D (that later became True20) with the trappings of romantic fantasy, but lacking much of the substance. For instance, Blue Rose allowed you to play an intelligent, psychic animal without really understanding the role of such animals in the fiction.

Romantic Fantasy follows a particular sort of “heroine’s journey” that’s similar to, but distinctly different, from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” The big difference, if you want the tl;dr version, is, where Joe’s hero meets people, the heroine of romantic fantasy collects people.

Typically, the heroine (though occasionally it’s a hero) starts off in a bad family situation. She’s unappreciated, perhaps even hated, by what should be her family. Perhaps she’s even in danger. Some instigating event causes her to leave home. She may have a destination in mind or just be wandering aimlessly.

Early on her journey, she’ll encounter a being in trouble. She’ll rescue this being and earn its loyalty by embracing her principle virtue. This being is often a psychic animal, but could also be a gay male imbued with mystery and often Bishōnen characteristics. What’s important is that the heroine can absolutely trust this being because they are both not acceptable as a romantic interest, nor are they potential competition for the eventual romantic interest.

This typically begins the second act (assuming a traditional three-act structure) dominated by the heroine collecting strays of various sorts (usually among the marginalized, mistrusted, or scary) and building a new family for herself. By the end of the second act, this family will be a firm source of strength for our heroine, and the third act is heralded by the family being either temporarily shattered or the heroine leaving that family and putting herself in great risk to save the world/kingdom/whatever. Of course, the family rejoins to support her at a crucial moment.

There are many, many novels that follow this pattern, and the ‘80s was a heyday for female authors of what we now call romantic fantasy. Chief among them was Anne McCaffery. Dragonflight was the book that started the Pern series that eventually got her a castle in Ireland, and it’s a great book, but if you want something a bit more condensed, try Dragonsong. It’s the first of a trilogy because it was published in the ‘80s, when everything in sci-fi/fantasy came in trilogies.

The other big name from that time was Mercedes Lackey, and she probably had the greatest influence on Blue Rose, especially its setting. I’d suggest Arrows of the Queen, but I’ll admit I’ve barely scratched the surface of this prolific author’s work, so others might have better suggestions.

If you want something more military, try Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. This is classic ‘80s fantasy; bits of it read very much like a D&D session from the time. Moon was probably also the most successful in moving the formula into space.

For something a bit more risqué and modern, look to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. This one messes with the formula most of all by pushing the full arc out into the trilogy and then mucking about with the order things normally happen in.

Outside novels, there’s lots of anime that fits as well. From Miyazaki, there’s both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Vision of Escaflowne banks heavily on you being familiar with the formula so it can subvert it from start to finish. The most true to the genre, however, is probably Fushigi Yuugi.

So yeah, long story short, SW, SM looks to be closer to the genre than Blue Rose 1e was. You could certainly play a romantic fantasy story with BR, and it was closer to the genre than D&D, but it was just as easy to play it as D&D with talking animals.

The big challenge to my eyes is that romantic fantasy is very focused on its heroines the same way Dr. Who is focused on the Doctor. How do you keep that same sort of personal discovery and coming-of-age elements without making some characters feel like bit parts? Can you have multiple families being built simultaneously (and possibly even overlapping)?

Definitely study the genre, but don’t let yourself get trapped by it. There’s some great stuff there, but there’s also some cruft that doesn’t belong in anything but possibly solo PC campaigns.

(Oh, and here’s an interesting exercise left to the reader: is Dune romantic fantasy in space?)