Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Character Concept and Development

When I started playing Bart, I had little more than the concept of "Dwarven Gourmand/Chef" to go on. I expected his primary motivation for adventuring to be to seek out new creatures and eat them (and, you know, to find new cultures and sample their cuisines and such). Some of this has definitely come to pass. The game I am playing him in definitely has culinary overtones, primarily due to Bart's interest in such things.

As his career as an adventurer has progressed, however, Bart has acquired other reasons for adventuring and has assumed a leadership role in the group. He's not just a chef, anymore. Even if he is becoming a better chef in some ways (through learning about the dishes of other cultures and such), he is becoming less of a chef in the sense that it is becoming less central to his identity. He's growing away from his initial concept. This is a phenomenon that I've experienced before.

This weekend, I wrote up a chef-based prestige class. Initially, the thought was that this would be for Bart, but now I don't know. I feel like if his chef-ness is less central to him, that it would be weird to take a prestige class focused upon that. He's become the group's de facto leader... and one of its front line fighters. As a Ranger/Rogue he can dish out a bit of damage with two weapons and sneak attacks, but he's not really set up to stand on the front line. Maybe if I took some levels in Warblade (reinterpreting maneuvers with a cookery/knifework theme?) or Swashbuckler.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Iron Chef, v 0.1a

So, in Angela's D&D game, I play a dwarven chef. For some time, I'd joked about him being an iron chef... and making up a prestige class for him around those themes. Yesterday, I was seriously in need of some procrastinating, so I wrote up a draft. I haven't given too much thought to how balanced this is yet. I pretty much just sat down and jotted down a bunch of themed abilities. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Iron Chef

Entry Requirements
Skills: Appraise 5 ranks, Craft (Cooking) 8 ranks, Craft (Brewing) 5 ranks, Profession (Chef): 8 ranks
Feats: Skill focus: Craft Cooking

Hit Die

Class Skills (6+Int modifier each level):
Appraise (Int), Craft (Int), Diplomacy (Cha), Heal (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Knowledge (all skills, taken individually), Perform, Profession, Search (Int), Sense Motive (Wis), Sleight of Hand (Dex), Survival (Wis), and Use Rope (Dex).

BAB: Medium.

Good Fortitude. Poor Reflex and Will.

Class Features
The following are class features of the Iron Chef.

1 Identify Food and Drink, Iron Stomach, Magic Meal
2 Endure Heat, Prepare Feast, Preservation
3 Duplicate Potion, Kitchen Showman
4 Improvise Ingredients, Sharp Knives
5 Quick Repast, Resistance to Fire 5

Identify Food and Drink (Ex): At first level, an Iron Chef gains the ability to identify the properties of any food or drink. When appraising the quality of food or drink you may add your class level to your appraise check and may take 10, even if under stress. In addition, a Iron Chef can always identify when foodstuff possesses some unusual property. With an appraise check, that property can be identified:
presence of poison or alchemical effect: DC 15
type and properties of poison or alchemical effect: DC 20
presence of magic: DC 20
magical properties of food/drink (including potions): DC 25

Iron Stomach (Ex): An Iron Chef adds his class level to any Fortitude saves that rely upon ingested substances. In addition, Iron Chefs are less susceptible to nausea than most. Any effect that would nauseate a Iron Chef, sickens him instead.

Magic Meal (Sp): A Once per day per class level, a Iron Chef may make a Craft (Cooking) check to use this ability. The DC of the check determines how quickly the meal can be prepared: DC 15: 30 minutes, DC 20: 15 minutes, DC 25: 5 minutes. Each use of this ability provides a nourishing meal for one that duplicates one of the following effects of the chef's choice (caster level equals class level where applicable):
  • Cure Moderate Wounds
  • Delay Poison
  • Lesser Restoration
  • Sleep Poison (Initial damage=1d4 Wis, secondary damage = unconsciousness, DC=total modifiers on a Craft (Cooking) check)
  • Enchanting Meal (As the Calm Emotions spell, DC=total modifiers on a Craft (Cooking) check)

Endure Heat (Ex): An Iron Chef becomes inured to the heat of the oven and does not suffer from the effects of a hot environment, as if under the effects of an Endure Elements spell.

Prepare Feast (Sp): An Iron Chef gains the ability to prepare a feast once per day that is charged with supernatural energy and is similar to the spell Heroes Feast in many ways. The feast requires 10 gp worth of raw ingredients per person to be fed (up to a maximum of 2 people/class level) and at least four hours preparation. The feast takes 1 hour to consume, and the beneficial effects do not set in until this hour is over. A feast always removes the fatigued and exhausted conditions from those who consume it. In addition, the Iron Chef may choose a number of benefits equal to his class level from the list below:
  • Temporary hit points equal to 2 x the class level of the Iron Chef
  • Immunity to poison for 12 hours
  • Cure all diseases, sickness, and nausea
  • Removes all curses on a person (as Remove Curse, caster level = class level)
  • +2 morale bonus to Fortitude saves for 12 hours
  • +2 morale bonus to Will saves for 12 hours
  • +1 morale bonus to attack rolls for 12 hours
  • Provide the effects of the Endurance feat for 24 hours
  • Provide sustenance for the next week

Preservation (Su): An Iron Chef learns arcane secrets of preservation, allowing him to preserve nonliving, organic material so that it does not spoil or decay. This ability allows an Iron Chef to preserve up to 1 lb./level of nonliving, organic material indefinitely. It may also be used to duplicate the function of the gentle repose spell within its weight limits.

Duplicate Potion (Ex):
At third level, an Iron Chef gains the ability to sample a potion and duplicate it. This ability functions identically to the Brew Potion feat, except that you must have a sample of the potion which you wish to create and you may only duplicate that potion exactly. You do not need to be able to cast any spells in order to use this ability.

Kitchen Showman (Ex): An Iron Chef adds his class level to all Perform and Sleight of Hand checks while cooking. He may use the Pyrotechnics spell at will as an extraordinary ability, using common kitchen liquids and powders.

Improvise Ingredients (Ex): A Iron Chef prefers to use the finest ingredients possible. There are times, however, when corners must be cut. Once per day, the Iron Chef may make a Profession (Chef) roll, naming the ingredients that he wishes to improvise (typically this is, "the ingredients to duplicate this Bull's Strength potion" or "the ingredients to prepare a feast," but it may be more specific as circumstances dictate). The maximum value of ingredients he may improvise is equal to 2 x the result of this roll. For example, a Bull's Strength potion typically costs 150 gp to create. With a Profession (Chef) roll of 25, an Iron Chef can improvise 50 gp worth of ingredients, bringing the cost down to 100 gp.

Sharp Knives (Ex): More than most, a Iron Chef knows the value of a good, sharp blade. After a Iron Chef of fourth level spends at least five minutes sharpening a light slashing weapon of masterwork quality, that weapon will gain the effects of the keen property in the Iron Chef's hands. It will retain that property until it either takes damage (such as from a sunder attempt) or succeeds on a critical hit.

Quick Repast (Sp): At fifth level, a Iron chef can swiftly and inexpensively prepare a meal for a single person that partakes of some of the power of his Prepare Feast ability. Once per day, a Iron Chef may make a Craft (Cooking) check to use this ability. The DC of the check determines how quickly the meal can be prepared: DC 15: 1 hour, DC 20: 30 minutes, DC 25: 15 minutes. This meal can duplicate a single effect of the Prepare Feast power for a single person.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Quandary

How is it possible that we live in a world in which Samuel Jackson and David Hasselhoff can play the same character?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I attack the volcano!


Tuesday night was Jenn's Exalted game (which I was frustrated with for a bit.... but then made a new character and that helped). We had a hiatus for most of the summer, so I've only played the new PC a few times. I'm having a lot of fun playing the impulsive and mostly-clueless (but hyper-competent) kid.

We were on one of the islands in the Wavecrest Archipelago when we saw some priests taking a bunch of prisoners to throw them into the volcano at the center of the island. The volcano was apparently hungry.

On this island, all criminals were treated equally - they were imprisoned (albeit for variable lengths of time). If they happened to be imprisoned when the volcano got hungry, they got thrown in.

I should note, for my readers that don't know, that Exalted is set in an animistic world. When I say that the volcano was hungry, I mean it literally. The volcano has a spirit/god that was demanding sacrifices.

Red (my PC) didn't like that. He raced ahead of the prisoners and challenged the volcano to show and explain itself. Lava flowed out of the ground and congealed into the image of a skull.

There was some talking of the smack, and then the game ended for the night.

Next session should start with a bang.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Face of a Killer?

Sometimes, I don't know what George is thinking.

Last night, in our Aberrant game, he introduced "The Quaker" as a villian. The Quaker, of course, has seismic powers.

I nearly had to leave the room after being overcome with stupid.

Stupid isn't necessarily a problem, but the campaign has been fairly serious and realistic (given that it is, you know, a supers game). It was an inexcusable break in tone that pretty much ruined the night for me.

Sometimes, George is a great GM. When he's low on ideas, though, he either devolves into the dumbness or we end up having a session where we listen to him monologue - his NPCs like to talk. Neither of these are good.

I've occasionally just had my PC walk out on a NPC who was spewing verbiage, but what do you do when your GM declares that the guy who probably killed two of your friends dresses up like William Penn?

The campaign is probably going to come to a stopping point in 2-4 sessions, so this isn't something I will need to deal with much longer. I just have little tolerance for playing games I don't enjoy (what's the point?), and I can see this going in that direction...

Not that we know what we'll move on to next. George really wants me to pick the Exalted game I was running back up, but I am fairly certain that I don't want to do that. I have issues with Exalted in the first place, and - even though I had some great individual sessions - I found running it for that group to be an extremely frustrating experience.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ow. Ow. Ow.

I just hit my knee on the corner of my desk.

That smarts.

I acquired a copy of Dungeonscape this weekend. It was mostly a present from Angela (who picked up a copy of Monster Manual V for herself. She has a bit of a bestiary habit.)

I'm hoping that Dungeonscape will help inspire my work on the Goblins of Gourm. I sort of got stalled on the dungeon-y bits. I haven't looked through it too much yet, but it does have the best line I have ever read in a D&D book.... something about the only thing being better than having a pool of acid in a dungeon is having a pool of acid with a shark in it.

I also glanced at the Factotum class. It is... interesting, but weird. I'm sort of tempted to ask Angela if I can multiclass into it in the D&D game that she's running. At the same time, though, the class doesn't feel like a D&D class to me. I don't know.

Anyway, Angela's D&D game:

Last night, Bart & Co. ended a major subplot. We (probably) stopped the threat of a barghest-led army of marauding goblins... through misdirection and trickery. What did we do?

1) Robbed the drow envoys to the barghest of their gifts and supplies.
2) Forged a letter from the drow to the barghest (delivered via silver raven) announcing that they considered the theft to have been an act of war.
3) Had someone wander into more 'civilized' goblin areas pretending to be a very rich drow. (Hoping that this would get back to the barghest and he'd think the drow were just looking for an excuse to declare war)
4) Snuck into the barghest's camp and totally disrupted it (charmed the dire wolves and talked them into playing some games with the goblins' tents and such)
5) Sent the silver raven to insult the barghest in a way that only a bird can...
6) Reported to a powerful goblin tribe (under a zone of truth, I think) that the barghest was:
a) not protecting the lands it held
b) not able to control its own dire wolves
c) at the edge of war with the drow
d) a coward - we knew that it ran away in front of its own men (ok - it was from a naga, and I don't blame it... but the other goblins did).
7) then we hooked that goblin tribe up with another one that had its own reasons for mistrusting the barghest

So... assuming we didn't start a war between the drow and goblins, we definitely started a war between the almost-sane goblins and the nutzo-freak goblins... and basically told the former all of the weaknesses of the latter.

Not too bad for a group of 4th level fugitives.

I swear, though, if we ever get caught in a stand-up fight, we are toast.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bad Press

Lore Sjöberg thinks he's funny.

He hasn't been. Not since the Brunching Shuttlecocks... and I suspect that Brunching may have been funny despite him.

I sometimes find myself reading his column in Wired - mostly because I follow a link and didn't realize it would end up on his column. I find that I am invariably sorry I did so.

His latest column is at once a press release for 4e D&D and a send-up of old-school-gamer one-upsmanship.

It also feeds the fears of those who think that gamers are mentally unstable individuals who can't tell reality from fantasy. It is the sort of press we could do without.


...and it isn't funny.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Character Roles, Part II

So... last night Angela and I were talking a bit about Character Roles. It occurred to me (sometimes I am slow), that the roles presumably designated in 4e (Controller, Defender, Leader, Striker) are primarily combat roles.

What about non-combat roles?

One of the big reasons why I think that many D&D games move from fight-t0-fight with little in-between is that several characters have nothing that they are particularly good at other than fighting. What is that Fighter going to do outside of combat with his 2 skill points per level? Intimidate someone? The bard is better at that.

I think that, in addition to having a role in combat situations, every character should have a role outside of combat.

So, what are non-combat roles?

Face. Investigator. Transporter. Technician.

Those seem to be the big ones in a number of genres. In D&D, they might be fulfilled in a variety of ways. I'll give two for each, here:

Face 1: The personally charming type with a decent Charisma and high diplomacy/bluff score.
Face 2: The sorcerer, enchanter, or beguiler who indiscriminately throws around Charm spells

Investigator 1: Someone with good skills in Search, Gather information, and a smattering of Knowledges
Investigator 2: Someone with access to divination magic

Transporter 1: Someone who owns a vehicle or a magical item that can act as one
Transporter 2: Someone with transportation magic

Technician 1: Someone with Craft/Disable Device skills
Technician 2: Someone with stone shape, wood shape, fabricate, or similar magic

I don't know that these represent the ideal non-combat roles. "Transporter" seems a bit weak, in particular. There might also be some sort of Leader-equivalent (Planner?) that would work here.

Weekend Gaming

This weekend was Nick's birthday, so he ran some games.

He ran his nominally-bi-monthly Mage game (last played in early July, maybe?) and, on his birthday, he ran an Alternity game. Before running the game, he asked us for input. He was planning on making a bunch of pregenerated PCs for us to choose from, but he wanted to know if there was anything we wanted to play. Looking around, I quickly grabbed some toys and put together a mock-up of the PC I wanted: undead warrior armed with a glowing energy-weapon riding a two-headed dinosaur.

He looked at me as if I were crazy.

Apparently, it wasn't that kind of science fiction. (I knew that, more or less, but a guy has to try, doesn't he?)

I ended up playing a heretical psychic alien priestess who was the leader of a suicide commando squad. We were assigned to find out why a military research station had lost contact. The reason, obviously, was zombies.

We had fun. We killed space zombies. We ate cake and ice cream, courtesy of Nick's mom.

This was the first time I'd played Alternity. The system was interesting. It looked fiddly, but it played smoothly enough. I suspect we skimmed over a number of rules, but that's OK from my perspective. It was skill-based... and there were a lot of skills, but they were more-or-less intelligently arranged with default broad skills. This is one of those games where a well-designed character sheet is essential.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Rhythm of the City

An excerpt from the current draft of The City of Gourm:
With its multitude of pumps and gears all ultimately driven by a single engine, the City of Gourm has an innate rhythm to it that has given rise to a distinctive musical tradition. Gourmish music tends to rely upon this rhythm, building melodies directly over it and occasionally accentuating it with percussion. Common instruments include metallic percussion instruments - chimes, xylophones, brass drums, and the like. Wind instruments - horns and flutes of various sorts - are also common. There are two pipe organs in the city. One of these is in the Temple of Winds, which is near the city's center in the Temple District. The other is mobile, but is usually in the Arts District. Small, wind-up music boxes are also common. These are sometimes used alone but are more often treated as an instrument in an ensemble. Improvisational music that builds off of the city's rhythm is popular, particularly among younger goblins. These musicians typically use no more than a percussion instrument and their voice to build layers of complex noise on top of the city's soundscape.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sometimes, I am a flake

I haven't been getting much work done on the Goblins of Gourm. I think that a combination of factors have contributed to this. Mostly, I think it is that I just lost momentum.

On the other hand, for the past couple days, I've had an idea germinating for a huge gaming project. Maybe it is a setting book. Maybe it is an entire game. I'm very excited about it.

...but I must at least try to finish Goblins first.


Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Meat Elemental

Archmage Elmer researches led to the discovery of the Elemental Plane of Meat. He has been known to employ the grotesque Meat Elementals as warriors and, occasionally, as servants.

The material enclosed in the box below is released via the Open Game License.

Meat Elemental

Meat Elemental, Small

Size/Type:Small Elemental (Meat, Extraplanar)
Hit Dice:2d8+2 (11 hp)
Initiative: +0
Speed: 30 ft. (6 squares)
Armor Class:15 (+1 size, +4 natural), touch 11, flat-footed 15
Base Attack/Grapple: +1/-1
Attack: Slam +4 melee (1d6+3)
Full Attack: Slam +4 melee (1d6+3)
Space/Reach:5 ft./5 ft.
Special Attacks:Improved Grab, Meatgrind
Special Qualities:Damage reduction 5/-, darkvision 60 ft., elemental traits
Saves:Fort +4, Ref +0, Will +0
Abilities: Str 14, Dex 10, Con 13, Int 4, Wis 11, Cha 11
Skills:Listen +2, Spot +3
Feats: Power Attack
Environment: Elemental Plane of Meat
Challenge Rating: 1
Treasure: None
Alignment: Usually neutral
Advancement: 3 HD (Small)
Level Adjustment:

Meat Elemental, Medium

Size/Type:Medium Elemental (Meat, Extraplanar)
Hit Dice:4d8+12 (30 hp)
Initiative: +5
Speed: 30 ft. (6 squares)
Armor Class:17 (+1 Dex, +6 natural), touch 11, flat-footed 16
Base Attack/Grapple: +3/+6
Attack: Slam +6 melee (1d8+4)
Full Attack:
Slam +6 melee (1d8+4)
Space/Reach:5 ft./5 ft.
Special Attacks:Improved Grab, Meatgrind
Special Qualities:Damage reduction 5/-, darkvision 60 ft., elemental traits
Saves:Fort +7, Ref +2, Will +1
Abilities: Str 16, Dex 12, Con 17, Int 4, Wis 11, Cha 11
Skills:Listen +3, Spot +4
Feats: Improved Initiative, Power Attack
Environment: Elemental Plane of Meat
Challenge Rating: 3
Treasure: None
Alignment: Usually neutral
Advancement: 5-7 HD (Medium)
Level Adjustment:

Meat Elemental, Large

Size/Type:Large Elemental (Meat, Extraplanar)
Hit Dice:8d8+32 (68 hp)
Initiative: +6
Speed: 30 ft. (6 squares)
Armor Class:18 (-1 size, +2 Dex, +7 natural), touch 11, flat-footed 16
Base Attack/Grapple: +6/+15
Attack: Slam +10 melee (2d8+5)
Full Attack:
2 slams +10 melee (2d8+5)
Space/Reach:10 ft./10 ft.
Special Attacks:Improved Grab, Meatgrind
Special Qualities:Damage reduction 5/-, darkvision 60 ft., elemental traits
Saves:Fort +10, Ref +4, Will +4
Abilities: Str 20, Dex 14, Con 19, Int 6, Wis 11, Cha 11
Skills:Listen +5, Spot +6
Feats: Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Power Attack
Environment: Elemental Plane of Meat
Challenge Rating: 5
Treasure: None
Alignment: Usually neutral
Advancement: 9-15 HD (Large)
Level Adjustment:

Meat Elemental, Huge

Size/Type:Huge Elemental (Meat, Extraplanar)
Hit Dice:16d8+80 (152 hp)
Initiative: +8
Speed: 30 ft. (6 squares)
Armor Class:19 (-2 size, +4 Dex, +7 natural), touch 12, flat-footed 17
Base Attack/Grapple: +12/+27
Attack: Slam +17 melee (2d10+7/19-20)
Full Attack:
2 slams +17 melee (2d10+7/19-20)
Space/Reach:15 ft./15 ft.
Special Attacks:Improved Grab, Meatgrind
Special Qualities:Damage reduction 5/-, darkvision 60 ft., elemental traits
Saves:Fort +15, Ref +9, Will +7
Abilities: Str 24, Dex 18, Con 21, Int 6, Wis 11, Cha 11
Skills:Listen +9, Spot +10
Feats: Cleave, Combat Reflexes, Improved Critical (slam), Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Power Attack
Environment: Elemental Plane of Meat
Challenge Rating: 7
Treasure: None
Alignment: Usually neutral
Advancement: 17-20 HD (Huge)
Level Adjustment:

Meat Elemental, Greater

Size/Type:Huge Elemental (Meat, Extraplanar)
Hit Dice:21d8+105 (199 hp)
Initiative: +9
Speed: 30 ft. (6 squares)
Armor Class:20 (-2 size, +5 Dex, +7 natural), touch 13, flat-footed 17
Base Attack/Grapple: +15/+31
Attack: Slam +21 melee (2d10+8/19-20)
Full Attack:
2 slams +21 melee (2d10+8/19-20)
Space/Reach:15 ft./15 ft.
Special Attacks:Improved Grab, Meatgrind
Special Qualities:Damage reduction 5/-, darkvision 60 ft., elemental traits
Saves:Fort +17, Ref +12, Will +9
Abilities: Str 26, Dex 20, Con 21, Int 8, Wis 11, Cha 11
Skills:Listen +14, Spot +14
Feats: Alertness, Cleave, Combat Reflexes, Great Cleave, Improved Critical (slam), Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Power Attack
Environment: Elemental Plane of Meat
Challenge Rating: 9
Treasure: None
Alignment: Usually neutral
Advancement: 22-23 HD (Huge)
Level Adjustment:

Meat Elemental, Elder

Size/Type:Huge Elemental (Meat, Extraplanar)
Hit Dice:24d8+120 (228 hp)
Initiative: +10
Speed: 30 ft. (6 squares)
Armor Class:21 (-2 size, +6 Dex, +7 natural), touch 14, flat-footed 17
Base Attack/Grapple: +18/+35
Attack: Slam +25 melee (2d10+9/19-20)
Full Attack:
2 slams +25 melee (2d10+9/19-20)
Space/Reach:15 ft./15 ft.
Special Attacks:Improved Grab, Meatgrind
Special Qualities:Damage reduction 5/-, darkvision 60 ft., elemental traits
Saves:Fort +19, Ref +16, Will +10
Abilities: Str 28, Dex 22, Con 21, Int 10, Wis 11, Cha 11
Skills:Listen +29, Spot +29
Feats: Alertness, Cleave, Combat Reflexes, Great Cleave, Improved Critical (slam), Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes, Power Attack
Environment: Elemental Plane of Meat
Challenge Rating: 11
Treasure: None
Alignment: Usually neutral
Advancement: 25-48 HD (Huge)
Level Adjustment:

When kept on the Material Plane for any length of time, meat elementals prefer to dwell within the corpses of creatures larger than themselves. Meat elemental speak Carnan but rarely choose to do so.


A meat elemental is a terrifying combatant.

Improved Grab (Ex)

To use this ability, a meat elemental must hit with a slam attack. It can then attempt to start a grapple as a free action without provoking an attack of opportunity.

Meatgrind (Ex)

A meat elemental that successfully grapples an opponent causes its victim's flesh to blister and burst, doing additional damage. In addition, the victim must succeed on a Fortitude save or suffer 1d4 points of Dexterity damage. The save DC is Strength based.

Meat Elemental Sizes
Elemental Damage Save DC
Medium 1d8+4 15
Large 2d8+5
Huge 2d10+7 25
Greater 2d10+8 28
Elder 2d10+9 31

Character Roles

There has been a lot of talk about character roles in 4e. It sounds as though each character class is designed to produce PCs who will fill one of the following roles: Defender, Striker, Leader, or Controller.

I understand, I think, why this is the case. It's frustrating when you really want to play a Monk but what the group needs is a healer or an arcane caster. Assigning a role to each class makes it clear what is needed and what can fill that gap.

I suspect that, unless Wizards is doing something really weird, it doesn't make it any less frustrating when you want to play something that your group doesn't need.

(I should note that I really have no idea what 4e will look like in this respect, but other people's speculations have got me thinking...)

Personally, I'd prefer it if classes were broader rather than narrower. To keep the language/framework here - What if each class could fill, say, one of two different roles? So, your group might have a Striker/Fighter, Controller/Cleric, and Defender/Fighter. You might still need someone to fill the Leader role... but maybe that could be a Rogue or Wizard who followed a certain progression.

Of course, there are reasons to call the framework into question as well. There's a strong presupposition of a certain style of tactical play that just isn't followed by a large number of gaming groups. Do you really need someone to fill that Leader role? There's only a Leader-shaped hole in the group if you make certain assumptions about what the group will look like.

For example, in the D&D game that Angela runs (which we played on Sunday), we have the following characters:
Me - Dwarf Rogue/Ranger
Andrew - Half-Elf Spirit Shaman
Nick - Kobold Druid
Grace - Half-Orc Scout
Beth - Halfling Rogue

We're pretty much all competent at sneaking around and most of us have a decent skill set, which opens up a number of unusual tactical options. On the other hand, we have no arcane caster. We have no meat-shield. We don't have much in the way of buffs. Our spellcasters concentrate on summoning, healing, and environmental control. Is it wrong to play with three Strikers and two Quasi-Controllers? We have DM who plans for the group that we do have, and we end up having a lot of fun.

Alternately, take the Beyond Vinland campaign. We had:
Me: Bardic Sage/Warblade
Doug: Cleric
Pat: Fighter/Archivist
(Jason: Battle Sorcerer)

Here, the standard roles were mostly filled (we lacked a Rogue until Doug's PC picked up Marty the Elf as a cohort), but most of us overlapped. Leader? I had some Bardic inspirational crap and a little White Raven. Pat had some Archivist buffs. Doug healed and had some cleric buff spells.

Would it have been better if all of that were concentrated in one person?

I don't think so.

(Continued: Character Roles Part II)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Beyond Alignment: Adding Moral Complexity to your Game

This article first appeared in the Silven Trumpeter (Vol. 4, Issue 2, June 2006).

Many people play roleplaying games in order to escape from the moral ambiguity of real life. They want to sit down, roll some dice, kill some goblins, take their stuff, and feel good about it. Perhaps the only personal growth that they are interested in for their characters is measured in terms of levels and experience points.

I find this to be a perfectly valid – and often very fun – way to play roleplaying games. In this article, however, I am going to talk about focusing your gameplay on serious moral questions and complicated moral dilemmas. Think about the goblin children that will starve to death now that their parents, mentioned above, are dead. This is not a new idea. People have been engaged in morally-focused roleplaying for decades. They have, however, been doing so without any guidance.

Conventional roleplaying games, such as Dungeons & Dragons and White Wolf’s various games, tend to address morality descriptively, if at all. They may have tags, like an alignment systems or virtue scores. These tags can provide a set of guidelines for roleplaying a person with a particular sort of moral outlook, but they do not in themselves regularly raise serious moral issues.

Recently, a number of small-press roleplaying games have come to print that focus strongly on some sort of moral question. Dust Devils is a game set in the American Old West that focuses upon the question of whether to shoot or to give up the gun. Another Western-themed game, Dogs in the Vineyard, casts the player characters as gun-toting religious lawmen who travel from town to town to set things right. With Great Power... is a super hero roleplaying game with the tag line, “You can save the world, but are you willing to pay the price?” The granddaddy of the indie game scene, Sorcerer, asks the simple question of “What would you do for power?”

These games have mechanics that are specifically designed to bring the moral issues that they are concerned with into play. In Sorcerer, for instance, you summon and bind demons in order to make yourself more powerful. There is no conventional limit on how many demons you can summon and bind, either in play or during character creation. Each time you summon or bind a demon, however, you risk a bit of your humanity.

This article is not designed for players of these games. Instead, I want to focus on how to ask interesting moral questions during gameplay when the game was not designed specifically around such questions.

Before you implement any of the suggestions I put forth here, talk to your players. If you don’t, following the advice in this article might destroy your game. I don’t want that to happen. Do your players want to be tested with morally difficult dilemmas? Are they interested in a game that asks tough questions? Do they want to have to second-guess their actions, or would they be happier killing goblins and taking their stuff?

Creating Moral Dilemmas

When creating a moral dilemma for a game, I try and remain aware of (and avoid the pitfalls of ) cliché and excessive frustration.

Of the two, clichés are easier to identify. Are the player characters in a position where they had to kill a pile of babies, puppies, and/or kittens in order to save the world? If so, you have a cliché. Using clichés may be an easy way to add moral dilemmas, but “easy” is not tantamount to compelling.

Frustration is trickier, insofar as it is necessary in moderation. Any challenge is a sort of frustration, and you want your players to be challenged. The frustration brought about by an intractable moral dilemma, however, can be particularly disheartening. When planning morally-charged situation, think about the frustration level of the dilemma before you use it. How will the dilemma frustrate the players: will it challenge them or will it simply aggravate them? The frustration level of a dilemma can be raised to unacceptable levels when a player realizes that she can’t make a difference, that her choices are irrelevant, that she don’t even have a choice, or that the game master forced her into the situation. If any of these are true, your players won’t find your plans for the game to be fun, and you need new plans.

With those caveats in mind, creating moral dilemmas isn’t difficult. My preferred method of dilemma-creation is to play on the assumptions of both players and characters. This is a simple thing to do, and it is something that many game masters do all the time, even if it is not usually done in a morally-charged context.

In many games, players will assume that a creature described to them as a monster is better off being killed. Similarly, they may assume that attractive and helpless people exist to be assisted and protected. When you spend time describing something in detail, players tend to assume that the thing you are describing is important and that at least some of the details you describe are relevant.

Every character comes with its own set of assumptions. A barbarian from the mountains might be intensely xenophobic, believing that those who were different from him are corrupt. A career soldier might assume that every situation can be solved through the application of straightforward rules. A businessman might assume that everything is for sale and negotiable. Similarly, both players and characters learn to trust certain nonplayer characters, social institutions, and their own abilities and methods.

The idea is not merely to trick the players into having their characters do morally questionable things. Doing so will only run the risk of alienating your players out of frustration. Instead, challenge the moral positions that the players and their characters hold.

How will the xenophobic barbarian react when, after being left for dead by those he trusted, he is nursed back to health and nurtured by someone from an alien culture? What will he do if, after returning to his homeland, he finds that his people are planning a genocidal war against this alien civilization?

How will the rules-bound soldier react when the rules tell her to destroy something she loves, defend something she hates, and defile something she has grown to respect? How will she change when she realizes that her life has been saved by deviating from her rules – or by dumb luck?

What will the mercenary businessman do when he finds that he has grown to care so much about something that he would never sell it? How will he react when his unwillingness to compromise hurts those he has grown to care for?

In addition to challenging a character’s morally-charged assumptions, you can challenge their habits. Consider the habits characters have that generally work out well for them. The barbarian may be usually successful when he charges headlong into battle. The soldier might function by deferring to those who claim authority over her. The businessman might quite effectively make extravagant and false claims when engaged in negotiations. It is often effective to notice these sorts of habits and nurture them. Give players a reason to rely upon them and have their characters develop the habits as worthwhile tools that they will depend upon. Challenges can then be easily constructed to test and refine these habits.

A far less effective, though very tempting, method of introducing moral issues is to introduce some sort of external moral authority and have this authority reprimand the characters for their choices. This forces the characters to either justify their behavior or atone for it. Quests for atonement can be a great deal of fun, but many players will become frustrated by them, particularly if they feel that they were railroaded into performing the act for which they are atoning and did not actually make a poor choice given the circumstances. The realization that you have done something wrong is more significant if you arrive at it yourself. Similarly, the drive to atone is significantly stronger and more meaningful if it is motivated internally.

Also, forcing characters to act in a morally-repugnant fashion is more likely to cause players to become frustrated than it is to engage them. Forcing them into situations where they are faced with an interesting moral choice, however, can be a lot of fun. As a player, I hate mind-control and paralysis, as they rob me of my ability to play my character. However, if the game master in a campaign I was playing set-up a situation in which I was mind-controlled into attacking my companions, but the mindcontrol wore off just as I was about to land a fatal blow on a companion with whom I had an intense rivalry, I would think that was terrific. I would be faced with a great moral dilemma: do I turn aside the blow now that I am no longer under
another’s control or do I pretend that the control has lingered and slay my rival?

Setting out to trick your players into acting in a way that they will be sorry for later is only reliably effective when the players can look back and honestly say that their characters ought to have known better. For instance, when a band of intrepid adventurers happens along a fearful dryad who is seeking to escape a horrible monster, the adventurers might well hunt down the monster to slay it. When it turns out that the so-called monster is a civilized, anthropomorphic beaver, they should probably consider the tool belt it wears or the enormous dam, well-crafted out of polished wood, that it comes out of, and realize that the dryad might have been a bit biased in describing it in horrific terms. If they simply charge in and slay the beaverman, then that is their choice, and they will have to live with it.

Creating Morally Interesting Characters

The most morally interesting characters are often those with deep-seated but subtle moral flaws. To be effective, such flaws ought not to be simply false moral principles to which a character adheres. If they are, a player can replace them as soon as they come under scrutiny. Instead, these flaws should be deeply-ingrained habits of character. An effectively-prejudiced barbarian character isn’t one who merely holds the statement, “elves are flighty, worthless cowards” to be true. This could be easily shown to be false, given enough exposure to dedicated and brave elves. Instead, an effectively-prejudiced barbarian might be one who mocks others by calling them elves, spits whenever he sees an elf, is unable to take an elf ’s competence seriously, and would expect to die if his life depended on elves.

Our other two examples are also easy to put into terms of habits. The rules-following soldier doesn’t necessarily think that every command from her superior is the right thing to do. Instead, she doesn’t make decisions on her own well. If she doesn’t have a rule that is applicable to the situation, she may flounder and hesitate out of uncertainty. Her rules-following might stem from a deep-seated insecurity about her own decision-making capabilities. She may also have a fear of taking responsibility for her own actions. If she follows rules she can blame any wrongdoings on the rules themselves, or whoever it was who gave her those instructions.

Similarly, it isn’t simply that the mercenary businessman believes that everything has a monetary value. He lives his life in such a way that, for him, everything does. Even if he doesn’t do so consciously, he implicitly assigns monetary values to relationships, people, and tasks of all sorts.Perhaps he does this because he finds himself incapable of caring about things unless they are put into monetary terms. He might be unable to form deep emotional connections to others. To him, love might mean nothing more than that he wouldn’t trade one he loved for a pile of treasure.

Developing moral flaws as habits embedded into a character’s psyche works well for both player characters and many nonplayer characters. There is a particular type of non-player character that demands special mention, however. This is the moral authority. Most moral authorities are normal people. They may be priests, mentors, or monarchs. What makes them moral authorities is often that they speak with the voice of experience. These characters might be just as internally flawed as any of those detailed above. The difference is that they understand their flaws and attempt to compensate for them.

When portraying a moral authority it is important to remember not to take away the players’ moral choices. Answering moral questions with a moral authority can shape the characters actions such that they are no longer acting based upon their own conscience, but are, rather, acting in accordance with what they have been told is good.

This is a particularly tricky thing to avoid when you are portraying moral authorities who are not mere mortals. It is possible to portray an angel or a similar character as something other than a one-dimensional caricature. In Dungeons & Dragons, the alignment system makes this particularly easy: there is no pure good. Celestial entities are either lawful good, neutral good, or chaotic good. These three moral outlooks can be distinguished by their flaws. The lawful good outlook might focus too much on justice, ignoring concern for relationships or individual liberty. The neutral good outlook might care deeply about individuals, but do so at the expense of both justice and freedom. The chaotic good outlook might focus upon protecting individual rights at the expense of other concerns. These dichotomies can be generalized to hold true independent of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system by realizing that instituting priorities into a moral agenda will create corresponding blind spots. In a game that encourages players to think hard about moral questions, even the angels should not be completely above reproach. In fact, providing the player characters with a reason to doubt the moral wisdom of someone who they have considered a moral authority could be a great opportunity for roleplaying moral growth.

Creating a Morally Complex Game

There aren’t any secret tricks that you need to learn to put these tools into practice. Given interested players, morally charged situations, and morally interesting characters, your gameplay will naturally begin to address these sorts of issues.

If you want to focus your game strongly on a particular moral question or issue, however, there is more to be said. In addition to designing morally-interesting characters, you may want to create large-scale social institutions that accentuate some of the themes you wish to address. You might also want to institute some rule modifications that bring the focus of gameplay onto the issues you want to be highlighted. It might be worthwhile to look toward some of the indie games that I mentioned earlier for guidance in this respect.

Facelift Mark I

There will probably be tweaking...

and there's a good chance I might scrap the design altogether.