Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

Some random thoughts in honor of Halloween:
  • What looks scary in a fantasy world? We typically think of twisted, non-human visages as scary, but would they be in a world in which goblins, zombies, and such are commonplace?
  • One tool in creating fear is solitariness. When you are alone in a dangerous situation, it tends to be much scarier than if you have someone to rely on. If you want to scare your players in a game, this is a hard tool to use... since it generally requires splitting up PCs. Also, the fact that players are still sitting around the same table makes it tricky to pull off.
  • This is a scary website.
  • If I want to scare my players, I'd present them with weirdness rather than things that would be generally considered scary. If they don't understand something, they are more likely to fear it. This might also nicely allow you to tie their dawning comprehension to realization about the horror of the situation they are in...
  • I have a (bad?) habit while GMing of using a particular sort of horror in my games - I get the PCs into a situation where they act (usually with decent intentions) and eventually realize that they are responsible for some sort of atrocity... (Here are a couple of examples.)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review(s): The Long Price Quartet (in progress)

The last week has been somewhat rough at work. I've been taking solace in fiction.

Currently, I'm in the middle of the third book of the Long Price Quartet, a series written by Daniel Abraham, who I'd never read. I picked up the first book on a whim at the library. Have I mentioned that I love living two blocks from a brand new public library?

Anyway, the three books released in the series so far are:
The Price of Spring (Book Four) is, presumably, forthcoming, but I'm not sure when.

It had better be soon, because I've been tearing through these things. The novels are non-traditional fantasy (with a definite economic/political twist to them). The strength of the books is well-divided between plot, characterization, and setting - though it is the last of these that I'm going to talk about since it probably has the most relevance to games.

The world in which the novels are set is a world which has (as far as I can tell) exactly one sort of magic, that of the andat. The andat are concepts of action that normally exist in a potential state. They are bound into physical forms by the poets, who accomplish this by describing them perfectly and holding that description in their heads constantly. The andat wish to return to their natural state, but are tied into a symbiotic relationship with their poet.

There are only a dozen or so andat, and they are powerful, limited only by the concept they embody. An example is Removing-The-Part-That-Continues (known as Seedless), who keeps the port city of Saraykeht rich by easing the production of cotton - but could just as easily cause every pregnant female thing in the world to spontaneously abort their pregnancy.

The society and culture of the nation that holds the andat is rife with bits to stealing for fantasy RPGs. In addition to the andat themselves, the training regimen and organization of poets that bind them is fascinating, and is closely tied to the actual rule of the cities in a subtle and believable manner.

The society uses a complicated series of expressive postures to complement language, adding nuance. For instance, there might be a simple posture indicating regretful leavetaking. This could be colored with indications (or implications) of relative status, the likelihood of return, acceptance of a task, or any number of other things. Something like this could be really interesting in an rpg, where players are often describing the appearance and reactions of their characters anyway.

In addition to the cool ideas, the characters and story are great, too. I'm a fan.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Real Magic Items: creepy magic weapons

Back in the day, everyone wanted Blackrazor, the nasty Stormbringer knock-off from White Plume Mountain. There were two other powerful magic items in that module of comparable power - the trident Wave and the hammer Whelm.

Why the Blackrazor love? Some of it might have had to do with its form factor (a sword) and powers (soul-stealing). On the other hand, there were - if I remember correctly - some serious consequences for wielding it. I think a lot of the appeal simply had to do with the visuals - Blackrazor was described as appearing to be made out of the night sky, or something like that. (It has been a long time.) It was cool.

So, just for fun, I thought I'd offer some cool visuals and effects that you could apply to magic weapons in your games. These won't have a serious effect on their power level - they just up the coolness (and occasionally the creepiness) factor.

  • The flat of the weapon's blade is covered with a low relief of multiple faces. When the blade is bloodied, the blood seeps into the mouths of the faces. A clear gem on the pommel darkens as the faces drink blood, but generally becomes clear again over the course of a day or two. This blade never needs cleaning from bloodstains.
  • This cold-based weapon appears to be made of actual ice. In warm environs, it is slick to the touch, but it does not actually drip moisture. When the weapon is looked at closely, a tiny, vaguely humanoid figure can be seen inside it. Usually, it appears frozen in place... but sometimes it seems to be moving... until it notices it is being watched.
  • This weapon is covered in tiny holes. Strange, beetle-like creatures swarm from the holes, entering the wounds of those damaged by the weapon.
  • This weapon, though it feels solid, appears to be made of wavering smoke. In combat, tendrils of smoke will hungrily reach out from the weapon towards the wielder's foes.
  • The wood on this weapon begins to show signs of rot when the weapon has spent significant amoutns of time unused. Though this does not seriously affect its use, it is unpleasant. Upon tasting blood, the rot immediately begins to fade, and (with repeated use), the wood begins to grow a smooth bark.
  • This fire-based weapon does not actually bear flame itself. Rather, it appears to be made of a craggy charcoal-like substance. In use, it glows red with interior heat. It will light combustible materials if touched to them, and - in doing so - lets out a hissing noise that sounds like a satisfied sigh. When brought close to such materials, but not allowed to light them, it releases a faint discomfited moan.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Playing with taboos

Roughly speaking, a taboo is a cultural prohibition. Modern societies have a ton of taboos. They range from prohibitions on cannibalism, slavery, and incest to prohibitions on eating meat, using certain words, and engaging in arguably harmless sexual activities. Some taboos have a religious origin, but it isn't necessary.

When you want to present a different culture in an RPG (whether it is a wholly alien one, one which you want players to perceive as despicable, or something that you want to be merely foreign and flavorful1) playing with that culture's taboos is one way of achieving your goals. An easy way of doing this is to pick one taboo that either the PCs' or players' culture has and violate it and then to institute a new taboo in the culture (probably unrelated) that neither the PCs' or players' culture has.

Here are a few examples:

  • You want to create a somewhat alien group of humanoid non-humans - close enough to relate to humans, but different enough to be clearly alien. Maybe they are Lizardfolk in a D&D game... or Star Trek style human-like aliens in a SF game. Let's say that these folk don't have an incest or pedophilia taboo. In fact, mothers breed with their own sons (who sexually mature more quickly than females) as a matter of course. (We can then come up with some seriously strange-to-us family structures.) In terms of giving them a new taboo, let's give them a series of taboos surrounding names and social interactions: they don't refer to certain familial relations by name; in social situations, they won't look at an individual's hands unless that person has told them their name, and there is a taboo against covering your face with your hands (it is considered revolting as well as a grave insult). Toss in cosmetic and biological differences, fill in some cultural gaps, and you're good to go.
  • You want something really alien? OK. Let's remove all taboos about food. Food consumption for this culture has no social relevance - eating is a culturally transparent activity. Cannibalism isn't a taboo. Eating while talking isn't impolite. If two members of this culture were walking down the street having an intimate conversation, and happened to walk by a festering corpse (of anything), one of them could take a bite out of it and the other wouldn't notice (they might physically see it, but it wouldn't register as relevant). The flip side of this is that there are no 'formal' meals - eating is totally irrelevant to social situations. Now, let's add in a bunch of taboos about, say, music. Music is important, but certain rhythyms (including when used in speech, footsteps, or anything else) are considered anathema - and are usually responded to by swiftly killing the offending rhythym-maker. Other sorts of music are only appropriate during certain social situations - and dictate socially-appropriate responses. When certain sorts of music are playing, there is a taboo against refusing a request; when other sorts of music are playing, there is a taboo against referring to one's own future plans in any way, and so on.
  • How about something not alien, but morally repugnant? We have taboos against treating guests badly. Let's get rid of them for an example culture - these people consider guests to be those who have come begging to them for shelter - as see a hierarchical power structure there. Placing yourself under someone else's power - for us - can often be seen as developing a relationship based on trust. In this culture, it is never done except as a last resort, except by the ignorant or very foolish. ("Hosts" might also extend the stay (and dependency) of their "guests" via things such as food poisoning, drugs, or outright imprisonment.) Let's add in a related taboo against asking for help and another (less related) taboo against, say, showing sentimentality to those considered your equals. If you want to go for crude shock value (I'm not advocating this), you can also remove some taboos about, say, bodily functions.

1 Can I use the word "flavorful" in a post referencing cannibalism?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Crunch Fetish

Sometimes, I have to indulge my twisted love of overcomplicated rules.

I blame 1e AD&D for this.

The thing is, I don't think I'd want to play a game with such rules - I just enjoy coming up with them.

Anyway, here is a sketchy draft of an add-on to 3.x to complement my last post (it doesn't do nearly everything that I want it to, but...):



Fluid Combat Round Rules Module

Initiative proceeds from highest to lowest, in rounds, as normal with the following changes:

  • Initiative is measured in moments. If the highest moment is an initiative of 23, then this is considered "moment 23." Moments are counted down beginning with the highest initiative score and ending at one(1).
  • Characters add a bonus to their initiative score equal to their BAB divided by 5 (rounded down).
  • A character may begin taking actions on the moment of its initiative rating, and may take additional actions until it runs out of actions or the moment count reaches 1 (whichever comes first).
  • In each round, a character has one move action and one standard action or a single full-round action.
  • A character may only take a single move, standard, or full-round action per moment.
  • A character may move one-third of its speed (rounded up) in a moment. Thus, to complete a normal movement action takes 3 moments (6 for a full move).
  • A character may take a single standard action in a moment.
  • A character may take a full-round action. This lasts from the moment a character begins the action to the same moment +1 then next round.
    • Characters who withdraw or run as a full-round action should divide their total distance moved by the number of moments to determine their location at any given point (if relevant).
    • There are no full attacks under this module
  • A character cannot act on an initiative count of 0 or less. If a character has actions or movement rate left after moment 1, it is lost.
  • A character may take a 5' step in a moment. This reduces their initiative count by 1 in the next round.
  • A character may sacrifice a move action to increase their initiative count by 6 in the next round.
  • A character may sacrifice a standard action to increase their initiative count by 10 in the next round.
  • A character may delay their action in a round without having an effect upon their initiative in the next round.
  • After taking a standard action, a character may make follow up attacks if they so choose. Each such attack is subject to the following restrictions:
    • Each attack is at a cumulative penalty to hit. For melee and thrown weapons: Light weapons are at -2 for the first follow up attack, -4 for the second, and -6 for the third (-8/-10/-12/etc). Medium weapons are at -3/-6/-9/etc. Heavy weapons are at -4/-8/-12/etc. Crossbows count as light weapons (but require loading time as normal). Other bows count as medium weapons, unless otherwise specified.
    • Each follow up attack imposes a penalty to your next round's initiative equal to the sum of the penalties to hit. Thus, two attacks with a medium weapon would impose a 9-point (3+6) penalty to your next round's initiative.
Light weapons are those that have a weight less than or equal to 1/10th of a character's light
load.

Medium weapons are those that weigh between 1/10th and 1/5th of a character's light load.

Heavy weapons weigh more than 1/5th of a character's light load.


Some draft/example feats:

Strong Armed: Count your strength as 4 points higher for determining weapon category (light/med/heavy). (prereq: Strength 12)

Swift Archer: Bows count as light weapons for follow-up attacks. (replaces Rapid Shot)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tyranny of the Turn

In the beginning (i.e., the 1970s and early '80s), turns in combat were very abstract things, representing a series of exchanges of blows. (I'm avoiding technical usage of turn vs. round here - just assume I'm talking about both of them.) The assumption was that only a small percentage of attacks were effective.

As time progressed, the abstraction diminished. People assumed that they were modeling every attack they made with a 'to-hit' roll. The rules shifted to be more accepting of such interpretations.

Games other than D&D were developed. Most of these did away with the elements of abstraction in combat. GURPS, for instance, uses a 1-second time interval in combat, rather than D&D's vaguer 3-5 second time interval. In general, successor games didn't even refer to combat as abstract. With few exceptions, each attack was represented by an individual roll. The thing that stayed? Turns.

Now, combat - particularly combat between two individuals - tends to have a rhythm to it. People talk about trading blows, for instance. I used to fence (and should really start it up again), and there is definitely a cadence in a bout.

That said, it is not unusual for someone to attack several (or even many) times in a row. This is obvious if you watch boxing matches (I don't, but... ummm... I've seen Rocky and stuff). In most RPGs, this doesn't happen due to the way combat is structured in turns.

When you add in multiple combatants, combat gets a lot messier and even less structured.

Given that, why do we use combat turns?
  1. They are easy: When you're sitting around a table, it is easier for everyone to have a turn in combat than to figure out and adjudicate who gets to go when.
  2. They are fair: Combat in real life may not be fair, but we like our games to be. We all know gamers who wouldn't be happy if they got into fights where they never had the opportunity to even try to land a blow.
  3. Historical momentum: Early RPG combat developed out of wargaming. Later RPG combat systems developed from earlier, turn-based ones. It is hard to break some assumptions...
Are there alternatives?

Sure.

Notably, Exalted uses a system where each action takes a certain number of ticks. Some actions in combat take longer than others - and when you are done with the action you've taken, you can take another. I like the basic idea of Exalted's system, but I have a few issues with its specific implementation.

Are there other non-turn-based systems that you like?

Monday, October 20, 2008

d20 Patch: 4e-style monsters

It has been pointed out that players prefer 3.5 and GMs prefer 4e. Whether this is true or not, it has enough of an element of truth to gain some traction.

Why?

GMs really like the ease of preparation in 4e. In 3.5, statting up a monster for a combat that might last a couple of rounds was a headache. In 4e, you can quickly edit something from the Monster Manual - or, if you need something totally different, you pick a level, role, and a couple of powers and - with info contained on a 2-page spread in the DMG - you are pretty much good to go.

Has anyone basically translated this back so that it would be usable in 3.5? If not, is there a demand for it? I was thinking about doing it, but didn't want to waste my time if someone already has...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Useful GM tool?

I've mentioned mindmapping and brainwriting as techniques for GMs before. Apparently, you can currently get the ~$200 ConceptDraw v5 mindmapping software for free (they are currently on v6). I will probably download this tonight and check it out.

I've yet to find one of these things that is configurable to a degree that it will work well for me. Maybe this one will be it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creepy little statues


Angela and I went to
Allerton Park over the weekend, mostly because we needed to just spend some time in the woods.

Allerton is pretty cool - it has both formal gardens and nature trails. There are some old, ruined structures in the woods, as well as some random sculptures (notably a large, bronze of a dying centaur). I think it is probably the sculptures that make Allerton particularly notable. The most famous sculpture there is the Sunsinger, but there are a ton of other ones - Fu Dogs, Sphinxes, and these creepy little Chinese musicians sculptures:

There is a whole "avenue" of the formal gardens lined with these guys. They're about two feet (~6o cm) tall. Let's get a close-up at a face:


I hope that these were actually imported from China or somewhere, but I fear that Allerton had these tiny, little figures with inhuman features commissioned.


When I saw them this time, I (inexplicably?) immediately thought of how 3.5 made the bard the favored class of gnomes. The features on these things would make for some decent inspiration for creepy, little fae types.

Happy birthday to me. Consider this my birthday present to you, in the hobbit-sense.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Disjoining language and culture

A quick tip to help you quickly generate flavorful cultures:

Language and culture are deeply embedded in each other, so much so that when we appropriate one for a new race or people in an RPG, we almost automatically grab them both. Take, for example, White Wolf's original Werewolf game - the nature-mysticism that the werewolves adhered to seemed to be loosely based in Native American beliefs (or cliches about them - I'm not sure), and their naming conventions ended up being similar. We've seen plenty of fantasy analogues to real-world regions (Al-Qadim, Rokugan, Maztica, Nyambe) that do this on a larger scale. People even do this unconsciously - consider the Scottish Dwarf Syndrome - or the tendency of many people to use stereotypically English-countryside place names in bucolic areas.

So here is a quick tip based on this observation:

To create a flavorful culture that feels a bit alien in a very short amount of time, grab linguistic conventions from one culture and combine it with the cultural flavor of another (very different) one. You want to have an Ancient Greek analogue in your game, but don't want it to be too obvious a rip-off? Use place names and linguistic conventions that are, say, of Scandinavian origin. Neither of these are unusual in most fantasy worlds, but the combination is likely to throw off expectations.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

d20 Patch: Caps

One of the big complaints about 3.x was how unbalanced the game could become given the ability and propensity of some players to create mechanically optimized builds. It is pretty clear that this was a major consideration in the creation of 4e.

What, though, if you want to play a 3.x game and are still concerned about this? One solution might be to place caps on things. Off the top of my head:

Maximum bonus to any d20 roll = (2 x ECL) +5
This would apply to skill rolls, attack rolls, caster level checks, saving throws, etc. If your bonus would normally exceed this, just use the maximum. This would require some tweaking of magical effects that provide massive skill bonuses (like Jump or Glibness) so that they would function differently.

Maximum damage to a single enemy in a single attack = (5 x ECL) +15
Attacks that were optimized to do damage beyond this level would still have value insofar as they'd be maxing out on damage more often than other attacks, but it would cut down on the massive imbalance that is currently possible.

Monday, October 13, 2008

4e: What do classes represent?

When 4e first came out, I remember someone asking a question that has strangely stuck with me. The question? "What if I want to play a fighter who specializes in a bow?" The answer? "Play a ranger."

The exchange is profoundly unsatisfying because the question and answer don't really respond to each other. What is a fighter? In 3.x, it was someone who focused their talents on combat and weapon use. In 4e, a description of a fighter will always include the phrase "martial defender." A 4e fighter isn't just someone who focuses on combat, but it is someone who focuses on melee combat and occupying foes. From the hints we've seen of the Martial Power book, there will be a ton of fighter options covering a wide number of variants within that general role.

...but it is fairly clear that a class can be more than just a power source and role combination. Rogues and Rangers are both martial strikers. We can easily imagine an arcane striker who isn't a Warlock (a Warmage, say) or an arcane controller who isn't a Wizard. The difference? Flavor, I guess. Could the rouge and ranger have been combined into a single class with alternate builds? They probably could have been, but I guess the feeling was that the flavors of the two were distinct enough to justify separating them.

The thing is, Fighters don't really have that flavor thing going for them. I don't think the fighter class is much more than the Martial+Defender combination. I get the impression that any martial defender is going to be presented as a new Fighter build. This seems... inconsistent. Maybe it is simply that the fighter is the class that is most basic, lacking particular flavor? I think that represents a lack of imagination. We could have easily seen the fighter broken up into a few Martial Defender classes. Here are two:
  • The Sentinel (heavily armored and often armed with a two-handed weapon) who focuses on guarding someone or something.
  • The Swashbuckler (lightly armored) who focuses on high mobility, forcing everyone in an area to pay attention to him or else. (It has been suggested that Rogues make good swashbuckling types - but what if I want a swashbuckler who doesn't focus on massive damage, but rather focuses on getting in people's way?)
I find it a little odd that they didn't go that route, but I think that, Warlord aside, they might have been tied up by 'classic' classes.

Consequences

As a GM, I don't particularly like killing players. As a player, I don't like the idea that my PC could die in a random or meaningless way. When news about 4e was coming out, I found the rumored removal of save or die effects to be heartening. I know this upset many people, but I didn't really understand why - part of me chalked it up to sadistic DMs who were losing a favorite toy and whining about it. Jeff (who I know as a generally non-sadistic DM) tried to explain it to me, but I didn't really get his argument (particularly since he tends not to use a lot of save-or-die things in the games he's run that I've played in...).

Last night, Angela and I were talking about consequences for PC stupidity in her D&D game. She doesn't want to kill PCs outright - she'd rather teach them a lesson... but she feels like there aren't any system-supported consequences other than death.

Sure, there are roleplaying consequences. Neither of us mean to discount those. Part of the issue is that Angela's primary GMing background is in Wraith - a central conceit of which is that there are game-mechanical supports for roleplaying consequences. If you act on certain character flaws, you strengthen your Shadow and begin the descent to specterhood. In D&D, though, there aren't really game mechanics (at least not clear-cut ones) to support consequences other than injury, death, and theft.

I suppose that removing 'save or die' effects get rid of a major method of, ummm, imparting cosequences in D&D.

The thing is, I think that's a flimsy excuse that is used to cover deficiencies. There should be plenty of other consequences than death. If you're running a roleplaying-heavy game, PCs care about things and have beliefs. It is easy enough to violate them. Case in point: in Angela's game, there's a PC (a shaman of a death god who hates undead) who has been very careless. What if his carelessness resulted in the creation of some undead monstrosities. For roleplaying-light games, such things are trickier. Its there that I think some sort of game-mechanical support for consequences other than death is really needed (not that it isn't welcome in a roleplaying-heavy game). I think that this is one of the things that I really like about Spirit of the Century/FATE - you can stick negative aspects on PCs that follow naturally from their actions.

Friday, October 10, 2008

RPG Carnival: Superhero Tropes for Non-Superhero Gaming

Superhero comics have a ton of useful tropes that could easily be adapted to other genres.

Naming conventions

Want your players to know when an NPC is important? Give that NPC an alliterative name. Bonus: It will be easier for everyone (including you) to remember it.

As far as PC names go, Superhero code-names are usually nicknames or titles of a sort. I'm often surprised at how rarely PCs have nicknames or titles. One of my favorite PCs was a highish-level rogue/cleric of Tritherion in a Greyhawk campaign. I decided that his priestly title was Harbinger (which suited the god and the PC's role) and the DM generally had people who recognized him or his symbol of office calling him that - it added to the tone a great deal.

There's also nothing wrong with non-superheroes with secret identities. Look at the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Lone Ranger, or Zorro. Moreover, villains with secret identities are commonplace, so why not heroes?

Villains

Create a rogue's gallery for your PCs. In comics, rogues galleries often share a theme that mirrors the PCs in some way. Batman's rogues are often either reflections of Batman's animal-emblem (Catwoman, the Penguin) or reflections of his psychological instability (the Joker, Scarecrow, Two-Face). Superman's rogues may concentrate on the intellect (Lex Luthor, Braniac) or be reflections of him 'unhindered' by his moral compass (Bizarro, Doomsday). Spider-man often faces science experiments gone awry - like the one that created him (Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard). The Hulk typically faces other gamma-irradiated beings (Abomination, the Leader). How do you do this in an RPG? Well, there are a few ways. Perhaps most obvious is the 'evil opposites' route. More subtly, look at an aspect of each PC and twist it - either flipping it to its opposite or magnifying a flaw in it. For example, a wizard who focuses on fire spells might be countered with someone that summons elementals or an enemy focused around a different element. A character motivated by revenge against marauding orcs who slew his family might face the last orc from a tribe slaughtered by adventurers, a human raised by orcs, or someone (not an orc) whose family the character killed.

Also, few things motivate players to beat a villain more than having the villain beat their PCs. This is a fairly common superhero trope, where the hero faces off against a villain, gets beaten, and then needs to do something (even if it is just regain confidence) in order to beat the villain on their second match-up.

Other villain-related tropes you can use: Villain team-ups (usually with internal discord/betrayal), anything from the Evil Overlord list.

Material Issues

When a superhero is rich, he is usually so rich that money is never an object (see Batman, Iron Man, Professor X, Reed Richards). When a superhero is poor, the need for money often motivates the plot (Spider-man is the classic example here). Most superheroes are in-between - and, for them, money is simply never an issue. They have enough to do what they need, as long as what they need is not too ostentatious. Unless you are playing a game that focuses on mercantilism (or kill things and take their stuff), you might want to consider those three categories for PC wealth. In many games, anything more finely tuned will be unnecessary.

Another superhero trope is that equipment is part of a hero's identity. We don't imagine Captain America without a shield, Green Lantern without a ring, Iron man without armor, or Batman without those wonderful toys. Now, the precise nature of the equipment might change. Captain America might lose his adamantium-vibranium shield... but he'll replace it with another one (probably temporarily). Iron Man might modify/upgrade his armor. Green Lantern might... ummm... get nine more rings... Anyway. Yeah. In any case, few superheroes go out and actually, you know, buy things off the shelf (much less take things from their fallen foes) to use in superheroing. In contrast, PCs in fantasy RPGs are usually constantly upgrading their equipment. One eggect of this is that they change their look and capabilities every time they find a new magic item. This can lead to identity drift - the fighter who was the guy who wore mithril chain and carried a magical, flaming axe becomes the guy who wears magical plate armor and carries a dancing shield and magical greatsword. As an alternative to trading in items, consider letting your PCs upgrade magic items they find early in their careers for a discount... or even upgrade those items automatically in a low-treasure game.

Speaking of identity and character-branding, you probably don't want to dress your non-super PCs in spandex or the like (unless you're playing a pulp SF game... or something... naughty), but that shouldn't stop your PCs from having distinctive images. You can come up with a ton of excuses for why your PC wears a particular symbol, say - perhaps it is a family crest (Superman), something designed to evoke a reaction from enemies (Batman), a symbol of an organization (Green Lantern, Captain America), a symbol of something that started him on her path as an adventurer (Spider-man, the Flash), or a symbol of team membership (Fantastic Four, X-Men). It could also have practical purposes, serving as a target in a highly-protected area (the Punisher, Batman, Captain America). Even without a symbol, a particularly distinctive article of clothing or color scheme (Dr. Strange, Elektra, Balck Canary, Green Arrow) does a good bit to make a character distinctive.

Other tropes to steal:

Secret hideouts, secret vulnerabilities, origin stories, and alternate continuities (great for What If style one-shots).

submitted as part of the RPG Blog Carnival.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Reprint: Planescape, Revisited

This is a reprint of a post published on February 7, 2008 in honor of the fact that the D&D game Angela is running has moved to Sigil.


I wrote this up a long time ago as potential notes for a neo-planescape campaign. I've added a couple notes since then.

Maybe I will do something along these lines someday. Until then, maybe someone else will find this useful.

It is unlikely that this will make sense unless you are familiar with Planescape.

The Lady of Pain:
Largely unchanged, though perhaps a bit less hands-on. Mysterious. Silent. Terrifying. Ignore the backstory that was given to her in the gaming fiction.

Portals:
Some portals, particularly older and more stable ones, are more akin to hallways than doorways. They have demiplanar space inside them. A few of these have multiple doorways off of them, but such are rare. Others have stores or inns that have set up shop within them. The largest and most stable portals practically have small cities within them - these are commonly called Gate-towns.

Religion in Sigil:
As I envision it, Sigil has very few churches to deities. Deities who desire representatives in Sigil may have an embassy, and nearly all such embassies have chapels. Organized worship of deities outside of embassies is not, precisely, illegal... but it appears to be frowned upon by the Lady of Pain and, thus, rare. The Lady of Pain has not, however, taken a stance on cults that worship things other than deities (which is one of the reasons that some of the Factions are so strong in Sigil).

Sigil Government:
The Factions, such as they are, do not have a formal role in government. Each of Sigil's six wards has a Ward Council. The members of these councils are chosen in different manners in different wards. Each of the Ward Councils sends a single representative to the High Council. In addition, each time the high council meets, a different citizen of Sigil is brought to the meeting by one or more of the Dabus. The Council refers to this person as The Voice (presumably "The Voice of the Lady," but this presumption goes unspoken in case it is mistaken). The Voice will break any ties of the council and holds veto power over any of their decisions. It is unknown how The Voice is chosen. Gate-towns have no formal representation, a fact that has caused some unrest.

Alignment and the Outer Planes:
I don't like the reification of alignment, and some alignment concepts ("lawful" - I am looking at you) are a conglomeration of things that aren't particularly related to each other. Instead of Law-Chaos-Good-Evil, the Outer Planes are organized around Reason-Passion-Peace-Conflict. Alternately, I'd use the new 4e cosmology. Sigil would be on an island in the 'center' of the Astral Sea... or something.

The Outlands:
My conception of the Outlands was pretty close to the 4e Astral anyway: The Outlands take up the space between the Planes of Reason-Passion-Peace-Conflict and are physically bordered by them. One can, in theory, walk from The Abyss (Conflict/Passion) to Arcadia (Reason/Peace). The Outlands, however, are weird. Phantom Tollbooth Weird. The Outlands are made up of a series of semi-contiguous pocket-dimensions, many of which are ruled by gods and shaped by their whims... and many of which are infinitely large. Some things formerly designated as outer planes in and of themselves will now be infinitely large domains within the Outlands. The Outlands also have a strange connection to the Inner Planes.

Gate-towns:
Gate-towns are no longer in the Outlands. Instead, the Gate-towns are demi-planes that have exactly two portals in them - one in Sigil and one on an Outer Plane. The location of each of these portals (in Sigil and on the other Plane) is well-known and well-traveled. The Gate-towns and Sigil itself make up a sort of megalopolis, and some people consider the Gate-towns to be part of Sigil.

The Factions:
The Factions are no longer Capital-F-Factions. Instead, they are much less unified and much more subtly integrated. Many of them are cults or secret societies. Others will have stronger ties to some of the outer planes or Sigil itself. Details are below.

Athar - The Athar exist as a secret society across many Planes. Most of its members in high standing are former clerics who have renounced their faiths. Some are worshippers of gods who have died. They rarely become directly involved in politics, but they often sponsor secular alternatives to activities typically provided only through religion. They have trained midwives and healers, and have reached out to those seeking spiritual enlightenment or meaning in a wide variety of ways. The Athar are subtly evangelical.

Godsmen - The Godsmen Foundry is run by a group within the Athar known as the Believers of the Source. The Foundry is a business venture - it sells both forged products and self-actualization training (which involves forge-training and work in the Foundry). Many people consider the whole thing a scam. The Foundry is, however, a cooperative, and the Godsmen own it (though the Athar still have influence in it). The Godsmen themselves are those who have successfully gone through the self-actualization training and believe that they are on the path to becoming gods. The Godsmen have become economically significant in Sigil. Many Godsmen have largely left the Foundry and continued on a more personal path. They tend to become successful in their ventures.

Bleak Cabal - the Cabal is a social club and service organization for existentialists. They often meet with each other or with members of the Sign of One (or - occasionally - the Revolutionary League) for philosophical discussions and alcohol. They fund and staff services for the poor in Sigil.

Doomguard - The Doomguard is a militant entropy-worshiping cult that exists across many Planes. It also has among its members a few of those who worship gods of entropy, death, and decay - though many of these eventually abandon their gods for the Doomguard philosophy. Members of the Doomguard recognize that the multiverse is flawed. These flaws, they see, will result in the eventual - and inevitable - decay and destruction of the universe. Many of the Doomguard are dedicated to seeing that this process occurs smoothly. Some of them are dedicated to eliminating unnecessary suffering in this process. Others seek to speed the process. In general, the belief is that the universe itself will reincarnate into a less flawed form. This process of decay and rebirth may need to happen many times before the universe is flawless. Joining the Doomguard involves a demonstration of your acceptance of entropy - and often involves the willing physical destruction of something of great value to you.

Dustmen - The Dustmen are cross-planar cultists, a group of whom have infiltrated and taken over the morticians guild of Sigil. Their philosophy involves a denial of Passion and Conflict. Instead of Reason and Peace, however, they see the opposition to these things as a state of True Death. Furthermore, they deny the meaningfulness of the common distinction between life and death - death that does not occur while one is in a state of denial of Passion and Conflict cannot be True Death (and, instead, results in the individual becoming a Petitioner). A minority of the Dustmen believe that the True Death must be found not only in the denial of Passion and Conflict, but must also involve the denial of Reason and Peace. This minority has a tremendous respect for mindlessness, and practices the creation of skeletons and zombies. The Dustmen count some intelligent undead among their members.

Fated - The Fated are the self-proclaimed social elite of Sigil - many of them are ex-adventurers and former members of the Fraternity of Order or the Godsmen. Their interactions with each other center primarily around formal social events. They count among their number several members of the Lady's Ward Council and the Clerk's Ward Council, but their real power is as individuals. Each of the Fated is an individual of impressive ability or resources, without which they would not have been admitted to the group. They consider themselves to be the true powers in Sigil.

Fraternity of Order - The Fraternity of Order is somewhere between a secret society and a cult. Its members seek to develop a set of rules that unify all physical, arcane, social, and governmental laws. Furthermore, they believe that Sigil is the hub of the multiverse, and - as a result - is the key to their project. They have members on most of the Ward Councils. Its members are politicians, scientists, wizards, and businessmen. One of their major projects is to collect as much empirical information as possible about what goes on in Sigil. Another is to study Sigil's relationship to the rest of the multiverse (in particular, many are interested in the Gate-towns). Perhaps most central to the Order's purpose, however, is the strong political goals which fall out of their belief system. If they become the powers that be in Sigil, they believe that they will effectively be the powers that be in the multiverse.

Harmonium - The Harmonium is a group founded by Peace-aligned outsiders. It began as a sort of neighborhood watch within Sigil, and has become a vigilante group that is the de facto police force in Sigil. Moreover, its activities have spread outward from Sigil to the areas around more well-travelled portals, including Gate-towns.

Mercykillers - As the Harmonium expanded, it recruited more individuals who were not as strongly Peace-aligned as its founders. When such individuals were forced to deal more with the harsh realities of the underbelly of Sigil, many of them resorted to methods not sanctioned by the Harmonium. Eventually, this group, frustrated by what they perceived as the Harmonium's overly merciful ways, split off completely. There is a tension between the two, but they will occasionally work together (particularly if the Mercykillers agree to reign in their tactics). The Mercykillers primarily function in the Hive, the Lower Ward, and the Gate-towns of Conflict-aligned planes, but they have begun recruiting and acting outside of the environs of Sigil.

Revolutionary League - The Revolutionary League, like the Bleak Cabal and the Sign of One, is largely a social club for people of a particular philosophical bent - in this case, anarchists. The League has a political agenda - it believes that Sigil belongs to everyone and that the Ward Councils (and their Harmonium lap dogs) should be abolished. Recently, they have gotten wind of the Fraternity of Order's true purpose and have begun to mobilize to tear them down. They could easily turn against other factions.

Sign of One - The Sign of One is a group of solipsists that developed around a group of magical researchers dedicated to developing their own form of magic based upon a solipsistic belief system. While it was founded by a small group of individuals, the group has become increasingly popular among the self-important. These hangers-on tend to treat Sign of One as a sort of social/philosophical club. Recently, the researchers at the core of the group have made some breakthroughs, and the basic abilities of the magical system they have developed are becoming more widespread among the Signers.

Society of Sensation - The Society of Sensation is an elite social club for explorers... in a very broad sense of the term explorer. The Sensates are choosy about who they admit to their number. A prospective member must be sponsored and must have a truly unique experience to offer. The Sensates make extensive use of crystals that record experiences and memories.

Transcendent Order - Members of the Transcendent Order attend - or have spent time at - the Cifer Monastery, where they learn to act through instinct, ignoring both passion and reason. They practice distinctive meditative techniques and martial arts. The monastery in Sigil is not the first of the Transcendent Order's (which was on a Prime), but it has become the largest and, effectively, the headquarters of the Order.

Xaositects - 'Xaositect' is a name imposed from the outside. It refers to any one of a number of roving gangs made up of individuals who are mentally ill, have been driven mad, have had their minds altered by magic, or are of a creature type whose mind works in a way that most individuals in Sigil consider insane or chaotic. There have recently been rumors about an entity (possibly from a Passion-aligned plane?) who calls itself the Xaositect and who is said to be the leader of all of these gangs, but most consider the rumor to be unfounded...

There would be additional factions, as well. These include one that wants Gate-town (and, possibly, outer-plane) representation in Sigil government, and another that is working toward Gate-town independence from Sigil and the connecting planes.

I've gotten rid of the Free League - which I felt was necessary given the role of the factions here - though they might be recast as either (1) a group of individuals fighting against a perceived shadow government or (2) a mercantile league that supports a free market.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Random Comment Table

1d12
1-3 | This is a cool idea for generating NPCs while defining the culture they come from... I don't know that I'd use the card mechanic, but the bit with the suits is a useful way of thinking about an individual's relationship to a cultural framework.
4-5 | Saturday was Exalted. We chatted with a Deathlord and fought a Fair Folk parade in the Underworld.
6-7 | Yesterday was D&D. It was a transitional game. We lost one player (to moving), one player changed her character, and we were joined by a new player. The transition went pretty smooth, though... and it managed to advance the plot significantly. We also fought some Chain Devils who had a grudge against us from a few sessions ago.
8 | I'm still trying to decide on my entry for this month's blog carnival. I skipped last month, and I feel a bit bad about doing so.
9-10 | I'm still really digging FATE.
11 | I just started using Feedburner on this site last week. Apparently, I have 86 subscribers. I don't know that this is useful information.
12 | No, I don't really have a lot to say.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Giant lizards

Our heroes fight their way through the Ruins of the Reptile Gods and face dire beasts such as... Giant Lizards!



We can do better than that.

Really.

Meet the Grumpysaurus.





I was thinking about using one of the leopard geckos, but they weren't likely to sit still long enough...

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Goofy Gaming

Gaming is entertainment.

I think that much is uncontroversial. How silly any given game should be is somewhat less so.

Example the First: Nobilis

The Nobilis game that I've been playing is has been mostly serious, despite the fact that our Imperator (a not-totally-sane angel) is sort of goofy. He often appears distracted and wears robes with t-shirt-style slogans on them (last night's was "Believe." - but it is just as likely to be "I'm with stupid." or something). Anyway, the GM asked us to come up with other families of Nobilis. Half-jokingly (and with a note to the effect that I could come up with something more serious), I sent him the first thing that popped into my head:

Imperator: a true god known as the Voice of Thunder, his domains include Rage, Armor, Size, and Patriotism.

His nobles:
  • Bruce Banner, power of Rage (Superior attribute: strength, decent Spirit, durant, and immutable... possibly even Immortal)
  • Anthony Stark, power of Armor (Domain 5, lots of stuff bought through a focus. alcoholic)
  • Steve Rogers, power of Patriotism (well-balanced. a good bit of Realm. Impressive. Durant with a focus.)
  • Janet Van Dyne, power of Size (gift of domain that allows for size changes on herself. former anorexic fashion model-turned-designer)
Anyway, he decided that would work for the game... which surprised me a bit. I'm not upset by it, but a bit surprised...

That said, he hasn't introduced these NPCs yet, and they may end up not being particularly silly at all...


Example the Second: D&D

In Angela's D&D game, one of the PCs is insane. He's a half-drow who constantly covers himself in mud, offers monsters pickles, and carries around a bag in which he is developing fungal colonies. Sometimes the player goes over the top. Sometimes it is rather annoying for those of us who actually have coherent goals... or don't really want to sit there and watch him be wacky. The game has been going on for over a year and a half. Only within the last month has he said that his PC was created as comic relief. I'll note that the player has a habit of creating oddball PCs - so we thought this one was just, you know, a little odder than usual. If he'd said from the outset that he was thinking of playing a PC for laughs, I suspect everyone in the group would have attempted to dissuade him (since he's naturally goofy enough, thanks).

I think this is a case of lack of communication at PC creation and the outset of the campaign. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a silly rpg, but it is important that campaign tone is agreed upon by the participants.