Saturday, August 19, 2017

Making History

My very first issue of DRAGON magazine was #74, an out-of-nowhere gift from my brother while we were on summer vacation. That issue is still magical to me; between Ed Greenwood’s seven magic swords utterly transforming the way I played D&D, to the “review” of Star Frontiers, to the comedic-yet-epic cover by Jim Holloway, I treasured that issue for years.

Amongst all the great stuff in it was talk of this thing called “GenCon.” It seemed magical. A gathering of gamers from across the world. I could barely conceive of such a thing.

And this at a time when attendance could be measured in a mere four digits!

This marks my fourth GenCon and Tam’s second. We have a great time every time. And every time, I do things I’ve never done before. My GenCon experiences include my first games of pictaphone and Dogs in the Vineyard. I met Larry Elmore and discussed my critique of his work for TSR. I’ve met face-to-face with people who, up until then, had only been names on the internet. I got a press badge and did one-on-one interviews with industry luminaries and legends like Eric Mona and Liz Danforth.

And this year, due to a sequence of odd circumstance and luck, I got to host Zak’s post-ENnie’s party.

To everyone who came, thank you so much for being such gracious guests. I’m sorry we had to move things downstairs as early as we did, but as I understand it, the hotel is favored by vendors who have to actually be awake and functioning in the morning. So completely understandable. I hope you all had as much fun as Tam and I did meeting you and enjoying the energy of that amazing night.

However you slice it, this year I got to help create a little GenCon history. My 11-year-old self would have been totally blown away.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Death is Still Boring

This is insightful:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is like a Saw movie for kids: it matches grisly fates to the sins of the children who enter the factory. I needed all or most of those grisly fates to be represented in the adventure: blueberrification, being boiled alive in chocolate, being shrunk and stretched, uncontrollably floating, plus a bunch more of my own design. All of them weird and gory and absolutely deadly.

They were one of the first things James Raggi took issue with.


While LotFP adventures have a reputation as being really deadly, he wanted BitC to be for 1st level characters, and specifically new players. All my listed damage was way too high, and all my poisons too lethal. His point was along the lines of “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?”. He suggested toning down the damage of the adventure significantly, and instead focusing on these poisons and effects inconveniencing players or making them rethink how they play.

This turned out to be a genius suggestion, because it provided a clear through line for the rest of the adventure. Few things in the final draft of BitC are designed to explicitly kill. Instead, they’re designed to unsettle, gross out, and inconvenience players. Body horror carries with it the threat of death, but it’s more about the perversion and grossness of life than it is about death.

This is why death is boring. “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?” Answer: they can’t. They laugh or shrug or whatever and roll up a new character. “What’s next?” they ask.

And understand, I’m not denigrating that kind of play. If a rolling series of grizzly deaths is what gets you and yours excited to play, more power to you. But if you’re into body horror, the joy isn’t in the death, but all the stuff that leads up to it. It’s the inflation, or the bulging of the eyes and the appearance of gill-like slits along the neck, or the way the xenomorph squirms within your belly as it grows. It’s in the way the body devolves, or turns traitor, or evolves in sudden terrible spurts.

And sure, the victims of body horror often die (Aliens franchise) but sometimes they devolve (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) or evolve even to a point beyond fleshy existence (Akira). The real challenge for a DM running a game based on body horror is keeping the horrors and transformations new and fresh. Too much of anything gets boring after a while.

And this same principle largely applies to nearly any campaign; death is anticlimactic. It’s got no answer for, “What next?” except shake off that old character and everything they’ve been through up until now, and start a new one. It violently forces the player out of the fiction and thrusts them head-first into the realm of mechanics (though skilled players can hop right back in again). All the work the group has done to build up tension and interest in that character and their contacts is suddenly chopped off. Death is, in terms of fun, expensive.

Which isn’t to say it should never happen. The fear of death creates wonderful tension in a game. As a DM, killing an NPC you love early on is good way to let the players know you mean business. (Hey, it works for GRR Martin and J Whedon, right?) But it’s vital you keep in mind your themes. Death is rarely the best way to support those, and defeat that doesn’t involve death can give you entire new avenues to explore.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Cant do Paranoia

Outside my home I saw a little triangular rock, all shiny and glisteny if you looked at from just the right angle, that made me think of thief and tramp markings, which lead me on to contemplating Thieves Cant.

What are you doing with Thieves Cant in your game? Probably not much, and that’s understandable. Since you likely only have one (if that many) PCs in the game who understand it, they’re not going to be using it to pass messages between each other. Usually when I see it, if I see it at all, it’s a handy way to get the PC rogue in touch with the local thieves guild.

Still, Thieves Cant is a thing in the game, you might have a PC who knows it, so it’s not a bad idea to see what use we, as DMs, can make of it. I treat it as an additional way to give the players information, almost parenthetically so. It’s a bit like riffing in the dungeon; the whole place is mysterious and dangerous, but some joker who was in here fifty years ago has left what amount to footnotes in the place explaining what they saw here back then.

A dungeon I made recently was a little proving-ground test maze. Rogues, of course, cheat, so there were clues left here and there in Thieves Cant, some even pointing the way to hidden tools to make the challenges easier.

The most well-known real-world version of Thieves Cant (at least before Guy Ritchie taught us all Cockney Rhyming Slang) were the Hobo Signs. These are simple and informative, but can be playfully enigmatic as well. For instance, early in the game, the PCs are heading into your traditional haunted house, and as part of the history of the place there’s a Thieves Cant symbol hidden out front that basically says, “BEWARE: this place has been marked for destruction by dangerous powers.” The idea here is that a group with a rogue in it will know that, whatever happened at this place, it wasn’t an accident. Somebody came and inflicted tragedy here (and righting this wrong could be central to putting to rest the vengeful spirits of the place).

All well-and-good, and more than a little useful. But imagine how the players would react if later they encountered the same sign outside the home of a beloved ally, or even their own residence. Now you’re cooking with gas.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Wicked Reptilian Magic

One of my favorite creations over at the Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons & Dragons is the reptilian Sshian.  These feathered snake-people make an awesome buried-and-forgotten ancient evil for the PCs to accidentally re-awaken.  Of course, when you're looting their tombs, you need to find suitably wicked magic items.  The following were written for 5e, but there's really nothing that needs doing to convert them over to the OSR game of your choice:

Claw of the Lictor
An ornate orichalcum gauntlet with three clawed fingers and little tubes for affixing feathers, the claws themselves are fashioned from black iron. The gauntlet is a simple finesse weapon enchanted to a +1 to hit and damage. It does 1d6 slashing damage. It’s also vampiric; any damage you do to a living creature that draws blood regains you hit points equal to the damage roll.

Looking into the gauntlet reveals a series of hooks, blades, and gears inside the Claw. In truth, it’s not meant to be a gauntlet, but rather a prosthetic replacement hand. Putting a living hand into the gauntlet will cause the gauntlet to eat the hand up, doing 2d6 damage and, assuming the wielder survives, grafting itself to the arm. Only a remove curse or wish spell will allow you to remove the gauntlet.

Crimson Thorn Scourge

This six-tailed scourge is fashioned from braided lengths of manta-ray-like hide, studded with thorn-like hooks of orichaclum. Treat it as a whip that has a +1 to-hit and damage enchantment on it, does 1d6 damage, and is vampiric, giving the wielder 1 hit point for each point of damage caused. The target must make a STR saving throw vs. the attack roll or be restrained (PHB pg 292) so long as it is size Large or smaller. Every round the target is restrained, the whip can’t be used as in an attack, but it automatically does 1d4+1 damage to the target. The target can escape if they roll a STR save of 12 or better.

If the wielder rolls a 1 on their attack, then the wielder is tangled in the web and becomes restrained, suffering 1d4+1 damage (which is not fed back to them via vampirism). The wielder can escape on a STR save of 12+.

Sanguine Cords

A trio of crimson ribbons, stitched minutely with black runes, are attached to a small gold ring. At the end of each ribbon is a small obsidian plumb weight. If a spell-caster of any sort makes a loop through the ring of the cords, places their dominant arm through the loop, and then wraps the chords along their arm, they can then sacrifice 2 HP to increase both their spell attack bonus and save DC by +2. When they do this, their dominant hand exudes a brief crimson mist that trails their gestures.

If the spell being cast causes piercing or slashing damage, the bonus is automatic and does not require the user to sacrifice any hit points. Prolonged use can lead to any garments being worn on the dominant hand or arm to be stained as if with a mist of blood.



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What is Generic Fantasy Now?

So, I have to somewhat disagree with this:

As far as I am aware it has long been established that the game worlds of any Dungeons & Dragons game is essentially a quasi-Medieval world wherein the concepts of Arthurian and Tolkien fantasy hold sway over the possibilities available to the players.

This has not quite been my experience, though what was my experience may be leading me to split hairs.

Ok, I believed it, or hoped it could be, when I first started playing in the early ‘80s. My games were a mish-mash of Saturday-morning cartoons, Tolkien, Lewis, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. Problem was, the only part of that mish-mash that really worked was Saturday-morning cartoons.

Tolkien and Lewis depend on a setting where morality is literally woven into the landscape. The alignment system kinda helps to achieve that, but it’s a clunky tool that few love and fewer enjoy. Otherwise, TSR-era D&D was too enamored with looting and WotC-era D&D is too enamored with combat to map well to either Tolkien and Lewis, whose heroes spend most of their time avoiding combat whenever possible. And there’s waaaaaaay too much magic, even in early TSR-era D&D, to get anything like the Robin Hood or King Arthur feel.

I spent years trying to pound the square peg of AD&D into the round hole of Tolkien and A Young Boy’s King Arthur. Finally, in junior high, I played with a DM I hadn’t trained. He’d clearly read Fritz Leiber (which I hadn’t yet), and his adventures flowed smoothly, working in harmony with the rules. It was an eye-opening experience and completely transformed the way I played the game.

D&D has always been more of a Saturday-morning cartoon, kitchen-sink sort of assumed setting. In spite of everyone talking about “a quasi-Medieval world” the assumed setting described by the equipment is actually late Renaissance, with its pikes and halberds and plate-mail armor, lacking only the occasional arquebus (which was in 2e’s basic equipment list) to complete the picture. And variations far from that theme have always been a part of D&D, from the spaceships and lasers of “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” to the katanas and ogre-magi of “Oriental Adventures” to the genie-folk and mamluks of Al-Qadim to the pseudo-Victorian slang of Planescape to the steampunk art-deco stylings of Eberron.

Still, the author is correct in that most folks don’t want those out-there settings. They want something more familiar, more plug-and-play with everyone’s expectations. However, those expectations have little to do with Tolkien or the Arthurian legends. Yes, there are some trappings lifted wholesale from those sources, but they are only two sources, and they look nothing like our games. As the author says:

Tavern,
Dungeon,
Orcs,
Goblins,
Dragons,
Treasures,
Repeat.

So, which taverns did King Arthur and his knights hang out in? Trick question; they didn’t. They stayed in the castles of other knights when they were not roughing it in the wilderness in magical silk pavilions that provided for all their needs. The only tavern I can remember being mentioned by name in any of the Middle Earth stories is the Prancing Pony. The only dungeon is Moria (maybe Shelob’s lair, though the movies made far more of that than the book did). The Knights of the Round Table almost always met their foes in the open, at crossroads or on the list field. They dared the occasional magical castle, but these looked far more like old-school funhouse dungeons, with bridges made of swords and fighting animated statues.

Orcs and goblins are found in profusion in both Tolkien and D&D, but they bare only surface resemblance to one another. D&D’s orcs completely lack the metaphysical implications of Tolkien’s twisted elves, and have morphed into a weird, green caricature of British soccer hooligans, slow-witted jocks, and tribal Nazis with maybe a sprinkling of noble savage.

Dragons are few and far between in Tokien’s popular stories, having only one in The Hobbit and being completely absent from The Lord of the Rings. You find few in most tellings of the Arthurian legends.

As for treasures, D&D’s generic gold pieces, swords +3, and healing potions are blandly utilitarian compared to storied blades like Orcrist and Excalibur, enchanted girdles that protect from all harm, the Arkenstone, the Palantir, Morgul blades, Isolde’s love potion, or the Holy Grail.

What most folks expect in a D&D game isn’t Tolkien or King Arthur, but instead a brand new thing sometimes called “gaming fantasy.” It’s pretty much what you find in World of Warcraft and the like, and it’s heavily based on the bare-bones, utilitarian basics of D&D. It’s also got a healthy heaping of Ren Faire tropes, Greek and Norse mythology, and an endless parade of Tolkien knock-offs that were pale imitations of the original (Shannara, I’m soooo looking at you). These are worlds where combat is frequent, looting bodies is a steady job, and anti-social behavior is shrugged off, so long as the “right folks” are doing it.

And yes, it’s so cliché as to be boring now. But if you want to escape it, you could just simply run something with more fidelity to Tolkien or the Arthurian myths. But after my personal experience, I’d not suggest you use D&D in those games.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder (Why They Bothered) Woman

Back when the trailers for the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie were embedding “Hooked on a Feeling” in everyone’s ears, there was a joke making the rounds in nerd circles:
DC: Well, we’d really love to do a Wonder Woman movie, but her background is too complex and would confuse audiences.

Marvel: Look, a raccoon with a machine gun!
Clearly, DC never overcame their fear of confusing the audience, because the Wonder Woman movie we got is painfully paint-by-the-numbers:

  1. Introduce Diana as a cute, precocious child who wants to fight! But her mom is a worry-wort stick-in-the-mud. Diana learns to fight anyway.
  2. Diana has a mysterious past! A past that remains mysterious through the entire movie because everyone who tells the story has an ulterior motive for doing so. Yeah, I know, golden lasso. Tell that to Saruman and Denethor with their Palantirs.
  3. Diana rescues handsome man of questionable behavior but with a heart of gold who just happens to be of suitable age for marriage. Awkward sexual tension (mostly played for cheap jokes) ensues.
  4. Diana defies! She defies everyone (her mom, early 20th century propriety, the military realities of the first World War) except modern-day Hollywood’s sensibilities.
  5. Cute guy dies in noble self-sacrifice! (Because only Supes is allowed a long-term relationship.)
  6. Reflecting on handsome guy’s self-sacrifice suddenly makes Diana’s special effects more powerful than generic upper-crust-brit villain’s special effects.
  7. The struggle continues (but just what it is she’s struggling against or for remains impenetrably vague).

Script-wise, this movie just doesn’t cut it. Which Is a shame because a lot really works well here. You’re always entertained. The performances are a lot of fun (often in spite of the lame script). The action sequences are top-notch. The pacing is good. Runtime is 2.5 hours, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

But the script never does the heavy-lifting to support its ending. At no point do we feel a strong enough connection between Diana and the Yank to justify the act of simply dwelling on him giving her any sort of insight or opening untapped wells of inner strength. Hell, at no point do we get the feeling that Diana trusts, respects, or even really likes the guy much. There’s a kinda-sorta hinted-at sex scene in the second act that you’d miss if you blinked, and it never comes up again in any way, shape, or form. We don’t even get the usual morning-after sweet-awkward smiles or anything.

So his sacrifice leads her to slaughter a bunch of faceless Germans. But when she’s presented with a German who very much has a face and a name, suddenly she decides she believes in love and her FX are more powerful than the villain’s FX because… reasons?

It doesn’t hold together at all. Maybe if the Yank had been more respectable, or had a family he was leaving behind, or we’d seen some sparks between him and Diana, the sacrifice thing might have made sense. But he’s none of those things because one of the big themes is that humanity is deeply flawed.

Which is the other fumbled ball of this movie. The whole time, they keep hinting that Ares isn’t a completely unreasonable jerk, that he understands humanity better than the other gods did, that perhaps he even has a point. But nope, he actually is just a jerk who gets off on goading humanity into larger and more destructive wars.

(Which, incidentally, makes the post-fight scenes very confusing. Everyone’s friends now? So it really was Ares clouding everyone’s minds? Does that mean the second World War never happens in the DC universe? It’s certainly implied in those moments of everyone helping each other as the sun rises behind a victorious Wonder Woman.)

So Ares is defeated when Diana decides humanity is worth saving because… reasons. Reasons never explained and certainly not supported by the rest of the movie. Especially since the movie very clearly says that Ares is right about humans, but apparently wanting to wipe them all out for it is wrong because… reasons.

Philosophically, the movie is a complete mess. Which renders the end nothing more than a clash between special effects, visually interesting but incomprehensible. How and why anything happens is utterly hidden from the audience, and you’re left with nothing but the needs of the paint-by-numbers plot. At the very, very end, Diana gives us a generic, “I must continue the struggle!” monologue, but as she’s leaping out of the Louvre, flying through the air, we have no idea what she’s going to fight against. There’s vague talk about creating a world that could be, but the only visions of such a world are the all-female paradise of the Amazons and Ares’ dream of a human-free Eden. Exactly what Diana’s goals are in the modern world and how she plans to achieve them… Nope! She’s a super-hero. Doing super-hero things. Because… reasons!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Boycotting Yourself in the Foot

Apparently, I’ve somehow missed most of the last political slap-fight in the RPG internet-o-sphere. Can’t say I’m horrible upset. I did, however, come across this blog post considering the morality and efficacy of boycotts against RPG companies.

Now, right off the bat, I’m not a fan of organized boycotts, especially against creative types. It very much is trying to tell artists what they can and cannot create, and backing up your demands with threats. That’s not something I can comfortably cotton to.

But, as they say, don't appeal to a person's better nature; they may not have one. So let's talk about your self-interest. And since you're here reading this blog, I assume you're interested in having fun playing RPGs. So right off the bat, discouraging people from making cool RPG things by threatening any monetary gain seems like a bad idea. Things get worse when we see Victor applying a carrot in conjunction with the stick. Sure, you can absolutely spend your money with an eye towards “supporting the creators and narratives we want to see flourish in the world.” But keep in mind that, when you do that, you’re not promoting good games. You’re promoting those who voice support for the issue de jour. You’re encouraging creators and publishers to focus on politics, social causes, and appearances instead of things like good game play, useability at the table, and creating fun. Time and money are both limited resources. The time writers and artists focus on voicing the proper opinions is not spent on improving their craft, researching new techniques and tools, or playing games. But they’ll have to do that because the publishers will be hiring folks with strong reputations for voicing support for the right causes, rather than the folks who are the most innovative and effective at supporting fun at the table.

The results will look like large swathes of the RPG market at the turn of the century, when publishers were convinced their primary audience was collectors and readers, not players. The books were big and pretty, but the art did little to support game play, the rules were poorly organized (and frequently broken; everyone remember the Star Wars game where better armor could actually make it easier to wound your character?), poorly written, and confusing, and the density made them impenetrable to beginners.

While I understand Victor’s point about boycotts potentially being more effective in the RPG world due to the small number of buyers (making each that much more important), I think it’s undercut by the nature of RPGs themselves. Quite simply, as the drift of D&D from a game about exploration to a game about combat aptly demonstrates, writers and publishers have nearly zero influence on how a game is actually played. As extreme examples (that have actually appeared on RPG forums), it’s not hard to make a game of Blue Rose about patriarchal champions fighting against the vile misandry of Aldis and its magical-deer overlords, or turn Monster Hearts into a game about competitive rape.

Of course, there’s nothing preventing you from doing the opposite, either. Which is why everyone is best served by supporting those who make really good games, no matter their personal failings or extreme political ideas. A new way of playing, or presenting information, or organizing rules can improve your game and create more fun for you regardless of the wacky ideas on economics or biology held by the author. And there’s nothing stopping you from using those tools at your table, which will naturally promote models of economics and biological science known and supported by all right-thinking people.