Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Apocalypse Star Wars

Ok, it’s not bad. I did enjoy watching it.

I’m not in a hurry to go back, though.

If you thought the TIE fighters coming out of the sunset was Apocalypse Now, wait until you get a load of this one. Forest Whitaker is Kurtz, complete with paranoid mumblings and devoted followers, with a heavy-handed dash of Darth Vader. The new u-wing isn’t really a fighter, it’s more a combat shuttle, complete with seat-belt strapping and slide away doors with pintel-mounted .50 calibre... er, blasters.

Rogue One is a very Cold War story, which makes its interface with Episode IV feel like an ill fit. The original trilogy wears its WWII on its sleeve. There’s no question the Empire is the Axis powers, with their Stormtroopers, howling TIE fighters, and Japanese-inspired helmets. Lucas famously used dog-fighting footage from WWII movies as filler for the FX starship scenes. The villains are vile and the heroes, even the princess, exude an aw-shucks nobility that personifies the American self-image of what we call the Greatest Generation.

Not so in Rogue One. Even the heroes have been damaged by war, their principles compromised for their cause. The rebel “heroes” are murderers, blasting people in cold blood, and carry the scars of those actions. (Though a few from the gang at the end felt more than a little too green to bear such weights.)

The writing doesn’t help. Listen, I’m one of those softies who loves Babylon 5 and nearly bursts into tears when Sam tells Frodo, “I can’t carry it, but I can carry you!” Purple prose doesn’t send my eyes a-rollin’. But there’s good purple prose and then there’s leaden purple prose, and the constant litany of “hope-hope-hope” just sounded flat. Especially when you consider how so many characters just seem to give up in their final minutes, shrug, and wait for their inevitable deaths.

And the music also isn’t helping. The call-backs are timid, the emotional beats are timid. There’s too much trying to be Star Wars and not be John Williams going on here, and it just doesn’t do the emotional heavy-lifting a movie with this sort of dialogue and themes needs. You can tell that poor Michael Giacchino was working under severe time restraints.

Which all sounds pretty bad, but honestly, as sci-fi space opera movies go, Rogue One was actually entertaining. There’s some neat characters, some fun banter, the comedy is excellent and not heavy-handed. It’s got cool locales, neat ships, and well-filmed action. It’s just not up the standards set by The Force Awakens or the Captain America movies.

Comic by jollyjack.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Doing Star Wars Right

Like Kiel, I’m often bit by the run-a-Star-Wars rpg after watching one of the new movies. (Never felt this way when watching the original trilogy, mostly because I was so taken by what the pros had done with the setting. Not so much anymore.) While I’ve never done as much work on creating a Star Wars game as Kiel has, here are my thoughts on what one would look like:

  1. Heavily Character Based. Everything is about the characters and revolves around them. But not only the characters individually but as groupings. Luke’s faith in his friends wasn’t his weakness, but his strength. These movies, each and every one, have been about relationships. I’d put that front-and-center in a Star Wars game by:
    1. Creating a quasi-class system where each class has a nice little expertise niche carved out for itself, but where the abilities of the different classes have powerful synergies. A pilot and a mechanic working together can make a ship do things neither alone could. A diplomat plus a warrior can play good-cop-bad-cop in negotiations and interrogations. Getting attacked by a Jedi and a sniper is far worse than being attacked by either alone.
    2. Give relationships actual mechanics. Being siblings creates synergies (Luke calling for Lea while hanging from the bottom of the cloud city), being romantically involved creates synergies (maybe by being able to boost each other’s skills a la Han and Lea in front of the bunker on Endor), and being able to call on the aid of NPCs the PCs actually invest time and effort into.
    3. A pile of dice in the middle of the table the group can decide together to spend on any one roll they agree is important enough to warrant it. Yeah, it’s a dissociative mechanic, and generally I don’t like those, but this very much fits the feel of a Star Wars band coming together and supporting one another. Maybe instead it’s dice that each PC has, but that get boosted if given to another player?
    4. Base most of character advancement on this. Sure, Luke becomes a more powerful Jedi over the course of the first three movies, but he’s an aberration. Han’s already a hot-shot pilot; his growth arc has nothing to do with his skills and everything to do with his relationships and moral fiber.
  2. Remember that, while swashbuckling combat is a part of Star Wars, it’s not what Star Wars is about. To that end, I’d avoid fights for the sake of fights and instead of a usual combat system adjudicate every fight with a variation of Daisy Chains of Death & Destruction. The fighting in Star Wars is almost never about killing someone, and almost always an obstacle that must be overcome to achieve a goal.
  3. And I’d keep in mind that the Jedi are mystics first and warriors second, and make the higher plane they operate on mechanically significant to the game. Morality in Star Wars isn’t quite black-and-white, but it’s pretty central to the original stories, and making that work in the rules is important to getting the right feel.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Two Years of A5t!

So 5e’s been out for a few years now, two this January to be exact (counting the DMG), and it’s finally been graced with its own general-purpose rules addition in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. (I’m not counting Sword Coast because it’s very setting-specific and, frankly, appears to go largely overlooked, at least in my neck of the woods.) Now seems to be a good time to look back at the evolution of the art of 5e’s hardbacks.

The first thing that’s obviously different is the utter disappearance of the Robert-Howard-esque, checklist multi-culturalism that was everywhere in the PHB and largely gone by the DMG. It’s still gone. Instead, D&D art direction appears to have fully embraced the post LotR-movies “generic gamest fantasy” trappings you see just about everywhere these days. We’re a far cry from the Dungeonpunk look of 3e; weapons are armor look serviceable and realistic (except for dwarven armor which apparently revolves around sculptural paldron ornaments). The clothing and gear looks worn, sometimes even stained or tattered around hems. The further you get from the PHB, the more careworn the look and feel is. Also, the more practical it looks, with pockets, pouches, straps and hanging gear, without going full Wayne-Reynolds-kitchen-sink, and certainly not like the pants-made-of-belts Dungeonpunk of 3e.

Still, we’re not seeing a resurgence of ‘80’s you-are-there, either. What we’ve got now is a very digital look with a soft focus and lots of color effects, clearly inspired by Frazetta but with the heroics tamed down. The proportions are strictly human, the heroics more Aragron-with-his-feet-planted-on-the-earth than Legolas-leaping-through-the-air. It’s kinda reminiscent of the reskinned 2e with Jane and Bob from accounting, but instead of a near-photorealistic painting of them in their late-‘90’s renfest garb, the wardrobe’s up to Weta Workshop standards now.

Nor are we seeing the WoW-inspired, ultra-cool of 4e. The palette is muted, almost muddied to the point of ‘90’s-era computer games like Morrowind or Quake. There’s lots of browns, umbers, and sienna with very little crimson or royal blue. When we get bold, brilliant colors, they’re atmospheric effects like lava, or a magical effect inspired by a monster, and almost never on a PC.

In short, the WotC focus has moved from who you are and what you’re doing and into concept-art style moods. The wall-of-action is gone; in its place are almost contemplative scenes that promise that action is imminent, but not happening just right now. Unfortunately, the moods tend to be things that art conveys very clearly, but can be more of a challenge in an RPG. The eminent attack of this giant is neat, but PCs rarely wait around for the monster to strike, not when there are buffs to cast, weapons to poison, and plans to make.

The other very common piece of art is the head-shot and full-body portrait, very reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen Paizo do for their adventures. Unfortunately, while this sort of thing ought to be extremely useful to DMs running adventures, my own experience with the art has been very hit-and-miss. It’s pretty rare that I see one of these pics and get a good sense of personality. These portraits rarely tell me anything useful about the people they represent. The most interesting thing about the headshot of Out of the Abyss’ Sarith are the bright orange spots that blatantly give away the most interesting thing about him.

The end result is art that feels like it’s attempting to justify its inclusion through utility, attempting to be informative and inspiring, but stumbling due to the traditional limits and expectations of RPG art. NPC portraits should come on sheets that can be handed to the players, with ample space for the players to jot notes on. Mood pieces should accompany tools and tips for DMs to create and maintain that mood to useful effect at the table.

On the one hand, I appreciate this respect for the consumer. The art’s not there just to be pretty, it’s not there just because there needs to be art, the art is actively trying to make my game better. On the other hand, I think WotC needs to be even more experimental, or, at the very least, pay attention to the experiments of others. Why are the end papers in their books still blank? Why don’t their full-color illustrations have the vibrancy and life and character of their sketchy line-art? Where are the visual puzzles? Where are the hand-outs of items and locations that contain visual clues for the players to pick up on?

All-in-all, I’m finding 5e’s art to be ok. Not great, but not off-putting either. It’s just kinda there. I don’t mean to be damning with faint praise, but yeah, it doesn’t really inspire or excite me. I won’t be rushing out to purchase poster-sized versions of any of it. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m having to fight against it, either, which is a step in the right direction for me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Weeping Iron Makes Wizards Writhe

Sorry, couldn't resist all the alliteration. ;)

Reading the fourth and fifth Black Company books inspired this. Most likely to be encountered by my Wednesday group, but considering how ubiquitous spell-use is in 5e, it seems it would have very broad application.

So, somewhere in the mists of time, someone hated spell-slingers. Someone hated them A LOT. And they devised multiple methods of killing them. One of the most effective, and enduring, was weeping iron. Weeping iron looks like black iron except it weeps a nasty purple oil that coats the metal. Most weeping iron weapons are enchanted (because, apparently, they didn’t hate all spell-slingers, or maybe they were one flavor of spell-slingers with a hate-on for another flavor; whichever works best for your campaign, naturally).

Regardless of whatever enchantments a weeping iron weapon has, anyone struck by such a weapon must make a CON save (usually against 16) or be poisoned (as per the condition rules in the PHB). If the victim doesn’t have any spell slots available, they’ll shake the poison off in 10 minutes.

On the other hand, if the victim does have spell slots, they have disadvantage on the saving throw and immediately take 1d6 damage per the level of their highest remaining spell slot. (So if a wizard has two 1st level slots and a single 3rd level spell slot remaining, the wizard takes 3d6 damage from the poison.) Every hour after, the spell-slinger takes another d6 damage per level of their highest remaining spell slot. The poison feeds on the spell-slingers magical potential; only magic will serve to purge the poison from a spell-singer’s body.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Black Company Brings D&D Magic to Fantasy Lit

I’ve read this book three times now, I think. Once was in high school. I could swear the second time was more recently, and I thought it had been since ’08, but now I’m not so sure; there’s a lot of this book I did not remember. Perhaps ’09. There are a lot of frustrating holes in my memories of ’09.

The Black Company is important to me in large part because it’s kinda-sorta the template I’ve based D&D on since high school. When I first picked up D&D, I was days away from turning the recommended age of 10. My models for fantasy were Harryhausen movies (especially Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), a random sampling of Norse and Greek myths sanitized for elementary-school kids, A Boy’s King Arthur, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A lot of the core of D&D can be found in these things: warriors that take blow after blow, their mail hanging off them in bloody rags, but staying on their feet and in the fight; professional specialization; the ensemble of disparate characters united in a quest; derring-do, danger, and reward.

But there was a big, ugly fly in my D&D soup: magic. I would learn before I reached high school that D&D magic was based on the writings of Jack Vance, but I wouldn’t actually read any Vance for over a decade after I got that first Basic box. Magic in my fantasy didn’t work at all like D&D magic. D&D magic didn’t fit in Camelot or Cair Paravel or Isengard. My earliest attempts to fix this with spell-point systems were, of course, disastrous; such a gameist solution actually snuffed out any sense of the mystical.

In my teens, however, I discovered two writers whose work really, really fit D&D. The first was Steven Brust with his Taltos novels. The second was Glen Cook with The Black Company.

In spite of Green Ronin’s free-form, point-based magic system to the contrary, magic in the Black Company universe is clearly based on very distinct spells, cast over and over again:

The occasional pair of balls howled over from Duretile. I later learned that Silent was throwing them, having been taught by the Taken.

The worst seemed over. Except for the three escapees Elmo was hunting, we had contained the thing. The Limper peeled off to the join the hunt for the three. Whisper returned to Duretile to refurbish her store of nasty tricks.

This is probably the most descriptive passage about magic in the Black Company books. Spells are, clearly, distinct and teachable techniques. And they need to be “refurbished” occasionally. In short, it looks an awful lot like D&D’s Vancian magic.

Even better, for me, The Black Company gave me a lot of what I loved from Tolkien and Lewis and King Arthur, but modified for the “reality” of D&D-style magic. We had the clash of armies, political skullduggery, the wide-ranging quests, the memorable locales and characters. Yet the focus was on grunts down in the mud and the blood and the beer. We got glimpses of great and powerful sorcerers, but from the thick of steel-on-steel melee down below the flying carpets and spiraling towers. Ok, yeah, there is a “chosen one” character, but she’s not a main character and we never see anything from her point of view. It’s mostly Croaker and his annals.

And what we get is very D&D-looking magic, with powerful artillery spells able to brutalize entire companies of soldiers at a time in horrific ways. There are rains of acidic dust, germ-warfare eggs, gargantuan invisible stompy things, and various sorts of pyrotechnics. Want to stop magic? You need either your own wizards to counter the spells of your enemy, or huge masses of cannon-fodder to absorb all that deadly magic and still swamp the enemy with.

Or, even better for D&D, be a small elite band that can slip in unnoticed, ambush the enemy wizards and rifle through their letters and documented orders, and then get the hell out before anybody notices what you’ve done.

And that’s the model I’ve used ever since to make my D&D worlds. There are powerful bad-asses bestriding the world like colossi, but still being very mortal and limited beyond the range of their particular suite of powers. And below them, entire pyramids of experts, specialists, spear-carriers, and grunts getting all the things done that need doing. The colossi have their own goals and rivalries and plots rolling along, and while most folks might just see that expected clash between Good and Evil, or Empire versus Free Cities, if you peek behind the curtain you’ll see that the game isn’t actually what you’d expect.

I remember thinking, the second time I read The Black Company that it clearly was intended by Cook to be a stand-alone thing, very much like his The Tower of Fear and the one about the guy with the magic sword. But if you look at the publication dates, that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Wikipedia, Shadows Linger was published five months after The Black Company, and The White Rose came out six months after that. Then we get a four year gap before Shadow Games. It’s going to be fun to explore this journey again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

D&D is a Transhuman RPG?

I was contemplating the realities of 5e D&D (the setting the rules assume/create) when I realized that D&D takes place in a transhuman setting. Notice the similarities:

  • There are superhuman abilities all over the place! Lots of common folk can do things like see in the dark or cast simple cantrips, or even higher-level spells like hellish rebuke, even before you start discussing class levels.
  •  Death is reversible. In 5th edition, a 5th level cleric can revivify a corpse if they’ve died within the last minute. This very much looks like tech medical researchers are perfecting even now. Many common folk have natural lifespans measured in centuries.
  • Enhanced reality and magical make-up! Lots of normal folk can toss around cantrips like thaumaturgy before you even start talking about class levels. High elves have access to the entire wizard list of cantrips, and these include things like lesser illusion, mage hand, and mending. A single 3rd level cleric can light every street-corner in town (given enough time) with continual flame.
  • Mind hacking is a thing. While friends and charm aren’t the spells they used to be, crown of madness and dominate person allow you to adjust a person’s behavior in real time, while suggestion, geas, and modify memory can distort or even reshape a personality.

And keep in mind, everything I’ve discussed above is available to characters below 10th level of ability. Modify memory and geas are 5th level spells, available to 9th-level wizards. I haven’t gotten into the really reality-bending stuff like teleportation circles, control weather, earthquake, true polymorph, or wish.

However, as in cyberpunk, the future is unevenly distributed. High elves are the big winners, having universal access to wizard cantrips and the longest life spans. Poor humans are at the bottom of the stack, though they do appear to have improved facility towards learning and personal development.

Just how uneven the distribution is depends on your campaign. 5e doesn’t assume, the way 3e did, what sort of campaign you’re running. If you decide that most priests can’t even manage a cantrip, then even kings might not have access to revivify. However, in most campaigns I’ve seen, almost every village has someone capable of casting at least lesser restoration, meaning they’ve got a 3rd level cleric or druid around. The rules for the teleportation circle spell state that “[m]any major temples, guilds, and other important places have permanent teleportation circles inscribed somewhere within their confines.” The DMG walks this back a bit, but there’s a strong implication that 9th-level wizards and sorcerers are thick enough on the ground to make these things useful to commercial and religious institutions (who usually don’t create wizards as part of their regular activities). Keep in mind, it takes a year of casting and over 18k gp (assuming a 365-day year) to create just one circle AND you need a 9th-level wizard or sorcerer at the other end, where people will be teleporting from. This isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to do on a whim.

So while your standard D&D campaign may lack the usual trappings of a transhumanist setting, it has a lot of the mechanical parts of one. This should make transhumanist lit a good source for mining plots, conflicts, and themes for your D&D game.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Monster Manual Cage Fight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Story Bricks and Volo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Money, Money, Money!

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

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

Let Them Throw Gold at Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ale & Whores by Scott Kurtz.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Gleaming Hoards and What They Can Do For You!

Adam Minnie over on G+ asks:

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

Here are some ideas that have worked for me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pick a Card, Any Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What are the Implications of the Lovecraft Universe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Romantic Fantasy and the Heroine's Journey

Over on G+, Kiel asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Invisible Railways

Between the time when the OGL rejuvenated the hobby and the rise of the sons of Dragon and Dungeon (that would be Paizo and their Pathfinder game), there was an age undreamed of. Actually, it was a sucky time full of despair and the gnashing of teeth. With the coming of 3.5, the bottom fell out of the d20 market. Lots of companies went belly-up. IPs traded hands swiftly. The FLGS was an endangered species. Even Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games felt the need to get a day job, and he was roundly praised for his sagacity. RPGs were doomed to follow the same decline as model railroading and wargames before them.

Casting their eyes towards what remained of the war-gaming and model-railroad industries, the chattering classes that infested at the time noted that the survivors had largely adopted a boutique model. That is, they sold high-quality, luxury offerings at a very high price point. Doing so would, of course, only doom RPGs to eventual death, discouraging new blood from entering the hobby. But the kids were too deeply sucked into those damned MMOs and besides, we’d at least get some cool games out of it and Ryan Dancey’s kitties would be kept in kibble.

While there was a lot of talk about the boutique model, and how both publishers and players needed to learn to treat RPGs as luxury goods, not much was actually done about it. The full-color coffee-table book had long cemented itself as the mainstay of the industry, and nobody seemed to be eager to buck that trend.

Nobody, that is, except Monte Cook.

Cook’s Ptolus, a campaign setting and adventure path in one came in a GIANT book, clocking in at 672 pages. It was a wonder of organization and layout, included ribbon bookmarks, and a CD with extra goodies like an additional adventure plus lots of printable handouts for the players. It also had digital versions of previous Malhovic books that Cook had associated with Ptolus: The Banewarrens and Chaositech. Monte called it the “most deluxe roleplaying product ever published.” In an era before Kickstarter, Monte goosed sales of the book by signing and numbering the first thousand copies pre-ordered, and threw in a printed copy of the adventure on the CD plus five printed copies of the player’s guide.

It needed some goosing because the MSRP was $120.

Keep in mind, at the time, the D&D 3.5 PHB had debuted a few years earlier with a $30 price tag. (I’m going by memory here, so if you can find a better number, please let me know.) You could pick up all three of the core books for under $100, and you’d need them before you could play Ptolus. Ptolus was just a setting and adventures, not a game in itself.

I have no idea how well Ptolus sold, but I can say it did nothing to hurt Cook’s reputation. The book earned glowing reviews and took home the 2007 Product of the Year ENnie.

Fast forward to today, past the Numenera kickstarter which had a funding goal of $20k but broke records pulling in over $500k, and the Invisible Sun kickstarter. Where Numenera was conceived of as a familiar coffee-table tome of a game, Invisible Sun is, like Ptolus before it, a boutique luxury item. If this does reasonably well for Monte, that black cube is going to become iconic and I’d expect a few other publishers to take a closer look at dipping their toes in the boutique luxury market. The proposed smart phone app for handling between-session chat and gaming is intriguing, and while it is, to me, the most exciting thing coming out of Invisible Sun, I suspect that will prove a bridge too far for most publishers. But decks of cards, bizarre resin statuary, and a funky-looking box? Yeah, Fantasy Flight is going to be all over that like a duck on a June bug.

And then there’s the “experience” aspects of this thing: the internet clues, the geocaching challenges, the “secrets,” and most of all, the Directed Campaign. A resin statue hand that holds cards seems a little silly to me; getting setting and adventure ideas emailed to me regularly, and physical props mailed to both the GM and players, sounds like an awesome idea and certainly something that more publishers could embrace.

Note that I don’t think this will be a huge revolution in RPGs. But do keep in mind when Ptolus was released, it was still the conventional wisdom that boxed sets had been one of the nails in TSR’s coffin. Three years, and numerous fun and cool boxed sets from Raggi and Mythmere, later and WotC was releasing a suspiciously familiar boxed set of their own.

The RPG industry is being dragged kicking and screaming out of its coffee-table rut. Slowly, but it’s being dragged, by Raggi’s work, by Zak’s lovely and well-laid-out cloth-covered books, by The Dracula Dossier, and by Monte Cook. We’re slowly peeling the roof off this hobby, not because it’s in its death-throes but because it’s enjoying a new Renaissance. I don’t think the future will look like Invisible Sun, but I do think we’ll be able to draw a line from Invisible Sun to whatever the future looks like.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Old vs. New: What's the Difference, and Why Should You Care?

This is the context you need to understand the history of D&D:

This is also why D&D, in the hands of a weak or mediocre DM and players, has such a dysfunctional and bland combat system - it is not in itself enough to reward intelligent play. (If anything, it does the opposite - if you have better AC and more hp and do more damage than the opponent then you will win, and the process is effectively mechanical. Just keep rolling the dice until you win.)

This is because, at its inception, D&D was not a game about combat. This is old news to folks who’ve been following the OSR for a while; if you look at the old games, you’ll see that the EXP you got for slaying monsters was a mere fraction of the EXP you’d get from their treasure-types. Toss in the reality of unguarded treasures and you have a game that rewards exploration, good mapping, clever play, and only engaging in necessary fights.

But nobody who worked on D&D ever explained this in the books. As early as 1st edition, you had folks who assumed that D&D was about combat. After all, most of the rules were about combat and if you were coming to the game from adventure comics, it might seem like the coolest, most exciting things you could do with your characters revolved around combat. Computer RPGs only heightened this sense, since combat and wandering about were the only real activities in those early games. Later computer RPGs barely fiddled with that formula, focusing instead on graphics and interface, largely to make the combat aspects more compelling. The idea that your game should be about something else hardly ever came up.

Which meant that D&D was zigging while people interested in fantasy adventure were zagging. Early attempts to correct this resulted in 2e with its byzantine class-specific rules for earning EXP.

Things only got worse when WotC took over. By 1999 and the release of 3e, D&D was clearly about combat.

Yet the chassis of D&D was still heavily influenced by that earlier game where combat was not the central activity but a way of adjudicating failure. WotC-era D&D has in great part been an attempt to square the circle of a game that’s supposed to be about combat, but has a fairly “robotic” and extremely abstracted combat system.

And this is where you get the disconnects between Old School and New: the joy of rust monsters, the necessity of wandering monsters, and linear adventures (ultimate efficiency from every encounter being experienced wedded to superior story through creating rising tension from encounter to encounter) vs. non-linear adventures (where player choice, freedom-of-action, and exploration take precedence over efficiency and rigorous story structure).

These issues have profound effects in design and play. For instance, New School DMs work hard to make sure every encounter is balanced and interesting, because that’s where most of the play happens. Random encounters are eschewed as being time-wasters; they certainly are not feared by the players as monsters are EXP-on-the-hoof, and you must kill every monster you encounter to make sure you have all the potential experience (and levels, powers, and magical items) as possible before the big boss battle.

Old School DMs don’t worry about balancing combats. Since most combats are optional, players have the luxury of entirely bypassing certain fights if they don’t feel up to them. Also, Old School players have all sorts of abilities and powers (as well as the ubiquitous randomly-rolled rumors) by which they can learn about their foes before they fight, allowing them to pick their battles and prep ahead of time. Wandering monsters are justly feared not because they’re incredibly dangerous (they tend to be rather weak, in fact) but because they drain valuable resources for very little gain. Since treasure, not combat, rewards the most EXP, players are more eager to bargain with, evade, or simply trick the monsters they encounter. Where an inaccurate player map is devastating to a New School game, an accurate map is invaluable in an Old School game, and so dungeons are designed with an eye towards thwarting accurate mapping. Since combat in Old School D&D is about draining resources, rust monsters are an obvious choice for an Old School dungeon. For New School D&D, rust monsters are annoying in that they cause the PCs to retreat from the dungeon, which is rightly seen as a waste of valuable playing time.

So there you have it. Armed with this knowledge, you can now maximize the fun in either Old School (aka TSR-era) or New School (WotC-era except 5e kinda) D&D. Go forth and have fun!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Burlesque House Siege!

There’s a neat writer’s trick that’s served me well as a DM. If you’re looking for an idea, if you’re working on a topic but you’re not sure which direction to take it, force yourself to write down ten options.

Generally, you can toss out the first three; these are going to be the obvious choices, the tropes, what everyone expects. You can also usually toss out the last two or three, as you were really stretching to come up with something, and the ideas will (probably) be too far out there to work well.

But the middle four or five are where you’ll find gold. These are ideas that are not the obvious clichés you’ve seen repeatedly, but are not too weird to be believable or that risk throwing everything else out of whack.

I don’t know that Mr. Chenier did this when he came up with Burlesque House Siege! I can say he purposefully worked to avoid the cliché of religious bigots persecuting an LGBT burlesque house. What he came up with instead is far more interesting.

So, the basics: an LGBT burlesque review, the Maison Derriere, is besieged by a gang of bandits while the PCs are recovering from a night of frolic and debauchery there. They’ve got roughly half-an-hour to prepare for the attack, and help is hours (if not days) away. Plop the provided maps of the house on the table, start the clock, and let the players come up with plans to defend the place.

The villains are a gang of ne’er-do-wells who mistook the Maison Derriere for a brothel. When they insisted on a “happy ending” they got tossed out on their ears. Now the boss, Tallest Joe, is back with his whole crew and one strong monster in order to wreak vengeance.

Interestingly, this strongly implies certain things about Tallest Joe and his crew. Did they not realize they were dealing with all manner of trans/queer folk? Or was that part of the spice? It’s easy to imagine Tallest Joe straddling the middle of the Kinsey Scale, or being some flavor of trans himself.

And once you do that, you open up the adventure to all sorts of interesting possibilities. Granted, Kiel doesn’t address these directly; the original specs for this adventure were a one-shot convention event of two to four hours (and he offers good advice for modifying the adventure for both shorter and longer sessions). But he also mentions possibilities for long-term campaign play. The Maison Derriere might hide a treasure, Tallest Joe’s true goal. Or it may hold an entrance to a sinister and secret subterranean city.

These options are just touched on briefly. More detail is lavished on maps of the Maison Derriere, a cast of intriguing NPCs, and potential for betrayal, heroic last stands, and/or comic pratfalls a la “Home Alone.” As Kiel says in his advice for running this adventure:

Player Choice is #1. Don’t let the adventure become a total railroad if you can help it. If the players are set on abandoning the burlesque house and running to town with the NPC’s, LET THEM. If they want to rush ahead and meet the Bandits head on, LET THEM. If the players have an elaborate trap in mind for the burlesque house, or they ALL really want to talk their way out of a big fight, LET THEM.

There’s a lot of excellent, practical advice as well on how to run a good convention game, plus random tables for generating dancers, a random table for deciding why each PC is hanging around the place (a fun way to generate character backgrounds for one-shot convention play), even how to run the Maison Derriere as a business if the PCs end up taking it over somehow (not that unusual an occurrence in my campaigns, I can tell you). There’s also a table of dance routines for the DM in need of inspiration.

And, of course, there are all the interesting characters, complications, and conflicts you should expect from Mr. Chenier’s work. If you and your group love to chat with NPCs, get to know the local characters, or just thrive on character-driven interactions, Burlesque House Siege! provides a lot of interesting grist for your mill.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"You Don't Understand; These Ghosts Kill People!"

Just saw the new Ghostbusters flick. First off, it’s fun. Not great, not hilarious, but certainly entertaining; I laughed out-loud a few times.

What it’s not is a remake of the original. This is a very, very different film. It’s a lot darker (one character is killed off-screen and another commits suicide on-screen) and far more physical. It’s a lot more slapstick than the original Ghostbusters, and includes actual action-movie action scenes. These new Ghostbusters wade into a sea of ghosts, blasting left-and-right with twin proton pistols or punch ghosts and other things with a proton-cestus.

In short, the new Ghostbusters are actually cool, unlikely the awkward goofballs of the original. Which is odd, because this Ghostbusters is, in many respects, what the first Ghostbusters might have been if Walter Peck, the annoying EPA agent, had been the hero. And, oddly enough, in spite of that, it works.

Don’t take your friends who haven’t seen the original (or haven’t seen it since it came out) until you make them sit down and watch the original; a good portion of the jokes require you to have that film in your mind when you come see this one.

The writing on the new Ghostbusters is very weak. The plot chugs through its points, but you can tell the only reason the Mayor of New York is in this film is because the original Ghostbusters had a run-in with the Mayor. Lots of things happen just ‘cause. The most egregious example is Jones’ Patty Tolan. She joins the Ghostbusters… erm, well, we really don’t know why she joins. We understand why the rest are eager or willing to let her join, but we aren’t given any reason why she’d want to. It’s not like there’s a paycheck in it or anything.

The villain is equally thin. We’re given a vague sort of he-was-bullied, but we’re never really shown that. He comes off and just a genius nut-job nihilist.

The film feels very small, especially compared to the original. Where the original Ghostbusters had that entire firehouse, the new Ghostbusters have a single room above a Chinese restaurant we never see. They test out their gadgets in a trash-strewn alley behind. Yeoman’s cinematography gives this a very made-for-TV feel, and not the expansive, big-screen spectacle the original was. Where New York was a character in the original Ghostbusters, it’s mostly just a setting in this one.

The editing is rough on this one as well, especially the way it cuts around during the action scenes. It’s impossible to tell where anyone is, the jumping camera makes it seem like moments have been cut out, and it just lacks the natural fluidity you expect from a big-budget film.

If it seems like I’m damning this film with faint praise, well, I sorta am. It keeps referencing the original and utterly failing to live up to it in all sorts of little ways. The original Ghostbusters had a great, tight script, a strong sense of verisimilitude, and incredible writing. This one has a loose, paint-by-the-numbers script, feels like a made-for-TV action-comedy, and has maybe two quotable lines (one of which is in the 2nd trailer: “The power of pain compels you!”) It never seems to find its groove. One minute it’s a dark action/horror film (ghosts murdering people, our heroines blasting away ghosts and rappelling into hellmouths), the next it’s a slap-stick comedy (the final confrontation is won with a literal photonic kick to the crotch), and then it’s trying to be a touching story about friendship. Since it can’t settle on its tone, it meanders about, not quite hitting all the notes its aiming for.

That all said, the casting is great. Hemsworth steals every scene he’s in, displaying the comedic talent that landed him the role of Thor; McKinnon’s Holzmann is endearingly awkward, funny, and kick-ass; and you know the laughs are coming whenever you see Jones on the screen. Kristen Wiig gets the thankless job of playing the straight-man, but she does so while giving us a surprisingly likeable character in spite of the obvious stick up her butt. Unlikely the original, this film has actual scary moments (though it does rely on the jump-scare a bit more than I’d prefer). And where the original Ghostbusters were middle-aged schlubs with mortgages, bills, and receding hairlines, the new Ghostbusters are glamorous, gravity-defying butt-kickers who never have to worry about the state of their petty cash.

So if you think you’ll like this sort of thing at all, do go see it. It’s a very entertaining way to spend an afternoon. And do sit through all the credits; there are extra scenes scattered throughout.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Little 5e Under My Belt

Not quite two months ago I finished my first 5e campaign. We met kinda-sorta twice a month, each session lasted about four hours, and it ran for, I think, 14 months. So ballpark it at about 112 hours of gaming. The highest PC level attained was 10th.

I’d call it a successful campaign; the only player dropping out is moving out-of-state; everyone else wants more. And I learned a lot about how 5e works.


This is the biggy: EXP-for-kills turns the PCs into bloodthirsty savages. They don’t look for the easiest or quickest route around a problem, they look for the solution that creates the largest pile of corpses. Solo monsters (your traditional dragon atop a mountain) are nigh irresistible, especially if the players have time to prep and plan in advance. The players threw their PCs at the same problem twice with a head-long frontal assault (granted, the first time they did attempt some subterfuge), failed both times, but came out smelling like roses due to the body count and EXPs collected. EXP-for-kills is the first thing I’ve dropped from the new campaign.

Action Economy

This is the principle reason I stick with 5e. The action economy takes a bit of work to wrap your head around, but once you grasp the concept of bonus actions (and that everyone only gets one), it’s a lovely, elegant little trick to allow neat extras, but not give a single player a dozen actions in a single turn. It also gives all the players an easily understood resource to manage in the middle of combat that is not immediately dissociative. Do you use your bonus action to fight with a second weapon? Use a special ability? Wait for an attack of opportunity? It’s usually an easy choice to make, but it’s also one that has a different answer in different parts of a single fight, and very different answers for different character classes.


I love these in concept. In play, they can create lots of neat opportunities for RP; almost all give you a neat out-of-combat/RP “power” that can help drive a campaign forward and give players interesting spot-light opportunities. However, it’s easy to forget about them. Normally, I’d just rely on my players bringing them up, only…


… 5e is just on the bad side of the complexity line.

Yes, I know; it’s not nearly as complex at 3.x, the latest edition of Shadowrun, 4e D&D, any version of Fading Stars and Vampire, or just about any mainstream RPG you care to name that’s been released in the last 20 years. So how simple do I need it?

Apparently, simpler than this.

My players are not dumb. They’re not even mentally slow. The youngest was in her late 20s, most had college degrees and even those who didn’t had at least a few years of college under their belt. These were, almost without exception, white-collar professionals or successful entrepreneurs. One dropped out of the game briefly to teach opera in Paris. There wasn’t a dim bulb in this bunch.

And yet, even in the final session, I was holding hands, reminding people of their powers and abilities, describing how simple mechanics worked. And I’ll be shocked if half of them understood the action economy.

Those who were interested in the mechanics picked it up pretty quickly. They understood their powers, how they could leverage their background, what it meant to use a bonus action. The others were eager to dive in and try things, but they didn’t understand how to make their wishes work within the system and often forgot opportunities their race, class and background created for them.

A good part of this I blame on not playing every week. I think a weekly schedule would have kept things fresh in everyone’s mind, and there would have been less remedial education from session to session. But playing weekly isn’t an option when people have lives and money. And that means we need a simpler game, with easily grasped mechanics. 5e is almost, but not quite, that game.


As I’ve said before, it doesn’t feel very magical. The spell-slot system works, but it feels more like loading bullets in a gun, or apps on your phone. The spells themselves don’t really help, being fairly straightforward in their applications. The most mystical character of our bunch was probably the min-maxer’s druid who freaked the more arachnophobic players out by turning into a giant spider and webbing spell-slingers in the face.

When I abandon 5e, it’ll probably be because the magic is just too dishwater-dull.


It works, but even with the elegant action economy, it’s not interesting enough to hang a game on. 4e’s probably was, but 5e’s only got a bit of 4e in the shape of its fenders. If you want a fun, successful campaign, you’ll need to bring a lot more to the table than just some bog-standard fights. And 5e isn’t going to help you much in achieving that by itself.


Meh. I’m not a huge fan of balance; I’m fine with some classes being less interesting, but also less complicated than others. But I do prefer it when the players know ahead of time what they’re getting into.

There’s definitely a simplicity gap between spell-slingers and everyone else. There might be a fun gap there as well, though that’s largely going to depend on temperament. The thief is a good class for someone who wants to really dive in and try all sorts of lateral thinking and wacky hijinks, but if you want to play it as straight DPS you’re better off with a spell-slinger, and certain flavors of monk are far better at the sneaky thing. The bard is struggling to find its niche in a system where three other classes also have Charisma as their most important stat, where the high-Intelligence wizard is blowing away the History and Arcana checks, and the high-Wisdom cleric is the party’s face due to her excellent Insight (and, in our group, nearly as good Persuasion) rolls.

Rangers are a hot mess. They’re kinda-sorta DPS, but they’re not as good at it as other classes and kinda squishy. Their abilities are cool and useful when they’re in their favored terrain, but otherwise… meh. Their combat powers are just weird, and clearly work best if you’re using a battle-grid and minis. The one player who took ranger did ok with the character, but they were dissatisfied and have opted for a sorcerer in the new campaign.

A shape-shifting druid is hard to take down and extremely flexible, in and out of fights. Wizards remain the big guns, but more than ever it’s clerics that win combats, principally by keeping the rest of the party on its feet and buffing their attacks. Clerics are a potent force-multiplier in this game.

Every class has a magical option. People are going to be whipping out magical abilities left-and-right in your 5e games. However, they’re likely to be reaching into the same bag of tricks, time and again. The result is something that feels a lot like an ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon, where everyone has their flashy, signature shtick and occasionally gets to do something really clever with it. The result is something that looks more like He-man and less like Jackson’s LotR. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is going to depend on your tastes.


All in all, I’m fairly happy with 5e. The mechanical changes are largely positive, streamlining the game and keeping the rules out of the way of the fun. There’s a lot less you-can’t-do-that-by-the-rules and a lot more sure-roll-a-d20-and-we’ll-see-if-you-succeed.

Backgrounds can bring a lot to the table, but only if people remember that they exist. The races are decent, but not terribly exciting. The classes are a mixed bag and will result in a magic-heavy game if only because nearly every member of the party is going to be slinging a few spells or spell-like abilities.

The game benefits from some light rules-tweaking. The rules-as-written EXP-for-kills definitely encourages the players to embrace their inner homicidal maniac, but is easily replaced. It’s fairly simple to create new backgrounds and races customized to your campaign. Creating your own classes, however, will require some serious research and effort.

The game is fun, my players are eager to continue in a new campaign, and 5e is fairly easy to run. This gives it a big thumbs-up in my book.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Dram of Glam and Duran Duran

This is fun. I'm a bit older then Noisms, but younger than the "dark metal" crowd. I got into D&D with Moldvay/Cook, Christmas of '81. So the musical background to my D&D was 80's pop laced with a dose of glam and disco. It was urbane, smooth, stylish, but also unearthly, inhuman, and fey.

And style was very much part of the substance. David Bowie as the Goblin King, Sting and Billy Idol as Sting and Billy Idol. Madonna doing her thing. There was a smooth, glossy finish to everything; even the percussively blue-collar Phil Collins crooned and powered our revenge fantasies with the slick style of "In the Air Tonight." Michael Jackson, magical and aristocratic in his so-right-for-the-times "Smooth Criminal." Everyone wanted a fedora, aviator sunglasses, and shiny silk suits, but none of us could pull it off, and we all knew we'd look like dorks in costumes.

Historical accuracy took a distant back-seat to style and fashion. We chaffed at the universal need for armor on our characters. The ultimate fighter was Rutger Hauer in his black quilted jerkin, pauldrons, and gauntlets with his too-damned-cool double-barrelled crossbow. The ultimate magic-user was Nicol Williamson as Merlin in Excalibur. The ultimate thief was Indiana Jones, with his quick mind, a friend in every town, and swift whip.

Grunge wasn't a thing yet. Urban decay was an artifact of the Carter years, distant, the stuff of fairy tales. Our Shadowrun characters dressed like punks in black snythleather and spikes chromed with neon shades. Our sci-fi characters wore mandarin-collared suits made from glittering, reflective materials, or futuristic camo in zig-zags and overlapping dots. Everyone had a trenchcoat with a huge collar, bike jacket, or a magic sword with wing-shaped crossguard and a giant gem set in the forte. We cruised through our imaginary metropoli in (air)cars that bore more than a passing resemblance to the DeLorean while listening to the hissing smooth tunes of Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys.

Nobody was surprised when Kiefer Sutherland played a vampire who looked like a Billy Idol wannabe. And nobody was terribly surprised when '80s pop morphed into goth, and the whole melange birthed Vampire: the Masquerade. Again, style was very much part of the substance.

Grunge came as a surprise, though it was a perfectly predictable backlash to the all-synth, all-neon, all-chrome of 80's pop. I ignored it. The '90s were an era of retrenchment for me. I had no interest in Green Day, Nirvana, or Lilith Fair. I was getting into Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.

But before that, the music was glossy, smooth, upbeat, and aristocratic. It was sharp suits, hot cars, tight skirts, stiletto heels, and dark glasses. It was impossible hair, neon jewelry, and highly chromed. Win or lose, the important thing was to look good while you were doing it.