Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Best in town/best around

Here's a worldbuilding technique inspired by the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Spongebob Meets the Strangler".  SpongeBob and the Strangler are shopping at Barg'n-Mart and the Strangler wants to get SpongeBob someplace quiet to throttle him.  But our hero won't budge from the paper towel display because he can't make up his mind whether he wants the product advertised as the Best Paper Towel In Town or the alternative, the Best Paper Towel Around.  It's a great episode as the Strangler (who is, obviously, already a maniac) works himself up into an absolute frenzy of frustration as SpongeBob obliviously meanders through the banal chores of a typical undersea day.  I have to avert my gaze when it gets to the part with the cleats in the eyeballs though.  Depictions of eye injuries more graphic than an eyepatch make me wince.

Anyhoo, here's are some simple questions you can ask yourself when building a setting for RPG shenanigans:

Who is the best wizard in town?
Who is the best wizard around?

Come up with a name, maybe a level and an alignment, and an additional fact or two.  Here's an example.  The campaign is set in the County of Winshire, with action often taking place in the small town of Midwich.
Didymus Ashlar, greatest spelljockey residing in Midwich, MU6, Lawful, improbably huge handlebar mustache, owns a wand that shoots rust monster lasers

Drayton the Reprobate, most potent wizard native to the County of Winshire, MU11, Neutral, knows the name of every dryad and river-nymph from here to the sea for exactly the reason you are thinking, owns half interest in a vineyard somewhere in Goatswood Valley
There's a bazillion variations you can work off of here.  Instead of "best" substitute "worst" or "most infamous".  Instead of wizard go with "knight" or "priest" or "magic sword" or "sleazy tavern".  For background material ask yourself "Who was the greatest wizard/thief/king/belly dancer of the past millenium?"  Etc., etc.  Ad infinitun ad astra.  YMMV.  90210.

Once you've got at least a dozen or twenty of these sorts of things written up you can then create a die chart labeled "Interesting People, Places & Things" that you can roll on whenever you need some inspiration for a scenario.

Another thing you can do is break out your random reaction chart and make a couple rolls to see how Didymus and Drayton get along or how interested Drayton is in finding the greatest grimoire in the land.  A few pregenerated relationships like that will make life interesting for the PCs as they slowly work their way through your list.  "Help you?  Everybody knows you're allies of that upstart prestidigitator Ashlar!  That son of a sea-hag owes me 500 gold pieces I loaned him ten years ago!"

Monday, August 30, 2010

video blog: kiddie books

Heh.  I said "walk don't run" when I meant the opposite.

Last week I wrestled with how to make an interesting video on Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire and I came up blank.  So I decided to skip that altogether and move on to another topic.  I think I'll talk about Arduin in a non-video blog entry later in the week.  Here are a couple maps scanned from Post's An Atlas of Fantasy.

Barsetshire, setting of a half dozen Victorian novels by Anthony Trollope and maybe 40 less known works by 20th century author Angela Thirkell.

Aar, World of Deneb, from the Captain Future series of pulp adventures set in the way out future of 1990.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shatnerday: happy to be alive

From "The Ultimate Computer".  You'd probably have this same dumb grin on your face if you had just saved everyone's lives by betting on a space commodore's reluctance to kill.

Friday, August 27, 2010

here's a campaign idea to steal

The Antillian Colonial War - 1827

This one requires that we first postulate the existence of Antillia, that mid-Atlantic islandmythical as Atlantis—with which cartographers decorated their maps until well into the nineteenth century. Given an Antillia, what colonial power might be tempted to intervene? Any number would do, but since we are dealing with a mythical isle, I prefer a plausible, but mythical, European power. Let’s say, therefore, that Harold Godwinsson triumphed at Hastings, defeating William the Loser. Given this, we find in the first quarter of the nineteenth century not a Great, but what might be called a Lesser Britain, represented by the Kingdom of Wessex.

Now, let them colonize Antillia—at their peril!

The above quote is from "Up On A Soapbox" by Samuel Gill, Dragon #34, page 14.  Mr. Gill spins out several other alt-history ideas for wargaming, but this one is my favorite.  Somebody could spin this into a nice little gaslight fantasy/steampunk sort of affair.  Make the inhabitants of Antillia into technologically backwards elves, orcs, etc. and Bob's your uncle.  Here are a couple of antique maps of Antillia to get the ball rolling:
Looks like Antillia was drawn with a T-square in this one.

That must be Vinland in the far west.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

black hobbits

So once upon a time I bought a module called Rat On A Stick, based solely on the name and cover art.  Turned out it was a dungeon adventure for Tunnels & Trolls and/or Monsters! Monsters!, the obscure T&T variant where you play the bad guys.  I really dig this module.  It's not perfect by any means, but it combines wholesome silliness and deadly danger in a way that greatly amuses me.  I've run it a few times here and there, never once getting too worked up about the fact that the T&T stats don't jibe well with running the adventure under D&D.

But one thing that haunted me for my first couple of runs of Rat On A Stick was the black hobbits.  These creatures inhabit a couple three rooms on the first level of the Rat dungeon.  I wasn't sure what to do with them.  They look to be bad guys, but why use black hobbits as opposed to, say, kobolds?  It took me a good long while to figure out what to do with these little guys.  But eventually I got a copy of the Monsters! Monsters! rules and it all came together.

One of my favorite bits in M!M! is the way you select your race.  Pick a card from an ordinary deck.  Ten of spades?  You're an orc.  Queen of hearts?  Lamia.  King of Diamonds?  Full on badass balrog.  Black hobbits come up on a Five of Spades.  It's a fun little system and one of the reason why some days I ache to run a con game of Monsters! Monsters! that includes chargen.  "Two slimes, an evil wizard and a giant walk into a bar" isn't the opening of a joke, but a distinctly possible course of events in this game.

Anyway, each of the 52 monster types gets a sentence or two of description.  For black hobbits the write goes like this:  "BLACK HOBBITS: This does not refer to their skin tone, but rather to their political affiliations."  That sentence is the secret origin of the halfings of the Chaos Party in my current campaign.  My thinking is basically "What if black hobbits were like all the ordinary stay-at-home middle class people of the Shire, except they lived in a dungeon and on election day they voted Chaos?"  They're perfectly ordinary chaps you can have over for tea and pipes, they just favor the social and/or economic initiatives of the Evil Overlord to the present administration.

The next part of my thinking on the black hobbits comes as a result of the level one map in Rat On A Stick.  In the middle of the map behind some double doors can be found a vast chamber with big honkin' pillars and a raised dais at one end.  According to the key a half dozen black hobbits are hanging out there.  It became my self appointed task to have these guys always Up To Something.  The first time the PCs visited this room the little guys were putting up folding chairs and arranging the podium for a Chaos Party rally.  Last night, as the party is marching toward the double doors I decide that the Chaos Halflings are building a parade float.

This snap decision leads to one of the best runs I have ever had as a DM.  The party chats up the halflings and find out that once a year a parade is held on level one and each level enters a float.  They make a large circuit around the dungeon and one chamber on the route has bleachers and a judges booth.  The halflings never win Best Float, but this year they're excited about their prospects with their new "Skull Shooting Fire Out of Its Eyes" theme float.

There's a little discussion about taking advantage of the parade to scout out depopulated lower levels of the dungeon.  But in the end the party decides that they'd rather help their buddies win the competition, via turning the float into an Animal House-style Deth Machine.


They juryrig a small ballista into the mouth of the skull, launching jugs of oil.  The eyes are upgrated from Rock Concert Pyro Effects to Actual Frickin' Flamethrowers.  A cow-catcher was slung under the skull and 20 shields were used to armor up the structure.

As the players are talking out there mad plans I am flipping through the module as cooly as possible trying to come up with a list of monsters from each level, what floats they show up with and who might be in the stands and/or judging the competition.  Here are the monsters in the parade and their floats:
  • 20 skeletons with Bat Shooting Fire Out Its Eyes (one drunken halfling "Oy!  They stole our idea for fire coming out the eyes!")
  • A couple of trolls with a float depicting elves on Vlad the Impaler style stakes (using actual elf corpses for maximum realism).
  • A trio of vampires (two Draculas and a Vampirella) with a float that actually floats, depicting the sun with a bleeding spear wound
  • A pair of shoggoths with an indescribable float that existed in more than three dimensions
  • Two anthro-Gnus whose float I can't recall at the moment
  • Three ogres with a Hanged Wizard themed float (a midget in the crowd was wearing the same robe as the effigy wizard, he was not amused)
  • Four elementals (one of each type) hauling a Shrine to Elemental Evil.
  • A group of mysterious plant men, with a float showing their opposition to all forms of animal life
The crowd watching is a just as motley, with a mummy and a female balrog for the judges.  Tobin the drunken dwarf considers hitting on the balrog, but after a quick scale drawing on the whiteboard the idea is abandoned as non-feasible.

I expected the party to throw in the towel once they saw the opposition.  Sure my house rules are player friendly, sure they've got a few sticks of dynamite and some artifact quality swords, and they've got a pet bear and an amored gorilla.  But for Frigg's sake, these guys are first through third level.  They have no business fighting most of the monsters on this list!

Man, I wish I could give all y'all a play-by-play.  That parade was quite possibly the craziest combat encounter I have ever refereed.  The PCs set themselves up to be at the end of the parade line and I rolled dice for the placement of the others.  As luck would have it, they started right behind the skeletons, who were behind the trolls.  The skeletons are incinerated in two rounds and the trolls panic at the sight of the fire.  They try to run away, knocking over the vampire float.  The vampires take umbrage at this turn of events and start fighting the trolls.  Both the vamps and trolls are doused in oil and lit up, with the trolls running around in a panic and the vampires turning to mist and floating away.  The plant men eventually route as well, as they don't dig much on being set ablaze either.  The elementals quit the field of battle when Edgar the Gorilla activates his Protection from Elementals rune on his elf-blade.  That blocks them from meleeing the party, who lob missiles over Edgar's head.

The nearest this plan comes to going completely pear-shaped is the shoggoths.  I wanted to turn to Tim and say "What are you thinking, man?  You're in a fight against shoggoths and your elf has ONE HIT POINT!!!"  Last night was Tim's first session in the campaign.  Despite each possessing 20 hit dice, the party eventually defeated the shoggoths in a pitch battle, thanks largely to Sir Roi of Cribbet's Sword of the Lightning Kings zapping the crap out of one shoggoth and my current house rule for PCs rolling natural 20 (20 = monster dead) taking care of the other one.

Did I mention that this battle runs down the length of the dungeon, with crowds of monsters cheering everyone on the whole time?  It ends with the PCs and the last surviving halfling pushing the burnt, battered framework of the float to the end of the route, making them the only entry this year to actually reach the judge's booth.  We close the session with the party reenacting the final scene of Star Wars, except instead of Princess Leia it's a balrog babe and instead of the Rebel Alliance's Medal of Bravery they receive Best Float in Chaos Parade '057.  Oh, and Sir Roi somehow ended up with the Silver Surfer's cosmic surfboard.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

random pics

Someone steal this for your Call of Cthulhu campaign.

Recipe for a fun time: make paper buildings, smash them while playing some MP3s of Godzilla sound effects.


Can anybody read this?  I cannot.

From a Russian made pack of cards, IIRC.

Traditional depiction of Zarathustra.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

artifact project update

Wow!  Since Thursday's open call for artifact submissions I've gotten about 25 magic items sent to me.  Thanks everybody for all the great magic items!  I was thinking that 20 or 30 artifacts would be a goodly number, so I guess I've only need 4 or 5 more, including at least one submission of my own.  By the end of this week or at 30 submissions, whichever comes first, we'll be done.  If on Friday were still short of thirty I'll write enough to fill the book.  No promises on when the final version will be available, though.  Layout and editing are harder than they look.

A volunteer has stepped forward to do some art.  That's tremendously cool, as I was planning on including a paragraph here begging for cover art.

I think I need to clarify a point.  A couple of email submissions I've received have said things like "here's an item for your artifact contest".  This is NOT a contest.  If you choose to submit an artifact you aren't competing with anyone, you're participating in happy funtimes with other people.  There's no pressure to win anything or beat anybody.

There's no contest here, but there will be prizes.  I plan on putting together three copies of the finished book and mailing them to randomly selected contributors.  The rest of you nice people will have to download and print your own or get one from lulu.

Again, thanks for all the great material!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Open Call: minor artifacts & relics

Last week I talked a little about artifacts and relics as they appear in Eldritch Wizardry and the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide.  I think it's time we all did something about the paucity of lesser artifacts in that mold.  What I propose is that everyone interested write up one or two new artifacts, I'll stitch 'em together and publish the result as a free download and at-cost book on Lulu.  For the benefit of people who don't own the original books, I'll tack on an OGL version of the fill-in-the-blank powers list.

To submit an artifact you can email me (jrients, gmail, etc, etc.), post it as a comment here, or put it somewhere else and send me the link (via email or comment here).  By submitting you are granting me perpetual permission to print your material, properly credited, in both the print and electronic format of the resulting book, but you retain rights to use it anywhere else you wish.  Here's the format I'd like to see:

[name of artifact]
by [how you want to be credited]

[one or two paragraphs of text]

2 x class I power
1 x class II power

The main text should mostly function as a brief history or origin story of the item.  Try to suggest a lot of cool stuff rather than specify a few points exactly.  Don't assign your artifact a bunch of powers in the text, as that's what the customization rules are for.  It's okay to say something brief at the end like "The Key of Qugnar can be used to automically open any wizard locked door along with the following powers:" or "The Shimmering Cloak functions as a cloak of protection +2 in addition to the powers listed below."  But try not to go overboard on the power level, as the point of the project is to provide less extreme uses of the artifact and relic rules than already attested in the rules.  If you are assigning more than five power slots (including drawbacks)to your item, you're probably overdoing it.  And don't start with an item that's already at near-artifact levels and add stuff (no "Ruprick's Mallet has all the powers of a hammer of thunderbolts plus the following:", please).  Please note that if you go overboard with powers or get too wordy I will brutally edit that sucker.

Class V abilities are the big guns of the artifact world.  As such, their use will be limited in the proposed volume.  If you want to submit an item with a class V power, you must meet the following criteria:
  • You must submit at least one other artifact that does NOT have a class V power.
  • Your item with a class V power must also come with a class IV curse.
  • No item may have more than one class V power.
I want to make this "class V power" stuff as clear as possible so that folks who don't own the old books can still play along.  To keep the players guessing as to the powers of these ultimate magic items their coolest powers were expressed as a series of blanks like this:

3 x I ___ ___ ___
2 x II ___ ___
1 x V ___

At the end of the section was a list showing 30 or so powers for each category.  These powers all had a letter code assigned to them.  The idea was that the DM could pick the letter codes and mark in their own copies what specific powers the items possessed.  So in the above example one DM's copy of the book might say:

3 x I _C_ _G_ _DD_
2 x II _D_ _J_
1 x V _R_

Which would indicate, according to the DMG tables, that this particular artifact granted the following powers:
Audible Glamour 3/day, Color Spray 3/day, Possessor Immune to Fear
Cause Serious Wounds by touch, Cure Disease by touch
Prismatic Spray 1/day

But another DM's book would have a different set of powers assigned, so even if your PC found the Eye of Vecna there's no sure way of knowing what the crap it does except by trial and error, consulting sages, divination, etc.  The five categories of powers break down like this:
class I - Minor Benign Powers
class II - Major Benign Powers
class III - Minor Malevolent Effects
class IV - Major Malevolent Effects
class V - Prime Powers (the real big time stuff)

In general anything with two or more class I powers probably ought to have at least a class III drawback and anything with a class II power should definitely have one or more drawbacks.  If you don't have the books and don't know what powers to give your item, just write up your item and then copy this down:

1 x I ___
1 x II ___
1 x IV ___

So get crackin'!  Feel free to steal from the ideas I floated last week if you want.  And if you want to send in an illo with your designs, so much the better.  Don't be afraid that you 'can't draw'.  This is meant to be a fun little amateur project.  No big whoop.

more jabberwock pictures

Original illo by Sir John Tenniel.

I really dig this one.  You can buy it as a print here.

Sculpture found on DeviantArt.

Wingless version emphasising the size of the beast, found at this artist's blog.

Painted specimen of the Ral Partha jabberwocky figure.  You can still buy these from Iron Wind.

Fan art of the Jabberwocky as he appears in American McGee's video game version of Alice.

Concept art of a Megaman mecha-jabberwock.  Found here.

Plushy jabberwock!  Nice emphasis on the buttoned vest.

Bioengineered jabberwock monster appearing in the Resident Evil video game franchise.

Here's a link to a Disney version surprising short of catching claws.

And don't miss the youtube clip Settembrini shared yesterday!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

this one goes out to 2eDM

Here's the form I used in Monday's video blog post.

Blank version here.

poetry time

by Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

a little less D&D, a little more boardgames

Looks like my 3.5 hero, the greco-paladin Polymachus, is going into retirement along  with the rest of Dane's campaign.  We've been having trouble getting a critical mass of devoted players for serious WotC style combat grindery.  So here's my guy in fabulous Cut & Paste-O-Vision:

I blacked out the street address of the host of the game.

My charsheet actually ran to four pages, but the last two pages didn't have anything on them but stuff from the SRD detailing my guy's paladin abilities. I think page four was devoted to nothing but the ridiculous level of detail needed for 3.5's version of detect evil.

So the three of us who showed up last night played Puerto Rico instead of D&D.  Dane came in first but I'm still congratulation myself over coming out one point ahead of Carl.  That guy is super-smart.  I've played quite a few games with Carl over the years and I rarely beat him.

The three of us decided that even though D&D was looking non-viable, we still liked getting together every week.  So we agreed to do boardgaming on the week I'm not running my campaign at the game store.  And more importantly, we agreed on a method for picking a game each get-together.  This was an important issue for me personally because over the years I've found that not having an agreed upon decision making process can be a formula for disasters ranging from spending the first hour or more dithering/debating to outright arguments and hurt feelings. 

So what we're going to do is take turns picking a game for the night.  The game selected will be announced beforehand at my D&D session the week before.  For more complicated games rules summaries and other handouts can be made available at that time.  Personally, I'm thinking of setting up a Dawn Patrol dogfight when my turn rolls around.  Other games discussed included Bohnanza, Space Hulk, various German type games and Illuminati.

If you live in Champaign-Urbana or thereabouts and want to get in on this action, please feel free to shoot me an email.  Jrients.  Gmail.  Etc.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday video blog thingy

I think I'll try doing this video thing once a week or so. For next week's video I'll discuss Arduin as previously requested.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

the Syd Mead Damnation Van

Big thanks to my buddy Pat for sending me this pic!

Shatnerday all night long

This masterpiece was sent in by Gameblog reader Mátyás Hartyándi. Thanks a bunch!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Do dralasites smell like poo?

A few quotes from the canonical information on Dralasites linked from StarFrontiers.com:

The internal structure of a Dralasite is very different from the other races. The Dralasite's central nerve bundle (brain), numerous small hearts and other internal organs float in a pudding-like mixture of protein and organic fluids. Dralasites breathe by absorbing oxygen directly through their skin, so they have no lungs. They are omnivores, but eat by surrounding their food and absorbing it, so they also have no digestive tract or intestines.
The most important sense for a Dralasite is smell. They breathe directly through their skin, and the entire membrane is sensitive to odors. Their sense of smell is so keen they can identify persons by smell alone and can recognize familiar smells on objects or persons. The membrane also is sensitive to touch and to vibrations, allowing Dralasites to hear and feel.
Steam baths are another favorite Dralasite recreation. They mix perfumes and intoxicants with the steam. These effect Dralasites the same way alcohol does a Human or Yazirian.
Dralasites do not normally wear clothing, because it makes breathing difficult and interferes with their sense of smell. They usually carry their equipment on web belts. When they must wear clothing to protect themselves, they use special materials that let air reach their skin.

As kids my group couldn't believe that dralasites had such superefficient metabolisms that they never produced waste material. But they don't have intestines, either. So we assumed that drals basically sweat away all waste material. Therefore dralasites obviously smell like crap but don't notice it. Which is hilarious considering how big a deal their culture makes of smells.  Imagine first contact with these guys.  The dralasites are getting high off all the interesting new human-based smells, while the humans are doing their best not to retch because their new alien friends all smell like open latrines in mid summer.

Or maybe they just don't have the psychological hang-up most humans have about the smell of poop.  Maybe dralasite casual conversation usually starts out with something like "Hey, Bob! *sniff* Eggs for breakfast again?"

Someone please tell the mean man why I don't smell like poop.

another weirdo dream about a game

Last night I dreamed that my ol' game buddy Gopher invited my daughter and I to this sweet new LARP he was into.  Note that I'm confident that Gopher has never LARP'ed in his life.  Anyhoo, the deal with this LARP is that it's a dungeon exploration type affair set in a sprawling concrete and steel complex that has been seriously wired up.  Tiny cameras in every room, magnetic locks on some of the doors and wi-fi throughout the joint.

In addition to the usual costumery and props, every participant carries a smartphone of some sort.  Want to 'pick the lock' on one of the maglock doors?  You play a little lockpicking minigame on your iPhone or Droid or whatever.  Spell casting also worked through the smartphone.  Select light off of your spell list and remote controlled lights come on wherever you are at.  Cast clairvoyance and the phone shows you whatever the nearest hidden camera is picking up.

In the dream your phone also somehow tracked hit points.  You couldn't die in the middle of a fight, but after defeating the badguys you might get a text message telling you that you're dead.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

less a party and more like a circus

I run an open table.  If you can make it to a session, that's super-keen.  If you miss four runs in a row that's unfortunate but you're not treated any differently than any of the regulars.  Last night we saw an unforeseen conseuquence of this laid back policy: the least human party I've ever seen.  I don't mean only the people play dwarves, elves and halfling showed up.  Rather, I mean that more than half the party were animals.  As you might recall Carl and Nick died last run and inexplicably ended up with a pet white ape and grizzly bear respectively.  The only other player to show up last night currently plays a dire wolf.  The marching order scribbled on my notes reads something like this:


This smellier-than-usual band of adventurers continued plundering the Dungeon of the Unknown, which they finally discovered is actually the Rat On A Stick Dungeon.  Or at least my version of it.  Not only did they sell some dead rats to the local franchisee, they were able to make some extra money on the side.  The rats in question were a nuisance to the Chaos Party-affiliated halflings, so they bartered free printing services (using the machine the Party prints leaflets and manifestos on) for ridding them of the vermin.  In turn they resold the printing services to the Rat On A Stick stand, who used it to print up advertising.  As Carl put it "arbitrage is less dangerous than fighting monsters".

The party also ambushed a completely harmless Oaf (a neutral demi-giant race with silly cartoon-style stupidity) who was trying to find his lost bag of gold.  They killed him and found the gold.  Poor stupid bastard.


In the comments to yesterday's post about beating monsters your sword can't hurt BigFella of Saturday Night Sandbox made a really great point:
I think the trick is not having a certain "magic bullet" that's the only way to kill the monster, but rather being open to unorthodox wacko crap that desperate players come up with when their pointy sticks aren't working.

It's the players' job to be clever, the GM's job is to give them something to be clever about and to inflict the ramifications of that cleverness in an even handed manner.
That second line should be on a bronze plaque somewhere.  Magic bullet monsters are okay in small quantities, but in general I think D&D is at its most fun when the DM doesn't have a specific endgame in mind.  Set up a situation, drop in the PCs and react to the PCs.  That's the most important part of being a DM.  Someone else could be the rules guru at the table and advise you whenever something technical came up.  Your main job behind the screen is to remain open to the infinite possibilities ahead of the party, collapsing the waveform only when necessary and with as little personal bias as possible.

Back in the nineties I used to play Champions with a really cool bunch of people here in central Illinois.  Whenever a GM's carefully constructed plotline went pearshaped they would break out this bit of wisdom: if a referee plans for X responses to the situation, the players will come up with at least X+1 approaches to the problem.

Nowadays I like to set X equal to zero and see what happens.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

plus items vs. plus something or better critters

In a comment to yesterday's post about magic items, Gameblog reader Lizard brings up a good point:
I think there's game balance issues with doing away with magic items altogether, between expected "to hit" rolls and things like "+2 or better weapon to hit"
There's an obvious push/pull dynamic at work here.  If you include fewer +1 swords in your game then critters hit only by magic weapons suddenly become a lot harder to kill.  But on the other hand, if every PC is packing +5 crap then that defense doesn't matter much.  Personally, I think the ideal situation is a lot closer to the former situation than I've seen in many modules and campaigns.  Life becomes a crapload more interesting for the PCs if their swords can't hurt the monster of the week.  Of course the point of such an exercise is not to make the monster invincible, the PCs just have to come up with another way to vince it.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Drop something big and heavy on the monster, like when Luke kills the Rancor in Return of the Jedi.
  • Trap the monster.  Shapechanging/sizechanging beings can be tricked into shrinking down and entering a bottle or box or something.  Slap on the lid and Bob's your father's brother.  I hear crap like that happens to arrogant efreet all the time.  Or maybe the PCs discover that the wight haunting the downs can be trapped in his own barrow by putting that stone slab back over the entrance and having a Lawful cleric bless the seal.
  • Push/trip the monster so it falls into a bottomless pit.  Hopefully "bottomless" doesn't turn out to actually mean "two levels down".
  • Carry more poison, acid, flasks of oil.  Just don't be surprised when you stumble down a staircase and simultaneously melt, burst into flame and die.
  • Find the MacGuffin that sustains the monster's existence in this world.  Maybe a daemonic guardian will return to its home plane if you deface the magic runes carved into the stone plinth in room 32b.  Or maybe all those undead on levels 4 and 5 will deactivate if you cast dispel magic on the necromantic orb on level 6.
  • Find out what the monster wants and give it to them.  That rampaging roc may be a mother hen looking for a stolen egg.  The giant who lives on Hangman's Hill would probably be a crapload less grumpy if you helped it woo the giantess in the next duchy over.
  • Turns out the spectre in the castle is the spirit of the king who died there.  He'll bother the living no more if one of his descendants lays claim to the place.  Otherwise the PCs could get by with wearing his livery and pretending to be his servants whenever he appears.  Of course folks loyal to the current dynasty might not take a liking to that.
  • Stop being such a tightwad and drop some money on spell research.  You may only use the spell Dismiss Grotoblonx, Third Cousin of Demogorgon Twice Removed once in the campaign, but if you whip up a spell that specific you know it's gonna get the job done.
  • Do what good Call of Cthulhu investigators and try to find the monster's hidden weakness.  Hit up sages, bards and local know-it-alls for rumors, legends and advice.  Maybe the monster is allergic to zinc for some reason.  Or maybe old wive's tales say the ghost can be killed with the same sword that killed him the first time.  Maybe the clay golem can be destroyed by erasing one of the glyphs written across its forehead.
  • If you're brave enough, try talking to the monster to find out what its deal is.  Maybe the dragon is just looking for his missing cup and might be talked into accepting a substitute treasure (of much greater value, of course) in exchange for not burning down the town.  And some parties will gladly trade a local virgin for a less belligerent wyrm.
  • And while I'm always for killing monsters as a key component of a good D&D game, sometimes you need to step back and ask yourself how badly do you need to overcome this particular critter.  Maybe the best course is to let sleeping tarrasques lie.  Maybe the Plot Point treasure can be retrieved without a confrontation via stealth or magic.  Maybe you just need to get over this particular encounter and get on with your lives.
I don't think every session needs to hang on navigating these issues, but they certainly make a nice switch-up from swording orcs.  Some players will never consider any of these options unless you make the critters obviously and completely immune to their weapons.

This one goes out to all my Encounter Critical pals

Found on Space:1970, a great resource for EC type fun.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

an idea for a magic item overhaul

My favorite scene in the film Dead Poets Society comes when Robin Williams, playing the new nonconformist English teacher at an uptight boys prep school, instructs his class to rip out the introduction to their poetry textbook.  The intro is too scientific, too systematic, too boring, especially for a subject as vivid as poetry.  I can't quite bring myself to like the whole movie, as I think overall it's exactly the schmaltzy sort of melodrama that Hollywood all too often tries to pass off as serious film, but I like that scene.

Today's thought experiment was inspired just a bit by that scene.  The text we'll use is the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide and the section we're excising (at least in our imaginations) is the magic item lists.  Pretend with me for a moment that the magic item charts on pages 121 through 125 (and their accompanying explanations) don't exist, with the sole exception of Table (III.E.) Special.  That's the list of artifacts and relics.

In the past I've argued that you could build a helluva campaign by ditching all the non-artifacts and concentrate on the uberpowerful weirdies on table 3-E.  But today I want to do something different.  Imagine instead that the items on the list are exemplars of an entire new set-up.  In other words, take the form and/or function of the artifacts to extrapolate new categories of items to replace the old familiar ones.  Here are my initial thoughts:

Axe of the Dwarvish Lords - Maybe each species has at least one magic item associated with them.  Cheese Slicer of the Wererats, Toilet Brush of the Otyughs, that sort of thing.

Baba Yaga's Hut - I'm trying to figure out which is a better idea, a whole range of ridiculous huts with chicken feet or a more general class of places that can go to other places.  A castle with centipede legs, a tavern with bat wings, etc.

Codex of Infinite Planes - Spell books should be more like this.  See also Call of Cthulhu tomes and/or 'Pages from the Mages'.

Crown/Orb/Sceptre of Might - Why wouldn't every ruler desire magical regalia?

Crystal of the Ebon Flame/Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty - A whole class of gemstones with magical hypnotic fires inside sounds pretty rad to me.  Drawing up a chart that gives the power of the gem based upon size and type sounds like a fun way to kill an hour or two.

Cub & Talisman of Al'Akbar - Potions are clearly too easy.  Instead give the PCs a cup and talisman and make them whip up the potion when they need it.  Then have a pickpocket steal either the cup or the talisman just to be a jerk.

Eye & Hand of Vecna/Teeth of Dahlver-Nar - Necromantic cybernetics.  A good critical hit system that left PCs with missing or mangled body parts would certainly encourage their use.  Buttock of Hargrave, anyone?

Heward's Mystical Organ/Recorder of Ye'Cind/Horn of Change - The Devil's Saxophone, Accordion of 1,000 Delights, Slide Whistle of Levitation & Gravitation, etc., etc.

Invulnerable Coat of Arnd/Mace of Cuthbert/Sword of Kas - This is how swords and armor and crap creep back into the system.  But each item needs to have a hero/demigod associated with it and at least one crazy ass power.

Iron Flask of Tuerny the Merciless - Suggests a whole range of "[Variety of Substance] [Type of Container] of [Kind of Monster]" that can both capture and release/control that type of critter.

Johydee's Mask - Magical masks just sound awesome.

Kuroth's Quill - "Literacy is power" is one easy interpretation of the magic-user class.  Given that, I'm surprised we don't have more more enchanted items in that vein.  Not just quills, but clay tablets, enchanted inks, brushes for Asian style calligraphy, magic scroll cases, arcane paper and pointers.

Machine of Lum the Mad/Mighty Servant of Leuk-O/Queen Ehlissa's Marvelous Nightingale - Arcane clockwork/robotics scaling from tiny devices up to magical mecha.  Perfect for Kitchen Sink type games.

Orb of Dragonkind - I like Orbs because they don't have much in the way of a non-magical function.

Ring of Gaxx - Magic rings with mutiple functions, players have to figure out with glyph on which side of the gem does what and occasionally the gem slips and activates the wrong glyph at the wrong moment.  What's not to love?  I'd probably be cute and make all the gems looks like polyhedrals.

Rod of Seven Parts - By Grodd if I have to assemble every ding dang plastic toy my daughter gets as a gift, the PCs ought to suffer through more magic items that come with 'some assembly required'!

Throne of the Gods - Enchanted places that don't move can easily become the focus of entire campaigns.

Wand of Orcus - What if every demon had a wand?  The Wand of a Dretch might not do a whole lot, but the Wand of a Succubus or the Wand of Demogorgon ought to be pretty dang interesting.

Stack Overflow Q&A thingy

So based upon Rob Conley's say-so I've committed to giving Stack Overflow a try.  Rob describes it as crowd sourcey type Q & A site with a rigorous reputation system for both the questioners and answerers.  It started out as a service programmers but now they're looking to expand to other areas.  If you'd like to join in the fun, follow this link.  The RPG section of the site will open only after a sufficient number of people have committed to asking and/or answering at least 10 questions over three months.  That didn't sound like a great burden to me.

Monday, August 09, 2010

you'll probably need to turn up the volume

My wife wants me to note that I swiped that purple bag from her.  The video camera is hers, too.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Happy Shatnerday!

I used to not dig the costumes in The Motion Picture, but I've warmed up to them over the years.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Ye Olde Book of Spells on sale

Just go this in the ol' email.  If you're already ordering something from Lulu now's the perfect time to grab a print copy of Ye Olde Book.  Or, you know, make your own booklet with this print-ready version.  That's what I did.

If anyone uses the coupon below, please come back and leave a comment as to how much you saved.  The folks sending me this message seem unable to make up their minds whether they are offering 10% or 15% off.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Lulu.com
Date: Thu, Aug 5, 2010 at 3:00 PM
Subject: Promote "Ye Olde Book of Spells" by forwarding this message to your readers
To: you know who

Publish|Buy|Sell|Services Visit the Lulu Blog
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Offer ends September 15, 2010
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Purchase Ye Olde Book of Spells with 15% off with coupon code NEWREAD305

Disclaimer: Use coupon code NEWREAD305 at checkout and receive 15% off Ye Olde Book of Spells. Maximum savings with this promotion is $10. You can only use the code once per account, and you can't use this coupon in combination with other coupon codes. This great offer ends on September 15, 2010 at 11:59 PM so try not to procrastinate! While very unlikely we do reserve the right to change or revoke this offer at anytime, and of course we cannot offer this coupon where it is against the law to do so. Finally, Lulu incurs the cost of this discount, so it does not impact the Author's proceeds of the book.
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random pics from the ol' hard drive

I would totally sleep in one of these net-hammocks rather than a normal bed.

Effin' muchkins.

I love photos of other people's full bookshelves.

Ann Brontë knows what you're up to and doesn't like it one bit!

This is why we have terrain penalties.

You maniacs!  You blew it up!


Early Damnation Van model.

Do these guys ever actually smoke their pipes?

This is how every dude who has ever written a poem for a lady pictures himself.