Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

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Hiding your Rolls, Quick Thoughts

This will be another quick one, I’m still with family. These thoughts are brought to you by an excellent post on hexcrawls I read a while ago… one I’ve unfortunately forgotten and thus cannot cite here.

In RPG systems where the storyteller must roll dice, there’s a long tradition of storytellers hiding the results of their rolls. There are plenty of reasons for this (fostering tension, keeping secrets, the fact that sometimes characters don’t know whether they’ve succeeded, etc.), and some of them are useful. But it’s worth noting that not every roll needs to be hidden. This especially applies to combat in D&D.

I’d argue that—whenever possible—not hiding your rolls is the better course. There’s more to this: when you don’t hide rolls, it’s okay to not hide foes’ stats. You needn’t reveal them immediately, but as PCs spend a while fighting an NPC they will slowly get a feel for the NPC’s capabilities, and that is perfectly natural. This also speeds up play, as you needn’t try to reference material while keeping it secret from players.

With this approach, there are still times when hiding your rolls is better for the feel of the story. For example, hiding your rolls works well when the PCs are surprised or don’t know what they face. This experience of information asymmetry matches the experience of the PCs. In fact, when players are used to getting information about their foes, the sudden lack of information might completely change their assessment of a situation (likely for the worse).

Note that when you’re not hiding your rolls, you aren’t able to fudge them for or against the PCs. Some players love this, some hate it… and it’s definitely more dangerous to the PCs, as dice are random and capricious. Simply put, when not hiding rolls it’s harder for you to protect your PCs from your own mistakes in creating challenges without foreshadowing them sufficiently.

When you’re not hiding rolls, I would suggest playing more openly in all ways; talk with players about what the PCs are able to see, what they might guess based on their previous experience, and what capabilities they know their opponents have (thus far). Be generous with that information! Nobody likes to be “gotcha’d,” and there’s no need for you to trick players in that way. Save that cleverness for creating exciting and tricky encounters, puzzles, or what-have-you.

Of course, all these suggestions cultivate a particular flavor of game. You needn’t use them if you don’t like them. But I’ve had good experience with them, and I think my players felt more rewarded by their victories when they knew that I hadn’t coddled them by fudging die rolls in their favor. I hope you find them useful.

Forbidden Spells & Summonings, Quick Thoughts

My family is waiting for me to run a game, so this will be short.

My brainworm of the day was wondering why wizards in D&D 5e have so few summoning spells. That’s morphed into thinking about what kinds of summon spells wizards would have.

Traditionally, at least in my brain, wizards have a long history of calling on powers they cannot control and meddling with things they do not understand. It’s part of why wizards have a bad rap in some places. It’s also part of why the ones that survive end up so powerful. Drinking from the firehose and all that.

In the 5e Player’s Handbook (and the other official 5e spell collections I’ve seen), wizards are able to safely summon elementals and a few spirits (Unseen Servant, etc). And if you think of the official 5e spell collections as the “mostly safe and authorized” spells, these limits make sense.

But there’s a model for unsafe summoning spells, via Contact Other Plane. So what if PC wizards researched their own forbidden spells, to let them summon dangerous entities without any guarantee of control? These summoning spells might take the shape of an encounter table, with one entry being the entity the PC was aiming for while the other entries are unknown to the PC.

If clerics can summon celestials, and druids can summon the fey, perhaps wizards dabble in the unsafe arts of everything else. If they manage to make bargains with the things they summon up, they might become warlocks. If they fail to contain the dangerous things they call on, they might become dead—along with most other people around them.

There’s probably some correlation between the level of the spell and the power of the creatures it could reliably control. A PC wizard might begin their spell research by learning about what to expect, with early missteps possibly leading to greater danger down the road.

Clearly, the more ambitious the wizard, the more dangerous the spell.

I’ll explore this more later. Right now, some eager adventurers are calling for me.

Taking PCs’ Stuff: better D&D via Apocalypse World

This post is primarily about D&D’s 5th edition (5e), though it is more broadly applicable. If you don’t know anything about roleplaying games, you might want to read this article first.

This post looks to Apocalypse World (AW) for inspiration on when to take away, use up, or activate the downsides of PCs’ stuff in 5e. Some of these ideas are already present (or suggested) in 5e, but I’ve frequently forgotten to use them. My hope is that this thought-jumble will remind me to use them in the future, and that my ponderings can be useful to other people as well.

Some games are better served by *not* using these ideas. They create a specific tone, more consistent with gritty explorers and dungeon delvers rather than high-powered fantasy adventure or flashy social intrigue.

Lastly, I think it’s important to implement these ideas from the outset, or to introduce them gradually and explicitly. Using these ideas changes the way the PCs’ world works, and might not meet the players’ assumptions. It’s rude to pull the rug out from under the players by making changes suddenly and without warning. I’d want my players’ buy-in before incorporating these ideas into my game, whether that means setting the game’s tone at the start or getting the players’ agreement to them mid-campaign.

With that out of the way… when should we take away the player characters’ (PCs’) stuff?

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World Building: The Hells of Errant Souls

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Hell, courtesy of Dante.

Last time I kept mentioning someone that I decided to call the Most Powerful Devil (MPD), without ever going any further into who or what that was.  But I’ve come up with more background for them since then, and in so doing I’ve also come up with more details for the game-world as a whole.

So, today I have a stupidly simple calendar (though I haven’t yet bothered to give the months names), I have a better idea of what the afterlife looks like (I’ve totally tossed out the basic alignment-based fare in favor of something a bit more complex), and I have a name and backstory for the Most Powerful Devil.  I think you’ll like this stuff. Continue reading

World Building: Magic, Demons, Angels, and Devils

Back in November I wrote about a new RPG campaign that I had cooked up, a game that I’ll refer to as For The King! for lack of a better name.  If you are currently playing in or are going to play in my 5th edition D&D campaign, you might want to be careful with reading this post.  If not, feel free to read this early-concept campaign overview.  I’ll avoid saying things here that could be too spoiler-y, but I plan to explore the nature of magic, demons, devils, and other such inimical forces.  Your character might or might not have access to this information.

Based on the first few sessions that I ran for my brothers, I already know that the setting allows for angels and fallen angels, though the latter are more like Remnants from In Nomine, powerful supernatural beings from other planes who have had some part of their greater nature stripped from them by intent or by accident.

Angels and their derivatives are all essentially moderately self-willed fragments of the god they serve, and might be thought of as something like having a god let its fingernail clippings (or maybe severed finger?) go off and do its bidding in the world.  A bit like some kind of overpowered intelligent celestial dandruff, I suppose.  But I don’t know off the top of my head how to make demons and devils work, and I don’t just want to sign on to the metaphysics presented in the 5th ed. Monster Manual without some editorial input.  I’d much rather doodle in the margins and make their setting fluff more thoroughly my own.  So read on for sweet lore! Continue reading

New D&D Sneakily Poaches Inclusivity, Narrative

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I grew up playing AD&D, as my brothers introduced me to RPGs before I was 7.  I’ve since moved away from the various D&D systems, flirting with them occasionally in passing while I instead focus on other systems that I find more interesting; I’ve come to prefer more narrativist games for the most part, though my friend Zach’s super-old-school D&D certainly calls to me at times.  But with the release of the newest edition of D&D (5th ed? Next? Whatever we’re supposed to call it) I thought I’d give it a look.  I’d examined some of the playtest documents and made appreciative noises, so I thought I should take a chance.  I’m glad I did.  It seems like the new D&D has learned a few tricks from the games that pulled me away from it in the first place.

There have been a few things that have really stood out to me while I’ve been reading the new Player’s Handbook (PHB), two quite good and one that I’m not sure how to qualify.  These have nothing to do with the rules, I’ll talk about those later.  The first item is one which I understand has already been discussed elsewhere, namely the game’s specific mention of a player’s ability to construct their character’s gender- or sexual-identity, and statement that that’s a perfectly fine thing to explore in this game; the second item is D&D’s incorporation of distinct backgrounds, personalities, and motivations into character creation, including something called “bonds” which I can only presume has come from Dungeon World; the third item is the art chosen for the book, and its depictions of a diverse group of characters.  I’ll talk more about all of these, but let’s tackle that last one first.

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What Flavor Is Your Game?

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I like vanilla ice cream.  I have for a very long time.  Before I knew my alphabet, much less how to read, I knew that hearing my older brother spell out “I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M” meant that I should start asking Mom for ice cream too.  Better yet, as I got older and discovered the joys of living in Vermont (home of Ben & Jerry’s before it was bought out by Unilever), I learned that there were far more flavors of ice cream available, and that many of them were exceedingly tasty as well.

When I was little, I played make-believe all the time.  A number of my friends simply couldn’t understand the appeal, and stopped playing with me, but at the tender age of seven my older brothers harnessed my ambitions and introduced me to 2nd Edition AD&D.  My introduction might actually have been earlier, but that year was the first time I can remember staying up until midnight to play RPGs with them.  Over the next few years, I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade (along with a bundle of other White Wolf games), D&D’s 3rd Edition, In Nomine, and GURPS.  More other games followed.  Just like with ice cream, I had discovered a whole new world of flavors to choose from.  I was very nearly overwhelmed by my enthusiasm.  These days, some people refer to me as an RPG snob.  I much prefer the term ‘connoisseur’: through dedicated consumption, I have built an appreciation for the inherent flavors of different game systems.

But what the heck do I mean by “flavor”?  And how do you figure out what a game’s flavor is?

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Azorius: A Teaser

This is the blurb/teaser to a universe I’ve been developing for use in a series of short stories (and soon to be an RPG):

Long ago, history tells of a great war between all the kingdoms, of magic that tore up the earth and sundered the sky, of demons and gods that walked the land, casting down hundreds where they glanced and calling down lightning from the heavens and fire from hell. These wars raged for decades, consuming all the races of the world. And when the dust parted and the blood cleared away, war was the least of anybody’s problems. The dead had risen. Few weapons could be used efficiently against the undead; mortal blows hardly even slowed them. In months, fully a third of the world’s cities were unlivable.

It was then that a major breakthrough was made: magic could damage, and destroy the undead. But while divine magic could repel the undead, arcane magic attracted them, worse, it could create them! Thus began the Great Purge. Any magic that wasn’t sanctioned by the church was hunted down, quickly and brutally.

Now, years later, the world is at an equilibrium. Maybe a quarter or a fifth of the cities and town from after the war survive, but they do survive. Each town is protected by a few priests; the larger the town, the more priests. And that protection remains under a few conditions: any magic users are turned over to the church, the church’s rituals are kept sacred, and the church can take anybody under the age of 18 into the clergy, at any time. If those rules are broken, the town risks losing its protection. And with these rules, rebuilding has begun, of cities and of roads. Of society.

But rumors linger, of rogue magic users who control hordes of undead, or of guilds of magic who seek to use the undead for their own nefarious research and goals, and worst, of corruption inside the church itself. But not all rumors are bad. Some tell of guilds of magic who seek to end the undead problem, of rogue magic-users who roam the countryside, seeking pockets of survivors or of magical artifacts that ward off the dead, and even of cities that escaped the devastation.

This is the realm of Azorius, and these are the tales of its people.

Mechanics Guiding Playstyle

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Earlier, I discussed how certain roleplaying systems exemplified certain gaming orientations. To an extent, this is a very peculiar notion. More specifically, it’s a very basic shorthand. After all, mechanics can never force your actions. But the way mechanics are set up can really impact the way the players think about the game.

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