I believe the signs of the reptile master.

Metal of the day. Sleep. Listen to it right god damn now.

 

 

Let’s get Meta.

 

I’ve discussed a little bit here about how big well known settings can make it tougher to hook your players narratively into the game, given that different players are bound to have different levels of knowledge. The same is true when in regards to meta-gaming. For instance players whom have intimate knowledge about aspects of the game world are able to and typically do include that knowledge into what their characters know, even if narratively it would make more sense for them to not have that knowledge. The problem with this is that it makes the players have unequal footing when it comes to their ability to perform tasks within the game world. Bobicus the wizard  knows that Salamanders are vulnerable to cold, but only because the player who plays Bobicus knows that. Jillius’s character doesn’t know that because Jillius’s player doesn’t know that.

Now this type of issue usually isn’t too bad considering the moment Bobicus does extra damage with cold, he passes that knowledge onto the other players and most likely the characters too. A Good GM will see this coming, especially if he knows his players and sometimes I will prompt knowledge-skill  rolls to assist ignorant players to those things assuming that their characters knowledge of something makes fictional sense. It seems like pretty obvious stuff (and maybe it is.) but I see a lot of GM’s missing the opportunity to do this and help bridge the gap a little bit.

The bigger problem with meta-gaming and player knowledge is that breaks the immersion of almost everyone involved. The second Bobicus the Wizard proclaims that Salamanders are vulnerable to cold and attacks it with Cone of Cold without establishing prior why or how he knows that suddenly pulls player’s perspective from inside the minds of their character to the game’s mechanics. As a player and a GM of Dungeons and Dragons I have certain levels of meta-game knowledge. But when I am a player I’m very careful about using it because it ruins my own immersion and more importantly the immersion of others.

Of course most types of meta-game knowledge are not limited to the settings themselves but to the actual systems those settings use. Let’s not beat around the bush here, due to it’s popularity Dungeons and Dragons is the game that lends itself most to the meta-gaming mentality with Pathfinder coming in second. Meta-gaming DnD and Pathfinder is most likely a common trap that players have unwittingly fell into rather than a conscious decision on the part of the player to engage in it.

So what do I do?

 

So let’s talk solutions. Firstly I’ll discuss the most obvious and preemptive solution then I’ll address what to do if you are playing Forgotten Realms in Dungeons and Dragons.

The Preemptive solution: Homebrew it. Create your own monsters, your own world with its own rules. Or combine it with the players ideas on the fly, or some mixture of both. It also has the added effect of placing a greater importance on non-combat skills, especially knowledge skills. A meta-gamer in Forgotten Realms might as well never bother using Arcana or Nature when it comes to identifying what a monster is, but if you are playing a homebrew he literally has no outside game knowledge to draw upon. That goes double if you aren’t even playing DnD.

 

The Goddammit I’m Running DnD in the Forgotten Realms setting solution: Here the solutions are a bit more specific. Firstly allow for meta-game knowledge to work in certain situations, but give the setting details an unknown twist to subvert the extent of the players knowledge. It’s probably not a good idea to simply re-write well-known monsters or aspects of the setting wholesale as it’s kind of shitty, and it defeats the purpose of running an established setting in the first place. The Salamander releases an agonized screech as your magical cone of cold rushes over him, but slowly the color of his scales begins to turn blue (The Salamander is now resist cold and vuln fire instead, its resist changes based on the element it was last hit with.)

Secondly, you can just invent your own monsters entirely. This takes a bit more work and in doing this you have to be very detailed about describing the monster and liberal with allowing knowledge checks to give clues on how to defeat the monster. Additionally when the characters pass these knowledge checks it’s an invitation to ask them how they know that, and fill in additional details about the character and their place in the world.

That’s all for now folks..til next time.

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I believe the signs of the reptile master.

Let’s make a deal…

 

I started working to create some fun tables for Arcane Afflictions for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. Lots of these inspirations from the roguelike game Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup‘s mutations. In addition there are some inspired by the bad things that happen to people in the show Fringe.  Rather than just give a list of fluff I tried to develop some mechanical reinforcement of the affliction itself. Keep in mind these are NOT necessarily balanced in the numeric sense and if they were its for low level adventuring (around 1-3.) And when the list refers to a saving throw assume the DC is something like 10-15 or whatever you decide.

The Arcane Afflictions Table

Let’s make a deal…

Star reign down on you.

A lot of time and effort can go into prepping your game, and a lot of advice is given on where to draw inspiration from or how to come up with original ideas. How can I make X encounter the coolest thing ever, the most original setting? The most out-of-nowhere plot twist? How can I become an endless font of creativity and originality?

Don’t be original, be fun.

 

The answer to that is simple, you don’t. Theirs an old adage that goes something like “Good authors cite their sources, great authors don’t.” While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, there is no reason why you as a GM can’t blatantly steal from anything that inspires you. We are running a game here not trying to produce an indie art house film. If your players have a great time playing in the most unoriginal and blatantly ripped off setting ever and they are none the wiser, then why make all that hard work for yourself? Even if I believed Intellectual Property was a real thing (I don’t, if you wanna fight me on it go ahead.), it doesn’t matter because we running an RPG, not making a product for consumption. Unless you actually ARE making something intended to be a product..in which case…be careful?

This comes with a few caveats, the main one being you should know what types of content your players consume and what things are in popular culture. You should have an idea of this because if your plan is to borrow ideas from some super weird anime you are into and your players are into as well, you will look like a buffoon if you try to pass it off like some super-creative twist you invented. Of course in one of my previous posts I advocated using common tropes or touchstones to help paint an image and that can still be done to great effect, if you are up front about it. “I’m imagining this city a lot like the one in Blade Runner, but in a much colder climate and slightly less dingy” is kind of what you should be going for with that one. When the creativity comes natural then use it, don’t get hung up on being original because most of the time your players will not even notice or suspect it.

Give it the ol’ Ben and Jerry treatment.

 

Another technique is simply re-flavoring common tropes or scenarios into a different setting or genre. Take Mt.Doom in the Lord of the Rings and use it as a hook for your science fiction adventure. Take the plot from a Star Trek episode and use it as a seed in your fantasy sandbox. If you just think a bit to translate everything appropriately from one setting/genre to the next you’ll be fine. This works because almost all stories are structurally the same at their cores. See This reddit post about Joseph Campelling your campaign.

It’s also fun to simply take parts from fiction you enjoy and mash them together into a collage. What would normally be a quaint fantasy hook can be given some spice by mashing in ideas from science fiction or trans-humanism (especially this one!). Essentially this idea boils down to “Familiar thing everyone knows but with a..twist!”

Not in Rivers, but in Drops

 

I won’t pretend to know how other peoples creativity works but for me it is rarely a constant flow of ideas. I rarely spend hours and hours sitting and writing or thinking up ideas. They come up in my head randomly, when I’m working, driving, exercising. I’ll get ideas for my fantasy campaign when I’m supposed to be prepping for my sci-fi one, and vice versa. Inspiration AND preparation for your games should be happening constantly. See something cool or get a weird idea? Put in in a list of random ideas, for now or later. See a cool movie recently? Write it down. Get inspired by a song you heard? Write that shit down. Prepping games for me is -actually- fun, it never feels like a chore and part of the reason is that I’m always doing it. If you can compulsively check your twitter feed, you can spend 5 seconds writing something down on your phone. Google Drive is great for this.

It should never feel like work. If it does you might be overthinking your prep too much, or not prepping in the way that’s best for you or simply not prepping economically. A lot of these strategies are most useful for coming up with something on the fly, especially the re-flavoring technique. Trying to come up with some truly original concept is hard enough in itself, trying to do it on the fly is near impossible and I’ve had some training in the subject.

In Summary

  • Steal ideas, screw being “original”
  • Re-flavor those ideas you like into different genres or settings to mask their origin
  • Add small twists to familiar tropes
  • Always be prepping

 

Metal of the Day..best band ever. If you think differently you’re just wrong.

 

Star reign down on you.

As we’re going down – not alone.

I think there is common problem among many tabletop RPG fans, both players and GM’s alike. In my experience a lot of players tend to -overthink- their characters rather than the opposite, and I’ve experienced this lately in my DnD game. It becomes very hard as a GM to piece together how or why 4 different PC’s should be adventuring together when they invent their own multi-paragraph backstory. One guy is a Prince of the Elven lands who is on a pilgrimage to prove his nobility. One is a ex-pit fighter out to kill his old master. One is a chaotic stupid Paladin who wants everything done by the book and the last is a thief who confuses his occupation for preoccupation.

None of these things are wrong necessarily to have as part of your characters background, it’s just that none of those things answer the question of why you are together in the now, and why will you be in the near future. Leaving room in your characters backstory for aspects of the setting to tie them to the world, as well as other player characters creates a richer and more cohesive narrative to the game.

This is why I always advocate group character creation with a bonds system similar to how Powered by the Apocalypse games do it. Now this isn’t always possible and some games have their own methods of subverting the “You All Meet in a Tavern” trope. At the very least establishing vague bonds like “Me and Rob’s PC characters served in the same army.” or “This person did me a favor, one I must repay with service.” or my favorite “This person is my brother/sister, I need to adventure with her so he/she doesn’t end up killed.” No need to get specific yet about what the army was, what the favor was, or the quality of the sibling relationship. Adding layers and depth to these bonds will come as the game progresses.

From the GM perspective though, we (and perhaps by “we” I’m referring to “me”.) tend to over-create the world. I’ve posted already how I think pitching a setting to your players should go but here’s some stuff to keep in mind.. Keep it to as few words as possible. Use any and all cultural or fan-touchstones you can to paint a picture of what you are thinking of, avoid conjuring up something that requires tons of exposition. Leave blank spaces, either on the map or in the metaphysical truths of your world for the players to inject some ideas. This is why I particularly loathe certain canned settings, (coughForgottenRealmscough.) because much of the enjoyment of the setting comes from everyone having similar levels of knowledge, which in my experience almost never happens. Someone who knows more about Forgotten Realms can make a more entrenched and “deep” character than those who don’t. Also I just hate Forgotten Realms so maybe I am biased.

Another thing is be willing to kill your ideas that your players don’t like, additionally to kill plot points/NPC’s you cherish. If you aren’t willing to do that then you are treading dangerously down the path of Thomas the Train.

Maybe all of this just sounds like “Just play Fate/Dungeon World.” and that’s fair I guess. But like with a lot of things with the hobby, a lot of games don’t do a good job or even -attempt- to solve the “You all meet in a tavern.” problem with any kind of rigor. But like the theme of this post, I’ll leave some blanks and let you decide the rest.

As we’re going down – not alone.

Any Port in a Storm

This is a vignette I wrote to kick-off my Stars Without Number campaign. I’m thinking that starting off sessions with small little descriptive excerpts to help mark the beginning of the session and to drive everyone to getting in the proper mindset for the game. I got some good responses and I’m posting it here for kicks. I hope you enjoy. The track is a ambient album made by black metal outfit Wolves in the Throne Room. I hope it immerses you like it does me.

If you were somehow able to take a still image of a ship in drill space, you’d see that they seem to have a sort of glow to them. A faint multicolored outline on the edge of the ship, the thickness of which depends on the strength of the drive. The bigger drive, the faster the speed , the bigger the outline. The ship’s external cameras allows those on the inside to view this colorful array of inter-dimensional energy. Anyone who has spent enough time travelling has seen it. Spacers call it The Shimmer.

Some of them claim to have seen visions in the energy. Faces of loved ones, hated enemies, unknown worlds, places in their past, their future, their wildest dreams and unspeakable nightmares. They even claim these images to be prophetic, of one’s fate in particular or a disquieting possibility about humanity’s future in The Black Canvas. That’s what the Exchange calls it. It’s the negative space between the points of light in which all humanity lives. They say those points guide us, like in a children’s art book. Connecting the dots, piecing together the big picture, the grand truth of the universe. Why are we here? On some of those points of light however, the better question might be…Why -were- we here?

The Last Chance. Free Merchant class Frigate made by Admetus Astronautics Unlimited. Ship ID # AAU-FM-D-3210-004. It’s shape is that of most frigate merchant vessels in this sector, resembling a flying insect found on many life-bearing worlds. Aerodynamic at strategic points to aid in atmospheric re-entry, oblong and elliptic in the spaces between. Also like an insect, the outside is simply a shell, a form whose function is divorced from the interior. Inside are perpendicular rooms and rectangular hallways, comfortingly human geometry.

Within this geometry stands four humans of various complexions and builds, all staring through the Bridge view-port into The Shimmer. Spacers are a superstitious and sometimes romantic lot. Believing that watching the exit from drill space is good fortune and if you’re unlucky enough to jump into a star by accident, you should at least get to witness it first hand. However relief sets in as The Black Canvas returns while at the same time an echo can be heard throughout the ship. It’s the familiar whine of a spike drive that is descending out of drill space. Barely audible at first, the low baritone hum soon morphs into a deafening screech, forcing all but the most experienced Spacers to instinctively jam their fingers into their ears. Better models of ships can afford luxury outfitting, thick insulation on the inner wall of the engine room to block the noise. With a name like The Last Chance, luxury just wasn’t in the cards.

The screeching recedes as the spike drive comes to a full stop, the impulse engines resuming their normal duties of inter-system propulsion. One of the points of light on the canvas appears to grow over the course of a day, and as it does finer detail can be made out. The planet Thorfinna is almost completely covered in water, the only landmass being at the east and west poles. Between those poles is a vast expanse of turquoise water covered in large bodies of dark blue and purple. Traversing the expanse are large yellow clouds that fade to a burnt orange color nearer their cores, white light occasionally flickering through, storms. Unfortunately within this storm lies your destination, the Cornwall Seastead. Dr. Thaddeus Gordon, a liaison with Sigrid Advanced Genomics said to meet him there for a job. A female voice comes over the comms, stating permission for atmospheric entry is granted. For the first few moments, descent into Thorfinna’s atmosphere is relatively peaceful, the sky bright as any pandora-world. Rapidly the situation changes as the bright sky gives way to the thick-yellow orange clouds. The storm rocks the ship, sudden gusts of wind almost knocking you off course. Moments later a flash of lightning careens across the view-port, illuminating Cornwall.

It is unfathomably large, looking like hundreds of aircraft carriers were welded together into a massive cube. As you get closer to docking bay # 037 you notice that the seastead extends underwater as well, almost the same distance as it protrudes above ground. Large planetary defense batteries cover the surface of the structure almost completely, with small docking ports located between them. Despite the rocky entry, you land safely on the deck of the Seastead. The same voice over the comms says to wait patiently as your ship descends. Then it rattles off a series of relegations and restrictions on Offworlders, all mandated by the Coalition of Thorfinnian Seasteads. The turquoise horizon is replaced by the greymetal interior of the docking shaft. Minutes later you come to a stop and blast doors open in front of the viewport. You see what could only be described as..a city. From the outside the seastead appeared enormous, from the inside it seems endless.

Any Port in a Storm

Insert Pun Here.

Before I begin my rant let me say that like Shadowrun I have lots of fun playing Dungeons and Dragons, but unlike Shadowrun I think DnD is actually a pretty good game. I have fun GMing it, and I have fun playing it. It’s just their source materials are poorly edited and one of the books should be about half the size it really is. Now let’s get to ranting.

PHB, Player’s Habitual Backtracking

First 7 pages are fine, typical RPG book introduction stuff.

Chargen is actually pretty quick and decent, except classes should be before races, shouldn’t they be species technically? I prefer the burning wheel name of stock. The long lists of class features/feats is gated behind leveling so Chargen doesn’t feel like a slog and avoids analysis paralysis. For new players (new to RPGs even) this is a good thing Generally no trap builds either from what the community says. Except for Beastmaster Rangers, universally regarded as dumpster-tier.

Alignment is still as stupid as ever. No need to elaborate on this, there’s plenty of critique out there and I agree with almost all of them. Save for looking at this from the perspective of a new player, if it’s written down in the book it must be important right..right?..RIGGHTTT? No.

Backgrounds are pretty useful, but this is one area where they should probably added a few more options. Also I like the random tables of bonds and flaws to help people add small details to their character, contrasted with the large paragraphs of stuff they showed as examples. My only gripe here is that the backgrounds are located at the back of the book for some reason when they are a part of character creation.

Inspiration is one of the main mechanics of the game, and it isn’t laid out until you get to the Backgrounds section about 120 pages in. For touting it as one of the new features of your game you sure buried it in there, and not much time is dedicated to it. I like the idea of Inspiration as a sort of reward for players adhering to the fiction of the world and their character. However it doesn’t seem they put too much effort beyond “The DM gives this out when he thinks you RP’d good and that’s it.” The players are limited to just one currency so there isn’t even a real metagame drive to try to acquire more of it in the same way a lot of (almost all) narrative-style games have a sort of meta-currency to help drive play. The failure to develop this mechanic doesn’t affect the game in any negative way but it does serve to highlight the fact that DnD is primarily about two things, hitting things with your sword and talking to people to get rewarded for hitting things with your sword. It’s about combat and everything on the character sheet points you to that.

The spell list is goddamn awful. They repeat the same mistake in the monster manual in that they order things in the most useless way possible, alphabetically. This is a players handbook, not a dictionary. Gives separate summary spell lists for each class which is fine, but then does not specify on what pages those spells can be found, and if you are a new player you’ve probably little idea what these spells can actually do so you must look at them first.. Then it goes to go on to list all the spells in detail ALPHABETICALLY, what the fuck. They should have had them listed by level of the spell (you know, as would be useful, especially to new characters who can only cast level 1 spells.) Additionally they should mark next to those spells which classes can cast them, like this. Bolded is my addition

Acid Splash
Conjuration cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous
You hurl a bubble o f acid. Choose one creature within
range, or choose two creatures within range that are
within 5 feet o f each other. A target must succeed on a
Dexterity saving throw or take 1d6 acid damage.
This spell’s damage increases by 1d6 when you reach
5th level (2d6), 11th level (3d6), and 17th level (4d6).
Classes: War-Wiz-Sor-Cle-Bar-Pal-Ran

You can argue that they did it this way to converse on ink, but I think they could have shaved text elsewhere (like in the oh-so-useful Multiverse section.) to make their book more usable. Other than all this the PHB is basically fine, it’s fine.

Dungeon Master Self-Help

Again I will be looking at this from the perspective of a new or newish GM looking to run his first game of Dungeons and Dragons, or his first campaign. The source of the problem partially is that the PHB came out way before the DMG did, most of which contains all of the core rules for being able to run the game, so the DMG must be filled with some fucking amazing sage advice with how to make this game run great right? Well let’s see.

It starts off in the worst way possible by presenting to the reader what they should be doing first, making up details of the entire world, no the entire MULTIVERSE as a starting point. Now I wouldn’t claim to be an expert GM but I do have enough experience to know that this is the absolute wrong way to have a novice GM, let alone the potential of a novice GM playing RPGs for the first time to start.

As far as the actual content of the Worldbuilding Chapter..it’s okay I guess. The ideas it gives you are just that, ideas. You can literally do anything and so much of this chapter is either a) overwhelming and useless to novice players right out of the gate or  b) A waste of time to experienced GM’s cause they already know what they are doing or are going to do as far as worldbuilding. It has no original or creative ideas and more painfully contains no systems or mechanics to help generate or reinforce the concepts of the worldbuilding. It’s just a bunch of hot air that is unneeded because people are already familiar enough with fantasy tropes as it is. To illustrate my point here’s an overview of all the topics in the first chapter of the DMG.

The Big Picture
The Gods of Your World
Mapping Your Campaign
Settlements
Languages and Dialects
Factions and Organizations
Magic in your World
Creating a Campaign
Campaign Events
Play Style
Tiers of Play
Flavors of Fantasy

Flavors of Fantasy I found particularly amusing because it suggests you can use DnD to simulate other sub-genres of fantasy, such as mystery, intrigue, wuxia, dark fantasy, mythic and etc. Of course it gives no details here as to actually -do- those things. No rules are suggested nor are there mechanics to reinforce those themes the DMG says it supports. Then after deciding on this the reader or implementer of the advice of the DMG gets to the next chapter.Surely now we’re going to get some meat and potatoes advice on how to make this game sing. Chapter 2: Creating the Multiverse. I’m sure someone new will find all this information very useful.

The problem with all this is that this information is placed at the front of the DMG, which suggests to the reader that they potentially should be creating all this content first before even starting to play which is absolutely wrong. A new GM should not waste their precious time coming up with bullshit the players of a new campaign will have zero chance of interfacing with. In my Shadowrun post I alluded to <this post> detailing why giving your players your dissertation on your setting is probably the most god awful way to begin a campaign. GM’s should focus on developing things the players can directly engage with right away for their first session. If that does overlap with the grand details or ideas you had for your setting, great! But more likely you’ll spend hours deliberating over minutia your players will not give a flying fuck about, at least not right away.

Creating Adventures is the next section and I find it’s actually somewhat decent advice. It runs through some familiar styles of adventuring but more importantly it gives you random tables as seeds to generate the overall structure of an adventure. I need not expound my love for random tables again, it’s just another case of them being useful to remove some of the creative load off of the GM.

Next up is the actual rules of the game, with suggested difficulty checks and examples on how to use stats/skills in certain situations. Surprisingly it contains some useful information to the potential DM, but I’m not giving it points for doing something it’s supposed to do. Following that is the Dungeon Master’s Workshop, a section devoted to potential rule variants. In my mind these variants don’t really seem to offer much in terms of variety, the honor and insanity systems seem like something any amateur designer could come up with. I haven’t tested out the steps to Creating a Monster yet but from what I hear they actually work well even if they are explained poorly.

Book of Beasts

Not a whole lot to say about the Monster Manual but remember my bitching about how the organization/layout of the Spell lists makes it so actually using it involves a lot of flipping back and forth and cross-referencing? Same problem here. Monsters aren’t organized by CR (Challenge Rating.), nor are they organized by environments they are commonly found it. Instead they are in alphabetical order and sometimes but not always by type. What the fucking fuck. If you go to look up Gelatinous Cube, you’d look under the G’s right? Nope that’s in O for Oozes. But there’s no section for Undead, you have to look in V for vampire and Z for zombies and B for banshees. Wight Tarrasque Fomorian. Thank goodness for resources like Kobold Fight Club

Additionally, metal of the day is Panopticon’s new album Autumn Eternal.

Insert Pun Here.