The Tidequeller

Busy busy. Work Work. GMing GMing. Blog Post!

I like Dark Souls. One of my favorite things the game does is give every item in it a story, or a small portion of a large story. It’s colored my view of how I include magical items in my fantasy games. In my most recent campaign I have handed out a handful of magical items, either from.

 

Magic items shouldn’t just be +1 swords of stabbening. They should have history and more importantly magic items should have purpose. There’s a reason it has the properties it does, they are tools that perform very specific functions. They could be equivalent to Weapons of Mass Destruction or Defenses of a Particular Kind or more simply a Maguffin that moves the Story Along.  I’ve made a habit of typing up Souls-like descriptions for these items, as a way to keep their place in the world in mind and to help them tell small stories as the players begin to use them. Helping tell the story of the world bit by bit without having to frontload exposition onto the players (this will be my next topic, probably.)

Surprisingly, the DnD 5e Dungeons Masters guide has some fun ways to generate a magic items backstory. Here’s some random ones I’ve created.

 

The Tidequeller – turquoise tinted dagger with a hilt of fish scales.

The Tidequeller was a weapon used in the war between the Pantheon and Yylir, when Yylir corrupted Findui’s creations to use against them.  This weapon was forged by the Smiths of Gadyran, and though it carries her blessing, it’s carrier cannot help but occasionally feel a bottomless sorrow.”

Sesquipedalian – giant’s dagger.

“A large greatsword whose proportions look slightly off, looking more like a gigantic dagger rather than a sword. It appears to be made out of pure obsidian, and flint-knapped into its current shape with small grooves and serrated edges. It’s previous owner used it to cut the tongues out of talkative giants, and when he was slain the blade was cursed through some means. At the blade’s insistence, it’s wielder is prone to speaking the tongue of giants.”

Diplomat’s Band – dull iron jewelry.

“The Bands of Passage are either rings, or bands that would go around ones wrist, very rarely a necklace. They were created and gifted to the Emissaries of the Pantheon, to provide safe travel amidst the various dangers the Pantheon had put in place. No matter the shape, they are made of plain dulled bronze.”

Potion of Invisibility – clear-syrupy flask.

 “This potion was gifted to Daham the Jackal by his patrons. On the top of the flask around its neck is a small piece of parchment glued onto it which reads ‘For dire straits’ only. The liquid drains out of the flask like water, but its texture is similar to molasses. Upon imbibing the flask all sentient beings within eyesight of the imbiber disappear, but leaves their actual presence very much visible. Apparently the Jackal did not curry lasting favor. 

 

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The Tidequeller

Authentic Blind

Today’s stuff is on NPC’s. Most sources will break down aspects of NPC’s into these categories, I thought it might be fun to try and work out some numerical stats to represent it, which can still be done.. but I’m feeling a bit lazy.

 

Appearance, Quirks, Personality, Ties, Resources, Skills, Goals, History

 

Keep in mind we are not listing everything about an NPC in these categories, only the most important ones, and ones most likely to interface with the PC’s. We can add things to the categories as an NPC’s importance in the game rises. A similar kind of system can be used for simply managing/fleshing out particular Factions of your game. A lot of this was inspired by Johnn Four’s ebook NPC Essentials, which I got from the Worldbuilding +3 Bundle of Holding. Note I said inspired by not borrowed from. There’s a lot of good stuff in the book, but he seems to assume that you should do things like roll stats for every NPC, and that NPC creation should be a lengthy process. We’re too lazy for all that ain’t we? Let’s try to distill down NPC’s into the essential aspects that leaves enough to build upon later.

 

About Appearance – Most people look unique, even people who look much alike have unique aspects to them. RPG’s typically take place in a science fiction or fantasy world, so feel free to play up some very strange appearances indeed. Appearance can also involve their state of dress, which can be informed by other aspects such as their ties and resources.

About Quirks – Quirks are little things your NPC’s do that perhaps they are the only person in the world who does that thing. Or it can be things an NPC is sensitive about, phobias they have, things they are obsessed with.

About Personality – Pick a few words to describe this character. Keep in mind that human beings are complex and contradictory creatures so feel free to mash together personality traits that clash. They also behave one way with some people and another way with others.

About Ties – Ties are affiliations your NPC has. Not all NPC’s have ties, but most do. (the friendly wandering ogre might have no family, but it’s more fun if he does if you ask me.) Decide the organizations or enterprises the NPC is involved with and at what level is he. If the NPC is the King of Dorkland then his tie is to the “Hegemony of Dorkland: the King:” The King of Dorkland might also know the local Assassins Guild. We need not describe this relationship in detail until it becomes necessary.

Or if he is a low level cat burglar in the Thieves Guild then we might put, “Dorkland Thieves Guild, Cat Burglar.” These ties also might inform what kinds of skills he has. Additionally the NPC probably has ties to people that are not within his direct influence, extended family members. the King of Dorkland might have the tie “Brother to the King of Nerdom”

About Resources – This plays directly off the Ties section. What resources does the NPC have at their disposal? This is meant to be abstract. The King doesn’t have 10,000000 gold pieces. He has “Wealth of the Kingdom.” He probably also has “The Knights of Dorkland”. Depending on the circumstances he might have other things like “Printing Press.” for mass producing propaganda, or if he has ties to the local assassination guild as we suggested before then we might say he has the resource “Paid Assassins.”

About Skills – Skills are what the character is good at OR knowledgable about. Even the local drunk has skills. His skills are probably “Alcoholism” and “Knows the streets”. Maybe before he was the local drunk he used to be a soldier, so he also has “Swordsmanship, Soldiering” as skills, even if they are not readily apparent

Our King of Dorkland has skills too, he might have been born into his position but he maintains it with something (probably.) the King’s skills might be “Navigating bureaucracy.” or “Throwing fancy parties.” It’s important to keep the skills an aspect of the NPC themselves, it’s not something they put into action because of their position in society, that’s Ties and Resources.

About Goals – Goals, everyones got them. The goal can be big or small. It can be from “Does their day to day to feed their family.” to “Wants to incite rebellion against the King.” There can be multiple ones as well. Keep the goals in line with the NPC’s status in the world and in the narrative. The local drunk probably doesn’t want to actually incite rebellion against the King, even if he may hate him. (Constantly saying how he hates/blames the King could be a quirk.) Goals are the same as when you are making your PC, they are actionable things that are within the realm of reason that can be accomplished. Fleshing out the NPC’s skills, resources and ties can help inform the goals.

About History – For goodness sake do not write a history to each and every NPC, not even to the King of Dorkland. Only bother writing a history for an NPC if the history of the NPC becomes important to the game as determined by the goals of the player characters, or if the players somehow express an interest. Do the player characters wants to overthrow the king? Then it might be important to establish his history, who his rivals are, who knows his secrets, who raised him. What his political track record is..etc. Don’t waste time writing stuff your players won’t care about and won’t have a chance to discover.

 

Using this Let’s make some NPC’s.

The King of Dorkland

Appearance: round, wrinkly, bald, light skin

Quirks: Eye twitch, paces when irritated, drinks at inappropriate times

Personality: mirthful, compassionate, forgiving, deceitful.

Ties: Patron of the Assassins Guild, King of the Hegemony of Dorkland, brother to the Queen of Nerdom

Resources: Wealth of the Kingdom, Knights of Dorkland, Paid Assassins, Mass propaganda

Skills: Bureaucracy, Throwing Parties, Painting  

Goals: Maintain stability by any means necessary, ensure the future of the dynasty.

History: Not important (yet.)

 

Beggar Bob from the Slums

Appearance: mangy, gaunt, heavily grayed long hair, peg-legged.

Quirks: spasms of manic yelling, a pet turtle.

Personality: lazy, stubborn, paranoid, sharing.

Ties: Other beggars of the Slums, other low-lifes, Priestess from the Temple of Mercy.

Resources: Secrets of the observed

Skills: Street knowledge, urban survival techniques, cooking, panhandling.

Goals: Get by to the next day as easy as possible, make an easy buck, get drunk.

History: Used to be a Soldier in the army til he lost his leg.

 

If you are like me you have a hard time coming up with names, or personality traits . So use random tables. Google them yourself!

Also I can’t stop listening to this album by Mgla, so check that out. Til next time..

 

 

Authentic Blind

Telling Tales and Making Myths

One of my first posts here was sharing a vignette that I wrote, I’ve repeated that a few more times for my other games and it seems to work well for setting up the mood and working people into the mindset of the game. Additionally I’m going to try something I got from the Friends at the Table podcast where the GM reads off what his agendas for the game are. In my Dungeon World games I’ve run I never considered actually reading them aloud, I just figured them to be little reminders of what you are there to do. For a fun exercise let’s take the framework of the Agenda in Dungeon World and adapt them to my DnD and Stars Without Number game,

Game Agenda

Your agenda makes up the things you aim to do at all times while GMing a game of Dungeon World:

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

 

This so far is actually pretty good for most fantasy games, but we’d want to tweak them a little bit so that they can apply to BOTH the GM and the PC’s as well as add unique flavor from the setting involved. Let’s start with my sandbox DnD campaign, which is being run in a homebrew Al-Qadimish setting.

Game Agenda (Eshiin Campaign)

  • Portray a vast, harsh and mysterious desert.
  • Fill the characters lives with adventure and discovery
  • Make the secrets ancient, and the wisdom forgotten.
  • Play to find out what happens.

Usually the last blurb is always “Play to Find out what happens.”, it suggests to the players that they aren’t playing a part in a story. They are playing a character who lives and acts in a world. The story is what we tell each other afterward. Let’s try Stars Without Number

 

Game Agenda (Reynes Omega Sector)

  • Portray a diverse and dangerous universe
  • Make the cultures familiar, but with twists.
  • Fill the characters lives with adventure
  • Make the hard choices, or have them made for you.
  • Play to find out what happens.

Along the same lines perhaps there are some more generic agendas to be used to help remind the GM of techniques to keep in mind to keep a smooth game running. Even if you don’t use these you should come up with your own as you discover what does and doesn’t work for you. I suspect these might be different on a game to game and group to group basis, as they are all different.

 

Game Master’s Toolbox

  • The Three-Clue Rules. For things critical to progress, include 3 potential clues or methods of getting it.
  • Consider failing forward, or success with a drawback instead of “You fail.” 
  • Involve all the characters, bounce back and forth between them to keep them on their toes.
  • When a player says they roll a skill or stat, stop and ask them “Great, but what is your character DOING to make that happen?
  • Start by reading your vignette or introduction scene, (a scene, not an essay.)
  • Read off your Game’s Agenda

Somewhat Related Stuff

As an aside you should be reading The Alexandrian in general, every bit of advice I spew here can be better explained in detail there. In this post he breaks down ways to use partial successes in games which only support binary outcomes in the Rules-As-Written.

 

Til next time..

 

 

 

Telling Tales and Making Myths

We continue to chase the Sun

Last week for my DnD group I ran a marathon of a session, lasting about 6 hours. It was great fun and at the end of it I was extremely happy with the quality of the roleplay from my players, and while I fludged up the combat a little bit (I’m not the best at running 5e combat, especially on Roll20.) it still went really well. It’s inspired me to write about something I’ve seen in the bunch of games I’ve played in and ran myself, the Hammer and Nail Problem.

If you don’t know what I mean, here is an explanation from Wikipedia:

 The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow’s hammer, Gavel or a golden hammer[a] is an over-reliance on a familiar tool; as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”[1].”

To see where this crops up, let’s look at the character sheet for DnD 5th Edition.

5E D&D Basic – Character Sheet (Form)

Notice anything? Most of the sheet is dedicated to things that are used in combat, with a section dedicated to skills and a space on the top-right for your Personality/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws. It is nice those things are there to keep players referencing character traits to help roleplay, but in my experience it rarely comes up. Stats come into play in combat, as do saves, HP, AC, the space to put your attacks. In fact most spells in the game are tailored towards a combat use.

“So what? Isn’t that what Dungeons and Dragons is about, hitting monsters with swords and spells?” you might say, and to that I say…you’re right. DnD is absolutely about those things. It works best when the game is mostly about dungeon crawling and using the pointy-end on monsters. But unless all your players are strict wargamers then the game shouldn’t JUST be about those things, and if you aren’t careful the game can drift in that direction. When it looks like all you have is hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Compounding that is the fact that human beings are creatures that crave variety. Unless you are on the spectrum you probably don’t enjoy literally doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again, it gets stale. Spice up your game and invite your players to think about what they can do besides clubbing things on the head each time. Here’s some tricks to doing so.

Let a player get away with a stupid plan that (probably) should not work

 

In my last session, a character wanted to use their animal handling skill to defuse some aggressive tigers. Now, combat had already started, but this person was driven by the fact that she didn’t want to harm cute kitties (I empathize.) So she rolled her animal handling skill, got a 23! In my version of the fiction this totally should not work, given that the tigers were raised and taught to be man-eaters. However in the spirit this post I met her in the middle. I allowed it to work but only for a certain amount of rounds, and the other tigers were still oncoming. On the other players turns they took cues from the first and decided to try their hand at it. Some of them failed, but now this combat has turned from using their swords to stab tigers, to surviving an onslaught of beasts in order to calm them down and avoid killing them if possible. It says something about the characters that they’d be willing to sustain major injury in order to solve the situation this way, it’d be much easier to Use Sword on Kitten. Alternatively if the players come up with an articulate a well thought out plan..let it work with minimal rolling. This concept is basically the tried and true GM-advice of saying “Yes, and..” but I prefer it phrased the other way if a player’s idea is a little too stupid. The “No…but.”. Then again if I feel like it will shake up the experience a little bit I might even let a hyper-stupid plan work.

Present situations that cannot be solved by using swords.

 

This one simply involves baking in some variety in your campaign and/or dungeon. The Five Room Dungeon method is a quick and easy way of doing this. Once you’ve done it a few times you will see that you can really do any combination of the item’s listed here and even expand on them. Avoid a Door Kickers scenario, where every room has bad guys sitting in it waiting for the party to open the door. That particular scenario can be fun, but not when it’s all you’re doing for 3+ hours.

One thing I particularly hate though is outright puzzles. Often times it plays out in the same way as it does in adventure games, “Guess exactly what the designer was thinking or you can’t progress”. So heed the advice in the Five Room Dungeon method, “puzzles” don’t mean to solve a riddle necessarily, or a block puzzle. It means any challenge that cannot be overcome with combat. Along the same lines as using encounters that can’t be overcome with combat necessarily the other thing is to have the goal of the party in a combat to not simply slay the opponent. Grab the MacGuffin and run out of the room before the overpowering threat kills you. Defend an NPC/PC as they try to complete a ritual against a horde of weaklings. Run through a gauntlet of bad guys to escape a crumbling tower. If you are playing with players who are slow to adapt to this kind of stuff then it’s best if you make liberal use of foreshadowing or telegraph what is going to happen. If they don’t…well I guess the rocks fall on their head.

Give the antagonists a sense of self-preservation.

 

Unless the antagonists the PC’s are struggling against are actually mindless (gelatinous cubes, golems, robots, most undead.) they probably will not fight to the absolute bitter end and will try to plead with the party, run away,  pay them off, beg forgiveness or opt for being taken prisoner as opposed to an immediate death sentence. This might not work if the party has already killed multiple people who have tried this tactic on them. Then it’s reasonable to say that their bloody reputation has caused almost every enemy they come across to fight to the death because they know they won’t be spared. Hopefully it never gets to that point.

Not only does this make the conclusions of combat more exciting due to unpredictability, it also adds some dimensions to the bad guys. He might be the leader of the cultists who has gone around kidnapping people and sacrificing them..but he’s still rational. He would prefer imprisonment and the chance of escape rather than the surefire death should he fight til the bitter end.

The TL;DR version

 

  • If the plan is stupid but might have some remote chance of success, let them try it.
  • If the plan is sound and well articulated, let them try it with minimal rolling.
  • Present scenarios and threats that can’t be solved with swords
  • Puzzles suck.
  • Help the party establish goals that might include not simply killing stuff. Short or long term.
  • Give combat itself alternative “win” conditions other than dropping Baddies to 0 HP.
  • Make Antagonists somewhat intelligent or at least self-preserving, unless fictionally it makes sense for them not to be.

Til next time..

 

We continue to chase the Sun

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.

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