Monday, September 29, 2014


These links are more for my own use. If I start GMing a fantasy campaign next week I might make Tiamat one of the big bads. However, you should totally use these links for great adventure fodder!

Zak Smith wrote up some awesome notes for the the Five Churches of Tiamat

Then Daniel Davis has written a bunch of great ways of making Hoard of the Dragon Queen interesting and fun

And finally, Courtney Campbell has been remixing and rewriting the chapters of the adventure to make it darker, deadlier, and delightfully fun to read!

Also, here's a review that eviscerates the adventure as written.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

playtesting to hit Armor Class 0

I've been toying with a few different ideas on how to resolve combat

Normally, you attack and you either hit or you miss. In a PbtA game when you attack you exchange damage, doing it well means you potentially hit harder and take less damage yourself, doing it poorly means you could take more damage or inflict none.

What if...? You attack, and one of three outcomes occurs: you hit and your opponent misses you, you and your opponent hit each other, you are hit by your opponent.

The traditional calculation in D&D is: Class attack bonus + ability modifier + 1d20 versus 20 - armor class
But if I'm changing the rules to be level-less and armor reduces damage rather than makes it harder to be hit, then...
Ability score + 1d20 versus 20 (too easy, probably good to experiment with at some point though)
Ability score + 1d20 versus 30 (not sure, experiment!)
Ability score + 2d6 versus 20 (hard difficulty, some rolls will just never be outright successes though)
Ability modifier + 3d6 versus 15 (moderate to hard, the curve is shallower and more predictable than a 2d6 which might lead to less fun)
Ability modifier + 1d20 versus 20 (very difficult, wilder results but potential for critical successes and failures!)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Deep Carbon Observatory, by Patrick Stuart

It is rare that I hold high expectations for something and then it lives up to those expectations. It can feel pretty gratifying! I had been hearing about how intriguing this module was before it was available in print, and Patrick Stuart is one of my favorite game bloggers, which means I was a little biased with the eager anticipation of reading this adventure. I was expecting Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) to be awesome, and I was not let down.

There is very little in the way of set-up for this adventure. A single paragraph sets the stage for what the PCs know, and clever GMs who read the entire adventure ahead of time can find easy ways of hooking the PCs into the sequence of events that follows. The adventure is divided into eight chapters, more than half of which can be thought of as simply descriptions for inhabitants and encounters within a specific region. The adventure starts with a flood that destroys most of the countryside, and if the players are keen on following the damage to the source of the flood waters they will be led to a broken dam which is pretty compelling location all on it's own. It's entirely possible that the observatory of the title could never be found. But if it is, complicating matters is a thoroughly evil adventuring party that is competing with the PCs, though neither of them knows about the other ahead of time.

I'm not going to explain any other further details than that because I've perhaps revealed too much of it already. It's a pretty straightforward premise, but brutal in it's execution. This adventure deserves to be spoken about in hushed tones and discrete symbols. The only thing I didn't like about the adventure is that the words on the overland maps were a little hard to read and there's no sense of scale described anywhere on the maps or in the text. There are alternate maps available for the observatory, but I found the maps included in the original pdf useful and compelling (though the numbers here were also a little hard to read). Scrap Princess did an excellent job with the artwork throughout the book, giving the adventure a gritty and disturbing atmosphere. I would love to see her illustrate more modules.

Deep Carbon Observatory is available from DriveThruRPG in both print and pdf!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

my favorite gaming blogs

I keep seeing these "Top Ten OSR Blogs" or "Top Gaming Blogs" lists and 1) I haven't seen Zak Smith show up on a single one yet, and 2) they also seem to be the same lists with one to three variable entries. Everybody lists Tenkar's Tavern and everybody always seems to mention The Dungeon Dozen which is quaint but I wouldn't really call it one of the top ten.

This is not my personal top ten, this is just a couple of blogs that I really like that I think are under appreciated.

Wrathofzombie's Blog : Not only does Mike Evans have his own campaign setting (Hubris) that he runs with Dungeon Crawl Classics, but he's consistently posting new ideas accompanied with tons of pictures that show off his inspirations as well as express the flavor and tone of what his idea is trying to get across. It's like soaking in awesome!

Gorgonmilk : Greg doesn't post enough, and it fuckin' kills me because that's how awesome his blog is. He's always showcasing other peoples' OSR works that you might not have seen or even heard of and occasionally he'll post entirely musical entries, but whenever he shows off whatever he's currently working on the blog is just golden!

From The Sorcerer's Skull : Trey Causey is a published RPG author so you may have already heard of him. I started following his blog because of his deeply intriguing Strange Stars setting, but his fantasy setting ideas and comic reviews are just as compelling and interesting to read.

False Machine : I saved the best for last!
If you haven't heard of Patrick Stuart and his False Machine then I feel bad for you. Everything he writes is amazing and awesome and reveals that his brain has many gears and levers that buzz and whirl with unquestionable weirdness.

There are tons of great blogs out there and I can't write about all of them. But just a few more that stand out to me and deserve mention are Aiee! Run From Kelvin's Brainsplurge!, Telecanter's receding Rules, Dyson's Dodecahedron, Monsters and Manuals, Goblin Punch, Last Gasp Grimoire, People them with Monsters, Giblet Blizzard, and Dreams in the Lich House

Happy Reading!

Friday, September 12, 2014

imaginary money

Written at the end of almost every playbook in Apocalypse World is a short description of barter that describes what the playbook could expect to charge for their services or receive in return for things they might want or need. There's a description in the rulebook which flat out states that barter is not a game mechanic but then follows up with an example list of goods and services which could be purchased with 1 barter. The one sentence that seems to appear identically in every description of barter, in both playbooks and rulebook, is "1-barter will cover a month’s living expenses, if your tastes aren’t too grand."

Barter is money, but it's not. It's things you have but don't need that you could trade.

In the Fallout video games trade works very similarly, except objects are given a value in bottle caps, the "money" of the setting, and the relative value of objects adjusts based on your character's Charisma or skill in Bartering. But let's say you ignored all of that fiddley nonsense of adjusting cost and introduced bottle caps into Apocalypse World. Would very much change? Characters would likely track their bottle caps, but then you might start feeling the need for tracking the size and weight of all of these caps. Much like AD&D forced you to track the weight of coins.

Trying to equate barter to a system like AD&D (or any of the OSR games where money equates to experience points) where there are different denominations of precious metals makes me really wonder what the value of a gold coin should be. I'm always looking for a simpler system, but barter is almost too simple, it leaves too many questions for players and leads to plenty of disagreements about what barter actually is when you're confronted with other people's ideas of how trade should work in the absence of money.

1-barter will cover a month’s living expenses, if your tastes aren’t too grand.

What are expenses then? Rent and food? Let's assume yes and say that a cheap real-world equivalent would be $200 a month for rent and $40 for food, so 1-barter might equate to $250 in cash. This means that spending 1-barter leaves you living in squalor and eating the apocalypse world equivalent of ramen noodles and metallic tasting water. Pay more and you can likely live in your own place (2-barter a month) and eat steak (4-barter a month). But who do you pay rent to? Where do you get the steak from? Good questions, best answered within the game world.

Let's switch up the dynamics a bit and apply the idea of barter to a fantasy setting. Let's start here: 1 gold coin will cover a month's living expenses, if your tastes aren't too grand.

Living in flophouses and eating gruel, stale bread, and sour ale. Pay more for a small private room in an out of the way inn (2-gold a month) and to eat mutton, fresh fruit, and dark lager (4-gold a month). Now, with this standard, how much do these things cost per day? Assuming roughly 30 days in a month, and dividing gold and silver into the traditional 1-to-10 ratio, the room would cost about a silver per day and the food would cost a little bit more (a silver and three coppers) every day. Pretty simple. A player could handwave that they're living poorly at 1 gold per month, or living at a slightly better but still below average level at 3 gold per month. Or if they really want to they could get into the minutia of what they're actually spending their money on and the GM would have a standard for figuring out the cost of goods.

This standard could also be useful for determining what taxes are. Assume the population is paying about 3 or 4 silver a month per person, unless the local lord has raised taxes higher. A garrison with 48 people (citizens and soldiers) probably brings in about 19 gold per month but a village of 300 brings in about 120 gold per month, on average. If the standard of living is poorly then this is a huge cost for either population, but if they live in better conditions then the local lord probably has leeway to push taxes up. What is a village worth? When an invading army is threatening to burn the fields and steal the cattle, it could represent a loss of 700 to 2100 gold to account for recovery. How much gold is the lord willing to spend to get rid of the invaders? If he can give them 1000 gold to leave for a year, then why would he waste 4000 gold to mobilize an army?

1 gold coin (or 1-barter) will allow you to get by and survive in squalor for one month.
5 gold coins (or 5-barter) will allow you to live comfortably for one month.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Eagles' End

We started playing the Dark Age playtest and after a session of character creation the game already feels like the sort of campaign I wanted to run with Kosranon. Low magic, low tech, bandits everywhere, mysterious monsters.
And no elves!

We started by creating the village and stronghold where the characters live, Eagles' End.

Sitting on a hill at the end of a fjord, the village is surrounded by a wooden palisade with small towers for archers constructed along strategic points along the wall. Armed with spears and bows, the people of Eagles' End defend a library where scholars and scribes study the writings left behind by the Empire of Eagles as well as collect stories and legends of the Old Gods that were worshiped before the Empire took control of the region. The countryside is plagued by bandit clans who think of themselves as the last true Imperials trying to survive amongst lawless savages, and neighboring villages grow jealous of Eagles' End inflating treasury.

click the map to make it bigger

There are three kinships of people living in Eagles' End...

the Aetosians
Driven by a desire to gather and collect knowledge left behind by the Empire of Eagles, and consolidate it with the lore of the Old Ways that survived the Empire's reign, most Aetosians revere book keeping and historical record. The Aetosians living in Eagles' End wish to found a school and are the stewards of a library, and they keep the old Eagle shrine maintained. Most of them are cynical scholars, getting greedy as they collect more treasure and artifacts. They look fat and stocky, with pale skin and curly brown hair. They often wear gaudy, bright clothing. They obsess over the traditions and customs passed down from the Empire of Eagles, a few practice sorcery, as they hold any knowledge that can be acquired sacred.

the Ferdigen
They have the longest and strongest ancestral ties to the land which they call a sacred bond between the land and the people. They were once subjugated and enslaved by the Empire of Eagles, but now they speak of themselves as a people reborn. They look athletic and muscular, with straight blonde hair and tan or tawny skin. They are a simple people, but the loud coloring of clothing that the Empire wore, and that the Aetosians wear, has begun to creep into their fashion sense. They are master archers, craftsmanship, and practice single combat extensively. A loyal people, the Ferdigen consider themselves benevolent protectors of the Aetosians who search for the lost heritage and traditions of the Ferdigen people, and Ferdigen loyalty has led to many of them beginning to emulate their scholarly wards. The celebrations where they venerate the uprising of the Old Gods sometimes last for days.

the Munii
Once part of a vast and far-reaching empire of their own, the Munii were displaced by the rise of the Empire of Eagles and fallen into decline and ruin, scattered to many regions as disparate families of rogue pagans. They look tall and fair-skinned, with muddy-red hair that they keep loosely cut or tie back with simple ribbons, and typically wear simple clothes without ornamentation or unnecessary coloring. Near Eagles' End is one large family that settled along the river and built a small village where their descendants now fish and hunt and only trade with those who prove themselves worthy. A few Munii have spread into Eagles' End proper and prosper as messengers and prophets of the Old Gods. They are ever vigilant against monsters and trolls, their ruthlessness is matched by their great beauty, their sorcery and enchantments as well as their marvelous feasts are envied. They hold the brutal cycle of nature sacred by worshiping spirit animals, especially predatory beasts such as wolves and bears.

Amongst the leaders and influential voices of Eagles' End are...

Lothric, the Ferdigen head of the Shrat household, is the Keep-Liege and rules Eagles' End. He tries to seem discerning and fair to his subjects, but he has always been more skilled in fighting than in law or judgment. He has personally established trade with many of his neighbors, though his overbearing physique and skill in combat are more likely responsible for the favors he has earned than diplomacy or skilled negotiations.

Ozan Renjara, the Outranger, was trained by the Ferdigen people to be a capable warrior though he was born as an Aetosian. His family was slaughtered by the Rapuns and has been adopted into, and earned a place of honor in, the Shrat household. He sometimes acts as Lothric's eyes and ears and is empowered by the Keep-Liege to forge trade with neighboring communities. He sometimes acts as a guide for travelers and exiles as his status affords him welcome in many places.

Leon Sofia, an Aetosian and Lothric's Court Wizard, spends his time maintaining the library and fostering expeditions in search of scrolls and parchment left behind by the Empire of Eagles. So far he has ignored the rising popularity of a return to the Old Ways amongst the people of Eagle's End but a schism of influence has already started to foment within his own household.

Hypatia Sofia, an Aetosian and self-proclaimed Dragon-Herald. She wants to return to the Old Ways and believes the dragons are benevolent and will return if more people embrace and worship the Old Gods. She also favors gathering knowledge left behind by the Empire and learning from it, though she still believes the slumbering dragons despise anything related to the Empire and will destroy those remnants when they awaken.

Hurit of the Arania household, a Munii and Wicker-Wise, the healer and midwife of Eagles' End, she is a master chemist and wears elaborately embroidered clothing and many rings and earrings as a sign of her status within the stronghold. She requires that supplicants kiss her hand to show proper respect before she will address their problems or assist them when she is fortune-telling, which many Ferdigen come to her for.

Togquos of the Arania household, a Munii and War-Champion. She recently gave birth to a daughter and the father was a Ferdigen who fought beside Togquos, Jesse of Pyreth, after the battle they spent much of their private time together. Togquos is well-known everywhere she goes and she is known by the Munii as "the Eagle-Killer." She dresses fancy, has many piercings, and carries a magical dagger which causes wound that no man has ever recovered from.

Aranck is a Troll-Killer and was adopted into the Arania household, her people and home are known only to her. As a child Aranck was rumored to be a troll born into the body of a child, and as she grew into adulthood she began traveling as a mercenary. She was determined to prove that she wasn't trollborn and became a hunter and killer of trolls but was still exiled by her aunt, who was also the chieftain of her tribe.

Other people who neighbor or live near Eagles' End are...

the Rapuns
A small nomadic band who worship the god, Stone, a being who lives in natural rock and is composed of stone. They are the closest neighbors to Eagles' End and typically fish and herd sheep upriver, but also trade with the Munii village to the north. They look tall and stocky with bronze skin, stoop shouldered and keep their wiry hair and beards short. They have an insular disposition and are typically untrustworthy of others. They are responsible for many of the circles of standing stones that can be found inland, and manage to travel through many areas where they know the land is rich.

the Spider clan
An outlaw band of descendants of former scholars and craftsmen who took up the sword, they hold the Empire of Eagles up as a paragon of civilization and consider the villages and townships in the area to be savage and filthy. They look much like Aetosians, as they were once members of the shrine stewards in Eagles' End, they are pale skinned and wear bright clothing, but have spare and willowy bodies topped with curly blonde hair. They tattoo their arms and legs, often with web patterns and depictions of spiders, and ornament their weaponry and fur clothing with amber stones. They have become skilled fighters and are known to make daring and fearless raids on weakened or vulnerable people. They have sworn blood vengeance upon the Ferdigen and the Aetosians over minor disagreements that nobody remembers. They venerate a mysterious spider god whose legends were told within the Empire of Eagles, but whose stories were never committed to parchment.

the Matosians
They worship the Witch-King, which is a person but also a title worn by their current king, Malik. The last Witch-King died at Malik's hands last summer, and since then trade with Eagles' End has ceased. Matosians look fair-skinned with muddy red hair and wear simple, dark clothing. They have been ruthless to their enemies in the past and crucify their criminals rather than exile them. Malik is also known to dislike any who do not worship the Witch-King before other deities. Matosians view the Empire of Eagles as a decadent and corpulent society that deserved to die, and they consider any who recite knowledge of the Empire as being corrupted by it. They love spicy food and bitter alcohol.

the Aetar
The last descendants of a military order from within the Imperial Legionnaires. The Aetar look pale and dark-haired, and wear bright yellow and white clothing or armor. They are fanatically devoted to Imperial law, which they pass down as an oral tradition. The Aetar hold everything about the Empire of Eagles sacred and would likely become allies with Aetosians if the Aetosians weren't trying to study the Old Gods and collect knowledge about the Old Ways before the Empire destroyed most of it. They have dwindled in numbers as they refuse to recruit Munii or Ferdigen or anybody else into their ranks. When they attack a community they do not take prisoners and attempt to slaughter anyone they find.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Gaz and the Drake, a patron for DCC RPG

I started writing Gaz and the Drake for our gaming group, but then our group stopped playing Dungeon Crawl Classics and I lost my inspiration for completing the description of this patron. Two years later, I'm clearing out a lot of my digital accounts and I see this draft document on my blog so now I'm finishing it up. Even if I'm not playing DCC at the moment, I think it would be pretty cool to have a custom patron for my players to choose, or maybe I'll write another one so that I have a range of options outside of the core rulebook.

Without further preamble, here are Patron Spells: Gaz and the Drake

Level 1: Iron Fist

Self, Duration: Varies, Casting time: 1 round, Save: None
General: Gaz and the Drake understand that their followers are not, strictly speaking, fighters and so they impart this spell early to give devoted wizards an opportunity to utilize the arcane arts to exercise some martial skill. The caster must spellburn at least 1 point when casting this spell.
Manifestation = Roll 1d4: (1) the caster's hands twist into wooden fists incapable of grabbing objects or casting other spells (the caster takes 1 point of damage); (2) the caster's hands glow with a golden light, making him an easily discernible target in the dark; (3) the caster's hands become like stone, hard and impervious to most damage but still able to manipulate objects and cast other spells; (4) the caster's hands take on the look and feel of iron but may still be manipulated like normal digits (this version of the spell will cause +1 damage to elves).
1 = Lost, failure, and patron taint.
2-11 = Lost and failure.
12-13 = The wizard's hands become hard like weapons! For a number of rounds equal to (1d3 + caster level) unarmed attacks inflict lethal damage of 1d3 + caster level + Strength.
14-17 = The wizard's hands become hard like weapons! For a number of rounds equal to (1d4 + caster level) unarmed attacks inflict lethal damage of 1d4 + caster level + Strength.
18-19 = The wizard's hands become magical weapons! For a number of rounds equal to (1d6 + caster level) unarmed attacks are at +1 to hit and inflict lethal damage of 1d6 + caster level + Strength.
20-23 = The wizard's hands become magical weapons! For a number of rounds equal to (1d8 + caster level) unarmed attacks are at +3 to hit and inflict lethal damage of 2d4 + caster level + Strength.
24-27 = The wizard's hands become magical weapons! For a number of turns equal to caster level unarmed attacks are at +4 to hit and inflict lethal damage of 3d4 + caster level + Strength.
28-29 = The wizard's hands become magical weapons that can punch through wood or plaster! For a number of turns equal to caster level unarmed attacks are at +5 to hit and inflict lethal damage of 3d6 + caster level + Strength.
30-31 = The wizard's hands become magical weapons so strong that he can punch through stone or metal! For a number of hours equal to caster level unarmed attacks are at +7 to hit and inflict lethal damage of 3d8 + caster level + Strength.
32+ = The wizard's body glows with a golden hue and a low hum originates from the air around him! Until the next sunrise unarmed attacks the caster makes are lethal, can punch through any material, are +9 to hit, and inflict 5d8 + caster level + Strength damage. Whenever a creature is struck by the caster it must make a DC 20 Fortitude save or flee in terror and pain.

Level 2: Poisonous Gaze
Range: 30', Duration: Instantaneous, Casting time: 1 action, Save: Will vs. spell check
General: This spell gives the wizard a gaze attack that can be used to lock eyes with a living creature and poison their blood. The spell will have no effect on golems, elementals, oozes, or other such creatures that do not have eyes or blood per se.
Manifestation = Roll 1d8: (1) the caster's eyes glow green and a smoky green-tinted mist pours out from their eyelids; (2) a beam of soft white light pulses between the caster's eyes and the target of the spell; (3) a crackling sound emanates from behind the caster; (4) the sclera in the wizard's eyes turn black for the next hour; (5) the wizard emits a foul smell, similar to bleach or vinegar; (6) the wizard's eyes become ringed with pustules and sores, these heal after a good night's rest; (7) the wizard's eyes and mouth become ringed with a glittery substance that disappears at the next sunrise; (8) the caster's face becomes dry and wrinkled for the next turn.
1 = Lost, failure, and patron taint.
2-11 = Lost and failure.
12-13 = Failure, but spell is not lost.
14-15 = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or suffer 1d8 + caster level HP damage.
16-19 = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or temporarily lose 1d3 Stamina; recovered at one point per day.
20-21 = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or temporarily lose 1d4 Stamina (or Dexterity, caster's choice); recovered at one point per day.
22-25 = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or temporarily lose 1d5 Stamina (or Dexterity or Intelligence, caster's choice); recovered at one point per day.
26-29 = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or temporarily lose 1d6 Stamina (or Dexterity, Intelligence or Strength, caster's choice); recovered at one point per day.
30-31 = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or be struck blind for 2d4 rounds.
32-33 = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or be paralyzed for 2d6 rounds.
34+ = The caster locks eyes with a target within range, which must make a Will save or be paralyzed for 2d6 rounds and lose 1d6 Agility, Stamina and Intelligence; recovered at one point per day.

Level 3: Spectral Soldier
Range: 20', Duration: varies, Casting time: 1 turn, Save: None
General = The caster summons a ghostly warrior that fights alongside her and protects her from any who might harm her.
Manifestation = Roll 1d4: (1) the wizard breathes out smoke from her mouth which coalesces into the warrior; (2) a skeleton crawls out of the ground during the casting and the apparition forms around the bones (the bones crumble into nothingness at the end of the spell); (3) a heavy fog rolls in and the soldier steps out from it, the fog fades by the end of casting ; (4) the soldier is a dark misty thing that animates out of the wizard's own shadow
1 = Lost, failure, and patron taint.
2-11 = Lost and failure.
12-15 = Failure, but spell is not lost.
16-17 = The caster summons a spectral warrior who serves for up to 1 turn or until dismissed or killed, it will not stray farther than 20' away from the caster and if it is forced past that boundary it disappears. It never speaks or communicates in any way, and always attacks anything that is attacking the wizard or that the wizard attacks. If the spectral soldier is fighting another humanoid fighter it will attempt to disarm them or cripple them, and if it is fighting a monster or other non-humanoid creature it will attempt to push them back with it's attacks, keeping them away from the caster. Consider the warrior to be 1st level and have ability scores of 10. It has AC 16, 1d4+1d8 hp, and a deed die of 1d3 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.
18-21 = As above, but it lasts for 1d3 turns and is considered to be 2nd level with ability scores of 12. It has AC 16, 12 hp, and a deed die of 1d4 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.
22-23 = As above, but it lasts for 1d4 turns and is considered to be 3rd level with ability scores of 13. It has AC 16, 20 hp, and a deed die of 1d5 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.
24-26 = As above, but it lasts for 1 hour and is considered to be 4th level with ability scores of 14. It has AC 17, 30 hp, and a deed die of 1d6 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.
27-31 = As above, but it lasts for 1d4 hours and is considered to be 5th level with ability scores of 15. It has AC 18, 40 hp, and a deed die of 1d7 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.
32-33 = As above, but it lasts for 1d6 hours and is considered to be 6th level with ability scores of 16. It has AC 19, 50 hp, and a deed die of 1d8 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.
34-35 = As above, but it lasts for 1d8 turns and is considered to be 7th level with ability scores of 17. It has AC 20, 60 hp, and a deed die of 1d10 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.
36+ = As above, but it lasts for 24 hours and is considered to be 9th level with ability scores of 18. It has AC 24, 80 hp, and a deed die of 1d12 for purposes of attack bonus and damage. It's attacks are considered to be magical.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

perception rumination

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is how the GM can fail to give information to the players which can lead to the players taking actions they might not have otherwise taken. The characters' perception of events is only as good as the GM's ability to narrate the scene. This should be one of those obvious statements that begins every and any chapter of GMing advice, but it's surprising how many people just don't make the mental leap of how much the collective concept of what is happening in the game rests on one person's shoulders.

There are several games that use perception as a risk-taking procedure, and supply a rule that gives players a mechanic with which to gain an advantage or simply to be warned of impending danger. 3rd edition D&D invented the much abused Spot check, World of Darkness has a derived Perception skill check, Apocalypse World has the Read A Situation move, and many times I've seen a GM who in the absence of a rule for it simply has a PC make a saving throw or a luck check or similar oddity. Using these checks as ways of doling out information is where the inspiration for Trail of Cthulhu came from.

It's a two-way street though, it's important for players to ask questions and prod for more information. Generally, I've noticed that if players just take the scene as described it's because they think their GM gave them all the information they needed. As a player, I am always asking for more details "Is the ceiling a dome or is it flat? How far does the curve in the wall go, all the way to the ceiling? Does it look like there might be a crack or crease where the wall meets the floor?"

Character perception requires player communication.

I used to think that being able to separate what your character knows from what you, as a player, know is a sign of good role-playing, but as I get older I find that I don't like the adventure to take too long. If there is something there and I've asked the right question I just want to hear a "Yes" so we can get on with the game without fiddling with dice or wasting time. But then, what is the right question?

If a room is trapped, how do detect it if the GM assumes you will just roll dice to discover it? Different games handle discovering traps and pitfalls in different ways. In old school D&D you better have a Thief to search for traps, otherwise you're hosed. In 3rd edition and in Dungeon World anybody could potentially search for traps, some are just better at it than others since in both games it almost entirely relies on your Wisdom bonus. In Dungeon World the existence of a trap might be determined by the dice roll to detect it.

In this same vein, if an NPC is lying to your character how do you detect it? Depending on the GM they might make this obvious, no roll required, but there are mechanics in games for having this kind of interaction with a skilled bluffer. Deadlands made a huge (but broken) mini-game out of the Bluffin' and Scrutinize skills. In some versions of D&D this might just be a saving throw but it could easily be a Sense Motive roll. In Apocalypse World the Read A Person move becomes a catchall for this kind of interaction, which I have noticed most players don't even actually use unless they think violence is imminent.

Sometimes pulling out dice to determine the answer to a question can answer the question for the player, and since the act of rolling might give the players information their characters shouldn't be privy to then how do you imbue that dice roll with failure and success?

Careful scrutiny still requires the possibility of failure.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

the dark twist

Apocalypse World: 10th session
click for previous session

During his preparation for the big (fake) fight the Swampys were going to put on for William H. Esquire Esq., he tracked down and confronted Onyx and convinced him to leave the Slavers and join up with his gang.

Morticia had been hearing rumors that anybody who hurts the Fishers ends up dead, and since she killed Gams she wanted to investigate these rumors. Tracking down Lamprey and Philo she found out that they were scared of her and didn't really believe the rumors themselves, but they were definitely hiding something from her. While leaving the Arcade Morticia noticed a big truck pulling into town that gave a wide berth from the Slavers. She had heard that some of the Slavers wanted William H. Esquire Esq. dead and decided to follow these newcomers.

Spector spent time installing two of the gun turrets on the tops of the destroyed warehouses, and Snail met with her afterward to offer her a relic of the golden age past in exchange for the plant growing on the spine of her assistant and lover, Cullen. She accepted, without discovering how Snail knew about the plant.

Ever since his very public foursome, Boy Esquire had been followed by two girls, Chase and Amex, who began working as whores for him. They were infected with the dark twist and so he was trying to find a way to cure them. Nothing was working, so he went searching for Snail but was blocked by the Garden, and when Snail finally appeared Boy Esquire was coerced into letting Snail dance with him before the big fight.

One of the newcomers, a woman named Susan, found William H. Esquire Esq. and asked to speak with him in private, but Morticia interrupted and intimated that she thought these people were here to kill him. Preparing for the worst William H. Esquire Esq. met with Susan and discovered that she was the mysterious owner of the Stax. Susan didn't like Slaver towns and was pleased to find that William H. Esquire Esq. didn't support them but tolerated them. She also wanted permission from him to get justice over the death of Gams and Braille, and William H. Esquire Esq. explained that disputes are resolved in the Pit, but anything that happened outside of town was also fair as long as it didn't come back into town. Susan thanked him and left, and William H. Esquire Esq. relayed a message to Morticia about who Susan was.

The pre-show dance went off without a hitch, though many people were visibly concerned with Chase and Amex's health. Snail's interpretive dancing was also remarked upon widely.

Gnarly led his gang into the Pit and put on a very good show for William H. Esquire Esq.. They decisively announced that cannibalism is not allowed in Arcade Esquire and at the end of the show the Swampys joined William H. Esquire Esq.'s gang.

After the show Onyx brought Boy Esquire a fancy pistol as a gift. Weaving through the crowd Morticia tried to confront Susan in town, but noticed that they were both surrounded by Susan's guards and Susan refused to talk with Morticia unless they met outside of town. Slightly panicked, Morticia found William H. Esquire Esq. and asked him to accompany her outside and he agreed. They met Susan by her truck, her gang packed into the back seats and ready to leave Arcade Esquire. Susan explained that Gams was an asshole and probably deserved to die, but he was still her employee, and the Stax was hers before Morticia took over in Braille's absence. She demanded to either receive 2-barter every month or Morticia could buy the Stax from her for 5-barter. William H. Esquire Esq. thought this sounded fair and Morticia agreed to pay 2-barter now but insisted she would want to buy the Stax in the future.

Susan confirmed with William H. Esquire Esq. that he wouldn't care about anything that happens outside of town and he said "Yes, as long as the town doesn't get blamed for whatever you do." and at that Susan strolled over to the Slavers encampment and slaughtered them all single-handedly. Both William H. Esquire Esq. and Morticia made a hasty retreat before the shooting started.

Marlowe's pregnancy was moving further along, he left town to find a safer place where he might be able to give birth.

Spector successfully removed the plant from Cullen's spine and, per their arrangement, she gave the plant to Snail who then took it to his family, Orchid and the Garden.

William H. Esquire Esq. tried to commune with the Tree but received visions of enslavement. He decided that the Tree needed to be freed, and since he viewed Snail as a representative for the Garden went to him to discuss the Tree's enslavement.

Morticia spent her time trying to cure members of her crew who had contracted the dark twist, but the only healer in town, Rags, was also infected. Going to his goat farm, Morticia saw that all of Rags' livestock was infected as well.

William H. Esquire Esq. and Spector spent some time trying to convince Snail to move the Garden out of town, but he claimed he couldn't control them. Snail auguried over the Tree and opened a very large portal that spread across the town of Arcade Esquire, William H. Esquire Esq. and Boy Esquire appeared to be completely untouched by it. In that moment Snail was able to pull on the bonds between the Garden and the Tree and instead of cementing the Garden's control over the Tree he betrayed them. The Tree became Snail's new family, the conflict between the two entities balanced evenly, and as Snail closed the portal into the maelstrom Morticia was enveloped by it and disappeared.

At that moment an earthquake shook the town. Large tree roots disgorged the earth, and corpses beneath the soil were uncovered and vomited out.

to be continued

MC Note: the game might go on hiatus for awhile since we're about to start playtesting Apocalypse World: Dark Age

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

gaming should be fun

I used to play Arkham Horror every week. I have every expansion and I have followed the annual tournament reports, the forums, and the fan sites. I downloaded a program to make my own characters for Arkham Horror based on the members of my gaming group. That should be enough to explain how much I loved this game and how much my group played it.
Despite all of the expansions I own and all of the different ways we tried playing the game one of the guys in our group always played Ashcan Pete.

We played the game so regularly that I was starting to get annoyed that he always played the same character and never tried anything different. So one time we started setting up the game I surreptitiously slipped Ashcan Pete underneath the box. When he couldn't find the character sheet somebody challenged him to try playing something different and he looked crestfallen, like his favorite toy had been taken away. I echoed the challenge and revealed I had hid the character, hoping he would pick something different.

He said "I understand. You don't want me to have fun. I'll play something different."
At that, I felt bad. I handed Ashcan Pete to him and I never brought it up ever again because I never got annoyed by him playing the same character ever again. Even if I thought it was droll or uncreative or predictable, this was his fun, and why should I be critical of that? I shouldn't. Coming down on the way a person plays a game is a dick move.

I've been playing this character in Apocalypse World named Tully. Tully is a grotesque of indeterminate gender. Tully has this weird black slime that grows out of his skin, his eyes are lidless and milky green as if something is growing beneath the surface of the sclera, and he's scrawny and hunched like a corpse come to life. The "tarman" zombie from Return of the Living Dead is literally what I based Tully's appearance off of.
In all likelihood, Tully's gender morphs to be compatible to whoever is near him/her, but in truth I think of him as something entirely different, similar to Pie'oh'Pah from Clive Barker's Imajica. I call him "he" because I named him after Louis Tully, and also in my backstory for him he was declared a "he" by his parents despite their not knowing what he was. He accepts this because it is also easier for others to accept.

He's my favorite character that I've ever made. I've written him up in two different games. I will likely end up playing him again in other games if I'm given the opportunity.

I'm not sure exactly how long I've been playing Tully this time (three sessions? four?) but I know that I have firmly established that Tully does not fight. He is not aggressive or mean or divisive in any way. Yet Tully's hard has been highlighted in nearly every session I have played him. The first time it happened I said nothing, but made a note right under his hard stat on my character sheet "TULLY DOESN'T FIGHT" in all caps and yet, his hard still gets highlighted.

"Yeah I'm a pacifist, you wanna fight 'bout it?!"

Recently Tully was confronted by the presence of some nasty supernatural shit and in that moment Tully decided "This thing is not human, this thing is bad, this thing I will fight." But even in that scene where Tully decided to fight, there was literally nothing I could do. The creature that appeared was made of shadow and ephemeral so I didn't even get to roll dice. Let's forget for a second that making an enemy you can't fight is an obnoxious thing to do on the GM's part and focus instead on the fact that everything I've established about Tully is set in stone, I am not going to change Tully's relationship to violence. Tully doesn't fight, but his hard has been highlighted three times now.

The first time it happened it was irritating. The second time it happened was frustrating. Now it just feels antagonistic. I have a lot of fun playing Tully, but I also have a lot of fun expanding the character and giving him a wider range of options. That I should be distracted from this because somebody wants to see my pacifist get aggressive is annoying. The process of gaining experience and moving my character forward in a game where the characters are defined by the phrase "you are what you do" has become more alienating and challenging than actually playing the game. I am at the point where I've stopped moving Tully forward in a way that I want and I am considering taking moves just to be able to play the character the way I want to play him.

Tully is the third character I have made for this game, and the third pacifist.

The first character was Errol, a driver, who just didn't like conflict. I barely figured out exactly who Errol was when he got into an argument with the gunlugger in the group about how to intimidate people, Errol started a fight to prove a point (because his hard was marked) and a few missed rolls later Errol got killed. I didn't mind too much, but I did mind when I got called an asshole for following my highlighted stats.

The second character was Glitch, a 19 year old girl missing her left arm, also a brainer (with -2 hard). She's not very good with people, but she was also tortured physically growing up. I never established how she lost the arm. It was really easy to figure out who she was, but when her hard got marked I spoke up and pointed out that one-armed teenagers are not exactly fighters. I was, and have been ever since, essentially told to shut up.

The whole process of highlighting stats works in theory. You want to pick the stuff a character is good at, but you also want to see what else they will do. Getting a player to try out different approaches is not inherently a bad thing. Mark cool and hard for the Hocus and maybe he will get a little confrontational. Mark hot and sharp for the Gunlugger and maybe she'll try manipulating someone instead of just going in, guns blazing. It's okay to try things out, push the characters into new directions, and that definitely works really well sometimes. But when a character's philosophy is established firmly as one of peace - and Tully will never hurt other human beings under any circumstances, ever - marking a stat that would force me to change that philosophy and actively seek conflict in order to advance is just rude and unfriendly, if not downright hostile.

Monday, September 1, 2014

a grave on the side of the road

This scene requires that a PC has a lover or spouse, or even better a child. The party is traveling along a dirt road, or a path that is not popularly used, and they see a simple gravestone cut from common rock. If they have passed this way before then they have never seen the gravestone before, it is new to the path despite the fact that it looks worn and weather beaten and old. There is no date but the name carved into the stone is the name of a child to one of the PCs (or a lover or spouse).

If the grave is ignored and they return to town, the child (or lover/spouse) is still alive and doesn't speak of any ill happenings. The grave remains there on repeated journeys along the path.

If the grave is dug up, a wooden coffin so old that it falls apart when trying to pull it up out of the earth lies beneath the stone. Inside the coffin is the very old corpse (at least a hundred years old) of the child, identified either by some distinguishing feature or a piece of jewelry or armor. There is no reliable way to discover how they died.

If the corpse is raised, the spell works exactly as it is described in the rules except the living child collapses dead at the moment the corpse is revived with no memories beyond being alive one moment and then suddenly teleported to wherever the corpse has been raised. Similar kinds of spells placed upon the corpse have similar effects.

If the living person is killed in some way, the corpse takes on visible injuries related to how they died despite the fact that those injuries weren't present before.

The truth is, the corpse IS the living person's body, but perhaps from another time or from another reality. For the purposes of the reality the PCs are in, the corpse and the living person are one and the same and any form of magic or divination will respond accordingly.