Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thought Eater: Skipping The Game

These are new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

They are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: 
How to handle "skip-the-game" spells and effects e.g. Passwall, unlimited-use Flying, etc. for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "SKIP1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Skip-the-game spells and items are inherently worldbuilding effects. You can either plan for them ahead of time, or let them build your world for you. They raise the question of whether your gameworld has a magic ecosystem, and if so, what it looks like. Does unlimited use of powerful spells have in-world consequences? Does it bring the characters to the attention of other, potentially more powerful entities? If there are no consequences, you're setting things up for munchkinism, or at least logical inconsistencies. 

Take Passwall. How common is this spell? In a world where any jackass can learn Passwall, laws and wards to prevent its unlimited use will be commonplace. Or, if such spells are extremely rare, and thus un-warded-against, the PCs should have to work their asses off to get access to them. You only get to waltz past the warlord's castle walls if you've climbed the Mount Indomitable and exposed your body to the appalling fleshrazor frost while smoking the fabled lessa blossoms from a hooka made from the skull of a minor deity - simply having access to the spell implies months or years of in-game dedication and preparation. But if a powerful effect is easy to obtain but has few consequences, it makes the world a little less believable - like a world where anyone can pick a lock but no-one has invented deadbolts or security alarms.

So far, so easy - powerful magic should have costs and consequences. A strong thread in folklore and mythology is monkey's paw logic - powerful gifts tend to have strings attached, and rarely work out like people think they will in advance. The most obvious and probably least satisfying way to enact that is to have an equal DM reaction for every PC action. Maybe people who fly all the time tend to get attacked by manticores or snatched by rocs. This isn't very satisfying because it's so transparently a way for the DM to put brakes on powerful effects. 

A better path is to give powerful effects a spectrum of consequences, which might be good or bad depending on what the PCs do next. Don't just impose a curse or a combat, but make the consequence into an adventure hook. Maybe people who use Passwall a lot are actually poking holes between dimensions. As they go through the walls, they briefly manifest in some other dimension, and the inhabitants of that dimension react to those appearances as angelic or demonic visitations. Then when the PCs have to visit that dimension later on - possibly as a result of getting stuck there while attempting Passwall on a powerfully warded target - half of the residents try to worship them (which might involve 'liberating' their souls from their bodies) while the other half try to banish them to hell (which might mean sending them back to the Prime Material Plane with a funeral barge and a golem army). 

That's just one half-baked example. The larger point is that the consequences of powerful spells and items should be multifaceted. You don't have to think of all of the possible consequences in advance - feel free to riff off whatever weird coincidences come up in-game, to make the consequences feel more organic, and less like meta-game-y effects imposed from outside.

So: give powerful effects consequences, and make those consequences complex and multifaceted. Let them grow the story instead of restricting it.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "SKIP2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

I play by the book. I seldom house-rule and when I do it's usually making up monsters and magic items. I also run my games letting the dice fall where they will, sticking to the results whether they suit my purposes or not: of course, this is all for D&D/OSR type games. It'd be different if it was a story-game, but I have hardly ever ran those.

This frequently puts me in a position, as a DM, of having a party of adventurers who are laden with useful magic items, spells and powers, all of the 'skip-the-game' type abilities. How do I deal with them? I let them use it. I fold into the game, make it part of the story. I let NPCs figure out the PCs abilities if they've been making a name for themselves, and if the NPC is intelligent and have their own resources, then I plan accordingly, but only if it makes sense within the game world that's been created.

At the moment, I have a party of Name-level PCs that have superb AC, excellent weapons and magic items, one member who can permanently fly, and a multitude of invisibility, haste rings, teleport helmets... basically, these adventurers can deal with anything I throw at them. The struggle then becomes a matter of creating obstacles that will challenge the party, despite the 'skip-the-game' abilities they have.

At that point, the good old dungeon delves becomes less interesting, the wandering monster encounters become nothing more than a stepping stone, a bump in the road from A to B. I don't bother with random encounters so much now, and the dungeons they delve are nothing like the catacombs or buried tombs that they once robbed. There are no more dragon lairs to intrude upon, no villages of orcs to slaughter. Other than a possible respire from other matters, these types of encounters are indeed best skipped.

Now the game becomes more about domains, politics, encounters with never before encounter monsters, events that reply more on the players/characters wits than their magic. Unlimited flying is not going to stop an army of 6,000 soldiers heading to raze your newly built domain; but it will help plan a course of action. That Passwall or Teleport spell isn't going to prevent court intrigue, but it will help break into secret rooms to acquire information that can be used to blackmail the count.

That's how I handle 'Skip-the-Game' effects then: by letting the players use whatever items, spells or abilities their characters posses, and just adapt the adventures they participate in, so that they remain engaged and challenged, and ultimately enjoy the game.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Thought Eater: Evil

Good morning. How's your Monday? Here is a pair of new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

These two entries aren't by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: The Use of The Concept of Evil In Games for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "EVIL1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Use of the Concept of Evil in Games

The age-old fight of good versus evil, paladins versus demons, good deities of light versus twisted lords of the abyss. So over-used, so boring.

Let’s be just a bit honest here: that duality, as is presented in most fantasy settings, is not in any way a stimulating way of exploring human (or elven, or dwarven, or orkish) morality. It is, at best, a good shortcode to build a system around. Not a belief system, but a system nonetheless.

That being said, if we are able to ignore the greater ideological qualms of good versus evil, it could perhaps be better phrased as good means altruistic, evil means selfish (the Brazilian Portuguese translation of AD&D even uses those words to describe the “Neutral X” of both).

That is how I use it in my games: work for the greater overall happiness, even if you’re being a dickish utilitarian, you’re doing good deeds; work for your own selfish objectives, to get rich and powerful, you’re doing evil deeds. Gods are usually technically evil, even when they expect their followers to be good. But that’s all fluff, all in the backstage.

The actual use of that is: evil is a reward. Rather, getting to be evil without becoming seen as evil is a reward. In that way, I like to use it less like a moral compass and more like the L5R honour system: the altruistic things you do, the more selfish you can be without becoming driven (only) by your own greed, or at least being seen that way by society.

So, from the player’s standpoint, this is the view: Good or evil are really just opinions and propaganda, right? So as long as I keep them balanced, I should be great! I mean take Mother Theresa: seen as this beacon of good, even though her philanthropy only reached those who converted to her religion!

In-game, it might even end up leading to more interesting villains! It brings down the moustache twirling villain, who does stupid crap for the sake of evil, and in its place puts a much more interesting NPC, with strong motivations and that will stop at nothing to achieve them!

And because the ends don’t justify the means, at least in the public’s eye, the so-called heroic murderhobos end up having to play by the rules in order to not be seen as the villains themselves, unless they do enough good to allow them to use whatever methods are necessary to get the job done.
That’s the way I use evil: A social reward for good deeds. 

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "EVIL2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Other Evil

"The Other" is different from or alien to the self ... opposite to being "us". When used as a verb it means to label...and then exclude those who do not fit a societal norm. In geographic terms ... somewhere along the margins, where the societal norm does not reside. [​Paraphrased from Wikipedia​].


It goes without saying that people, in general, conflate “evil” and “the Other” in real life all the time, and you need look no further than the comments section of any news article whose headline contains any of the following words: liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, gun control, abortion, feminism, men’s rights, Islam, Scientology, Christianity, atheism...


a) The orcs see that they’re clearly outmatched. They surrender. “Okay, we take their weapons and tie them up. What should we do with them?” They appear willing to negotiate with you, escort you around the area ­ “Orcs are evil. I think we should kill them.” They plead for their lives, they’ll tell you anything, please ­ “We can’t leave a bunch of witnesses behind us. Easier just to kill them.” Great, the party cleric just turned into the villain from an action film. “No, we’re the​good​guys.” I know. I know. “It checks out, we cast ​Detect Good ​and everything.”

b) The most prolific serial killer in human history barely broke a hundred kills. Jack the Ripper killed eleven people ​more than a century ago and people are still trying to solve that case. That’s not even enough to hit level two. “But he didn’t kill orcs.” Exactly.

c) “I cast detect evil.” Okay, yeah, he’s evil. “Excellent. I start cutting off his fingers until he tells us where his boss is.” Aren’t you supposed to be good? “​Chaotic ​Good. And you just said he’s evil, so it’s okay.” Right.

d) In Dungeons and Dragons, the conflict between good versus evil isn’t about morals, but eugenics; you don’t kill orcs because of what they’ve done, but because of what they ​are. “Are you saying D&D players are racists?” No, of course not, I’m saying that the primary antagonists are an expression of the Other: ‘evil humanoids’ (orcs, drow, goblins); enough like us to “know better” than to do evil yet different enough that they’re not really people e.g. we can kill them and take their loot without feeling guilt. The fear of like­us­but­not­like­us evil is the fear that drives racism. “I don’t think it’s okay to kill helpless captive orcs just because they’re orcs.” Okay, fine, but grant me that it’s ​more ​okay than killing helpless captive humans.


a) “We tie his hands and feet, then I tell him I’m going to start breaking finders if he doesn’t tell us where his master’s lair is.” Okay, you win, I’ll tell you everything I know. “This is a black op. We can’t leave witnesses behind us.” No, please, I have a wife and kids. “Alright. I take his wallet, write down the address on his ID, and tell him that we’re coming back for his family if he crosses us.” Oh, thank you, I swear you’ll never hear from me again. “We cut him loose.”

b) “So anyone in this city might be a vampire, or working for the vampires, and they look just like us, except they’re stronger, and faster, and have access to way more resources.” Right, and they need to suck you dry to stay alive. Don’t worry, though, it’s only about 1% of the population.

c) “I don’t understand. Are you saying Night’s Black Agents appeals to the OWS crowd?” No, well, yes. The other that looks like us, that wears our skin and walks among us but ​isn’t us ­ this is the Other we fear the most. It’s why players in NBA spend hours planning their routes, establishing safehouses, eliminating their trails, ​hiding,​despite the fact that the game ​explicitly allows you to forego this ​with an in­game mechanic that lets you go “oh, I spent a point, we planned for that”. And of course by fear the most I also mean hate the most ­ which is why you might or might not spare the captive orcs (well, “orc farmers” or “orc midwives” have a shot, anyway, they’re ​humanized​) but no one lets the vampire go free. “Didn’t you lead with a question about OWS?” Right, of course, the point isn’t that rich people are vampires, it’s that we hate people who have more than us, for not doing the things (we say) we would do if we had that much, or are you telling me the vast global vampire conspiracy is ​poor?​Of course not, and this is the catch ­ take a minute, really imagine what kind of setting has a global conspiracy/network struggling to make ends meet ­ aren’t they the good guys?


a) “We can’t leave any witnesses behind.” The cultist of R’yleh makes horrible, gurgling noises. He might be trying to reason with you, if only you could understand what he’s saying. You all take sanity damage.

b) “They’re completely alien. They don’t think like we do, they don’t look like us. They’re far, far, away, but they’re coming. We don’t know when, but soon. When they get here, it’s over. We can’t stop them.”

c) Yes, I’m talking about the Chinese. “You already did a bit on racism and other cultures.” You’re not listening, the orcs are ​us​, they’re ​our culture, they’re the part of us we deny, the people who should know better in safe­to­murder packaging. Lovecraftian horrors ­ they’re the cultures we don’t understand, there are more of them than us by orders of magnitude and they live where we can’t/won’t and we can’t understand their language but they’re coming, the first wave is already here, they get stronger every day and our society is wholly unequipped to face them. “I’m Chinese.” No, not ‘Chinese people’, Jesus, I mean “​the Chinese”, ​forty years ago it was “the Russians”, and before that “the British”, I’m saying we’re Oceania and Eurasia is coming, any day now, and Eastasia is our only hope. “You’re not making any sense.” We are playing Call of Cthulu.


a) Importantly, these are ​the ​same players. ​The party healer solves problems in D&D by kicking down doors and killing everyone on the other side, then spends weeks of game time in Night’s Black Agents hiding, designing safehouses, and meticulously planning a kidnapping only to let the target go once they get information out of him. As the hitman. We might have only two or three combats in an entire Call of Cthulu campaign, period.

b) Note that there is no ‘real’ e.g. mechanical game rule reason why players couldn’t just start kicking down doors and killing people in NBA, or planning the perfect heist across a half­dozen sessions in D&D. In fact, I’ve found players are actually in (significantly) more danger in the average 5e combat compared to NBA, even accounting for the fact that they rush into things more often.

c) The action, ​the action​, in all three systems is still about the struggle against evil; each of these games deals with a different type of evil, that is, a different part of “evil”, and each of these requires a different response. You don’t complain that Call of Cthulu doesn’t have enough action just because you aren’t killing dozens of starspawn every night, not because you can’t kill starspawn in Call of Cthulu but because that’s not how you fight an unknowable enemy from beyond our shores / stars and besides even if you did there are infinite more where that came f r o m . “ G o o n a s t a k e o u t ? T h e d r o w a r e r i g h t h e r e ! I c a s t ​F i r e b a l l . ​”


a) “Give me something gameable.” Not part of the essay prompt, but alright, bear with me one minute longer. These systems steer you ­ players and DM ­ towards certain styles of gameplay, certain story arcs, certain campaigns not by the rules but by the nature of evil they present. “D&D has vampires too.” Sure, but it never occurred to you to run ‘track down the vast global vampire conspiracy’ ​in D&D. “Well, NBA is designed for exactly that kind of game, why would I run it in D&D?.” Alright, so you own it, and I own it, but I bet most people who play D&D don’t, and it ​still never occurred to them.

b) “Something gameable.” Fine, here we go: ​change the nature of evil​. Give your D&D players a conspiracy to unravel. “All this build up for that? Boring. Lots of city adventures revolve around conspiracies.” Let me try again. Sit down with your D&D character sheets and ​play Night’s Black Agents, with the D&D ruleset. Do you understand? If you sit down with the same DM and the same players and run through the ​exact same adventure​, I swear to you, hand­to­God, the game goes in a completely different direction if ​it is understood that you are playing ​Dungeons and Dragons, Night’s Black Agents, or Call of Cthulu.​Moreover, this will happen ​even if you never roll any dice. ​It’s not, can’t be, the rules, but an implicit understanding of the nature of evil and, consequently, the rules of engagement.

c) I ran a session of D&D using ​Betrayal at House on the Hill and it was the single best session we ever had. “So what do we do?” The house is evil, and maybe one of you is too. Try and get
out. “What do you mean, the house is evil?” You hear footsteps coming towards you from down the hallway. “I run the other way.”

d) This only works/is interesting if it runs contrary to expectations e.g. you have a NBA adventure, a FASERIP adventure, whatever, ​in the context of your D&D campaign. You can, of course, run a whole campaign using a different paradigm of evil, but it won’t stand out, and another system might be better suited anyways.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Realism (Thought Eater)

Here are a pair of entries in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new here, these are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Uses and Abuses of Realism for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "REALISM1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

It's difficult to talk about abusing reality without first discussing the nature of reality.  That particular topic is very large and the range of approaches to it are very wide.  I will do my best to cut it up into some smaller and more chewable bites.  It's a bit of a rough draft, so please try to bear with me.  For the sake of getting to a manageable point, lets go ahead and assume that there are two basic types of reality.   

There is essential reality.  This is an idea from the Greeks that eventually gave us modern physics.   Essential reality is the ground we stand on.  It is our planet going around a star, due to gravity which pulls various dusts and gasses into a warm ball.   It is the reason that rocks are hard, sunshine is warm, and the sky is blue.

This idea of things having an essential form works very well for describing the physical but it starts to break down when you deal with social reality.    Things like Justice and Happiness aren't concrete enough to pin down with this sort of thinking.

There is a socially constructed reality.  Social constructivism is the most common approach for the modern social sciences to take when trying to suss out the nature of reality.  Humans use language to come to a consensus on things in the world around them.  The sky is blue instead of green, because some humans a while ago agreed on the set of criteria that make Blue blue, instead of Green. ( see example:  This approach is much easier to use when tackling topics that aren't concrete.

An example of abusing reality #2:

Sitting down at the game table is (as Ice-T accurately put it) "some of the most crazy, deep, deep, deep, nerd shit ever invented.", because we entertain ourselves by socially constructing a reality that is an alternative to the one we walk around in every day.   People outside of that social conversation have no idea who or what the fuck its participants are talking about.   If you show up to your family reunion and talk to your grandma about how a Glitter Boy's Boom Gun hits for 3D6x10 she will look at you (rightly so) like you're speaking a different language.

Within this abused reality, the participants in the social construction still have a very basic need to intellectualize and understand what exactly is going on.  If you tried to play a game where people pretended to be energy based life forms floating in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant, it would not go smoothly.  There has to be a baseline of realism for comprehension of the social reality within the game to be built up from.   You stand on the ground in the game, just like in real life.

This leads to the codification of storytelling, through a reality emulator.

An example of abusing reality #1:

Video games are a great example of a reality emulator.   To illustrate this point, I'll use the popular indy game Goat Simulator.
Go google up some short YouTube videos if you're unfamilliar.

So, in Goat Emulator the fun comes from the tweaking and abuse of essential reality.   The set dressing for the game is drably real.  There are gas stations with cars, suburban homes full of average citizens, streets paved with asphalt,... a goat.   Bland, bland reality.  Just like the stuff you see when you step outside.  The difference is very slight, and completely under the hood.   Physics in the game are just a little bit whacked.  That one change to a single part of essential reality takes a boring thing, and makes it immensely entertaining.

Game systems are also a form of reality emulator.
Just as video games have code working under the surface to generate a recognizable world, paper and dice games have their system.  Gravity causes falling damage.  You can die from drowning.  You can starve to death without enough rations.   The fun comes in the same way as the Goat Emulator.   Tweaking things here and there throws the participants off balance enough to make it fun.

The best example of abusing or tweaking reality inside of the paper and dice reality emulator is Magic.  Magic uses language, the tool of reality#2 to rearrange reality#1.  
As such, fantasy magic can act as a sort of social shorthand.  It can create spells that resemble other real things in a faster and simpler form.   A fireball spell in the game has much the same effect as dropping an incendiary grenade in reality, minus the factories armies and materials needed to explain the existence of an incendiary grenade.   A charm spell enthralls a character in much the same way as a charismatic leader gains converts, but without the time investment of multiple gradual brainwashing sessions.

The system you choose can give you a good grounding in simulated reality, either substantial or social and choosing how and where to abuse it will dictate, in part, the shape of the fun.
Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "REALISM2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

There is a reason that combat was originally written as an abstract idea in the beginnings of our great hobby.  Part of our job as grand schemers behind the screens is to paint a picture for our players.  To do this one must on occasion bend and break and sometimes completely alter the rules of the real world.  I must ask you to open your eyes and really see the world around you, for the first time. 

Take a coin out of your wallet, and drop it on the floor.  Keep your eyes open, and watch it fall.  How long did it take for the coin to hit the ground once it was released from your hand?  One second perhaps? Possibly two if you’re a bit taller than I.  Now swing an imaginary sword in a few daring manoeuvres, feinting a bit, and parrying.  We have been told in the past that there is a certain amount of time that is elapsed within a round of fighting.  If you watch a sparring matching between two professional fencers a inordinate amount of blows, glances, parries will happen within a very short time frame.  Relaying the above statement has taken me a bit of time to write correctly, however I've attempted to paint a picture for you.  Rather than confirm exactly how many times that you were in fact hit, or how many times you in fact missed within that obviously very short time frame.   

Below the balcony is a large hall occupied by your companions and vile monsters.  You decide to grab a rope swing it over around a chandelier at the centre of the room.  With one great throw you manage to hook the rope around, and position yourself to land into the midst of the fight.  Drawing your sword you call out to whatever gods are listening and jump down.  As you descend you hit a few monsters.  You tuck and roll, coming up about eight feet away from the chandelier, with one might heft you pull the chandelier down on to the monsters.  The very idea of the heroic deed is part and parcel of playing out our fantasy, the essence of role playing.  To water down the experience to a series of dice rolls, which take a lot longer than ten seconds seems like a waste of time.  For that matter a waste of dice rolling.  The above scenario was an abstract view of combat.  Granted the whole scenario could have been played out over a series of rounds and checks.  It can and should be played out with one roll, one round.  

Riding across an open expanse of a field, you see a lady in a red dress from far off.  Between the lady and yourself are hundreds of well-dressed Cats that look all very similar.  There are two ways to get through this.  We can proceed through the process of explaining every single step you take, everything you see, everything that you fight or evade.  What will also happen is that both of us will become bored with the never changing scenery, the obvious references to certain black cats that appear to look alike.  All in an attempt to make our way to the lovely woman in the red dress.  The other option is to tell a story.  What happened, when? Who? Where? Did She? Did they? Did you?  

The fantasy worlds that we inhabit and bring to life are inherently just that, fantasy.  From the sword fight to the hero saving his friends, to you riding across a barren expanse attempting to rescue the fair maiden.  All of these examples are based on a fantasy world, one that isn't always based on the rules of the real world.  Combat should never be an extended set of dice rolls; it should always be an abstract idea, brought about by great role-playing and descriptive enthusiasm. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Alignment Used Well & Poorly (Thought Eater)

These are two new entries in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

The contest works like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Alignment: Used Well And Poorly for the contest.

Who the hell are these people playing with?

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ALIGNMENT1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Alignment: Used Well and Poorly

When I'm thinking about how to uses a particular mechanic in an RPG, I have a few basic principles.

A well designed mechanic used well...

1. Tells me something about the setting of the game.

2. Provides a meaningful choice

3. Resolves the outcome of that choice:

2a. In a way that (ideally) everyone at that table feels is fair

2b. In a way that is applied consistently.

Alignment, as it functions in Chainmail tells you what figures could be used in a particular army. If you play Chaos, then you can have dragons. If you pick Law, you can't have dragons but you can have treants. That's give some context to the assumed setting and makes a choice of belligerent you are playing meaningful. The original D&D rules expand on the simple “us vs. them” aspect and tell us about the assumed universe in which a D&D campaign takes place.

1. There is an eternal struggle between Chaos and Law

2. There can never be peace between them.

3. The principle beings in this eternal war are driven by their essence to fight for one side or the other. They are what they are and can not choose to be otherwise.

4. Some creatures, like humans, have a choice.

5. Each side wants humans to choose. If you choose the other side or betray the side you are on, the great powers will smash you when it is in their interest to do so.

The fight is bigger than the petty concerns of mortals. Forces beyond the understanding of mortals have an interest and choosing one side over another may mean a big headache for your character. Now the PC has a complication to take into account. The context gives the player a feeling of depth to the setting. It can help the player to feel like they are part of a fiction not just a meeple on a two dimensional representation with a thin veneer of context. The emotional engagement or immersion of the mechanic helps make the decisions meaningful.

At the beginning of a character's existence, you make a choice, Law or Chaos? Since the choice has context then it is meaningful and that choice has a consequence. Certain creatures, when encountered, will seek your character's death. Certain creatures, when encountered, will aid your character. Certain creatures could go either way. Certain creatures will seek to subvert that choice and convince you to change sides. A character may decide to change sides and that betrayal brings problems.

Alignment goes bad when it is used to force player choice or there is no consequence to player choice. The evil vs. good axis introduced in AD&D made alignment more complex. Some unskilled DM's use the two axis alignment to railroad players. The DM may impose such a nasty consequence on a choice that the player has to comply to continue playing that character. Go rescue the village or you aren't a paladin. The DM may choose not to impose a penalty because imposing a consequence will derail the train. The paladin does something egregious but because the DM needs a paladin for his story to work the paladin faces no consequence. Either way, not a good practice. In the first case, your choice is go the way the DM wants or be miserable and in the second, your choice has no consequence and breaks the context of the setting with discontinuity. Both create a dissonance in the game that players have a hard time resolving when they are making future decisions.

Players will sometimes get into a situation where one character intends to do something that would potentially cause another character to face an alignment crisis. The conflict between players can get out of hand and cause hard feelings. It creates a tough judgement call for the DM and the group as a whole. The DM will do well to be clear about where the act falls on the alignment chart and the effect it may have on individual characters before deciding that the character has done the deed and resolving the outcome. Go back again to the basic underlying questions: Does the choice have a meaningful consequence in the context of the game setting? Is the consequence fair? Is it applied consistently?

There are some alternatives to the standard alignment system of D&D. There are “honor” systems where certain acts add to the honor of a character that can have an effect on NPC reactions. In Vampire: The Masquerade, certain acts would reduce your character's humanity and making it more likely they would lose control of themselves and become mindless killers. I've run D&D games without alignment but certain classes had a code of conduct that could cause problems should the player chose to break it. If you use alignment, it doesn't necessarily have to be Law/Chaos and Good/Evil. RPG's are about conflict, alignment is a tool that can give you a rough way to model which side of a conflict everybody is on. That conflict can be Bilderbergers vs. Conspiracy Theorists, Hatfield vs McCoy's or Axis vs. Allies. You are using it well if it tells players something about the setting and provides meaningful choices resolved in a fair and consistent way.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ALIGNMENT2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.


Let's get the obvious out of the way: Alignment sucks when it's used as an excuse to be a douche.

To use some of the clichés:

"Of course I'd steal from the party! It's right there on my character sheet: what part of chaotic-evil thief do you not understand?"

"I burned down the tavern because I'm chaotic neutral. I'M CRAAAAAZY."

"Well you resisted arrest from the evil overlord's goons. Since he's the lawful authority around here, your paladin just totally lost all his class features."

"And in the back of the cave are baby orcs! Do you let them grow into murderous monsters or do you kill INNOCENT LITTLE BABIES. What I'm saying is you're evil now."

Those last two examples point out that on the GM's side, alignment is used poorly when it limits how players can interact with the game. No one wants a straightjacket. This implies the inverse: alignment is useful when it adds shit the players can fuck around with*.  A few examples.

Lots of games have chaotic sorcerers summoning eldritch monstrosities. Only Carcosa comes with 34 pages of horrifying people-sacrificing rituals. Wanna summon the Leprous Dweller Below? Get yer ass to hex 2205, find a leper, tear him apart and eat his flesh. Wanna stop that bastard? Well you know his plan, what are you waiting for? Carcosa gives you blueprints for evil.

The Planes take the nine fold alignment and convert it into geography. Lawful neutral? You can go there. There are armies to fight and everything! Have a problem with Zeus? Find him and give him a wedgie. A TPK means you get to bust out of hell.

Here games with others gives you a Jedi/Sith class. In a nut shell: each force power has a light side and a dark side version. You can choose which version you use, but you get a light/dark side point. Level up with more dark side points and boom! You're Sith now. Level up with more light side points and you have been redeemed! It's mechanical support for one of Star Wars' great moral arcs.

And lastly this bit of genius from Monsters! Monsters! "BLACK HOBBITS: This does not refer to their skin tone, but rather to their political affiliations." Law and chaos go from personal philosophy to political parties. The best game I've ever played had me going door to door in the caves of Chaos as a black hobbit, asking each monster in turn "Have YOU decided who you're going to vote for Evil Overlord in 2016?"**

And like anything else, sometimes alignment makes for good roleplaying. Absent any fun mechanics or interesting scenario, this is the wooden spoon award for including alignment in your game: it might make someone's character more interesting, it might be cause for roleplaying.

Another essential quality of alignment is how LOUD it is. If you put an alignment slot on the character sheets but then never mention it again, it's entirely up to your players to fuck around with it. If the standard currency of your campaign is souls and various alignments have different exchange rates, alignment is going to come up all the time. If Satan himself rises from the ground and insists you JOIN HIM OR DIE, then the players literally cannot avoid alignment. All of these have their place, as long as you observe rule number one: don't be a dick.

So there you have it: alignment is a sometimes food. Spice it up but don't force feed it to people.

*To be less colloquial: using alignment well adds ways to interact with the game.

*After a wave of disappointing answers, I decided I would run for Evil Overlord 2016. The problem I kept having to solve was this: how do I make all these monsters obey me while killing as few as possible. Assassination, intimidation, charm spells, bargaining, stockholm syndrome and sexy orc girls were all tried with varying levels of success.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Player Making Stuff Up (Thought Eater)

Here's some more entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you don't know about the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Players Making Stuff Up for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "MAKEUP1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

All players are inherently creative, by virtue of being human beings you are not afraid to sit down at a table with. The trick is getting this inherent creativity past their internal barriers, and any social barriers the group or game may have put in place.

It's important to ask yourself just what you want your players to invent, and how much control you want to give them: in a hyperdetailed location-focused game like D&D it's usually discouraged for players to try to add detail or interactivity to the environment, while encouraged for them to try combining aspects of their character with the environment in unexpected ways. Moving farther along the arc of creative freedom, you have something like Feng Shui, which has explicit rules for players spending Fortune Points to add (plausible) items they need or want to the scene that they're in. Past that, and you have something like Nobilis or Amber, where the narrative and setting are an ongoing negotiation between the players and GM, and then on to purely troupe-style games. Similar tricks are going to work for players in all these games, but knowing where you are trying to encourage creativity and to what extent can help you to be consistent and help your group to understand expectations.

The most interesting thing about RPGs, as a player or a GM, is that the options available are limitless. Experienced players already know this, but if you have new ones, or if your old ones haven't been playing with GMs who encourage creativity, the basics of encouraging creative play are: model the kind of behavior you want to see from your players; don't discourage them in their early efforts; give them forms and structures that they can replicate and tinker with; and keep them aware of how the possibility space of the game has expanded by being as clear and consistent with rulings and writing down or otherwise noting house-rules.

Modeling can be done using your GM-voice or through NPCs--if your PCs are always performing basic attack actions, put them up against NPCs who use the environment in more complex ways. If you want them to introduce backstory elements during play, consider initiating flashbacks during play. If you want them to narrate the beauty of their martial arts attacks, or to come up with insane stunts, throw some verbiage or breakneck daring of your own at them. They'll pick up on it quickly, if the game you're trying to run is a good fit for your players.

Encouraging creative efforts from players doesn't mean they always have to succeed, just that they have to feel like they could succeed if they come up with the right ideas. If their idea is awesome and impractical, make it clear you at least think it's awesome. Most of this is straight out of basic improv theater: saying "Yes, and" and making your partner look good. The goal is to make sure that people keep trying things to see what sticks, even when it doesn't always work. When you can't agree that something is possible, try to offer a "No, but" instead of a flat no, maybe using it as an excuse to layer in a few more concrete details to the scene--the more details are in play, the more likely someone is to use one of them.

Making an attack using some aspect of an environment, weapon, or character in a way that is not innately governed by the rules in the book on the table is a form that players can understand and will grab on to quickly. Every game has places that creativity can be layered in, and finding new ones is part of the fun. Some are pretty obvious and the players will find them on their own sooner or later. Others, like if it's possible to add to your backstory during play, or to create certain kinds of detail in a way that is not directly linked to the capabilities of an individual player character, should definitely be explicitly spelled out, with clear examples whenever possible.

Keeping a clear and ongoing understanding of rulings and house rules between players and GM can be challenging. It doesn't necessarily need to be written down, but the more sessions you play the more likely parts of it are to be lost. Having the rulings be clear to everyone keeps the players on an even footing and lets them use previous ruling to attempt new invention; if no one knows them, or the rulings keep changing, it can result in confusion and wasted effort, which can in turn be discouraging of further invention.

Just as the scope of invention available to the players can vary, so too can the purposes of those inventions. Sometimes, when faced with a difficult problem, players rack their brains to invent something to save their character's skins. At other times, they might be inventing things purely for tone, or to amuse the other players, or because they think it sounds cool. What kinds of inventions work best is going to depend on your group, and the game you're playing, and figuring it out always takes trial and error. It might even be necessary to switch games some times, or try running for different people, but the things that you and your players can come up with will surprise you. Just like inventions in the real world, trials and errors are what it's all about; and in a role-playing game, no one actually gets set on fire.


Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "MAKEUP2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Getting players to add things to your game -- whether it's just minor details or major elements of the game world -- is fun and time-saving. Like the best random game elements, it produces results you wouldn't have thought of, which is desirable. But it isn't necessarily easy. If you're running a game, chances are you're the person there who's most comfortable just creating stuff out of the blue with four other people watching you. Some players balk at this kind of thing, especially when they feel like they're put on the spot. 

Fortunately, role-playing games are *already* a tool for getting people to contribute things to the game. Getting players to contribute stuff outside the usual role is just a matter of looking at what the game already does and applying it to a slightly different type of situation. 

Choices and restrictions

Some games have character creation systems that advertise themselves as "be whatever you want to be; anything at all!" But most successful ones provide some kind of restriction on what the player creates, either in the form of random generation or in the form of a menu of options. You can encourage players to invent stuff, especially early on, by presenting opportunities as choices -- "should Zylphia's dad be the local lord, or do you think he's just some guy?" Don't let menus be exhaustive. If the player says "what if he were a pirate," go with it. 

You never need to worry about choices constraining players who *don't* need encouragement to contribute. Those guys will always add stuff -- sometimes whether you want them to or not. 

Posing questions like this also helps you get around two of the three major pitfalls in this kind of situation: first, that some players will use the practice to make their characters the most important. You avoid this by limiting the scope of the question. The second pitfall is that players may like the element of surprise, and many (although not all) will feel that there's not much point to exploring if they know what's out there.

Have choices matter

My players like it -- or at least they have the good grace to pretend -- when something they created turns up in the game. An extended riff about one character's competitive relationship with his overachieving sister turned into a fully-fledged NPC, for instance, and I think she's more valued because she came from the players' conversation. But it all depends on how the new addition is used in the game. If you ask the players to explain why the sheriff decided to join the outlaws, but the sheriff is just some guy they're supposed to beat up, it's not as good as if the thing they're creating matters to what they're doing.. This is the third pitfall. 

Of course, sometimes things won't go the way you expect and something a player created gets left on the shelf. C'est la vie, but in general, try to show the players that the stuff they create for the gameworld is relevant. 

You know how some players are always embellishing their characters in kind of pointless ways (pointless for the other players, anyway)? My familiar is a sugar glider, my uncle's eyes are hazel, I went to Bumbleton University, that sort of thing? I tend to think that those are players who would like to make stuff that is important in the game world but sort of think it's bad manners to ask or aren't sure whether it's OK. When an old pal from Bumbleton University shows up, I think they find it very rewarding and hopefully it will encourage them to do it more in future. 

Don't only do it at the table

One thing that can be really handy is to have some kind of other space in which players can add creative stuff. Aaron Allston wrote about this stuff already, although they didn't have wikis back then. But basically, if you encourage players to create stuff during the downtime between games, you might get better results on both ends -- players can take their time to think about things and not feel put on the spot, and you can be warned about what they're going to introduce. I have historically used wikis for this stuff, but it could be anything as long as people can get access to it. I'm sure there are new cool online collaborative tools, but it can also just be talking over lunch. 

Begin at the beginning

Look at the development of early fantasy settings and you can see that they were often collaborative efforts, but in a very divided way -- this is Steve's kingdom, this is Laura's kingdom, this is Percival's island, etc. Presumably this was originally to do with the way setting-creation occurred in wargames and Diplomacy variants. But it's a good way to make sure that contributing players don't step on one another's toes; give distinct areas of responsibility. The easiest way to do this is to do it before the campaign starts; that's easier if you tend to run many short games rather than a single long campaign. There are even games such as Microscope or Lexicon that make little mini-games out of creating a campaign setting or its history. 

So there you go: some tips for encouraging and using player contributions. Exactly how you do this depends on how into it your players are; some of my players really enjoy it, while others are more reticent. But assuming you're stopping short of full-on distributed-GM play, these are good ways to coax stuff out of players without losing control. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

100 More Lyonesse Things

100 more persons, places, creatures and objects you might run into from Suldrun's Garden (1983) and The Green Pearl (1985) taken from the Lyonesse series of books, all these quotes copyright Jack Vance.

1, a troll, with a narrow forehead and a great red nose from which sprouted a mustache of nose-hairs. He carried a net and a wooden pitchfork.

2, a furious troll, wearing purple fustian. He was even more ugly than the previous troll, with warts and wens protruding from his forehead, which hung like a crag over a little red nose with the nostrils turned forward.

3, a troll who seemed to combine all the repulsive aspects of the first two. He wore snuff-brown garments, black boots with iron buckles and an odd conical hat tilted to one side.

4, an ogre, rocking from side to side on heavy bowed legs. He stood fifteen feet tall; his arms and torso, like his legs, were knotted with wads of muscle! His belly thrust forward in a paunch. A great crush hat sheltered a gray face of surpassing ugliness. On his back he carried a wicker basket containing a pair of children.

5, the carcass of a child, stuffed with onions, trussed and spitted, roasted over the fire. Nerulf turned the spit and from time to time basted the meat with oil and drippings

6, He went to the table and drank the contents of the purple cup. At once he dwindled in stature to become a squat powerful troll,

7,  the missing head. Pode and Daffin discovered it halfway across the meadow, pulling itself forward by snapping at the ground with its teeth.

8,  a witch trapped me under her hat and sold me

9, the ghosts of dead children running along the' roof.

10, One of the dryads splashed water toward Dhrun. He saw the drops rise into the air and sparkle in the sunlight, whereupon they became small golden bees, which darted into Dhrun's eyes and buzzed in circles, blotting out his sight.

11, Dame Melissa, as she calls herself, is a dire witch. When I was fifteen years old, she gave me drugged milk to drink, then transferred herself into my body—that which she wears today. I, a fifteen-year-old girl, was housed in the body Melissa had been using:

12, a set of dolmens, arranged to form the In-and-Out Maze, whose origin is unknown

13, In Wookin reside a vampire, a poison-eater, and a woman who converses with snakes.

14, Rhodion, king of all fairies, who wears a green hat with a red feather. Take his hat and he must do your bidding

15, On yonder hill I plan a great moon-trap, and when the moon comes walking and spying and peeping for to find my window, I'll pull the latch and then there'll be no more of my milk curdled on moony nights

16, I wait under gallows until the corpse drops, whereupon I assume possession of the clothes and valuables...

17, Pilbane the Dancer, who robbed along the highway for thirteen years

18, This gallows is known as Six-at-a-Gulp. Both law and custom forbid the hanging of five or four or three or two or one from the ancient beam

19, He wore a long black cloak, a black cloth over all his face, save his eyes, and a flat-crowned black hat, with an extremely broad brim. In his left hand he brandished a dagger on high.

20,  the great Janton Throatcut himself. Only last week I hanged high his six henchmen. He was in the act of taking their shoes for his collection; he does not care a fig for clothes."

21, the Thief-Taker

22, The festival had not yet commenced, but already booths, pavilions, platforms and other furniture of the fair were in the process of construction.


24, Grand gnostic, seer, magician.


26, ... Mysteries analyzed and resolved: incantations uttered in known and unknown languages. ... Dealer in analgesics, salves, roborants and despumatics.... Tinctures to relieve nausea, itch, ache, gripe, scurf, buboes, canker.

27, At Sinkings Gap you must pass under a boulder balanced on a pin. You must kill the guardian raven, or he will drop a feather to topple the boulder on your head.

28, At the River Siss an old woman with a fox's head and a chicken's legs will ask you to carry her across the river. You must act on the instant: cut her in half with your sword and carry each piece over separately

29, a pair of bearded gryphs. Give each a comb of honey coming and going, which you have brought for the purpose.

30, a number of manikins carved from blackthorn roots. "Name these little homologues with names, and place them on the map, and they will scuttle to position. Watch!" He took up one of the manikins and spat in its face. "I name you Casmir. Go to Casmir's place!" He put the manikin on the map; it seemed to scamper across the map to Lyonesse Town

31, Fafhadiste and his three-legged blue goat

32, acrobats, contortionists, mimes and jugglers

33, took a black box from the shelf, poured inside a gill of water, added drops of a glowing yellow liquid which caused the water to show films of light at various levels. In a leather-bound libram Tamurello located the name "Shimrod." Using the appended formula he prepared a dark liquid which he added to the contents of the box, then poured the mixture into an iron cylinder six inches tall and two inches in diameter. He sealed the top with a glass cap, then held the cylinder to his eye. After a moment he gave the cylinder to Carfilhiot. "What do you see?"

34, Looking through the glass, Carfilhiot observed four men riding at a gallop through the forest. One of the men was Shimrod.

35, six poles fifty feet tall, supporting as many impaled corpses.

36, a kind of aviary thirty feet high and fifteen feet in diameter, equipped with perches, nests, feeders and swings. The human denizens of the aviary exemplified Carfilhiot's whimsy at its most pungent; he had amputated the limbs of several captives, both male and female and had substituted iron claws and hooks, with which they clung to the perches. Each was adorned with plumage of one sort or another; all twittered, whistled and sang bird-songs

37, a team of two-headed black horses, of great size and strength

38,  a round chamber decorated in blue, pink and gold, and with a pale blue rug on the marble floor

39, a gantry twenty feet high from which hung four men with heavy stones dangling from their feet. Beside each stood a marker, measured off in inches…Let markers be placed; then when these miscreants have stretched to double their length, let them be released,

40, Up the cliff they rode, back and forth, and at every stage discovered instruments of defense: embrasures, traps, stone-tumbles, timbers pivoted to sweep the intruder into space, sally-ports and trip-holes.

41, I am a magician of the eleventh level," said Shimrod

42, A band of fifteen ragged mendicants straggled south

43, a circular frame something less than a foot in diameter, surrounding a gray membrane. Carfilhiot plucked at the center of the membrane, to draw out a button of substance which grew rapidly under his hand to become a nose of first vulgar, then extremely large size: a great red hooked member with flaring hairy nostrils.

44, Carfilhiot gave a hiss of exasperation; tonight the sandestin was restless and frolicsome. He seized the great red nose, twisted and kneaded it to the form of a crude and lumpy ear, which squirmed under his fingers to become a lank green foot. Carfilhiot used both hands to cope with the object and again produced an ear, into which he uttered a sharp command:

45, bluffs extend into the valley, with little more than an arrow-flight between. They are riddled with tunnels; were you to march past a hail of arrows would strike down and in one minute you would lose a thousand men

46, the Wastes of Falax

47, the Flesh Cape of Miscus

48, the Totness Squalings

49, The line from Murgen's spool, so fine as almost to float in the air, could not be broken by the strength of human arms.

50, A great gibbet was erected, with the arm sixty feet from the ground

51, Princess Madouc, half-fairy, is a long-legged urchin with dark curls and a face of fascinating mobility.

52,  the trolls of Komin Beg to war, in which they are led by a ferocious imp named Dardelloy.

53, three one-legged witches: Cuch, Gadish and Fehor

54, A boy or girl innocently trespassing upon a fairy meadow might be cruelly whipped with hazel twigs

55, VISBHUME, apprentice to the recently dead Hippolito, applied to the sorcerer Tamurello for a similar post, but was denied.

56, a spell of ennui upon Desmei: an influence so quiet, gradual and unobtrusive that she never noticed its coming

57, a spell of stasis upon you, and you will never move again.

58, a young witch named Zanice, accused of drying the udders of her neighbor's cow.

59, brain-stone of a demon

60, goblin's egg

61, basilisk's eye

62, each year the Esq magicians alter a hundred human fetuses, hoping that one may be born with thirteen eyes in a circlet around its forehead…So far, nine eyes is their limit of capability, and these become priests of the cult

63, he rubbed the soles of his sandals with water-spite, that he might be enabled to walk on water.

64, a spell of temporary meekness

65, a glossic to make Sir Hune's weapons shrivel and droop and all his arrows fly awry

66, a plague of stag-beetles for my bed

67, Scurch: untranslatable into contemporary terms; gernerally: ‘susurration along the nerves', ‘psychic abrasion', ‘half-unnoticed or sublimated uneasiness in a mind already wary.' ‘Scurch' is the stuff of hunches and unreasoning fear

68, the activating spell is of three resonances and a quaver

69, a Circassian witch who began to corrode Tamurello with Blue Ruin

70, Sandestin: a class of halfling which wizards employ to work their purposes. Many magical spells are effected through the force of a sandestin.

71, he cursed the witch with footlong toenails, so that now and forever she must wear special boots."

72, the wizard Baibalides, who lived in a house of black rock on Lamneth Isle, a hundred yards off the coast of Wysrod

73, I know the tube well: it is Gantwin's Millenial Spectator; it depicts events of the last thousand years anywhere within its purview

74, a mask representing Baibalides. Next he brought out a skull on a pedestal and arranged the mask in place over the skull. Instantly the mask seemed to come alive. The eyes blinked; the mouth opened to allow a tongue to moisten the lips. Shimrod called: "Baibalides, can you hear me?

75, optical wisps

76, falloy: a variety of halfling. much like a fairy, but larger and far more gentle of disposition.

77, listening shells

78, The mirror is of magic. You see reflected the person you think yourself to be. Or you may say: ‘Mirror, show me as I appear to Shimrod!' or, ‘Mirror, show me as I appear to Tamurello!' and you will see these versions of yourself.

79,  a druid appeared in a brown robe with a sprig of mistletoe pinned to his hood. He uttered a single word; all fell silent, then slunk away and hid in the shadows.

80,  a dour old castle of fourteen towers overlooking the harbor

81, green vapor, which, caught by the wind, blew out over the sea. Swirling low and mingling with spume from the waves, the fume condensed to become a green pearl

82, "You refer to the Temple of Atlante?…The priests claim that the number of steps above the surface is dwindling: either the land is sinking or the sea is rising: such is their reasoning

83, Hoonch the dog-god

84, iron-legged goat

85, I can put toad-heads on your enemies!

86, I can change the stone of their castles to suet pudding.

87, I can enchant the surf, to bring sea-warriors with mother-of-pearl eyes charging ashore out of each breaking wave!

88, a stuffed blackbird mounted on a stand. A sheet of parchment, folded and tucked between the bird's legs, read: To hold converse with. Tamurelo, pluck a feather from the belly of the Bird and place in the flame of a candle.

89, The base was a circular ebony platter, marked around the rim with signs of the zodiac. The golden ball at the center, so Casmir had been told, represented the sun. Nine silver balls of various size rolled in circular troughs around the center, but for what purpose was a secret known only to the ancients. The third ball from the center was accompanied by a smaller ball and made its circuit in exactly one year

90, Trilda had been designed by Hilario, a minor magician of many quaint notions, and built overnight by a band of goblin carpenters who took their pay in cheeses.

91,  a wonderful structure of jet and milk-glass. Slender columns supported domes and tall arcades and higher domes, and still more, ranked one above the other, along with a hundred terraces and balconies and, higher yet, a cluster of towers flying pennons and banderoles. In the shadowed halls hung chandeliers encrusted with diamonds and moonstones, which gave off glints of red, blue, green and purple light.

92, Stangle: the stuff of dead fairies, with implications of horror, calamity and putrefaction

93, I will transform all your teeth into barnacles."

94, crayfish in the shallow pools and a noble trout lazing in the shadows

95, Threlka is a witch of the seventh degree, and is wise beyond most others.

96, Threika cut away the splint and threw it into the fire. "Burn, wood, burn! Pain, in smoke fly up the chimney; disturb Tatzel no longer!" From a black jar she poured a syrup upon Tatzel's leg, then sprinkled on crushed dry leaves. She wound the shin with a loose bandage and tied it with a coarse red string. "And so it goes! In the morning you shall know no more weakness

97, the Cam Brakes. This is a series of ledges or terraces arranged like steps, which, according to myth, the giant Cam laid out to ease his way from Lake Quyvem up to the moors.

98, ancient tombs; give them all due respect. This place was sacred to the ancient Rhe-daspians, who inhabited the land three thousand years ago. Ghosts are common, and it is said that sometimes old friendships are renewed and old antagonisms find vent. If you by chance see such ghosts, make no sound and give no interference, and above all, never agree to act as arbiter at one

99, a ghoul who has the power to change his guise. It will meet you in sweet friendship, and offer wine and food and kindly shelter. Accept nothing—not so much as a sup of cold water—and cross down over this brake, no matter what the cost, while the sun is in the sky; at sunset the ghoul assumes its true shape and your life is in the balance. If you take its gift you are lost.

100, When you come to Lake Quyvern, you will discover Kernuun's Antler, which is the inn of Dildahl the Druid. He is, so it seems, a kindly man, and offers a hospitality of moderate cost. This is hardly true and you must eat none of his fish! He will serve it in many guises: as roe, and croquettes, and pickles, and pudding, and in soup. Eat only the items whose cost is specified

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Wonder (Thought Eater)

Next pair of entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Achieving Sense of Wonder for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "WONDER1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Killing the Pig

For the last several years, all the DnD campaigns I've DMed have been with a party of 5th graders. I run an after-school "Games Club" with several other teachers, which is really just an RPG club.

It's very rare that any of these kids have played or heard of DnD before, and watching the game click in their heads is the best part of the job. The first half-hour or so is full of questions on what they are allowed to do:

"Can I run away instead of fighting?"

"Can I see what's inside that house?"

"Can I kill that weird pig that keeps following us around?"

But at some point you can see it click, where they realize that they can try anything, and the DM will just make up a ruling to cover it. And then, quickly afterwards, the second realization hits that all actions have consequences, consequences that are quickly catching up with them.

That sudden insight, "I can try anything, and the world changes based on what I do," is a moment of genuine wonder. You can see the players' perspective suddenly shift, as they begin imagining everything that they could do, and what might happen as a result. That experience was Dave Arneson's central innovation, and it's a feeling you can only have playing RPGs.

 I don't think that wonder is something you impose on your game, through elaborate descriptions, byzantine plots, or "epic" scenes. All of those things are dead on arrival unless you are constantly feeding the engine of choice and consequences that lies at DnD’s heart. That cycle is a thing of wonder already, the hard part is letting it out.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "WONDER2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

A “Wand of Wonder” for Adventure Design

Think back to the first time you played a role-playing game… 

You probably had only the most tenuous grasp on how the rules worked.  The dungeon around you was dark and terrifying – and you had no idea what might be found within.  You didn’t really know what your adventurer could do.  A 20’ x 20’ room with an orc and a locked chest?  That was a crazy-new situation you’d never faced before.  Could you kill the orc?  Maybe.  But you really had no idea what that beast could do to you.  What was in that chest?  It could be almost anything.  Everything around you was new and mysterious.  And, if you’re like me, every situation you faced filled you with an incredible sense of wonder.

Now, fast forward five, ten, twenty, or even forty years later.  You and your players are still having a great time playing these games – otherwise, you would have moved on to a different hobby long ago.  But somewhere along the way, something changed.  Something was lost.  A little bit of that old magic is gone.   

I’m not always a huge fan of Adam Smith, but I think his discussion of “Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration” in The History of Astronomy nicely captures the challenge GMs face.  Smith also earns bonus points for starting his discussion with what makes a “monster” inspire wonder:

Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration are words which, though often confounded, denote, in our language, sentiments that are indeed allied … What is new and singular, excites that sentiment which, in strict propriety, is called Wonder; what is unexpected, Surprise; and what is great or beautiful, Admiration …. 

These sentiments … mutually support and enliven one another:  an object with which we are quite familiar, and which we see every day, produces, though great and beautiful, but a small effect upon us; because our Admiration is not supported by either Wonder or by Surprise:  and if we have heard a very accurate description of a monster, our Wonder will be the less when we see it; because our previous knowledge of it will in a great measure prevent our Surprise.

- Adam Smith, The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries; Illustrated by the History of Astronomy (1795).

To paraphrase Smith, then, Wonder arises when we experience something that is new and unique, which disrupts the equilibrium of our imagination.  Intrinsic greatness or beauty (Smith’s “Admiration”) will enhance and greatly amplify our sense of Wonder.  But experience, forewarning, repetition, or predictability – these reduce our Surprise and, in turn, our Wonder.

I’ll tell you a secret:  there is no single tip or trick that is guaranteed to bring Admiration, “greatness,” or “beauty” to your games.  There are just way too many variables, including the individual tastes of the participants, at work.  That’s why even the best GMing advice tends to boil down to:  (1) “here’s an idea that worked for me in a particular game, with a particular group of players”; (2) “here’s something you may not have thought about, but maybe should, when running games”; or, at the very best, (3) “here’s a theory for why certain things seem to facilitate fun at my table, which may suggest a way you can have more fun at yours.”  

But Smith’s other contributing factor – Surprise – now that is something we can fix.

Obviously, if your players have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of every monster, spell, and magic item in the books, both Surprise and Wonder are going to fly right out the window unless you change things up.  But if you are reading Zak’s blog, you know this already.  Grab a copy of Jeff Raggi’s Random Esoteric Creature Generator, or pull up Zak’s own series of articles re-imagining classic monsters from the Monster Manual.  And you can mine the internet for more unique magic items and spells than you will ever need. 

But what about HOW you run the game?  The particular kinds of adventures, scenarios, and situations you choose to present?  As GMs, we tend to run a lot of games for a relatively small group of players.  Those players will inevitably come to know our GMing styles, and the kinds of adventures we like to run, very well – particularly after they’ve been playing “in our heads” for years.  If you are looking to revive your players’ sense of wonder, you need to shake up your adventure design too.  You need to, at least occasionally, run games that are completely different from your normal, regular style.

My own solution is to keep a running list of plot twists, reversals, and other surprises.  They can come from anywhere – books, movies, blogs, or playing in other people’s games.  Anything that surprises you, the GM, is worthy of inclusion, because that means it is coming from a place outside your normal thought process.  Now dump all those into a random table and number the results.  Then, after you devise your next adventure idea – like “the town’s mayor hires the PCs to stop goblins from raiding the town” or “the high priest sends the PCs to get an artifact from an evil lich” – roll on your table, and twist, flip, or embellish your idea according to the result.  

Why a random table?  Because randomness pushes us outside of our comfort zone, and forces us to reach past our default, natural, and often predictable impulses and assumptions.  Dice and random tables have been a staple of RPGs since their inception for precisely this reason.  If something works well, it is very tempting to keep doing things exactly the same way.  But staying in our comfort zone leads to predictability, the enemy of Surprise and, in turn, Wonder.  

To get you started, below is a table I put together this week – a Wand of Wonder for Adventure Design, if you will.  Take it, add new entries, and make it your own.  And the next time you or your players seem a bit too comfortable with the scenarios you are running, grab yourself some dice, expend a charge or two, and see what happens.  You don’t need to do this every game – total chaos doesn’t create Surprise or Wonder.  Just often enough to keep that “excited uncertainty” alive in your player’s minds. 

Wand of Wonder for Adventure Design
(roll 1d20, apply result to your adventure idea)

Roll Change-Up Your Planned Adventure By…

1 Peripeteia, a/k/a “the Old Switcheroo” — In classical Greek tragedy and comedy, a peripeteia is a sudden reversal or change in the circumstances or core assumptions of the plot.  Take your planned adventure and build one of those in.  Maybe those goblins raiding the town have repented their ways and given up violence.  Now, the PCs are left between a tribe of peaceful goblins and an angry mayor who wants the goblins dead – and if the PCs won’t do it, he’ll hire some other adventurers who will.  Or, upon breaching the sanctum of the evil lich, the PCs find her beaten and distraught.  She is evil, sure, but was tasked eons ago by the gods to guard the artifact – which was recently stolen, and now endangers the entire world.  Instead of fighting the lich, the PCs must help her track down and return the artifact before it is too late.

2 Boss For a Day — Keep your adventure setup exactly as planned.  But the mayor, high priest, or other quest-giver does NOT want the PCs to handle the job themselves – oh no, they are far too valuable and important to ever risk on such a dangerous and/or minor mission!  Instead, the quest-giver wants the PCs to track down, hire, and supervise other, more-expendable adventurers for the task.  Now, the PCs get to experience all the joys of “middle management.”  They have to round up and supervise a bunch of morally ambiguous murder-hobos who will, of course, demand ridiculous amounts of treasure before lifting a finger, burn down the inn, pick fights with the locals, loot and pillage everything in sight, and ultimately screw the job up royally – leaving the PCs to pick up the pieces and finish the task.

3 Start in Media Res — Jump right past the adventure idea you had, either to the middle of the action, or to its aftermath – right where a new, more complicated story is about to begin.  Start the game with the PCs already battling the goblin king in his lair.  After the battle, the PCs discover that the real adventure is just beginning – deciding how to deal with the surrendering goblins, figuring out a way to haul their cumbersome treasure back to town, getting the mayor to actually pay out the extravagant reward he offered.  Or start the PCs in the lich’s sanctum, while the now-defeated and slowly disintegrating lich cackles and taunts them.  It seems that the artifact is sentient, and is already telepathically summoning every powerful evil wizard, cleric, and monster in the region, all to ensure that it never reaches the high priest who can destroy it.

4 Bring on the B-Team — When the players show up, hand out character sheets for their hirelings, henchmen, allies, and friends.  Then inform them that their regular characters embarked upon your planned adventure several days ago, but have not returned.  Not content to wait any longer, their hirelings, henchmen, allies, and friends have resolved to retrace the PCs’ steps in the hope of rescuing them.  It is up to you whether the PCs were actually defeated or captured, and really need rescuing, or whether the PCs just got side-tracked, decided to stop over in a brothel, are planning a surprise party, etc.

5 Shift Genres for a Night — Take your adventure idea and rework it to fit within a completely different genre.  So, if your adventure is a standard heroic fantasy quest, take all those same elements, rework it, and run it as a horror story, or a pulp romance, or a murder mystery.  Maybe those goblin attacks are all the work of a single, deranged goblin serial killer (a short, green “Jason”?).  Maybe that lich is happy to do anything you ask, but only if you can solve her latest love-triangle dilemma (Team Edward vs. Team Jacob, but Edward is a red dragon and Jacob is an unusually handsome mind flayer).   

6 Make the Bad Guys “Good” — Keep your adventure exactly as planned, but replace the opposition with traditionally “good” monsters.  Then devise a plausible, justifiable, and reasonable explanation why a good-aligned creature would engage in the otherwise villainous activities.  Instead of goblins, the village is under attack by normally peaceful wood elves.  Are they being controlled by some evil wizard?  Have greedy loggers from the village ignored the elves’ pleas to stop?  Or are both sides arguably in the right – e.g., the villagers need to continue logging to survive, but the land is sacred to the elves.  Or, instead of a lich, the PCs find a silver dragon guarding the artifact.  The dragon explains that she has been posing as a lich for hundreds of years because it helps keep the riff-raff away.  The dragon confirms she has the artifact wanted by the high priest, but is afraid she can’t bear to part with it for at least a few hundred more years.  Now, the PCs must decide what to do.  Do they fail their quest for the high priest, who urgently needs the artifact?  Do they battle an otherwise friendly and good-aligned silver dragon?  Try to steal it and return it?  Something else?

7 Break the Rules (Or at Least a Key Assumption) — Change one of your game or campaign world’s default assumptions for a night, but NOT in a way that screws over your players.  Maybe there is a planetary alignment that greatly strengthens magical spells, allowing even apprentice-level wizards to draw forth vast amounts of power.  Maybe the gods themselves have placed a wager on the outcome of the PC’s quest, with some providing boons and advice, and others placing new and surprising obstacles in their way.  Maybe the god of death himself is taking a holiday, so no one – not the PCs, and not the monsters – can die regardless of their wounds.  The change be temporary, but fundamentally alter how the PCs approach the problem.

8 Unlikely Team-Up — Choose one (or more) of the PCs’ most hated and feared adversaries.  When the PCs show up to accept their quest, they find the villains already present.  It seems that the villains have also agreed to undertake this mission, and work with the PCs, for reasons selfish, altruistic, or entirely unknown.  Can the PCs work with their enemies?  Do they use the adventure as an opportunity to settle old scores?  Or will they grudgingly come to respect their former foe? 

9 Reverse the Plot — Take the adventure you had in mind and reverse as many parts of it as possible – including, but not limited to, the quest-giver, the goal, and the opposition.  For example, instead of being hired by the mayor to stop the goblins, maybe the goblin king sends an envoy to hire the PCs to stop (through diplomacy or combat) other adventurers and townsfolk from making repeated attacks on the goblins’ lair.  This can lead to a fun “reverse dungeon,” where the PCs are planting the traps, setting up guard rooms, and organizing and training the goblins.  Or, instead of being hired by the high priest to assault the lich’s lair, maybe the lich wants to take a vacation, and is willing to trade away powerful magic items in exchange for the PCs serving as “guard dogs” for her haunted castle during her absence?

10 Too Much, Too Fast — The adventure proceeds as you planned, but the PCs’ employer gives them way too much firepower for the task.  Complete overkill.  Perhaps the mayor offers to loan the PCs a (recently confiscated) Staff of the Magi or other powerful magical item.  Or perhaps the high priest agrees to bestow upon one of the players the full measure of his own mighty power for the duration of the quest.  The goal is to give the PCs so much raw, uncontrolled power that the real challenge becomes restraining themselves from blowing everything around them sky high.  When the mission is done, do they return the incredible power they have been loaned?  Or do they betray their employer and try to keep it?    

11 All Too Easy — Keep your adventure the same, but today is the PCs’ lucky day.  Downgrade the opposition until it is almost laughable.  Maybe a plague has recently ravaged the goblin tribe, and the handful of warriors they can muster are sickly and weak.  Maybe the “lich” is really just a human charlatan, relying on ghost stories and folklore to scare everyone away.  The adventure is not a test of the PCs’ prowess or cunning, but of their moral character and mercy.  How long will they slaughter hapless, plainly overmatched foes before their conscience retrains them? 

12 Toolbox Changeup — Pick one or more of the “tools” that you regularly use in your game (miniatures, maps, handouts, pictures, wandering monster tables, a GM screen, pre-prepared notes, character sheets, initiative rolls, dice, or whatever) and put them away for a night.  At the same time, pick a tool that you almost never use and try to work that into this session’s game.

13 Freaky Friday — The adventure proceeds as originally planned but, early on, the PCs stumble across an old skull, a mummified monkey’s paw, or some other obviously magical item.  The item is cursed and, when messed with, causes all of the PCs’ minds to jump to a different body.  Ask everyone too pass their character sheet to the player on their right.  Now, the adventure just got much harder, as our heroes must complete it while still in the “wrong” bodies.  The means for removing the curse are up to you.  Consider awarding bonus XP, hero points, inspiration, or your own preferred “player treat” for roleplaying the voice and mannerisms of the player/character whose body they are borrowing. 

14 It’s All About the Competition — Keep your adventure setup the same, except that the quest-giver has decided to use the threat or problem as an opportunity to learn, once and for all, who are the greatest heroes in the land.  All of the PCs’ rivals show up to compete.  The group that solves the problem will be the toast of the town, and lavished with praise and gold.  The losers will become a joke.  Now, the PCs must rush to accomplish their goal, while facing sabotage along the way.    

15 You’re (Probably) Too Late — Everything in your planned adventure is true, but change things so that, part way into the game, the PCs suddenly discover that they have much less time than previously thought, and are perhaps already too late!  The villain’s nefarious plan came to fruition early.  The goblin camp is mostly empty because they have already departed to raze the village.  The lich has already activated the magical artifact, triggering an imminent apocalypse.  Now the PCs must scramble to come up with a new plan on the fly, or maybe just find some way to mitigate the impending disaster.

16 Swap Your “School Of Magic” for a Night — If you are running an “old school” game, switch it up by injecting some “new school” mechanics for the night.  For example, you might use something like John Wick’s “The Dirty Dungeon” (link: to let your players build the goblin tribe’s dungeon at the start of the session.  If your regular style is more “new school,” give Matthew Finch’s “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” (link: a read, and try to incorporate as many elements as possible in your next game.

17 False Flag — The person giving the PCs the quest is not who they think (because of mind-control, illusion magic, intellect devourers, he took a bribe, or any other reason) and his or her motives are different than represented.  Maybe the quest-giver is really just a villain in disguise, hoping to lure the PCs away before launching his latest scheme, lead them into an ambush, discredit them, or use them to destroy his villainous rivals.  Maybe a group of doppelgangers wants to assume the PCs’ identities once they are outside of town.  Or maybe an old boyfriend is trying to stage a heroic rescue, in hopes of reconciliation.  

18 Uh, What Did We Do Last Night?” — Think Memento the RPG.  Begin the session just as the PCs approach the main villain of your adventure.  Unfortunately, a curse or magical mishap has just wiped out all of their memories for the last few days, and now they don’t remember where they are, who hired them, or what they are supposed to do – they need to piece all that together from clues and interrogating monsters they recently defeated.  At least one clever villain with a plausible, but utterly false, story about why the PCs are here is recommended.

19 No, You Do It” — A couple days before the game, give your notes to one of your players (the one with an interest in GMing) and ask him or her to run the next session.  You play one of the group’s hirelings or followers – preferably someone who is dumb and generally just goes along with whatever the PCs decide.  Play dumb and reveal nothing about the adventure – the goal is flip your perspective, and see how the adventure you wrote and planned to run feels from the other side of the screen.

20 And Tonight’s Guest Star Is…” — Grab someone from outside your regular group and ask them to “guest star” as an NPC for the session.  Tell your guest star in advance that they cannot personally hurt, kill, or steal from any of the PCs (to avoid hurt feelings), but that otherwise they should make life as difficult for as possible.  VIP protectees, local guides, and villains who talk a lot, but hide behind and army of goons can all make good choices for the NPC.

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