Monday, March 25, 2013

Riddles in the Dark

So the most vitally important thing the guys who made the big jillion dollar Hobbit movie had to do was to nail the Gollum scene. It has just enough fairy tale, just enough naturalism, just enough horror movie, just enough D&D, and just enough whimsy. It's easily my favorite part of Tolkein's work and I think an argument could be made that it's the scene most responsible for the Hobbit's original success. There's not a lot else like it in fantasy literature that isn't just someone who came after, trying to capture that lightning in a bottle.

When I was a kid and the local UHF station ran a lot of reruns of the old Batman TV show, my favorite guy was always the Riddler. Frank Gorshin has an undeniable charisma and intelligence that shines through and transforms a one-note seventh-rate Batman villain into an engaging, captivating figure. Writers in the comics have been trying to recapture that ever since then, and I usually consider how a writer handles the character a good litmus test for how their Batman run as a whole is going to go.

The sphinx is awesome, obviously.

What I'm getting at is, I love riddles. And I expect them in my D&D games because duh, right?

My players don't. For that matter, my DMs usually don't. Riddles and puzzles are not their forte and it was a huge growth for me as someone who runs games to realize that this base assumption I'd made about my world was something my players had no interest in. Which is a shame because riddles always make the world feel bigger, weirder, and most importantly, smarter than it actually is. Or smarter than I actually am, and convincing your players you're actually on top of things and their actions are going according to plan is a huge part of being a convincing GM.

Part of the problem with riddles and puzzles in games, apart from deliberately slowing down the game sometimes (which players have a problem with when it's not their choices or actions which slow down the game), is that whole "appearing smarter" thing. Nobody wants to guess at the answer because nobody wants to be wrong because nobody wants to be thought anything other than super-smart. There's also a paralysis that comes from knowing wrong answers usually have consequences. Gollum eats Bilbo if he can't guess correctly. The sphinx eats you if you guess wrong. The Riddler um...ties you to a giant typewriter and the keys mash you to death, or something.

This is of course what's awesome about riddles, too.

The key to making them work, really, is not being shitty about them. If you're in a dungeon and you barrel up to a gorgon and have to save or die from its breath, that's a choice you make. If you open a door without checking for traps and a blade comes down and chops you in two, that's a choice you make. If you go find a sphinx and can't answer its riddle and it eats you, that's a choice you make.

But it's a crappy railroady design to make them something you have to get through in order to get to the rest of the game.

The only tpk I've ever had was when my current party was sentenced to the Trial of the Riddling Cricket. They all died thanks to bad decisions in other parts of the dungeon, but up to that point they were all terrified of the prospect of facing it. But there were at least 3 other ways out of that dungeon that I had come up with, and I was open to anything the party suggested that worked. I had THE answer to the riddle, but also a few other possible answers, and was open to a really fucking good guess by the party.

My current group has yet to actually engage any of the options I've laid down for riddling. But I've continued including them, because if all they do is make the world feel bigger, more dangerous, or smarter than them, not because they have to deal with them but through just existing? There aren't even many monsters I can get that effect with.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

B/X Selkie Class

I've seen a lot of monster classes including a lot of caveman types, a lot of mermaids, and a lot of werewolves. I don't see why we can't have all three at once, so I made this.
Sea Monster!
HD: d6
Saves: as Halfling
Attacks: as Halfling
Advances: as Halfling
Requirements: Constitution 9, Dexterity 9
Prime Requisite: Strength; Selkies with Strength 13 or better gain 5% bonus xp, Selkies who also have Charisma 13 or better gain 10% bonus xp.
  • Selkies can wear leather or fur armor in human form but find anything else too constricting. They cannot use shields. They can use spears, staffs, javelins, daggers, or clubs. They get +1 irony bonus to hit and damage with clubs.
  • Selkies can communicate with other Selkies in either form.
  • Selkies who die in their human form turn to seafoam, and can only be resurrected using their seal skin.
  • Selkies can advance to 12th level.

Selkies are a kind of leopard seal which hunts in packs and can transform into a beautiful if fearsome human form by removing their skin. Removing the skin takes a Turn followed by Save vs Petrification to avoid muscle fatigue from the transformation; a failed save means the Selkie will be unable to act for another Turn. In human form, the Selkie is an outsider, excited by new experiences and sensations. Becoming a seal again requires going back to their skin, re-dressing in it, and spending some time acclimating their muscles to the new form, processes which also take a Turn and a Saving Throw..

A Selkie can carry her skin with her at no encumbrance penalty but can only carry half the load a character of their strength normally could; their backs are not accustomed to that particular strain. A Selkie never wears her skin as armor in human form for reasons that we'll get to in a second.

In leopard seal form, the Selkie attacks as a 5HD monster (+4 to hit basically) at first level but can use the Selkie's to-hit-by-level if that is higher. She has an AC of 4 (15 ascending, 17 LotFP), and can attack twice per round, knocking their enemies prone or doing bite damage for 1d8 damage. Their land speed is 45'(15') and their swim speed is 180'(60'). Actually, even in human form they can swim at a full movement speed, rather than a reduced speed normal humans do. They do not take extra damage from silver weapons.

A Selkie's appetite is always enormous, and they prefer their food raw.

raw? more like RAWR! What were we talking about again?

If a Selkie's skin is lost, or seriously damaged, or tampered with in any way, only a powerful blessing or Heal spell can change them back to leopard seal form. The Selkie does not respond well to being trapped in human form, and their body distorts. Their eyes become all-black and they gain their seal form's bite attack, their unsettling jaws tipping off their inhuman nature. They never kill a living creature any more without eating part of it, and must lean on their weapon for support between fights. A Selkie will remain feral like this for another two levels before they pass away.

Selkies reaching 10th level with access to a sea can collect a harem of seals. Seriously it's called a harem. Anyway, they attract 3d10 seals a year, with each seal having a 15% chance of being a Level 1 Selkie.

Selkies can smell the sea on a person, and can identify anyone who has traveled by sea in the last month. They can also smell out fish at 500 yards.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Horde Trooper B/X Class

I actually built these guys to slip into NPC parties when my group went to the Dwarf cliffs, but they never got near where I'd intended to use them. So I just put em on here as a class because hey who can ever have too many robot classes, right?
"You shut up! My Little Pony is a good show!"
HD: d6
Saves: as Thief
Attacks: as Fighter
Advances: as Elf
Requirements: Strength 9, Constitution 9, Intelligence 7 or less
Prime Requisite: Strength; Horde Troopers with Strength of 13 or better get 5% bonus XP.
  • Horde Troopers wear Horde Armor which gives a base AC of 5. However, they have a 2 point AC bonus against handheld weapons and Strength based hand-to-hand attacks.
  • Horde Troopers carry a Combat Rod which fires as a burst of air which can injure or stun, acting like a Longbow with damage and range. It can be used as a club, doing 1d6 damage. Horde Troopers get a +2 to attack and damage when using this weapon. Horde Troopers are also proficient with staffs and crossbows.
  • Horde Troopers cannot be healed through magic or potions, and can only heal through rest and diligent self-repair. They cannot be raised from the dead, typically self-destructing when killed (or being flattened or pounded into the ground or something wacky).

Somethin for th' llllladies...
Horde Troopers automatically fail Saves vs. Spells until level 5. At level 8, they attract 1d4 first level Horde Troopers to serve them, and an additional 1d4 per level. Horde Troopers can advance to level 10. At level 10, a Horde Trooper's Combat Rod is replaces with a scepter which does 1d12 damage at range and in melee, and must be saved against as a wizard's staff. This scepter also allows the Horde Trooper Leader to communicate with all his Horde Underlings over a distance of 10 miles.

I Bought Some Cards

So the Dollar Tree next to work has playing cards by the register. Cheap playing cards are ubiquitous in shitty stores but these were previously used cards from blackjack decks at Vegas casinos. I bought the hell out of that, I can tell you. Picked up some Hard Rock Hotel ones. So I need a new trick to justify that dollar.


Use the cards instead of a random chart roll is obvious. Random encounters are good, random spell effect is better, rumors would be great. What can I use right now, though? Well, my party is big on potions, and the random treasure tables I've been using have come up on potions a lot. So potions it is.

Write what the potion does on the card, and always include at least one after-effect or side-effect. Don't stop writing until you're out of room on the card. This means that face cards or like a 10 are going to have little room for anything apart from "Invisibility- 1d6+6 turns, AE: you glow faintly for 1d3 hrs" at most. But something like a 2 of Clubs, you've got a lot of room to fill so come up with some shit. Invent new potions, combine effects, do chained effects.

When the deck is fully marked up, shuffle super-thoroughly and then use it in game. As each potion is drawn and used, mark the back of the card and slip it on the bottom of the deck. When every card has been used and its back marked (let's say with one slash), set that deck aside and build a new deck.

Let's say I go through a fuckton of potions and still need potions. No problem. I fill out a new deck. While I'm using that deck, I also keep the first deck on hand to use. Only now every time I draw from that one, I make another slash on the back (forming an X) and do the opposite of whatever is indicated. So using the above example that's "Glow like torchlight for 1d6+6 turns, AE: invisible in shadows for 1d3 hrs."

You keep this up, passing on a deck or throwing it out or putting it in storage after it has been used twice, and after your first go-around with your initial deck you'll always have a good d204 table for your potions.

Or orc variants. Or dungeon rooms. Or whatever.

Arcis Enumre- Elfs

Once the elfs of the world were plentiful, or as plentiful as any other civilized race. But that was a long time ago. They belong to an older time when things were a lot more magical, fewer rules of the world were set into stone, giants and dragons fought and the free peoples were reduced to only small villages or nomadic settlements. In this world the elfs excelled. With the taming of the lands (a relative expression for they are all wild) and the erecting of the elf city-states, things settled down a bit. But with humans (and some dwarves) learning the ways of magic, dragons turning their attentions to pursuits other than the giant war, and the appearance of new enemies such as the orcs and gnolls, the elfs felt the pressure of the world around them growing up and leaving them...overtaking them.

The elfs would surely have lost this arms race of cultural evolution and been stricken from the world entirely, in time, had they not taken drastic action. To preserve their place in this world they built Arcis Enumre, the largest and grandest elf city. Into this generations of elfs dumped their lives and their magics, powering the powerful spells of prophecy which allowed them to physically breach the veil of time itself using the Tower of Time at the city's center. This tower still exists, the axle on which spins the wheel of elf destiny.

There are two major consequences of this desperate act.

Elfs spend their life now more cloaked in magic and saturated in it than ever before. They are only able to live thanks to magic, and if not for the spells protecting them the last elf would have died out from the world a thousand years ago. As a consequence, however, they have had their lives stretched so far as a people that their tether to the spiritual plane has been broken. An elf cannot be said to have a soul, and cannot touch the spiritual plane or wield its powers. Elfs cannot speak to their own god, Felixiex, and rely on humans to carry out his will (and that of the other gods who have a presence in the city's God District). Elfs cannot be resurrected by anything less than a Wish.

Additionally, nothing in the great city works right apart from the elves. The ground level exists in the present, the upper level exists ten years in the future, the topmost keep exists one hundred years in the future, and the top of the Tower of Time looks down on a world a thousand years hence. Beneath the modern era, the foundations of the city have sprawled into an enormous system of labyrinths, dungeons, and tunnels, colloquially known as the subdungeon. The subdungeon is where the city's past and all elf heritage goes to die. They have no connection to their own histories or even lineages, and every dark act committed in elf history has taken on a life of its own in these shadowed halls. This makes elfs beings who live chiefly for the now, sharp-minded but somewhat hedonistic. This also means that the character of the elves and the character and shape of their city constantly shifts. The Arcis Enumre you sleep in is not always the same one you wake in; all change is sudden, rather than gradual.

Despite this, Arcis Enumre has become the most stable and longest lasting kingdom in the lands, and now the very societies which threatened to push the elfs out of this world flock to their grandest and final city for trade, diplomacy, culture, and most importantly to commune with the gods. None of these ironies are lost on the elfs. They're just bored of them.

As a result, Elf is the common tongue.

There are now no elfs living who weren't at least born in Arcis Enumre. At times a diplomat or adventurer may go afield but they give themselves up for dead the moment they leave the comfort of the city.

Rather than erecting an elf domain as the original B/X rules suggest, which is courting disaster most openly, elfs may instead buy land within Arcis Enumre and be not merely citizens but a kind of adventure-baron, someone "come back from the dead" to enjoy celebrity and influence within the city. An elf may acquire servants at the same rate as they might have earned peasants. These 'servants' might be true butlers and maids and shit or elfs who simply depend on the PC's patronage. 9th level elfs are also granted access to the upper level through the Tower of Time.

Half-Elfs? Yeah, you're an elf. Half-Elfs are the largest ethnic sub-group among Elfs but the attention to blood and parentage is a largely cultural divide. Elf blood has primacy and overrides Human genetic material. Half-Elfs have their own subculture and some legal rights.

Elfs of the Coldquarter are elfs from the most neglected and abused part of Arcis Enumre, a part of the city without patronage in the upper levels and a part of the city where many of the grand schemes of the future are first road-tested. Coldquarter elfs have some specific rights within the city, and are immune to Sleep, being somewhat hardier than modern elfs and a little closer to the Old Elfs.

Finally, Pale Elfs live exclusively within the subdungeon, sometimes called Past Elfs. Their spells don't work right and they live in a state of being of a state of shock. Sometimes these are remnants of elf history who have managed to survive in the cracks of the subdungeon, while other times they are the living damned, as all elfs sentenced to the subdungeon eventually become Pale Elfs.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Drunken Dragon #1

The games you hope to play will never be played. That's not to say you won't ever have a session of Pendragon or Tunnels and Trolls or Nobilis or Project Ninja Panda Taco but it will not be what you wait for because that gets into some observer effect shit, not to mention builds up your expectations. For all its flaws the final part of Nolan's Batman trilogy could never have stood up to expectation because people were talking about it before the first one came out.

The game you sock away in a drawer somewhere and say "Maybe someday," searching for the perfect players, or people who care about the lore as much as you, or the setting, or the mechanics, people who GET IT? They will never come, and if they do chances are even that one of you won't want to play with the other.

The right time for a game is right now. The right player is the player who wants to play, who is there, and who are themselves game, game for whatever you throw at them. The right character, for that matter, isn't one that you spend hours working on, poring over the AD&D books or the 4e character builder or exhaustively researching your nWOD guy's backstory. It's the character you can make right now to get into the game.

There was a time when people at my store knew me best for playing a death priestess patterned after midwestern housewives and the secretary from Ferris Bueller, a sweet old pot who valued politeness over mercy and had no problem healing people's wounds since that just meant they owed the death god a favor he'd collect later. That was a pregen I was handed. How much of that was on the sheet? Not a line. Not a single line.

The right time for your characters to die isn't when you have it planned out, after they've achieved this goal you have for them. It's when they die, because any story is a good story when it starts "You won't believe how my character died last night!" The right time to end your campaign is when it naturally ends, not when you decide it's going to end. And "finite campaign" is not a dirty word at all. A finite campaign might just be one novel in a series after all. This goes for your bad guys, too, GMs...let their destinies be determined by what people say and do, including the dice. Does that screw your entire campaign? Start this paragraph over, repeat til you get it.

The right GM is the one who's willing to run. The right game to join is any one that will have you. The right time to leave is when you need to, either because you've become uncomfortable, or bored, or your work schedule has intervened. This is a game. It should work like pickup basketball, not like a business lunch.

The right party is the characters you have. If that means the party gets slaughtered or one-shots your megadungeon so be it.

Obviously I don't mean play with loud assholes who cuss and make rape and Pollock and raped Pollock jokes. I don't mean play with pissy GMs or favoritism showing GMs or inflexible GMs or railroady GMs. I don't mean play Mouse Guard despite a crippling musophobia. I don't mean make your life shitty or less fun in any way and anyone who would leap boldly to that conclusion is someone I'd be reluctant to play with.

But bottom line: every campaign that is too good to run now never gets run. Campaigns that wait for perfect conditions are games you are actively deciding not to play. Characters who have to be just so never will be, and the perfect group doesn't exist.

You do the job in front of you. You fight the war with the army you brought. You dance with the gal what brung ya. You unclench and play a game because if your Doctor Who rpg or your game of Baron Munchausen have become actual sources of stress in your life in any way then you have failed at this hobby. Maybe not at this hobby in particular, maybe hobbies in general. Failed at something, though.

I've run games with a minute's notice that went better than ones I had months to sweat over. I've run with no prep and I've run with books of prep. I've played with people whose only source of amusement is actively trying to be Bugs Bunny at a funeral and sabotage games, and it has never worked. Never fazed me. Because what happens happens and that's what was supposed to happen. That guy was supposed to do it and I was meant to roll with it.

Nobody here is talking about Monopoly when they say "gaming." In this context they're not even talking about World of Warcraft or Saints Row, games that are all about choice and freedom and crap. Nobody here is ever talking about that because those are things which exist, and with existence come parameters, and parameters are themselves rules, and then those games add extra rules and so forth.

We're playing suggestions. We all have big books with hundreds of words and illustrations all going "Hey why not make up an entire game? Here's some stuff we made up already if you need it. Looks like fun, huh?"

Nothing exists until it happens. In life so in game. Screenplay, novel, painting, house, D&D game, anybody worried about making sure every aspect of the project from the end backwards is executed perfectly will not only never finish for finding other things to fix but they'll never begin because they'll be constantly out-inventing themselves in coming up with contingencies to prepare for.  Yeah I said house. No you do not live in a perfect house, shut up. Even Bill Gates doesn't and I have to pay him seven dollars for even mentioning his house.

Blueprints. A foreman. Builders. Tools. That's all you need to build a house, that's all you need to play a game. By all means take your time and check your math and permits and zoning and stresssss out before building a house because that's a house and you live in it for real. All I'm talking about are games, and you're only ever just visiting unless you go full Tom Hanks.

It's always time to begin. What is is. All in your game is as it was meant to be. The act of not going according to plan is its own reward and only ever shows how wrong your plan was. If you see Tom Hanks on the side of the road kill him.