Friday, June 11, 2010


      Sometimes when I read play reports, I'm amazed at how much people can do in a single session. I average three to four "situations" in a session- whether these be combat, puzzles, dialogue, etc. I sometimes envy the pace at which some groups burn through ten, twenty combats in an evening's play. The Temple of the Frog for instance assumes a very fast pace, given the sheer number of combatants and the like present. Early D&D in general, with its close ties to wargaming operates on a much less detailed, much more abstract plane than I have ever really attempted. But I'm not sure that that's a bad thing in all cases. The issue I think stems from my inability to zoom out on the players- the pace of my dungeon adventures varies from about "first person survival horror" to "point and click adventure." I stock my dungeons with pretty huge amounts of detail, and most of the time this works in my favor, as I can create an atmosphere of dread, with enough things to keep everyone interested.
 But I have become too accustomed to feeding payers details- the SCALE of my descriptions is too zoomed in to let them make meaningful decisions in a larger world- they pick what trail, but have no idea how to act on their own initiative. The blame is probably 50/50, but whatever the cause, my games focus too much on details- combat, dialogue, puzzles, whatever, and logistics/player initiative suffers, while game modes that deserve different types of refereeing are all treated with the detail and precision of deathtrap dungeons. Player kingdoms and business plans dpeend on letting them make schemes without worrying too much about details.
        The trouble is, once my players leave the dungeon/the boat/ whatever "chokepoint" we've come to- I have an inability to stop giving details. I need to open the game up more to my players, and this necessitates giving them a broader overview of their environs. I have plenty of pretty good locations, and I do give my players freedom, but my narration is either too broad or too vague- I am in a mode of perpetual exploration- a problem which I think is emblematic of issues with modern D&D.
         A sandbox is a set of static locations, effects, and people waiting for Pc interaction. There is no preplanned anything, and the game lies in what players choose to do with the environment. Modern rpg design I think, has ingrained the story so much, that both I and my players unconsciously seek the storyteller/participant paradigm. My supposed "sandbox" is rather like playing "Oregon Trail." My players will pick an arbitrary destination, and respond passively to what they encounter along the way. I want to encourage my players to vie with each other for personal goals, and to actively change the world to their tastes, rather than reacting, but I'm not sure how best to proceed. The detail I give makes them look for something I want them to find, rather than setting their own goals.
           In short, I want Settlers of Cataan, plus Dark Tower. I'd like the players, after initial exploration to take stock of their environs, and manage resources in competition with each other. I'd like to see strategic, or at least personal decision making, but modern thinking has taught us to create elaborate characters, and then sublimate them into the level appropriate challenges presented by the dm. How do I change this? I am sick of having solely reactive players- I want to REFEREE them in their own endeavors. Is more information with less etail the answer?
             Also, I just realized that I would absolutely Love a Stephen King edition of the Dark Tower- "Your Ka-tet is now fighting a band of Slow Mutants!" It just FITS.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mythversions! Er... Reverse Monsters!

One feature of my campaign world is the replacement of most standard mythological creatures with my idea of what their opposite would be. Today, The reverse Medusa, for Swords and Wizardry Whitebox.

AC: 8/11
HD: 6
Move: 9
XP: 800
Attacks: Lion's bite, or by weapon.
# Encountered: Solitary, plus 1d20 living statues (Move 3, hd 1, xp 50, crush prone with base for auto hit, double damage, ac 9/10)

A hunched humanoid, stooping eight feet tall. Pigmanlions combine the worst features of (wait for it...) pigs, men and lions. They have a roughly human body, save for digigrade legs ending in black hooves and a corkscrewed lion tail, while the head is that of a maned pig, with the fangs and roar of a lion. The human skin is the color of ivory, and very cold.
The gaze of a Pigmanlion has the power to bring any sculpture to awkward, rubbery life, as a stone-to-flesh spell in a 60ft. Cone. No save applies. Most statues have the statistics listed above, but many petrified adventurers are reanimated by Pigmanlions, who typically leave one limb stone to ensure loyalty and an inability to escape.
Pigmanlions have the personalities of stalkers, fawning over their "creations." They have the voices of young, uneducated cockney women, despite being clearly male.
Adventures/Treasure: In addition to pieces of fine statuary not yet animated, Pigmanlions acquire the gear of petrified adventurers (In my games, gear is not petrified, only the person), and various minerals and ores left behind when they "carve" out subterranean lairs with their stone-to-flesh power.
Possible adventures could begin with the disappearance of a citie's statues, followed by its sculptors. Random encounters with one typically see it trying to trick victims with its feminine voice, luring the hapless onto solid rock, where it can turn the floor into a pit of flesh, then close with melee weapons and bite. Despite their maneating tendencies, they are sacred to Venus (Or Ishtar, or any fertility goddess.) Killing one has a 50% of causing the slayer's first-born son to transform into a Pigmanlion.

Imaginary Style Guides

No, not style guides that don't exist, style guides for the imagination. Yes, potentially a dick move, but hear me out.

Differences in expectation and visualization can contribute to the breakdown of a game. The way the player's visualize the game is not only responsible for a great deal of the appeal of tabletop gaming, but it is also helpful if the DM and players are on the same page. Jeff Rients had an excellent post about accommodating player's wants into the campaign, you have to fit in cyborgs, and ninjas, and gnome wizards, and so on if your players want to play them. But if you can present a coherent vision in a way that the players respond well to, you can create a stronger game- get people's expectations on the same page, and things become easier.

Just the angle at which I picture the game when I play accounts for huge differences in my character's actions. I tend to see my fighters and clerics in third person, from behind, as in a comic book. The power of the persona inspires me to acts of stupid bravery, makes retreat hard to imagine, details hard to picture.

Conversely, my thieves and warlocks see things in first person. Imagining the bugbear in your grill, and the same bugbear but with Conan-with-your-face between your mind's eye and the bugbear can change your tone and playstyle. It's easier to imagine details, straining at the dark, poring over librams and locks alike from the first person.

The same principle applies when I referee, even more overtly. I could go on, but it comes down to whether I want to focus on the SCENE, or the EXPERIENCE. You see, Vs. Grignar sees. Expectations of power and competency change when you add or subtract the mighty alter ego.
Similarly, I don't find it at all unreasonable to try to find a shared idea for the campaign aesthetic. Live action vs. Cartoon. Frank Frazetta or Terry Gilliam. Amateur line work Vs. Airbrushed titans/ Black and White or color? The referee presents a myconoid. I could see this, as a player in any number of ways, and if I am seeing Elric in front of the Tony Diterlizzi illustration, while the thief is imagining a live action, 1st person mushroom man, and the referee sees the ominous Dave Trampier picture, everyone's actions run the risk of seeming bizarre to the others.

Diversity of imagination is not a bad thing. And it is both impossible and absurd to want everyone at the table to see exactly the same thing all the time. Just the same, I'm heavily considering a check of my group's personal imagination styles. I think I'm running Marvel Conan mixed with Dali and Tales of The Black Freighter.

What are my players seeing?

The Awful Curses of Sorcerers and Other Supranatural Entities

I keep starting long-winded game theory posts about superseding mechanics and engaging players as creators. Blargh.

My point was, a player in my regular game recently incurred the wrath of Kheiros the Butterly-Demon, in the form of a curse. This marks the third occasion on which I have adjudicated the results of a woeful enchantment, hex, or the like. Each time, the curse has taken a different form, but in the end, I haven't been happy with any.

First curse I remember assigning took the form of a minus one to hit in combat. The benefit of this approach is that it is simple, hinders the player enough to seek help and not enough to end their playing, and has enough mechanical basis to make it mean something.
The problem is that this in no way improves or enlivens the game, and exists only as a mechanical construct.

Geases by contrast, like alignment changes, force the player to change his character's decision making, and tend to derail anything the party has goin' on right then. They can be fun, I have no doubt, but necessitate a sharp change in the behavior of one player, or the group at large.

Most others I've seen fall into the cosmetic. Now, turning into a bugbear, or sneezing flame can create fun. They give players an in game, but not mechanical problem to overcome, and add detail to a character. At worst however, these get ignored. Players hold their breath for fear of one-way trips to Baator, or halved intelligence scores. When it turns out they "just" weep snails, the impact is lost. Life goes on, and the high Warlock's dying utterance is forgotten.
The following table is going to enter play in the near future. It is my hope that the results will prove baleful, but not debilitating, while remaining entertaining. Your mileage may very, depending on how your player's feel about forced accents. I do run a fairly lighthearted game.

The Grand Chart of Player Curses
1. Player must assume an exaggerated french accent while playing.
2. The irresistible Macarana
3. Steve Erwin
4. Awful Pirate voice
5. Cowboy/Belle Accent
6. Sam Spade voice
7. Christopher Walken
8. In game actions conveyed by written note from now on
9. Player must declare character actions in rhyme.
10. Can not look at character sheet
11. Sing "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to all gathered.
12. Pig latin character declarations.

Does this reduce the game to utter childishness? Probably. But I think the crone with a raven's beak where her tongue should be ought to be treated with just a little bit of awe.