Archive Page 2

28
Oct
09

character development: rebirth and reinvention

Rebirth – Where a character confronts certain core assumptions about their nature and place in the world with the intent of changing.  To overcome one’s flaws, they must be shown in a way that directly challenges the character and which overcomes their inertia to remain as they are.

This option is not taken lightly, rebirth is traumatic, may have deep psychological or spiritual implications from which the character may grow.  Confronting deepest fears or flaws is optional yet the option to confront these is often taken, whether as part of a point of no return or projection scenario.
 
It’s also rarely advisable to force rebirth on characters in interactive entertainment without prior foreshadowing and demonstrating why the rebirth is necessary.  The process is best served either following a dark night of the soul or a gradual yet visible apotheosis.  If you can manage both at the same time, this is powerful stuff.

Reinvention – The alternative is to either recreate a character to make them new or update an existing character to maintain their relevance, allow for new cultural sensibilities or to emphasise a particular focus – letting a character develop in ways that the original could not predict or that was unsuited to.

Where rebirth acknowledges what has gone before, reinvention prefers to focus on the renewed aspect of the character and minimise or even revise prior knowledge in favour of the new image.  As a result it grants more authorial control over the character and their environment.

This process can kill a character deader than disco if mishandled and is best done with an eye to what makes the character emotionally resonate with it’s audience.  When renovating the character, adding emotional hooks or minor details that catch attention may provide jumpstarts for strong stories.

These two processes permanently change the status quo of a character – a big step!  Done well, it transforms a character into something much greater.  Done badly and it means either applying retroactive continuity which damages their credibility or worse, forcing the character into yet another reinvention.

Advertisements
26
Oct
09

big damn dungeons

This post at Grognardia about the lack of mega-dungeons and the follow-up at Greyhawk Grognard and it got me thinking.  My introduction to the mega-dungeon proper (I didn’t know it then) was Descent Into The Depths/Vault of the Drow (D1-3) with it’s epic scale (miles of caverns) and sections you were encouraged to develop.  Big damn dungeons are one of the iconic elements (to borrow a phrase) of Dungeons & Dragons.

Undermountain, Night Below, Moria, Dragon Mountain, Rappan Athuk and The World’s Biggest Dungeon are examples with a more contemporary example being the dungeon built by Monte Cook at Dungeon-A-Day.  Demand for such exists yet few hit iconic status without re-invention or turning into self-contained mills to grind out levels and gain loot with no customisation or replayability.

Ironically, the failure of most mega-dungeons to engage may be down to granularity and scale, effectively not thinking big enough. There is a danger you create modules for the mega-dungeon setting rather than larger campaign elements.  The difference between module and campaign sourcebook is notable and it’s this divide that has caused many mega-dungeons to be definitive works, preventing individual innovation.

Mega-dungeons have been described as campaign dungeons.  Why not then treat them that way?  Provide a core sourcebook or boxed set for the megadungeon with an overview map with complete sections and gaps to allow growth. The basic model of expanding detail works but the trick here is to stop short of providing the ultimate resource.  Tabletop’s big strength is imagination and the unexpected so why not play to it?

The second part of this plan is to think larger scale when publishing to fill the gaps.  Instead of modules, using self-contained sourcebooks with example encounters and two or more adventures.  The rest is assorted new things, vignettes and elements to maximise replayability (e.g. tables, selections of elements) enabling emergent play and customisation while being effectively self-contained. 

The trick here in both cases is to inspire development by the DM, sections with three lines of text at most (something Gary Gygax excelled at) to spark imaginations (e.g. “Here lies Dragotha, the Undead Dragon.”) and deliberately leave sections for the games master to make their own.  Making your mega-dungeon different from your friend’s means you get more enjoyment out of it.

Flexibility in creating content is a desirable skill for any games master.  Providing rough flight plans for areas of the mega-dungeon and enough meat on the bones so running this game as is can be good, but running it your way is better.  Emergent play also allows the sourcebook to inspire further adventures within that common framework and gives players a taste of something they don’t get every day – the unknown.

25
Oct
09

something wicked this way comes

Review: Kobold Quarterly 11 by Open Design.  There’s a lot of content and I have to fit in reminiscences.  As it’s Kobold Quarterly, I’m using kobolds as my metric – one bad, five awesome.  Now the disclaimer as interests need to be declared.

Disclaimer: This review is of a free PDF copy provided by Wolfgang Baur of Open Design for review purposes.  Articles considered on merit and judgement, not actual play.  Games masters may vary depending on ability, confidence and your willingness to participate.  Be excellent and party on.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get moving.  Back in the day, I used to buy Dragon avidly.  I admire what Open Design have done as Kobold Quarterly (KQ) recaptures that feel without quite being the house organ Dragon used to be.  Including the kick-ass Hallowe’en issues, which this assuredly is. 

Art: 3 kobolds (a little more interior colour will go a long way.)
Consistently strong and supportive of theme.  Love the art for Ecology of the Vampire, Howling Werebeasts, Monstrous Paragons and Spell-Less ranger.  My only caveat is writing over cover art lessens it’s impact.  I’m impressed by the roll call of Mearls, Bulmahn, Perkins (I never knew More was an RPG designer) but the text makes the cover cluttered. Interior art is good if less colourful and the use of woodcut plates for some articles lends charm. Cartoons by Stan! provide levity.

Articles: 4 kobolds (consistently good concepts, minor rough edges)
A Broken Mind by Scott Gable is a neat take on 4E sanity mechanics and lends a Call of Cthulhu feel to that system.  It gives punch to encountering aberrants and undead and provides roleplaying hooks while mitigating the blasé attitude many players display to horrific monsters and situations. It will shock 4E purists expecting empowered heroism so warn your players first, eh?

Uvandir: The Pride of Craftsmen by John Wick and Jess Heinig hammers dwarves into proud, genderless, relentless inhumans with buckets of attitude while keeping core dwarven qualities intact and offers crunch love to back it up.  I like this a lot and would use as a PC option for a stable player group.  For more dynamic or less confident groups they’d make great NPCs.  Scott Gable provides a faithful 4E conversion. 

Howling Werebeasts by John E. Ling Jr. presents the lycanthrope as player character and considers what consequences occur.  It presents balanced 3.xE level progressions in rat, wolf and bear and inspired me to outline a Les Miserables style campaign involving pursuit of a fugitive lycanthrope. It makes having an infected monster in the party much more palatable. Enjoyed this very much indeed.

The Ecology of the Vampire by Tim & Eileen Connors offers nice flavourful content then spoils it with faux White Wolf trim.  Exquisite fluff about vampiric transformation, feeding and motives with good crunch to stop the vampires going on siring orgies, player and NPC tactics and hints at variant powers. Yet it also drones on and on about heaven and hell, ending with vampires of legend sired by Lucian Twice-Fallen.  Without irony. 

Running Across The Screen is a round table of GM tips from a veritable rollcall of cool game designers who provide advice.  With dense amounts of good, practical advice this is a firehose of fresh spring water to dip into when running a game or event grinds you down.  Kudos to Robin Laws and Greg Stafford for less than corporate photos.   Killer content.

Book Reviews – Balanced and fair.  Guillermo del Toro has co-authored a modern day vampire bio-thriller? And a new Harry Dresden novel?  And a Silver John collection?  And the other books look cool too – this only happens once a quarter.  Good ideas for the primary gifting period for that gamer friend of yours…

Haunted by the Spirit of the Rules by Monte Cook is a warning to players to drop the type A dork act and for games masters to consider consistency by precedent.  It highlights roleplaying is about collaboration, entering into the spirit of the game and focussing on what makes a good time at the table rather than seeking self-validation by trying to be the Oscar Wilde of tabletop gaming.  Thought-provoking stuff.

Wishing Well by Garrett Baumgartner brings wish spells into 4E by applying a framework to the wish effect and codifies potential by tier. It also offers the Wishmaster monster template (neat) and some slightly gamebreaky items especially a ring of three wishes that recharges at every milestone!  Ditch the items and you’ve got a nice take on the Arabian Nights.

Whack Jacks and Harpy Nets by Daigle, Happ, Hitchcock and Kortes brings monster weaponry for 4E to our attention.  They remind us monsters have technology at their disposal.  While the necksnapper, gouters and giant’s arbalest and others make me smile, I would actually use the nailbiter, razornet and warcage in games.  The ideas are strong in this article and can be innovated on.  Maybe in later posts? :o)

Torture and Fear on the Tabletop by Hank Woon looks like a Pathfinder table for every occasion article yet it’s real strengths lies in core concepts.  Torture does ability and regular damage; emphasise description to get inside player minds.  The only thing missing is a reminder players can ask for a cut scene and may want to resolve breaking points mechanically (Will or Fortitude saves) rather than listen to the GM get… medieval.

Same Rules, Different Treasure by Ken Marable takes the concept of skinning stuff with a new look to provide a distinctive image and applies it to treasure.  The result is a strong article on how making an item distinctive can yield thematic information and make a game unique – a real example of campaign branding in action.  The examples show the kind of innovation that can make a good games master great.

Monstrous Paragons by Phillip Larwood offers 4E paragon paths for monsters that builds on the conceit of monsters as player characters or levelling NPCs rather than defined entities tweaked to fit using pages 42, 174 and 184 of the 4E DMG.  An 11th-level kobold anything should fill people’s hearts with fear.  Tucker would be proud.

Mysteries of the Philosopher’s Stone by Mario Podeschi provides a 4E take on the Philosopher’s Stone and provides an artifact book, a ritual to make the stone and two takes on it. Nice touches on lending wizards a scholarly rumour mill air.  Tacked on at the end is a treatment for White Wolf’s Mage: The Awakening.

The Spell-Less Ranger by Marc Radle looks at Pathfinder rangers and removes spells from them without taking out any of it’s magic; it’s a sensible and balanced approach that takes the core concept of the ranger as a wilderness warrior and gives it legs.  Certainly worthy of inclusion in any Pathfinder game.

Farragum, The Howling City by Dan Voyce describes a derro city in lavish detail while referring to other Open Design products. The article evokes eldritch secrets (gibbering steel!) and bizarre structures with monstrous ecology.  Old-school grognards will love this before converting it all to some retro-clone and there’s a very nice printable map ripe for plunder.

Road and River by Wolfgang Baur evokes the old-old school style of Minarian Legends and early Forgotten Realms by mentioning the day-to-day of mercantile travel towards Zobeck.  The map of Margau and Doresh is lush if a little tricky to read but prints out just fine.

Finally a supporting two-page sheet for the Spell-Less Ranger article.

Editorial and Letters: 3 kobolds.  (Meta stuff is meta.)
Open Design wins Ennies! I suspect because it gives tabletop gamers what they want.  Letters alternate between heady nostalgia myths of 3.x, how 4E shows it’s age and why nobody is listening due to Pathfinder’s awesomeness.  At least there’s none of that old-school renaissance going on. Now sports.

Advert/Content Ratio: 4 kobolds (13ish/85 pages (15%))
The adverts and promo boxes are not obtrusive with full-colour page ads offering things of interest. Format is professional in the vast majority of cases with artwork on a couple of ads being the only smudge but there’s minimal control over what kind of content an advertiser can put in.

Overall: 4 kobolds (“Carry on my wayward son…”)
KQ11 is excellent and the length of this review, written in one sitting shows how engaging it is. It scratches so many itches and delivers the horror theme with a subtlety that does it’s editors credit. KQ is faithful to the spirit of it’s draconic ancestor, displaying the same virtues and to a much lesser extent, the same flaws. For a magazine approaching it’s 3rd year it’s looking very good indeed and Wolfgang Baur and team can rightly be proud of their prodigal.

23
Oct
09

au revoir and differences of opinion

“Freedom is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”
— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

A lot of discussion around the status of the RPG Bloggers Network has taken place following a disagreement on terms of admission (in flammenkrieg terms not huge but hurtful to those involved). Now the admins have chosen to pursue their own projects.

I wish them the best, they’ve done great things and left sizable boots to fill.   Network members respond in different ways, displaying the Kübler-Ross model behaviours to unexpected changes – denial, negotiation, anger, depression, grief and acceptance.

Yet in what people are already lampooning as the Great RPG Bloggers Network Schism of 2009, it’s obvious a couple of things remain true.

First, anger towards the people you’re trying to persuade isn’t as effective as respect.  Insulting your audience will encourage them to stop listening or go elsewhere.  Maybe that’s what you want?  Yet those behaviours limit options and damage your credibility on a personal and professional level.  Even if you do them well.

Second, to quote Dale Carnegie: “You don’t kick a dead dog.”  The network is attracting criticism from those worried the sky is falling, disappointed at how the admins were treated or those hoping to develop their own vision.  The bug has bitten and the road has called.  I plan on continuing for the only way to fail is to give up.

I want the RPG Bloggers Network to move forward regardless.  The network is bigger than one individual and if you’re part of any network, it’s wise to respect it’s participants.  Word gets around and those who live by mudslinging usually get dirty themselves for with good intentions, the destination remains the same.

23
Oct
09

campaign branding: genre conventions

Genre conventions are a framework of elements that set a scene and provide an audience tools to help them imagine it and the wider story.  These conventions give a creator options and choices that make their story or game distinctive and help convey messages (thematic or otherwise) to the audience.

Aesthetic – The specific attributes of a story that helps define it.  The time, place, genre and basic premises of what is expected from the story.  Aesthetic conventions include oppressive regimes, armoured knights or isolated rustic colonies. These need to be outlined up front or the audience will be confused.

Ideological – A specific vision or sensory experience (a ‘look’ or ‘feel’) – if aesthetic is the substance, this is the style.  Here is the grit in your crime drama or the slick chrome in your science-fiction.  As over half of all communication is non-verbal, this is something ignored at your peril.

Rhetorical – Persuasive arguments employed by a story on it’s audience.  The social implications of those arguments may compel (compare The Handmaid’s Tale with Gattaca with Children of Men) an audience and contemporary issues can shape or alter the sensitivity of an audience to a story’s rhetoric.

Ritual – Behavioural actions associated with a particular genre, the traits characters display to comply with the above.  Action heroes are courageous, tough and rebel against authority.  Noir detectives are cynical romantics with internal monologues.  All of these (and more) are explored in one place

Aligning genre conventions can maximise story impact and speed setup.  The trick is to do it so the genre conventions are revealed in an original or innovative way.  Due to high exposure (how many TV shows and movies have you seen this year?) these are used and re-used to a point some call formulaic. 

Judicious blending or contrasting conventions can invigorate formulaic elements.  Robocop is cyberpunk but uses elements of the western and crime drama.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another example of blended genres.
Yet even blending can hit saturation.  The key then is to go back to the classics and work from there.

To give a story zip, it’s worth focussing on character and emotions powered by situations.  In order to provide characters, emotions and situations context, genre conventions provide a backdrop for the drama and help to wrangle thematic elements.

21
Oct
09

darksea war: tides of chaos

In darkness lit by phosphorescent fungi and the reflected light of fading magics on rushing water, the Darksea War continues apace.  New combatants enter the fray, drawn by compulsions woven by each side, formed out of horrific experiments or help from other worlds. Down the long years of war, aboleth and illithid have clashed over the limited resources, one seeks to drown the Underdark, the other seeks to civilise it.  Yet both seek to enslave those who remain and crush who resist their dominion.

The aboleth have been invigorated by the presence of the Elemental Chaos and Abyss that offers new allies to fight a war that for a while appeared to be siege-based and dependent on changes in water.  Now the aboleth plan an offensive based on sallies and counter-attacks hidden under the illithid.

  • The cultivation of failed servitors (or skum in Deep Speech) has given the aboleth a new weapon, while their fragility poses little threat to illithids, those approaching the lake-cities risk annihilation or aboleth control as they drive their former victims before them. The mere presence of skum has served to break sieges as their psychic dissonance enhances slime mage attacks.
  • Water archons have been recruited to the aboleth cause by invocations and portals to the Elemental Chaos and their presence presents the illithids with an unappetising problem.  The water archons can strike and retreat where there is water, cutting a swathe through massed illithid thralls and pulling them down to their doom.
  • Worse still, the aboleth have encouraged Dagon cults among some kuo-toa and these have led to devastating attacks on illithid thrall strongholds.  The aboleth help them by summoning kazrith demons whose hit-and-run attacks and tunnelling under key structures causes mayhem in thrall settlements.  Punitive raids by the illithids are frustrated by the supremacy of the kuo-toa in their environment.

The illithid have not been idle.  They recognise numerical superiority may not be enough and have delved into forbidden lore and experimentation to increase their superiority on land and to try and take the fight to the lake-cities where their enemies plot.

  • Bladerager trolls were created to destroy aboleth slaves and to sacrifice against the aboleth who lurk in the shallows.  Illithid-made bladeragers often display razor-edged crystals as well as broken blades and spikes and spear-heads taken from captives or thrall-forged.  The bladeragers are often transported in chains and loosed upon their intended enemies with devastating results.
  • The presence of a maw of Acamar amid some illithid raiders has provoked alarm among those few survivors; that some illithid scholar turned to a star pact for power is no surprise.  That the maw of Acamar appears to tolerate the illithid instead of just consuming them and their thralls worries many right-thinking individuals – if such terrible power can be harnessed against the aboleth, who is safe?

The Far Realm continues to provide both sides with resources beyond rhyme or reason.  The strange nothics serve both sides, mindblights are seen roaming the shores of the lake-cities hunting thralls while illithids retain cacklers as loyal if vicious pets.  The presence of fell taints have increased in the war, posing threats to all sides and making the Underdark even stranger and deadlier.  As more abominations spawn, the Far Realm comes closer.

Both sides are threatened by the duergar; vengeful former slaves of the illithid now loyal servants of the Nine Hells who have learned from their illithid captors.  The duergar are set against both sides but will make certain the illithid suffer since they are often in direct competition with the mind flayers and more than a few grudges have been passed down through duergar tradition.  The appearance of demonic allies among the aboleth has made them a target as well yet the duergar are smarter than to fight a war on two fronts.

The neogi have also escaped servitude under the illithid and intend to avoid that fate once more.  As a result they will trade with anyone including allies from both sides.  The slave markets are visited by both drow and kuo-toa; yet the neogi keep their customers at arms length while subtly sabotaging illithid expansion by a combination of proxies, treachery and magic.  On one thing everyone agrees, the neogi cannot be trusted.

19
Oct
09

play vs. story

“My take on the ludology/narratology debate has always been that it’s a clever and completely false dichotomy.  If what you’re into is talking about interactive entertainment, then it’s endlessly fertile ground. If what you’re into is making interactive entertainment, it’s literarily meaningless.”
        — Mark Barrett, game designer

So which is more important – game or story?  Every instance of what is referred to in the quote as interactive entertainment has narrative elements – in some cases flapping like vestigial limbs while others have huge plot museums for you to wander through – all to provide an answer to why you are here.

The quote above raises an interesting point.  Is plot essential to play?  Does it matter if you’re having fun grinding a level or three that you skip the exposition? Nobody stopped a game of Tetris because it broke their immersion – yet if you need that information to complete the game, you’d best have it available!

The priority that an audience places on mechanical interaction or completing challenges against that of story that helps you suspend your disbelief is more likely driven by a designer than by audience. Yet different players demand different things from games and a cohesive, entertaining story is often used as one of them.

This presents a paradox for tabletop roleplaying games.  I’ve seen games fall flat when players reject the set up.  If an event is unexpected and inconsistent, even if it follows the rule of cool, some players hit disbelief and utter “That’s just silly” or engage their right to choose and engage in mayhem upon the local village.

Equally, an alternate reality game stands or falls on exposition.  If you lack a strong lead then something new and shiny will distract your audience promising hidden stories, special benefits or unique merch.  While the interaction and challenges may be brilliant, without exposition you’re going nowhere fast.
Interactive entertainments in the vein of RPGs or ARGs require a greater investment of attention over time.  Using a story linked to the game as a reward is common to video games, RPGs and ARGs.  Some games implement this reward exclusively while others use it in tandem with formal play using rule mechanisms.
Ultimately it comes down to the design objectives of the game.  If you’re looking at formalised play then story is a secondary concern.  If you’re more interested in free-form play then story is suited as a framework and reward to participation. Determining what the players want then becomes important.