Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Well, therein lies the tale. When it's all said and done, The Hunt for Atlantis, like Raiders of the Lost Ark by which it was no doubt partially inspired, is more about serving us up a fast-paced diet of action set pieces than it is a plot that's too coherent or lacking in gaping holes. So in that sense, it's pretty fun. In fact, reading it, I could almost just see the author thinking mentally about how everything could be converted into a blockbuster Hollywood action piece.
That's the good news. The plot is fast and exciting, and the action set-pieces are spectacular. Of course, action set-pieces work better in some media than in others, and I think this would have been a better movie than it was a novel. As a movie, it'd have much of the same charm as an Indiana Jones vehicle, if done well anyway--as a book, the characters felt a bit flat and lacking in believable chemistry, the plot felt rather feeble and shallow, and consisted of running from one exotic location to another, finding a vague and often somewhat hoaky clue, getting the whole place blown up in an explosive action sequence, and then going on to the next one short a few ancillary characters who didn't make it through the fireworks.
The evil mastermind plot of the villain of the piece is quite silly, really. Perfect for Hollywood, but really flimsy when you've got over 500 pages to flesh it out. They're like Nazis turned up to 11. And the notion of a secret war carried out between the descendants of Atlantean kings and the descendants of their rivals, the extremely ancient Athenians (who somehow manage to predate both the founding of Athens and the ethnogenesis of the Greek people altogether for that matter) since the end of the Ice Age is, while perhaps kind of charming, also very silly.
Despite these comments, which sound like criticisms if taken the wrong way, I hope that my tone comes across properly; I'm speaking of these flaws fondly. If you're properly level-set in your expectations, this a fun, rollicking adventure flick... oops, I mean, book... not a deep thriller, then it's quite enjoyable. A fine vehicle for showcasing the "pulp aesthetic" as I've called it before in the past, and in that sense I certainly can recommend it for a bit of light reading.
I don't think it's a much of a spoiler to divulge that Eddie and Nina survive the book, and in fact have an entire series of six (seven in early 2011) books now (including this one) chronicling their further adventures. In fact, the epilogue which sets them up as the heads of a United Nations secret spy-archeologist division is kinda clever in a comic-bookish kind of way, and is about perfect for the tone of the book. However, I have to admit that unless either the plots or the characters develop some more depth, I think the formula could wear a bit thin after a while. But, I'll give them a chance to so develop, and while I need to clean up my reading docket a bit before I can turn to the next volume, The Tomb of Hercules, I'd like to do so sooner rather than later.
However, I never did it. In fact, I never even looked over the organizations from a few samples of WotC products to see exactly what all the categories are that I'd need to write about. Until now.
This post is just to put out the outline template on how to describe an organization, but in subsequent posts, I'll actually detail some organizations. I had with me, by coincidence, a copy of Fiendish Codex 1: Hordes of the Abyss and Complete Scoundrel and between the two books had four sample organizations to look at. Anyway, here's the template:
Start off with an introductory blurb of text... some color, a description of how the organization may have been founded, who the important founders may have been, or something like that.
Joining the Organization: Since it's possible that PCs may want to join your organizations, even "bad" ones, if you tend to get rather rascally PCs, as I do, talk a bit about how you go about joining the organization. Sub-headed under this is Entry Requirements which are not unlike prestige class requirements; they may include minimum ranks in certain skills, access to certain spells, a certain base attack bonus, or certain special roleplaying requirements (i.e., PCs must have been killed and ressurected, or something unusual like that.)
Playing a member of the organization: So, if the PCs do join, what does that mean? For that matter, if NPCs feature prominantly in the campaign, who are members of this organization, what do they do? This is largely just text blurb, but it does also have some subheadings, which might vary depending on the organization. They might include: Combat, how the members try to conduct combat, if necessary, Advancement, refering to advancing with the heirarchy of the organization itself, not "leveling up", Benefits of belonging to the organization, Responsibilities that members have to the organization once inducted, and possibly Missions that the organization would require the characters to undertake on its behalf.
The Benefits subheading could also have sub-subheadings, including Gear or Services that you can get from the organization, Information that the organization can provide to you, Status that being a member of the organization could provide to you in certain situations, or Access to specialists or important people who could support the members in the carrying out of thier various duties or tasks.
The Organization in the World: Describe a bit how the organization fits into a campaign setting. What is the organization's... uh... Organization? Who runs it and how do they govern? Is there an organizational HQ? Does the organization control any territory overtly? What are typical NPC Reactions to the organization? And finally (and very optionally) how does the organization fit into some of the standard campaign settings, i.e., The Organization in Eberron or The Organization in Faerûn?
The Organization in the Game on the other hand, is more metagame discussion. Rather than talking about the organization in the setting, how do you utilize the organization in your actual game? Are they likely to be allies? Antagonists? Rivals? Something else? How can you adapt the organization; for example, the Black Cult of Amn, which codifies and studies demonic lore, is suggested as an adaptation, it could be applied to any other type of outsider, including devils or even celestials. What are some potential Encounters the PCs could have with organization members, and then include the statblock of a sample NPC organization member.
Monday, November 29, 2010
NPCs are important, because they are often the only effective way the GM can "dump" information on the PCs. They can also help set the tone and mood for the game, and allow the GM to have a real voice in the campaign. There are four things that NPCs can (and should) do, and then I'll talk very briefly about a few NPC's in Dark•Heritage and what they do in the framework of these four points of Ray's.
(1). Provide the players with exposition.
As discussed earlier, NPCs are valuable as a discreet and believable (and more interesting than reams of handouts) method of giving the players information about the setting. No matter what question the PCs may have, there's probably someone in the setting that can answer it. How did the world come to be peopled with unusual bloodlines like the jann and the hamazin? How did that shadowy Undead creature that's been murdering citizens in Upper Razina get here, and how do we get rid of it? What lies hidden under the sands of the Hamazi canyonlands, or in the forested interiors of the Tolosa islands? Where is the fabled and dreaded plateau of Leng?
All of those questions probably have quite obscure answers, though--the truth about the jann and the hamazin is probably only known to the most reclusive and possibly insane of sages and scholars, and the best person to tell you about the undead is the mad necromancer who summoned or created it. Only the bravest and stoutest of adventurers may speak of the Hamazi canyonlands or the Tolosa islands or the blasphemous plateau of Leng. It's the PC's jobs to figure out how to get that information from them.
For every major NPC you create, you should be thinking about what he or she knows, how that might be useful to the PCs, and how they might go about getting that information from them. It might be as simple as asking, or it might not. The NPC may require some big favor or even a quest before he answers the questions the PCs have, or they may simply need to be outwitted or intimidated. There may even be a few who are designed to offer information to the PCs even if they are apparently trying to avoid taking it! Wandering prophetic beggars might be a good example of just such an NPC. It's also a good idea to make the information from NPCs be subtle--don't come right out and tell the PCs what they need to know, hint at it, make them have to figure out what the NPC's sayings actually mean from a practical standpoint.
There's a few hints for how to string your PCs along a little bit, challenge them somewhat, and make them feel rewarded for figuring out what to make of this information. Always make the hints be somewhat subtle in one way or another. Either the information is a little difficult to find, or if it comes for free, it's difficult to interpret. You don't want to go overboard, and keep an eye on your players to make sure they're not getting frustrated because they don't know what to do. By the same token, don't hit them with proverbial 2x4s telling them exactly what to do either; give them hints, give them potential avenues to follow, and let them decide how and on what terms they will pursue those avenues. Also be aware of certain roleplaying conventions. If someone comes up to the PCs and starts telling them something that sounds outrageous, the players will likely take that person seriously and believe everything they say, in spite of the fact that their PCs probably wouldn't in real life. The convention is, "the GM is obviously trying to tell me something here" by making a minor scene out of something that would otherwise seem very pedestrian and would be ignored. Occasionally throw these conventions for a loop by putting red herrings in front of the PCs. Sometimes the crazy old man in the street really is just a crazy old man who doesn't know what he's talking about. Sometimes the NPCs actually don't know anything, even though they may act like they do. Sometimes they might even be mistaken and give bad info to the PCs, even if they are sincere in their motivations.
This is a tricky line to walk -- you don't want to lead the PCs down endless dead-ends, but having NPCs that are more like real people, occasionally fallible with the information they give the PCs (of course, until they find out otherwise) makes the campaign setting more real.
(2). Offer the PCs services and tactical options.
Even in the most paranoid and political of games, there have to be NPCs that can help the PCs either by offering them something they don't have access to, or by offering them the ability to do something they otherwise wouldn't. A high(ish) level cleric who can heal the PCs when they come limping back into town is the classic example of this, or the sage or wizard that can identify a mysterious magical item. It might even be something as simple as the blacksmith that can make a masterwork weapon for a PC, or a salesman who can provide an exotic animal or spell component, or other such story item.
This should be handled suitably subtlely as well; if the PCs need to have an antidote for the poison of some foul creature, they need to know that the old hermit who lives in the swamp is an expert herbalist and hedge doctor that can treat poisons. And it helps if they already know this from a subtle clue before hand, rather than feel like the GM is simply telling them what to do. If the old hermit is seen in town advising, or better yet, administering an antidote, to someone else the PCs know a few sessions before they need to use his services, the players will feel quite clever for remembering him, but if you have to tell them, "hey, there's a guy outside of town that might be able to help you," they'll feel led by the nose.
(3). Propel the PCs into adventures.
Naturally, NPCs give the PCs reasons to do things. They might have something about them that just begs to be investigated, or they might talk about potential threats or opportunites that the PCs naturally see as adventure seeds. There are three tried and true methods of doing this, and they should probably be mixed up from time to time for maximum effect.
The first is to create NPCs that the PCs care about, and then threaten them somehow. It's been my experience that this usually works; if their friendly landlord's son is kidnapped, or his wife accused of witchcraft, the PCs often take it upon themselves to "make things right" for him. However, I've also had plenty of players who's PCs were stone-cold heartless mercenaries who wanted to know what was in it for them first. You'll have to be the judge of your PCs' attitudes in this regard and make the judgement call accordingly.
An NPC who hires the PCs to do something is another classic method. The only problem, as Ray sees it, is that you want the PCs to undertake adventures on their own volition, not because you create NPCs that are conveniently dragging them along into whatever you as the DM have prepared. I think Ray overestimates to what extent this makes it seems as if the GM is telling the PCs what to do and un-empowering the players, but it is something to keep in mind. This is probably most effective at the beginning of a campaign when the PCs haven't yet put down roots in the setting, established fully-fleshed out motivations, or had other reasons to really get involved yet.
Create an NPC that is an obvious rival to the PCs, and they'll want to thwart him on principle. Another way to make this extremely effective is to first introduce the PC as a friend first, and then after some time show his true colors. This is even more effective if you can hold off on your big revelation for as long as you can--the players sense of having been betrayed and cheated by this NPC will be all the stronger if they assume he's they're friend for a longer amount of time. And I've never seen a more motivated player than one who feels his PC was betrayed or cheated by another NPC.
(4.) Create atmosphere
NPCs can help set the mood as well, when needed. A comic relief character who can turn up when the night is too serious, or a somber and dour fellow who can bring the PCs down to earth if they're having a goofy night can be important, as long as they're not overused. Along the same lines, NPCs can help establish cultural and racial hooks. If the elves in your campaign have a different attitude in some regard than the standard "hippy snob" elf, then an elf that exemplifies these differences, to showcase to the players what they're like, is crucial to get some setting atmosphere across.
So, let's apply those principles to the Dark•Heritage setting briefly, then I can type up some tips for instant NPCs that have character and seem full and fleshed out. Earlier, I identified two NPCs, Gauvain of the Inquisition, and his sister Alainna who is a sorceress. When I ran an earlier version of this setting, right off the bat, Gauvain did several of the NPC tasks in the first session or two. He provided the PCs with some exposition on the state of their homebase (he met them on the way into town), he propelled the PCs into adventure by hiring them to freelance for him on a difficult assignment to find a missing spellbook and it's dark abductor, and he provided services and tactical options by giving them a safehouse within the city, complete with a personal assistant (who conveniently enough is an accomplished student of the medical arts as well) and setting them up with any gear they needed. Much later on, the PCs discovered that Gauvain was in league with dark powers--he wanted the book himself, not to protect the city as he claimed, but so that he and Alainna could enact the ritual that would make them immortal. His ultimate goal was to challenge the High Lord Imperator himself for rulership of Cassant (a state that doesn't exist in the updated version of the setting,) although that goal was still a long way off when the campaign ended.
Alainna, on the other hand, had been the quieter partner so far. She didn't end up being as useful, but I envisioned that she could also propel the PCs into adventure due to her nature as a sorceress; extending invitations to the PCs to visit Governer Galceran's young wife's illicit occult parties, getting in some trouble herself for embarassing occult items found in her possession, or otherwise involving the PCs in the darker side of Iclezza society. She also can help the PCs by providing all kinds of exposition about Iclezza, by casting the occasional friendly spell, or helping the PCs to learn spellcasting themselves (which, although illegal, I naturally expect several PCs interested in seeing what they can learn.)
Next update we'll explore some more facets of using NPCs, and making them memorable, but first, as promised, here's a quick guide to instant NPCs.
Nothing makes an NPC seem more faceless and unimportant than not having a name. Before each session, I always make sure I've got a list with me of about a dozen names that I've devised according to whatever naming conventions I've decided on for my campaign. When the PCs meet someone, pick a name from this list, cross it off, and be sure to note later who the name attached to in case the PCs meet him again. Each session, I refresh my list by replacing used names with more names, just to make sure I have enough.
If the PCs will spend more time with the NPC than just asking a question or two, you might want to do something to make the NPC seem a little more memorable; a quirk or unique trait. We'll discuss this next time in more detail for your NPCs that you know you're going to be using regularly, but making up a quick list of traits and then applying them to your instant NPCs can help to bring them to life as well. Here's a little sample list of ideas:. I've made twenty of them, so you can roll a d20 to assign them randomly, if you're so inclined.
1) hunched posture
2) military-straight posture
3) always has arms crossed
4) always has hands in his pockets
5) distinctive tattoo
6) distinctive scars
7) unusual hair color
9) missing teeth
10) distinctively shaped features (big, sloping forehead, large ears, frog-like eyes, etc.)
11) excessively hairy or bald
12) obese or over-thin
14) nasal voice
15) inappropriate use of jargon or slang
16) distinctive accent
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
In other words, my favorite kind of setting.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Scrolling further down the list, I find a few other big-time financial bombs that I quite like (notably Treasure Planet and Red Planet) but the ratio of the top five is really quite extraordinary. Do I just have weird, counter-intuitive tastes?
Don't know. Pluto Nash, though. Man, that's terrible.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
I've been posting on messageboards about D&D and other RPGs for over ten years. Heck, I used to occasionally pop into the old Usenet groups, when that was how it was done, but by about 2000 I had strumbled across what would become rpg.net, ENWorld, and eventually other sites like Nutkinland, Nothingland, Circvs Maximvs, TheRPGsite and others. And due to a quirk of my personality, it actually helped me to have access to these sites during the workday, where I could take quick breaks to recharge my brain before charging back into work. And for many years, I quite enjoyed this.
However, a few things changed. Most of them were with me, but not all of them. First of all, I think my interest in the discussions started to verge on compulsive or habitual rather than because I still enjoyed them. The last several years, I was rarely contributing to unique and new discussions; I felt very much like we were continuing to hash out the same discussions over and over again, year after year. This, of course, was not nearly as exciting or intellectually stimulating as it had once been, and I found myself more and more migrating into off-topic discussions just to pass the time.
At this point, I discovered over time that there were actually fewer of these posters online that I cared to talk about things other than gaming with than I had hoped, and in fact, quite a few of them were so divergent in taste and opinion from me that we literally were unable to hold conversations about anything that was going to be entertaining for either of us for very long. I did make a few genuine friends here--if the concept of online only friends isn't too weird and cyberpunk of a concept in the first place--but wading through hundreds of posts to get interaction with a relative few friends got to be more difficult and tedious than fun after a while. Plus, a lot of my friends started getting scarce over time as well.
Add to this a change in the climate of discussions. This all started with the announcement of D&D 4th edition. My interest in 4th edition was much more academic than practical; I was unlikely to seriously consider switching because I simply don't value systems for their own sake anymore, and I was reasonably happy enough with houseruled 3rd edition variants that I was unlikely to find that system changes gave me sufficient benefit to justify the cost and hassle of switching. But, naturally, as 4e ramped up and then finally launched, discussion migrated more and more to that. This in itself changed the tone of the community significantly; and I alternated between bemusement and disgust at the bitter tears of some gamers who felt they were being left behind, and the aggressive factionalism that developed between pro-4e fans, and anti-4e diehards. Plus, it was harder and harder to find people who were interested in talking about the games I was interested in talking about, which made much of the discussion that was still going on rather less than relevent to me.
On top of this, coincidentally, some other factions appeared, like the OSR and the sandbox play, that had a lot of rather vocal proselyters. This aggressive factionalism was, like I said, occasionally kind of amusing to me, but mostly I found the heckling, wrangling, and rampant passive aggressive baiting and sniping more tedious and annoying rather than fun. I woke up one day and realized that I had been going to the last remaining sites on my "to hit" list out of force of habit, not because I was enjoying them anymore.
But it took a final straw to break the camel's back. After getting into a rather silly argument with one of the site owners, that was probably more prompted by slow-burning annoyance and dislike with which we viewed each other than by any significant proximal cause, I decided that all of the factors that were leading up to online RPG related discussion being more of a burden than a benefit in my life had reached a point where enough was enough, and I quit going to the sites cold turkey, reset my browser history so it wouldn't keep autofilling them with those URLs every time I typed a few characters on the address bar, and walked away.
So, here I am, cast adrift, without a hobby to chat about at all hours of the day. I really should take this opportunity to do something more productive with my time, but old habits die hard, and that may yet take some time to accomplish. In the meantime, I've filled a lot of my free online time doing research into other topics that interest me, and exploring a bit the gaming blogosphere, which is wild and uncharted territory (at least for me.) I haven't decided whether or not to mourn this phase of my life, or feel relief that I've walked away from it, honestly. Currently I'm feeling a bit of both.
In any case, it might also possibly increase my ability to update my own blog, but it's unlikely to increase the frequency with which I come up with blogworthy topics. If I tend to post a bit more rambly diatribes that seem to have little real point (like this one), bear with me, I'm just trying to figure out exactly where I'm landing with my online free time still.
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
What I've done, then, is removed most of the houserule discussion, whether for the d20 Modern or the D&D houserule variants, to the old Dark•Heritage wiki, which becomes essentially nothing more than a houserule document. The Modular Setting wiki becomes the more traditional setting wiki.
Just as an FYI, for anyone interested.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
Thursday, November 04, 2010
Anyway, although I'm not really following some of what he's doing, because his project seems to be around creating an OSR product or document that brings Yog-Sothothery to Labyrinth Lord, the Moldvay BD&D clone, I heartily approve of the idea in more general terms. I've talked plenty of times in the past about how D&D combined with Call of Cthulhu would probably be my ideal gaming mileu too. So, check it out!
Monday, November 01, 2010
So, without further ado, here's the "real" revised classlist allowable for my house rules suite.
Modified original classes:
These classes require using the Complete Warrior spell-less variants. In addition, it is strongly recommended that the Wildscape (book by FFG) alternate weapon specializations be used to make the ranger a "meatier" option. A spell-less paladin is also a poor choice for any of my settings--but not one that I'll disallow. Gluttons for punishment are welcome at my table.
- Soulknife (from Expanded Psionics Handbook)
- Lurk (from Complete Psionic)
Additional Complete series classes:
Other classes from other sources:
- Assassin (d20 Freeport Companion)
- Commander (Path of the Sword)
- Corsair (d20 Freeport Companion)
- Defender (Midnight Campaign Setting)
- Hunter (Path of the Sword)
- Monster Hunter (d20 Freeport Companion)
- Noble (d20 Freeport Companion)
- Outdoorsman (Path of the Sword)
- Survivor (d20 Freeport Companion)
- Wildlander (Midnight Campaign Setting)
- Ninja (Rokugan Campaign Setting)
- Courtier (Rokugan Campaign Setting)