Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Hunt for Atlantis

I just finished Andy McDermott's The Hunt for Atlantis, a 500-page thriller that's part Raiders of the Lost Ark, part James Bond and part Graham Hancock. Archeologist Nina Wilde has discovered, she believes, the clues that will pinpoint the exact location of Atlantis, but suddenly finds that there is a shadowy organization that will kill her to prevent her from finding it. Teaming up with a former SAS specialist, Eddie Chase (who seems to have been obviously modeled after a variety of Jason Statham characters), she embarks on a globe-trotting expedition to find everything she needs to locate Atlantis, always staying just one step ahead of the sinister Giovanni Qobras, who demonstrates repeatedly that he is not at all above murder to keep Atlantis from being discovered. But why exactly would anyone murder to keep Atlantis from being discovered, and why would that same organization destroy what remains of Atlantis to make sure that nobody else can ever find it either?

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.

Organization stat block

Although there was much to criticize about the last phase of 3.5 edition D&D design decisions, once thing that I quite applauded and enjoyed was a common "stat block" that the designers came up with to describe organizations that the players could interact with in the campaign, either by joining, working with them, opposing them, or in a pinch, just to add color (although for the latter, this is rather more involved than you need.) For quite some time now I've thought about using this format to come up with some organizations for my Dark•Heritage campaign setting that can be used a la carte in any other setting, i.e., they'd be perfect modular elements, like my original idea of campaign setting modules that could be plugged and played into any setting.

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:

Organization Name
------------------------------------
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

Gamebooks

Prepare for a somewhat rambly post on a topic that is only tangentially related to my normal routine.

In what is perhaps most evidently an artifact of my age and when I grew up, I was a big fan as a kid of the various gamebooks that came out, many of them through the mainstream publishing houses. By gamebooks, I mean books where you, as the reader, take the place of the protagonist and make choices that influence how the book will end. The most famous book of this type is, of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure series (of which I probably owned almost fifty entries at some point or another--I still have at least 25-30) but there are many others too.

I've had, as I said, probably close to fifty of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, half a dozen Endless Quest D&D flavored CYOA's, two or three Which Way books (a competing series that as a coup, had Edward Packard's book Sugarcane Island, the very first book of this format republished. That was one of the ones I had, by the way.) I had over half a dozen Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, almost three or four TolkienQuest (later renamed Middle-EarthQuest) books, seven or eight of the Lone Wolf gamebooks, several of the Escape from Tenopia/Escape from Frome books, and at least half a dozen Time Machine books, which were historical fiction versions, featuring time traveling protagonists who visiting famous people or places in history--and at least one that traveled forward in time to a solar system and aliens space opera future.

Today, I have one Fighting Fantasy gamebook left (which I rebought after giving away or selling my original copy) and about half of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, having sold away the others (including, sadly, some of what are among my favorites) and nothing else. As a teenager, I decided I was unlikely to care about most of these, or for other short-sighted reasons, gave them away, and now I frequently pine for what I no longer have.

In fact, partly because I specifically missed some of these titles early own and regretted getting rid of them, I've become a notorious pack-rat who is unwilling to part with anything that I've once liked, just in case I turn around and wish I still had it. Of course, I could always scour Amazon and eBay to get replacement copies, but that's quite a staggering expense. I might yet consider it for a "select few" of the titles that I really miss the most, but I know in my heart of hearts that if I do that, I'll barely glance at them again once every few years at best.

Sadly, I think for years I considered it a moot point that my own kids would one day fall in love with the Choose Your Own Adventure series the same way I did, but that hasn't really happened. Now, two of my kids are probably too old to ever have that happen them anyway, but the other two have expressed little interest in them, and I haven't pushed. Sad, really. What was such an icon of my childhood during most of the 80s (I tailed off before the series did) seems to have had such a faddish life cycle. Although the series is back in publication, it's a shell of what it once was; the R. A. Montgomery titles are back in print, revised and with new (and inferior, in my opinion) illustrations, and they linger as obscure, niche products, where once the Choose Your Own Adventure and similar titles were entire shelves at every library and bookstore in the country.

I'm not 100% sure what prompted me to ramble about these books. I think that there was a connection between my love of them, and my love of the potential inherent in gaming. In fact, the TolkienQuest, Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks were probably my favorites as I got a bit older, both because they were "meatier" in content, but because they were more likely to focus on fantasy themes. The very first Fighting Fantasy Gamebook, in fact, was quite obviously heavily inspired by the D&D paradigm--The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is nothing more nor less than a do-it-yourself dungeoncrawl. (As an aside, I never actually liked that one that much. My favorite were always still the first two that I got, Forest of Doom and City of Thieves, although Scorpion Swamp, by the other Steve Jackson--you know, the GURPS one--was another really solid entry as was Talisman of Death by Jamie Thompson and Mark Smith.)

Several of these later entries had very overt ties to the roleplaying industry, which was also going through it's "Golden Age" of pseudo-mainstream popularity at this same time. The TolkienQuest books had a real RPG-like system and character sheets and everything, as well as having compatible stats for use with MERP, their RoleMaster influenced Tolkien-based roleplaying game. Lone Wolf also had rather detailed chargen, and the Fighting Fantasy series even split off into genuine roleplaying products, and later even into video game products.

Sadly, I think it's another idea who's time as come; with today's entertainment options available to them, this kinda reading, kinda roleplaying hybrid is probably something that few kids will be interested in anymore. Wizard books have takent to republishing some of the titles, with new cover art, but to me it's not the same as the originals.

Is there a point to all this? I guess it's just this: be careful not to be too hasty when making decisions about what to keep or not keep. For at least twenty-five years now, I've regretted letting some of these titles out of my reach, and getting them back again is a pain in the rear.

Dungeoncraft #8: NPCs

Despite some significant delay, I have not abandoned this series of articles utilizing Ray Winninger's DungeonCraft methodology to get my campaign setting ready to go. I am getting into the point where the work of done for my setting during my "off season", when I'm not running per se, isn't as useful anymore to what needs to be done going forward. In fact, I'm getting into the nuts and bolts of actually running the game itself, now, and rather than working in broad strokes on the setting, I'm starting to think about very specific things like the topic for today, which is non-player characters, or NPCs, that the PCs will interact with. This means that my pace will be much slower, since rather than adapt existing documents to the updated version of the setting, I now have to do actual new work in order to keep this series up, but given how long its been since I made an update anyway, that's unlikely to seem like much of a deterrent, I'm sure.

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
8) unusual eye 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
13) stutter
14) nasal voice
15) inappropriate use of jargon or slang
16) distinctive accent
17) unusual and easily visible birthmark
18) always eating and drinking, and offers the PCs unusual and exotic foods whenever they meet him
19) extremely dandy, and prone to wearing unusual or foreign clothes
20) missing fingers, or eye, or other obvious deformity

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On the evolution of the fantasy genre

On the evolution of the fantasy genre... as well as my tastes therein.

In at least one manner of speaking, fantasy is the original mode of literature. Beowulf, The Iliad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Journey to the West, etc.--all clearly full of fantastic elements, even if they weren't necessarily meant in the same sense that modern fantasy writers mean them. The modern fantasy genre no doubt springs from the fascination in the West with medievalism, romances, Orientalism, "The Northern Thing" (i.e. fascination with Germanic folklore and mythology) and other movements in the 1800s. Coming out of this environment, George MacDonald and William Morris wrote what are considered to be among the first true fantasy novels: The Princess and the Goblin, Phantaste, The Well at the World's End, etc. While holding out a fairytale and medieval romance vibe to them, both were content to essentially invent the "secondary creation", or a completely fantastic setting for their stories to take place in.

Sadly, both were often considered works more suitable for children, and for many years, anyone who wrote anything fantastic had their work relegated to children's literature: Peter Pan, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and others did not manage to break out of their "literary ghetto" in spite of their success. Lord Dunsany, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Abraham Merritt and others started changing this, at first gradually by incorporating fantastic elements that had a tinge of scientific "plausibility" around them, and had characters who were more rooted in the everyday world that their readers knew interacting with these fantastic elements.

Concurrently, another genre had been developing for a number of decades that also featured fantastic, supernatural elements, but which utilized them in another fashion entirely: gothic horror, best exemplified by the works of guys like Horace Walpole, Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, Charles Maturin, John William Polidori and others.

All of these influences collided in the 1920s with the founding of the American pulp magazine Weird Tales where works of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard gleefully combined supernatural horror, secondary worlds, and even science fiction into the first uniquely 20th Century expression of fantasy. This type of fast paced, lurid fantasy adventure, often with prominent horror elements and nearly anti-hero protagonists came to be known as sword & sorcery, and is today one of the main pillars of fantasy as we know it.

In the 1950s and on into the 60s and later when these works really started gaining in popularity, the world was introduced to the writings of C. S. Lewis (the Narnia Chronicles) and even more particularly those of J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) which almost instantly changed the face of fantasy literature forever. Because of Tolkien in particular, sword & sorcery took a bit of a plunge popularity wise as high fantasy stepped in to achieve notable mainstream success. One of the side effects of that was that long fantasy came to be predominant. Not only long novels, but series of long novels. The Wheel of Time series, for example, is estimated to clock in at over 11,000 pages in mass market paperback format. 11,000! The Sword of Truth series and the Malazan Book of the Fallen series are only marginally shorter, and George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series is going to be a real backbreaker too.

But this is all an extension of "Tolkienian" fantasy; one of the interesting things about fantasy in the last few decades is that it has "multifurcated" into a number of subgenres that stick to significantly different turf, for the most part. We've got resurgent sword & sorcery and high fantasy, still. We've got contemporary fantasy, some of which is little more than melodramatic romance novels with supernatural elements, but others of which are genuine fantasy set in a contemporary setting, like Harry Potter or Harry Dresden. We've got New Weird stuff like that written by China Mieville or Alan Campbell. We've got military fantasy, like Glen Cook's Black Company series. And we've got fantasy that's more difficult to classify that just does it's own thing; Scott Lynch's heist/caper fantasy, or Joe Abercrombie's cynical revenge fantasies and anti-fantasties being another.

I've sampled quite a bit of all of these modes, but my own personal history is a tortuous affair of what I like and don't like. I was predisposed to like fantasy; as a small child I already loved fantastic things: dinosaurs, dragons, monsters, fairytales and the like. I discovered fantasy as an older kid with the high fantasy works of Lloyd Alexander, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and for many years, high fantasy and fantasy overall were nearly synonymous to me. This lasted through my teenage years, most of my twenties, and on into my thirties, although I was aware of other modes of fantasy, especially sword & sorcery, I preferred high fantasy.

As my thirties started getting a little long in the tooth, that started changing. Part of this is that the demands on my time make the prospect of reading phone-book sized novels that are only one part (of ten or more) in a series seem much more daunting than it would have when I was younger. But part of it, honestly, is that I've just become bored with Tolkienian fantasy. I've also come to realize that nobody besides Tolkien really does it well enough. Since being too similar to Tolkien invites comparisons that aren't likely to be flattering, I've decided to distance myself from Tolkienian fantasy in the last few years, and have looked at sword & sorcery influences, dark fantasy and horror influences, and just plain old blending of tropes and conventions from other genres altogether into my fantasy.

In this, I believe I'm part of a greater cultural zeitgeist of expanding and pushing on the rather calcified and falsely rigid barriers of what is considered fantasy and what isn't. Which makes my timing fortuitous, because I've got a lot of source material to borrow as I'm looking for ways to expand my own gaming enterprises in new directions.

Calques

I've blogged before about the genius of the "Hyborian model" of campaign design; the idea of very thinly disguising real cultures as fantasy cultures by renaming them, but giving them enough markers that they resonate with readers as obviously similar to a real life culture that they can then identify with. Robert E. Howard's Hyborian age is the perfect (and one of the originals) example of this: for example, his Æsir and Vanir cultures were obviously Vikings, his Stygians were obviously ancient Egyptians, his Turanians were obviously Turks, his Corinthians were obviously ancient Greeks, etc.

For my Pleistocene Sword & Sorcery setting, which has been perpetually on the backburner as I've developed my other main setting, here's some examples of the correspondences I'd like to use. Calques, if you will, where one culture is migrated from the real world setting into the fantasy setting with an almost one-to-one correspondence. Certainly, unless claimed otherwise, you can assume that something that you know about, say, the Vikings will apply to the Vendel, my fantasy version of them. Here's the list:

Vikings : Vendel
Saxons : Hæstingas, "Haestings"
Celts (Scottish/Irish) : Gaidhel
Byzantines : Komnenians
Slavs : Kayazy
Turks : Vatheks
Algonquins : Mawrocs
Iroquois : Manahatts
Chinese : Fusangians
Plains Indians : Tatankens, Nakota, Nuumu Komantsi
Cliff dwellers : Kayenta
Aztec/Maya/Toltec (combined for ease of use) : Tlanoc
Mound builders : Cahokia

I might need to come up with some North African, Sahelian, and Middle-eastern calques as well, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. And, of course, I've got Muans, Lemurians and Atlanteans to deal with as well. That's certainly more than enough to get up and running, covering almost all of Europe and North America. That's more than enough setting for the time being.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Absalom

It occurs to me that I can't find my review of the Pathfinder setting book Guide to Absalom. I don't know what I did with this review, but it looks like whatever it was, I didn't post it. I might do a quick skim/re-read and then post an all new review of this book, which I've had for some time (since it was new.) It's a pretty good sourcebook for a fantasy wretched hive of scum and villainy.

In other words, my favorite kind of setting.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Orcs of Golarion

Probably due to being influenced by Tolkien, as a teenager I developed some interest in linguistics and language. That didn't really blossom until very late in my teenage years when I relocated for two years to Argentina, learned Spanish, and was forced to use it as my daily language the entire time I was there. One interesting side effect of speaking two (or more) languages is that you realize that some languages have subtle semantic shades of meaning built into their vocabulary which others do not, and you have to get to that same subtle semantic shade by using cumbersome phrasing or qualifiers in one language that in another may be easily expressed via simply using another word. And those things stick with you, too--even though I haven't used much Spanish in the almost twenty years since I came back home to the States, there are still times when a Spanish word will pop unbidden into my head and I struggle to find a good English equivalent--because we don't really have one.

For example, although this actually goes the other way--we have two words in English that have subtle shades of semantic difference and there's only one word in Spanish for both of them--the Spanish word esperar means to hope or to expect. In order to express the difference between hope and expect, you have to rely on context, or phrase it entirely differently; what you would want or wish for vs. what you believe will happen, or something like that.

This little diatribe aside, which only amuses me because linguistics (and romance languages in general) is a hobby of mine, my review of Paizo's slim little book Orcs of Golarion is strongly going to feature the differences between what I hoped the product would be and what I expected it to be. In other words, the book was not what I hoped it would be, but it was everything I expected it to be. So, while I remain disappointed, I am not surprised.

There's a school of thought that orcs are, essentially, just monsters. Their only raison d'être is to serve as something that PC's can slaughter with impunity and not feel guilty about later. This is most probably due to Tolkien, who utilized them in that fashion when he essentially created the concept of the orc for The Lord of the Rings. They're really shallow as a race; they exist for only shallow reasons, and the way they're portrayed is more of a caricature rather than a real racial character study. This notion has been further strengthened by Warhammer, who's orcs are not only caricaturish, but also cartoonish and silly in many respects as well.

So, this is what I expected from the book Orcs of Golarion, a shallow, obvious, and facile discussion of orcs that perpetuated this tired cliche. But, in the back of my mind, I thought to myself, "but there's no need to write a whole book, even of the slimmer Pathfinder Companion series, if that's all you're going to do. So surely they have something more in mind than to say over and over again that orcs aren't really capable of much because their entire existance is predicated on anger, dominance, violence, impatience and callous disregard for life. There must be more to it than that. That would be such an easy, obvious, and shallow treatment of the idea, when if they dig a little deeper, they could turn orcs into something really interesting." I guess I was hoping for the kind of "rehabilitation" that Paizo is proud of doing with their Revisited line. For that matter, orcs did appear in the first of that line, Classic Monsters Revisited, and they weren't significantly changed there from a Tolkien/Warhammer melange. The problem is that the 4 page treatment for orcs in Classic Monsters Revisited was nearly as deep as the 32-page Orcs of Golarion. The longer book didn't really add much, if anything, to the mix, other than a handful of traits, spells and feats near the end. Besides, those Paizo rehabilitations are a bit oversold anyway; for the most part, they just further explored the cliches and expectations that we already had for those monsters.

That said, the parts of the book that I liked the best were the few pages that talked about the different tribes and different environmental varieties of orcs. These pages at least hinted at orcs that might be more than the cliched caricature, but it was just a hint that was not fully developed.

Some of the artwork was quite good, but some of it was not. One artist in particular, who had at least three significant works that I can remember off-hand, put forward stuff that looked like Warhammer or Warcraft fan-art. Another artist had some really great looking orcs, but usually just head-shots. There was a lot of art of various flags and banners.

So, again... the book wasn't actively bad. In fact, it delivered exactly what I expected. And, there are many players of D&D (and Pathfinder, which is of course essentially the same thing) who want nothing more from their orcs, and see caricaturish orcs as a benefit to the game. They don't want to stop and think about their orcs. They don't want to wonder if the orcs might not have some redeeming or even interesting features. They just want something that they can vent their righteous fury on without any qualms.

Sadly, I don't think a book about that is necessary, or even a benefit to the game. If you're going to go to the trouble of putting out a book about orcs, tread just a bit deeper. Make them interesting. Make them more complex than just a handful of juvenile emotions given fictional anthropomorphic form. Orcs are in the Monster Manual (or Bestiary, I suppose), sure, but they're not even monstrous humanoids, they're humanoids. I'd like to see them as such.

Warcraft was the first to attempt this. By giving their orcs a proud, shamanistic tradition and taking away the stigma of making them just easily identifiable as evil, they are the ones who've truly made some inroads into rehabilitating the orcs. Pathfinder, on the other hand, falls back into Tolkien and Warhammer inspired tired cliches.

Sigh.

So, over the last three or four months, I've reviewed a pretty big handful of Pathfinder books that I've picked up; an even half dozen, I think. And where previously I raved about everything Paizo that I had picked up, I've had some reservations about the last five that I've reviewed. Paizo have, at least with me, scraped off a bit of their shiny teflon coating, and now I feel that I need to be careful to pick up items with subject matter that interests me strongly, and not necessarily expect that they're going to turn literally everything that they touch to gold. Part of this may be my own somewhat eccentric tastes. A more traditional gamer might, for instance, be really turned off by a product that gives us deeper, more morally ambiguous orcs. But it could be done.

I recall, for instance, reading Privateer Press's Monsternomicon II, which while being mostly just a monster book listing a la Paizo's own Bestiary or the original Monster Manual, also had a rather lengthy appendix on the skorne empire out to the east of the main area of the setting. My first thought on reading what they'd done with the skorne was that, "holy cow, this is what hobgoblins should be. Why do we have to get the rather flaccid attempt to rehabilitate hobgoblins that Eberron gives us with Darguun when we could have the real full treatment that Privateer gave us?" The skorne, although renamed, are very clearly an expression of the exact same concept as hobgoblins.

Similarly, either the trollkin or the tharn from Privateer are an expression of the exact same concept as the orcs (taken in two different directions, obviously). The same could probably be applied to the gobbers as an expression of the idea of goblins. And the ogrun as the idea of ogres. And the special Iron Kingdoms varieties of trolls... anyway... These Iron Kingdoms races really raised the bar for me in terms of what I expect from the races that are just one step away from being PC races. I don't want orcs, goblins hobgoblins and whatnot to simply be one-dimensional monsters that stand up as flat, cardboard cut-outs for the PCs to knock down because hey, they wear the Evil team jersey and they're completely lacking in redeeming or even interesting features that would cause us to want to 1) pause and consider whether or not we should just kill them on sight, or 2) possibly find the concept of playing one of them interesting. Is that too much to ask? And while I'm at it, although I easily identified the skorne as Privateer's take on the hobgoblin concept, why didn't I make the same connection as intuitively between trollkin and orcs? Why not use trollkin society for orcs in my settings to get the kind of depth that I want?

In any case, I am, however, excited about the upcoming Paizo release (next week, I think) of the Book of the Damned Vol. 2. Not only did I quite enjoy vol. 1, which touched on devils in the setting, but the Paizo guys (especially author James Jacobs, who's doing this next one) have demonstrated repeatedly that they can make demons really, really interesting. But, I don't have that yet, and in the meantime, I'm not going to pick up anything else to read and review from the RPG world, in part because I really need to concentrate on getting a few other books done that I've borrowed and want to return. So hold tight, if that's the reason you come to this blog (ha! As if anyone comes to this blog!) and I'll return to reviewing some RPG material soon. Of course, much of it is very old; I've got some five year old books still that I've had on my shelf for some time but haven't gotten around to reading, so it's not like I'm going to be doing anything that's going to gather any significant attention anytime soon. Oh, well. Not only am I the most opinionated guy on the internet, according to my blog subtitle, but I'm the least important and least relevant opinionated guy on the internet as well. I can live with that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

City of Strangers

My reading habits have really taken a beating lately (which is unfortunate, because I've got some stuff on loan that I really need to read and get back to it's original owner) and I feel like many times in the last few posts that I've made with the book review label I've also included the excuse that the book took me a lot longer to read than I anticipated, I've been struggling with it for some time, yadda yadda yadda. So, rather than bore you with a repeat performance, let me just jump directly into this review of James L. Sutter's Pathfinder setting book City of Strangers and if it took a while to read and wasn't exactly riveting my attention from start to finish, I'll let the review body itself speak to that.

I was initially quite excited about this product as it seems to be the kind of book that I really quite like in RPGiana; a setting book that describes a fantasy urban locale, and a rather unusual one for that matter. Not only do I really love urban gaming (as I've mentioned here many times in various posts over the years) but I also love unusual settings; ones that don't feel cliched or "lazily" developed. Kaer Maga, the so-called "City of Strangers" itself, certainly seemed to fit the bill, with back cover and online blurbs referencing unusual architecture, troll fortune tellers who do anthropomancy on their own innards ('coz they can heal the wounds from doing so, of course), a foreign cult of people who sew their lips together, blood mages that swell their bodies with blood and wear leeches to control blood flow, and a fair bit of necromancy made Kaer Maga certainly sound more exotic than most of the other products I have.

In general, I have three main complaints about the product. For some, these will be strengths, not weaknesses, but I didn't like them, and they all three reduced the utility of the product to me personally.

1) In general, I haven't seen much of this in Paizo products, but more recently I've detected a whiff of it in some of their most recent ones (and I complained about it a bit in my Sargava review as well as in my Heart of the Jungle review): the book seems to have an overarching social engineering vibe that is occasionally jarring and intrudes on my suspension of disbelief. Some of that may simply be a facile interpretation of the concept; Kaer Maga, while once a prison city under the rule of the Runelords of ancient Thassilonia, evolved into something more like the cities of refuge referenced by the ancient Hebrews of Judah and Israel, except much more cosmopolitan. This in turn evolved in Sutter's hands into a place where anyone weird, who reveled in his or her weirdness, could come and be weird with a bunch of other weirdos without judgement. This also developed strong overtones of Kaer Maga being this bohemian and social revolutionary paradise. Granted, certain districts of Kaer Maga are specifically and overtly the bohemian and social revolutionary paradises, but the entire city takes on much of that vibe. Of course, there's also the exception: one district is a caricature of a runaway home owner's association gone bad, for instance.

Frankly, any time that portions of the book start to become obvious parallels to the author's actual political and social beliefs, I get pretty turned off--even when I share those beliefs. But obviously much moreso when I don't. Frequently while reading City of Strangers I found myself rolling my eyes and one or another obvious metaphor. And if I can get those obvious metaphors, then so can my players, and suddenly the game would be interrupted by us mocking the obvious metaphor. I can't actually use this in my game, regardless of the philosophy it espouses, if it's clearly a caricature of something we are actually familiar with. So... bad form there. However, I didn't really ever think I was going to use Kaer Maga exactly as written very much anyway, so how well does it work as a sourcebook that can be mined for use in other contexts?

2) Well, actually, less of it is portable than I would have thought. The defining high concept of the city as this kind of fantasy Burning Man made permanent was so strongly suffused through many of the details that it would be more work than it was worth to adapt them to other uses in many ways. This invalidates large chunks of the book for this purpose, anyway, and large other chunks fall victim to what I call the China Miéville syndrome--it meanders into gratuitously weird and edgy and ultimately serves no purpose other than to establish the work as weird and edgy. The troll augurs suffer a bit from this syndrome, since they are otherwise lightly treated and appear to be relatively unimportant to the setting overall, and the fact that they do anthropomancy with their own bodies doesn't serve any purpose other than to hopefully make the more squeemish players go "Ewww." So do the Sweettalkers, who while colorful otherwise play little to no role in the city overall. The blood-mages are almost an afterthought, with no discussion of how they're important locally or why they are so strongly associated with this locale in the first place. The same can even be said of the undead in Ankar-Te. In general, these colorful ideas are not carried through--they don't serve any purpose other than color. Why do these groups do these things, and what are the implications to the bigger picture at large? These questions are, sadly, left for the most part unaddressed.

Color for its own sake isn't too hard to come up with. Integrating that color into a greater tapestry is a much more fulfilling and useful function for a sourcebook. The Scarred Lands sourcebook Hollowfaust is a great example of an exotic concept that's explored, not just thrown up there as a "look how exotic a concept I am!" banner. City of Strangers is not. Not only that, the color just really doesn't seem to fit here; there's no explanation for how and where all this color comes from. Little of it claims to be homegrown local stuff, but nowhere else nearby is there any hint of original populations from which weird groups like, say, the Sweettalkers would originate. The whole place feels really disconnected with the setting overall.

3) After spending about three fourths of its bulk discussing the city and what it was all about, the last portion of the book was a rather jarring and cliched exercise in exploring "the dungeons below the city" which are, predictably, much larger and more expansive than the city itself. I like that there's vague hints of almost Lovecraftian horrors lurking in corners of these dungeons, but then again... it's dungeons under the city. Granted, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is, essentially, Dungeons & Dragons, and I recognize that this kind of thing not only is not uncommon, but is exactly what some players are looking for. I find the entire concept cliché and unrealisticially silly to boot. Plus, it's so lightly detailed here that I'm not entirely sure what you'd do with it anyway.

My overall impression of the book is that it's something that I'm unwilling to use as is, most likely, and that less of it than I hoped is portable. I was much more disappointed in this book than I hoped to be. Next up on my list is the shorter Orcs of Golarion, then I may drop RPG books for a while to focus on finishing Guards of Haven so I can read Jim Butcher's Side Jobs before I have to give that back to the friend of mine who let me borrow it, and Andy McDermott's The Hunt for Atlantis before I have to send that back through ILL.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Box office bombs

I recently looked up a list of box office bombs, where financially unsuccessful movies are ranked according to the amount lost, adjusted to the same (2008) CPI inflation rate. Most of these movies are not good movies, but I was surprised to find that out of the top five bombs of all time (Cutthroat Island, The Alamo, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Sahara and The 13th Warrior) I actually enjoy four of them well enough although admitting that they're flawed, two of those four I consider pretty darn good, and of those two, one of them I bought long ago and consider it among my favorite movies (granted, my list of favorite movies is quite long.)

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

Making the game itself scary

As a follow-up to my last post about making monsters actually be monstrous in D&D games, how does one make the game itself scary, i.e., how do you turn a game of fantasy adventure into one of dark fantasy and horror? And why would you want to?

The second part of that is more easily answered than the first: because I just do. It's a matter of taste. I like dark fantasy better than I like high fantasy. Of course, the follow-up there is; why not use a system that's designed for dark fantasy, then? It's usually customary at this point to offer up Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying as the preferred alternative here. There's a few reasons why I actually want it to be D&D, or at least D&D compatible.

1) Familiarity. I know the d20 system quite well at this point, and so do any potential gamers that I'd play with for the foreseeable future. In addition, as I've probably mentioned a few times before, I don't really value system for its own sake anymore. I've more or less made my peace with all the elements of d20 that I used to not like, so now I'm more apt to simply adapt it to my needs rather than look "abroad" so to speak, because I don't get any benefit from getting another system. This kinda gets back to bizarre economics lingo, where economists tried to come up for a unit of measure that could be used to describe intangible benefits. Suffice it to say that I get very few utils out of having a system built according to someone else's conception of what the genre should be and get many more from using a familiar system with a few tweaks to customize it to what I want.

2) It's easier to get people to play D&D with a few houserules than it is pretty much any other system out there. Granted, this is 3.5 with houserules, and it's probably more than just a few, but still... I believe in Ryan Dancey's concept of "network externalities." This is especially true if I decide to run this with my normal group when my turn behind the screen comes up again. D&D 3.5 is our go-to system. We rarely play anything else.

3) It's hard to say goodbye to all the resources I have for d20 that I wouldn't have with any other system. I have, for example, almost two dozen books filled with nothing but monsters compatible with d20, plus many, many other books that have other monsters. If I were to adopt another ruleset, say BRP, Savage Worlds, WHFRPG or any of the other possible ventures, I'd be working in a much more resource poor environment. I have too much stuff I can use in d20, and the opportunity cost of looking beyond that is awfully great.

Now that I've bored you with applying some economic theory to my choice of systems (in bullet point format, no less--I do love my lists), let's get to the meat and potatoes of how to make the game scary, shall we? Here's a few thoughts:

1) Lots of times, I've been advised to make the game deadly, and I have to admit it was a first and obvious thought of my own as well. The more I think about it, the more I think it's a red herring, however. Lots of D&D games are deadly. There are famous meatgrinder campaigns that kill tons of PCs. Some GMs also develop notorious reputations at it. However, no one ever really thinks of horror in terms of these games. In a horror game, I feel that certainly players need to feel that their PCs are at risk of death, at any time, but if they actually show a really high turnover due to death, that doesn't necessarily make the game more horrific, and in fact often has the exact opposite effect; making the game silly, or strategically engaging rather than emotionally horrific. Rather, what makes a game horrific is generated an atmosphere of growing dread. This comes from lack of tension relief, so having too much action, too many opportunities for PCs to die at every turn, relieves tension in the game rather than allowing it to grow and accumulate. Be careful about killing PCs willy-nilly. Allowing it to happen from time to time is often a good thing; make sure your players don't think that you're the kind of GM who'll step in and save them for whatever reason, but other than that, don't go out of your way to make it likely that they'll die either.

2) Related to that, and related to my last post, allow the game to build suspense. Think of an episode of The X-files as a model. The session itself is such an obvious unit of measure in a campaign that you really should use it, plus tension and suspense doesn't carry over well from session to session. See if you can't pace the game to build suspense throughout the session, and peak near the end of the evening (or whatever time that you play), but, again, like The X-files, allow for things to carry over from session to session that contribute to a growing feeling of creeping dread throughout the campaign. The victories of each session don't really represent significant setbacks to the horrific antagonists so much as they do opportunities for you to show the PCs bit by bit exactly how in over their head they've managed to get themselves. If you can engender a feeling at the end of most sessions that they've barely managed to dodge a bullet... again... then the campaign itself will take on an air of desperation and horror. Or, at least, it can.

3) Horror is primarily a mood, and in any oral storytelling tradition, of which tabletop RPGs are a variant of sorts, mood is highly dependent on the storyteller. This means that you need to have moody descriptions. Moody non-player characters. Moody scenes and locations. You need to get your players into the action, and make them feel that they're in a horror story. I used to have linked a thread on a gaming discussion board that was nothing but ideas for disassociated creepy things that you could throw at the players just to make sure that they never rested easy, but you don't need to go that far. Just be sure and describe the game universe in "horror language."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Making monsters scary

A problem that I often see in roleplaying games, and frankly, in D&D in particular, is that monsters completely fail to be scary. Rather, they are viewed as tactical gamepieces and challenges. Arguably, this is what Gygax and Arneson wanted all along, but it is not something that I want, and I think the idea of reducing monsters to a statline that has tactical implications is to make them not monstrous at all.

Granted, it doesn't have to be like this. I've managed to engender some of the same kind of dramatic tension in D&D games (occasionally) as you get while reading a scary book or watching a scary movie... but frankly, not very often. Part of it is the paradigm and attitude that the players bring to the table; if they're playing D&D, then there's an assumption that they'll be facing challenges that they should be able to overcome if they're smart and tactically sound. It's just the tone and nature of the game, or at least it's often expected to be so.

I like monsters to be scary. I like players to really question whether or not they want to fight these monsters. But I admit that my success, what of it there has been anyway, in accomplishing this is something that I've done more intuitively rather than rationally, and I'm not 100% certain that I fully understand how to pull this off. So for this post, I'm going to noodle around some ideas and see where they go. Artwork is by Wayne Reynolds from a Paizo adventure that does, in fact, manage to turn a "stock" monster into something that's pretty creepy.

1) Monsters should be set pieces. The idea of going through a "dungeon" and fighting monster after monster has really diluted the concept. In any good story of supernatural horror, the monsters are never routine. Be careful about showing off too many monsters. Granted, D&D has truckloads of monsters. But don't assume that all of them are hanging around waiting to be discovered. Think of how the ancient Greeks did it. There were not "medusas"; there was one Medusa. There were not hydras, there was one Lyrnean hydra, etc. While you don't need to go to this extreme, keep in mind that monsters are much more monstrous if they are extraordinary. No matter how monstrous the description or the statline makes them appear, they never will be if they're routine. If you're not fighting monsters all the time, what are you having the PCs spend their time doing otherwise? Bad guys! Thugs, cultists, criminals, spies, and the like. Don't underestimate the value of contrasting monsters to larger hordes of plain old bad guys. Besides, bad guys are fun to fight for the most part on their own too. And also don't underestimate the challenge of dangerous animals. In this era of high powered hunting rifles, enclosed off-road vehicles, and completely tamed terrain, we forget exactly how dangerous it would be to come across a herd of wild elephants who feel that their calves are threatened out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to defend yourself with except a few sharp pieces of metal that you need to hold close to yourself to use. Or how dangerous a pack of wolves could be to a lonely traveler, or a pride of hungry lions.

2) Closely related to that, monsters should be unknown. There's few things more prosaic than the GM of a game casually announcing what his monsters are, when their properties, strengths and weaknesses are well known to all the players. Does this mean that you should only use unfamiliar and unusual monsters that you make up yourself or find in obscure third party sources? Of course not, but you should take steps to, again, keep your monsters from feeling routine. Think about possibly making them difficult to identify for a time. The PCs don't actually see them well until they're well into the thick of it, but they see the effects of their attacks on NPCs or something like that. Mix up your descriptions so that the PCs can't easily match them to a monster that they know. Statistics and descriptions can be decoupled and rearranged. One of my most memorable encounters was with a handful of hellhounds that I simply described very differently--I used some artwork from Paizo of Lovecraftian hounds of Tindalos to represent them, gave them a chittering Predator-like growl, and had their fiery breath transform into a vomit of tiny, toothy little demons that crawled all over their victims. Consider giving some of your monsters surprise abilities. A zombie that has a poisonous bite, or something. It doesn't have to be a big deal, just enough to keep the PCs guessing and unsure of what exactly it is that they're up against.

3) And closely related to that, make your monsters horrific. Granted, another of my most memorable scary monster encounters was with a little blighter that due to some relatively weak stats and some extraordinary good rolls by the PCs, ended up going down like a chump in the first or second round of combat, but that was the exception not the rule. He was creepy because of all the other stuff I had him do, but by and large a monster that the PCs aren't sure they can beat is one that's more likely to scare them than one that's only going to "reduce their resources by XY%" or something inane like that. In fact, ignoring the advice of the Challenge Ratings system completely (which is a good idea for a lot of reasons, only one of which I'll get into here and now), you can pit the PCs against foes which they literally can't defeat in straight-up combat. Monsters shouldn't often be creatures that cause heroic PCs to shout, "Huzzah!" and charge at to engage in melee; they should be monstrous. There should be a lot of doubt about how to deal with them, if they're up to the challenge, and what exactly can be done to get around the many strengths that monsters might have. Rather, you can have the PCs need to research specific dirty tricks or weaknesses that allow them to have a chance against the monster; without which they'd be committing certain suicide. A demon that can be banished back to its home dimension only via a desperately hurried ritual is scarier than one that can be banished back to its home dimension after the PCs just jump in and attack it.

4) And that gets a bit into my last tip; foreshadow your monsters. There's nothing worse than having a monster just pop out of nowhere, get defeated and then promptly forgotten. The chump monster that I mentioned above? He was mostly memorable because of the excellent (and extraordinary; I haven't quite had this level of success any other time, sadly) foreshadowing. While the PCs were attempting to sleep at a crowded and sleazy dockside inn, they were woken up when a young woman in the room next to them screamed. Barging into her room, they found that her eyes had been scooped out of her head. There was no sign of any attacker, just the sobbing victim's almost nonsensical cry that the last thing she saw was a hideous face over her shoulder in the mirror. A few more clues, a bit more foreshadowing... and then a half-glimpsed movement in their own mirror, and the players were keyed up, tense, and on edge. When it turned out that their invisible assailant was actually killed rather easily, it didn't diminish the feeling of dread and creepiness that the encounter had managed to elicit. And this foreshadowing harkens back to my point #1; if monsters are set pieces, then you can craft an entire "adventure" around finding and defeating one, which means that you should have plenty of opportunities to foreshadow, to drop in unsettling or horrific clues or feelings, and generally ratchet up the tension on your way towards the final confrontation.

Anyway, like I said, much of that I do more instinctively rather than purposefully, and I have no illusions about the completeness of my methods. Any other good ideas out there to make sure that monsters in D&D remain... well, monstrous?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The End of an Era

A couple of weeks ago, I made a decision to drop out of online gaming related discussions "cold turkey" and because I'm feeling a bit rambly about it, I decided to... well, to ramble about it here. Where else, after all?

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

Wiki updates

I've done some reorganization of my gaming wikis. My "Modular DND Setting Elements" wiki had long been migrating into being more of a traditional setting. While the various modules are still, hopefully, easy to decouple and use a la carte, they are also now stitched together, and I've got a default setting that assumes that they are all integral elements. This development made my Dark•Heritage setting wiki somewhat obsolete, since the Modular setting and the Dark•Heritage settings essentially converged into being the exact same thing.

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

KOP

Just finished Warren Hammond's KOP this last weekend, which is actually an acronym, Koba Office of Police. Koba is the capital city (and only large city, for that matter) of the planet Lagarto, which is, in a few hundred years, an economically struggling and depressed "third world" planet where life is pretty grim and noirish.

There's a label floating around, back from the 50s (and beyond) of science fiction magazine Galaxy, who used to print examples of it on their back cover, called "Bat Durston." Bat Durston was a fictional fictional character, i.e., he didn't actually appear in any fiction other than the fake examples from the back cover. In those examples, there'd be two side by side paragraphs, one from Bat Durston, sherriff from an Old West type story, and then the exact same paragraph with the setting details swapped out for futuristic. Instead of being in Dodge City, Bat Durston would be on New Dodge on Mars. Instead of the Mojave Desert, it'd be Chryse Planitita. Instead of bandits or indians, it'd be green skinned Martians. Instead of a six shooter and horse, it'd be a ray gun and hovercycle, etc. Bat Durston was emblematic of a type of writing where a story from one genre is transparently transposed into another, and while the setting changes slightly, nothing "fundamental" about the story changes, and it could in theory still be swapped out into yet more genres.

This was seen as a bad thing, and Galaxy promised that "Bat Durstons" would never be seen in its august pages (although arguably it was, occasionally.) If you've read my blog much, you'll probably know that I don't necessarily think that a "Bat Durston" story is a bad thing. A lot of genre fans would greatly benefit from being familiar with the conventions of other genres, and a lot of genre writers would greatly benefit from implementing ideas that they get from outside of their "home" genre. KOP is a Bat Durston in a sense. It's not a "space western" but it is very much a "space hardboiled" or "space noir"--one of the comments from another writer on the cover claims that it's the best noir writing he's read since Dashiell Hammett!

Aging crooked cop Juno Mozambe patrols a beat on Koba. He and his old partner, Peter Chang (who's currently chief of police for Koba) were instrumental in reining in corruption in some respects in Koba--by institutionalizing it and partnering closely with an up and coming crime boss. We first meet Juno as he's shaking down money from prostitutes and bartenders in his protection racket.

We soon learn that things aren't as simple as they seem, though--Juno is pulled from his normal vice assignment to investigate a homicide, and he's partnered with a rookie idealist young (and attractive) new cop for the case. It quickly spirals out of control as he comes to realize that this is much more than a simple random murder, as it first appears, but is part of a hostile takeover of both the government, the police, organized crime, and new, much scarier corruption that makes Chang's tacit approval of "petty" vices seem like child's play.

I read this novel really fast, and I recommend it to anyone who has any interest in crime fiction of any kind. This is a nice counterpart to Blade Runner, in fact the ads showing in the background of Blade Runner advertising for a new life on the colonies, could in fact easily have been referring to Lagarto, amongst other places. So, if you like Blade Runner at all, you should give this quick and easy read a try.

My only complaint is that the novel seems to stop without completely ending. I'm not sure if that's a purposeful bait for the next novel, Ex-KOP (which is available now) or just a failing of the novel's structure (or both) but I'd like to see a bit more to the ending. If Ex-KOP starts off handwaving away the epilogue to KOP, I'll be greatly disappointed.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Sword & Sanity

So, today I'm going to link to a blog that I stumbled across. Swords Against the Outer Dark, at http://swordandsanity.blogspot.com/ is a blog about combining the already closely related genres of classic swords and sorcery and "Yog-Sothothery", or Lovecraftian horror. Both of them arose out of the same Weird Tales roots, and frankly, the only difference between them was sometimes that attitude of the protagonist and the tone; in terms of elements that they include, many of the Kull or Conan stories arguably should be considered canon in the Cthulhu Mythos as is.

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!

Realms of War

After a very lengthy delay--a good three months almost, I think--while I was stalled on the second or third story in this 12 story anthology, I finally picked Realms of War back up again about a week ago and blazed through the rest of the book in relatively short order.

I'm not normally a huge fan of short fiction anthologies. I tend to think to myself that reading short stories is easy because it's such a small investment emotionally (and of time) that I should be able to sit down and just bang them out quickly. These stories seem to average no more than twenty five to thirty pages each, and frankly, I can read one of them in about half an hour, maybe less. Despite what I tell myself, though, I find reading them difficult. The investment is small, but so is the payoff, and I find myself singularly unmotivated to make progress through short-story anthologies.

I actually only bought this one because it was attached to the Twilight War trilogy (by Paul S. Kemp) which I read and reviewed earlier. This ended up being a bit of a bait and switch; while the first story was indeed by Paul S. Kemp, and involved a minor loose end from the trilogy, none of the other stories had anything whatsoever to do with that series at all, and were instead simply war stories of various sorts told in the Forgotten Realms. I have to admit that this bait and switch threw me off for a long time, and I found myself completely uninterested for a long time in returning to the anthology and reading about a bunch of unrelated characters and situations. However, after giving myself enough time to get over that disappointment, I found that the anthology itself isn't that bad, and about half of the stories here were actually fairly enjoyable. The rest of them... eh. They weren't terrible, but I could have passed and been perfectly happy.

One interesting theme that ran through a lot of them was war against humanoids. Goblins, orcs, and the like. This is not unusual given that it's D&D fiction, Forgotten Realms in particular which is like Lord of the Rings for horny, hippy nerds. I actually found this reduced the impact of many of the stories, which were trying to build up a "horror of war" vibe. By reducing the antagonists to cartoon characters (in essence), there wasn't really any horror of war. Of course, some of the stories were more on the noble sacrifices or even the glory aspects of war, in which case that wasn't as much of a liability. A few standout stories include:

"Mercy's Reward" by Mark Sehestedt. Not really a war story per se, but one that takes place with the background of a guy traveling through occupied territory, taken prisoner by the Forgotten Realms' equivalent of the Mongols, and finding more in common with them than he expected when a supernatural horror tries to claim him. Echoes of Enemy Mine here (which of course is a sci-fi rewriting of the 1968 film Hell in the Pacific, lest you mistake me for a Philistine).

"Changing Tides" by Mel Odom which was sufficiently good swashbuckling pseudo-Lovecraftian horror that it felt a tiny bit like it was a poor fit for this book, maybe, but which was still one of the funnest stories here. In fact, it was good enough that I'm tempted to hunt down some more Mel Odom to see what else he's done.

"Bones and Stones" by R. A. Salvatore, who surprised me, because I tend to think of him as a formulaic hack who's turned the Forgotten Realms in many ways into a parody of itself. This story, though, was fairly emotionally deep and quite good, showing a dwarf and an orc who return to the site of a battlefield to gather fallen loved ones and come to some understanding--after fighting each other in true comic book style first, of course.

Reading this wasn't that bad once I got back into it, but I do have to admit that for the time being I'm a little burned out on the concept of short stories, and I'm also a little burned out on the concept of D&D fiction. This is somewhat unfortunate, since my queue of books that I own but haven't yet read includes a fair bit of short fiction (four Robert E. Howard anthologies, a Year's Best SF anthology, and a Lovecraftian anthology) and an entire trilogy of D&D fiction, plus two trilogies of very similar Warhammer fiction. Sigh.

So, for the time being, I'm actually going to step away from both, and read KOP, a novel I grabbed at my local library because of the awesome noirish Chris McGrath cover art. It looks like it's a totally different vibe altogether--noir detective work combined with hard science fiction on an alien colonial planet. I'll be sure and let you know how it goes.

Monday, November 01, 2010

House rules class list redux

While in this post I said I was revising the allowable class list first debuted in this post, I never actually reposted the revised list. At the time, that was because I was thinking that I would do further revisions to the classes themselves, with consolidations and hybrids and whatnot. I've since decided that that's more work than its worth--I'll keep the classes more or less as is, and just note that yes, I realize that I have too many roguelike and rangerlike classes to really make sense.

So, without further ado, here's the "real" revised classlist allowable for my house rules suite.

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Original classes:

  • Barbarian
  • Fighter
  • Rogue

Modified original classes:

  • Paladin
  • Ranger

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.

Psionic classes:

  • Soulknife (from Expanded Psionics Handbook)
  • Lurk (from Complete Psionic)

Additional Complete series classes:

  • Ninja
  • Samurai
  • Scout
  • Swashbuckler

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)