Monday, September 30, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Wrap-up, posts 29 and 30

I'm going to post both of these in one post, since the first question is too stupid to merit it's own post.  And then, I'll be DONE with the 30 DAY CHALLENGE tag, a challenge that I might have been a little bit ill-advised in taking on, since it was catering to a specific gamer demographic that I don't match.  Oh, well.  I did it, and because I'm a sucker for those kinds of things, I'll probably do something like it again (although probably not as aggressively.  I still need to finish the A TO Z challenge after all, and that's only 26 entries.)

Day 29: What is the number you always seem to roll on a d20?

None.  My d20s are random, so I get all of the numbers with roughly equal frequency.  As is the case with any d20 that isn't somehow defective.  Duh.

Day 30: Best DM you've had

Now that's a tough one.  Plenty of times, I'm the DM.  When I'm not, I most frequently play with my current group, and all of the other DMs (besides me) prefer to run pre-written campaigns or adventure paths.  This isn't my preferred way to play, so although I've had some great times in those games, and the games are pretty good, and the DMs certainly know their business, it's hard for me to call them the best DM I've ever had, because they specifically haven't been running the game in the style that works best for me.

I've had some other GMs here and there, although frequently only for one-shots, that I've quite enjoyed.  One of them is a guy that has run several campaigns that I wish I could have been in, since they were so completely and totally right up my alley.  This is a guy who thinks the way I do, both as a player and a GM.  Sadly, other than a convention one-shot or two, I've only ever had him as a player in one of my games (one of my most successful games ever, though, I'll add.  And largely because of his contribution to it.)  This guy is Corey Reid, the author of the Barsoom Tales story-hour turned novel, and the author of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND--a multimedia extravaganza, including a True20 setting, an Old School Hack variant game, and now an indie-published comic book (ten years from now, I expect it to be a full-length feature film.)

What makes Corey's GMing style so congruent and compatible with me and mine?  First off, I'll point out his willingness (in fact, even preference) for a rather loose preparation style, leading to a rather laid-back running style that easily rolls with it when players do "unexpected" things--in fact, I think he actually prefers players to do something crazy and unexpected.  Secondly, he's a guy who doesn't take gaming too seriously.  If someone's being wildly entertaining by being somewhat silly, well, that's to be encouraged.  If they're being wildly entertaining by being rather dramatic, well that's cool too.  The operational buzzword being "wildly entertaining" is what he's managed to figure out how to encourage, tease out, and reward.

I'll also point out that when I was last in a one-shot convention game with him, there was one guy who wasn't quite on the same page as the rest of the group.  Corey managed to really make that work; get him on the same page without forcing it, letting him have his thing, yet simultaneously not derailing the game for anyone else.  That was an extremely deft bit of DMing, if I do say so myself.

Sadly, Corey doesn't live anywhere near me.  He used to live sorta near me when he was in Toronto and I was only 4-5 hours away in southeast Michigan, but now he's gone much further afield.  The chances of us playing together again anytime soon are very, very low.

Friday, September 27, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Day 28 - character you will never play again

At the risk of sounding flippant because I'm going to give so short a post, let me quote Edna Mode from The Incredibles.  "I never look back, dahling."

I'll never play any character again.  Once the natural run of a character is over, and the campaign he's in is over, I don't look back--I look for the next challenge.

Sure, many of my characters are (at least mechanically) quite similar.  And in terms of approach, I do also end up with kind of "shades of gray" morality.  I find regular heroic characters to be somewhat boring, while rakish scoundrels are quite droll.

I don't want to cross the line and play an outright villainous character, but I do like a good anti-hero.  A Han Solo from early on in his character arc, who never really redeems himself and becomes General Solo, but who just remains a rakish scoundrel.  Maybe even one who falls as his character arc, and becomes more of a Boba Fett.

However, I could see playing a somewhat air-headed hero.  A bit ironically.  That could be fun.

D&D without the D&Disms, part II

Am I biting off more than I can really chew?  Along with my ongoing DARK•HERITAGE setting posts, which are really the core topic for this blog (and which are a bit delinquint as I've been distracted by this 30 DAY CHALLENGE business...) I also just started a new setting adventure I call REALMS TRAVELER which, luckily, I won't need to make too many updates to, since it's mostly cobbled together from pre-existing elements that are merely re-arranged, rather than invented.  So, I've decided to use a post of mine from earlier this week as the springboard into yet another setting development adventure--the D&D without the D&Disms post, which I've not given a new tag to: ODD D&D.  As a setting name it... leaves something to be desired, but as a working title for the setting while I mess around with it, I think it's OK.

Here's the original post in which I laid out the basic first steps.

There's a few things that are immediately apparent, even before I get very far down that list.  First off, I've got too many races.  I mean, I could use them all, but why?  I've got 19 specifically called out, that I'd have to have some explanation of where they fit in.  That's way too many.  No thanks.  Secondly, I also said I wanted my planetouched (and other options) to be LA+0, and today, they are not, they're LA+1.  That means making a few adjustments to make them fit.

Here's the revised list, a bit trimmed down from where it was on the older post.
  • Human (as listed in the SRD or PHB)
  • Half-orc (as listed in the SRD or PHB)
  • Orc - I'm scratching them.  Orcs as a race are extinct.  Rather, they've been hybridized so thoroughly with humans that pure-blooded orcs simply don't exist anymore.  Half-orcs are still out there, of course, but they're half-orcs now.  Full-blooded orcs are no longer a racial choice.
  • Goblins - as in the SRD using goblins as a race.  However, they seem a little under-powered to me.  Go ahead and give an extra feat, as if they were human.
  • Hobgoblins - as in the SRD.  However, although they have a net bonus on ability scores (and therefore the designers gave them an LA+1) the hobgoblins really don't have much else going on, and I don't believe that the LA+1 is warranted.  Treat them as LA+0, but don't worry about changing anything else.
  • Genasi (four varieties) - These guys are not in the SRD, since they appear in slightly more esoteric books which are not open.  I'll need to find some stats to adapt.  Also, since nobody seems to know how to correctly pronounce genasi, I'm going to not use that name, and instead use jann (as per my other DARK•HERITAGE setting; although there, they refer specifically only to a creature that is conceptually a fire genasi.)
  • Tiefling - I love these guys. But I don't love LA+1.  I think that that's not so hard to get rid of, though.  Eliminate the +2 to intelligence (by the way, I don't have much truck with WotC's position that CHA is a "lesser" stat that isn't worth the same as another stat.  If that's the case, there's a problem with the kinds of games you run.)  Get rid of the resistances.  Get rid of the Darkness special ability (one that's more in line with something like a shadar-kai or fetchling than with a tiefling.)  Replace it with one of the abilities from Paizo's Blood of Fiends.  Page 16-17 has d100 of them.
  • Aasimar - similar to the tiefling.  See above, and Paizo's Blood of Angels.
  • Shifter - I love shifters.  I think they have a great fantasy feel to them.  I'm totally OK with them as written.
  • Changelings - I dunno.  I'm a little on the fence with these.  I like the concept, but they're almost more of a monster than a PC type race, unless you're a really sneaky bastard.
  • Warforged - Nevermind.  These guys seem to also be more of an NPC/monster type, unless you're specifically in Eberron.
  • I'd take a few psionic races: xeph, elan and kalashtar.  The other psionic races get axed.  And I wouldn't necessarily cut all of those except maybe kalashtar, and go with a bit of a Secrets of Sarlona like vibe to the setting. 

30 Day Challenge: Day 27 - A character you want to play in the future

Hmm... I don't often think about a character I'm interested in playing until I'm actually on the verge of needing a character to play.  But let's see...

It seems like my M.O. as a player is frequently a combat-focused character, but not just a plain fighter (because they're boring.)  I've done a lot of ranger/barbarians, and ranger/fighters, and other martial type prestige classes to give myself a little more variety.

My second most likely pick is some variety of rogue. 

But honestly, for both of these, what I'm excited to do with them is to adapt or adopt some of the Pathfinder class archetypes into 3.5 and use them (most of them can be adopted straight with no modification, at least with the ranger and rogue, since the classes are so similar in structure between the two games.)

Yeah; I know, I know.  Why am I excited to run a character that's basically the same as the characters I've already run, with only minor variation?  Frankly, I just don't really like magical classes.  I don't mind some minor supernatural variants, but I don't want "full-time" spellcasters.

I could also play a soulknife, or lurk, or even psychic warrior.  What race?  Either human, or something a little more outre.  If I do end up playing a psionic class, I'd probably pair it with a psionic race, like elan or kalashtar.  Otherwise, I'd play around with some other type race.  I've always liked shifters, and I'd like to find a good LA +0 version of the classic planetouched races, like tiefling and aasimar.  In fact, I've got some other really cool ideas based, again, on some Paizo subsitution of alternate abilities that I'd like to entertain.  There's some Paizo rogue class abilities, which I've converted to feats as house-rules for me, that if I can get my next DM to allow, I'd also like to use.  They allow for some very minor spellcasting abilities, and even a familiar for non-magical classes.  I think being able to cast a couple 0-level and 1-st level spells, and have a little monkey familiar or something (or maybe an imp, if I take two feats to get an improved one) would be fun for a character who's otherwise not really a spellcaster.  In fact, if I gave it to a swashbucklerish character, it would give him a real Gray Mouser type flair.

That said, I have no idea when I'll be playing D&D again, and I'm not really in the habit of planning characters that I'm not even playing well in advance of having a campaign in which I would play them.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Day 26 - Favorite nonmagical item

Today's the 26th and I'm making update 26!  I've finally caught up!  In fact, tomorrow, I'll actually get ahead when I do updates 27 and 28.  Of course, when I don't post over the weekend, I'll fall behind again (a little bit) but I'll be just in time to catch back up and finish on time on Monday the 30th.

It helps that there's not necessarily a lot to say about some of these 30 DAY CHALLENGE topics.  My favorite non-magical item?  It's kinda hard to have a favorite.  I'll go with the classic longsword.  Or, for DEX-based fighters, the rapier as a replacement.

Other than that; these things are so utilitarian that it's difficult to really "like" them; there just there.  I don't love my Badger garbage disposal in the kitchen sink, or my claw hammer.  I have them, and I need them, and I use them frequently.  But it's hard to call that kind of thing my favorite anything.

30 Day Challenge: Day 25 - Favorite Magic Item

One of the late 3.5 era books that I think was one of the best books of the entire era was Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss.  Not only have demons in D&D always been one of my favorite foes--rich in variety, malevolence, variety and atmosphere--but the book also managed to quite nicely balance two needs in tone: it needed to feel like classic Judeo-Christian demonology folklore, and it needed to feel like classic Lovecraftian alien, cosmic horror.  And the book managed to straddle both of those tones perfectly.  It's the perfect hybrid and synthesis of the two memes.

One thing that it introduced, that really helped shore up the notion of the latter theme, was the Black Scrolls of Ahm, artifact level magic items that work, for all intents and purposes, like Lovecraft's own dreaded Necronomicon itself.

But not only are the Black Scrolls magic items of forbidden knowledge, but the back-story is eerily similar to that of Lovecraft's book.  The "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred is not so dissimilar to the ancient scholar Tulket nor Ahm, and the fact that both have names of exotic Orientalism is, no doubt, not a coincidence.  There are even allusions to a similar fate: Alhazred's: "Of his final death or disappearance (738 A.D.) many terrible and conflicting things are told. He is said by Ebn Khallikan (12th cent. biographer) to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses."  Tulket nor Ahm was apparently also killed by some kind of demonic hit squad, which not only destroyed him, but the majority of whatever country he was living in at the time.

As you can probably tell from the tagline in my blog ("D&D rules, Call of Cthulhu paradigm") anything that brings overt Lovecraftianisms to my game is to be welcomed.

As for magic items that I acutally like to use with my characters?  I tend to prefer straightforward pluses to attack, damage or armor class.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Day 24 - Favorite energy type

Really?  Favorite engergy type?  People actually have a favorite energy type?


3e (and 3.5) reduced all of the myriad idiosyncracies of energy damage to five: fire, cold, electricity, acid and sonic.  And then, of course, there's the bizarrely labeled concepts of positive and negative energy. 

How in the world do you have a favorite among those?  Negative energy, while saddled with the stupidest name, is conceptually probably the most interesting.  As a life-draining force, and the source of all undead, it's got an appropriate fantasy feel to it.  I don't think the Negative Energy Plane is any better; but the Plane of Shadows, which is kinda like a more interesting Negative Energy Plane Lite is one of my favorites.  The 4e book about the Shadowfell and Gloomwrought, the city therein, was one of the better bits of setting development 4e saw, too.  Although, it wasn't specifically negative energy.

Still, that's my choice, and how I'd prefer to make it play a role in any of my campaigns.

30 Day Challenge: Day 23 - Least Favorite Monster Overall

Wow, so many to choose from.

I should probably just link you here:

Except that in his quest to be clever, he actually condemns a few cool monster (occasionally for really crappy art--another frequently encountered problem in the early days of the game.)

But there are lots (and LOTS) of D&D monsters that will never, ever darken the table of any game I would ever run.  But picking my absolute least favorite from among them?  The lowest of the low?  That's a hard one.

I think I'm going to go with the giff.  Space hippopotamus people who wear banana republic generalissimo uniforms and monocles.  Whoever came up with that travesty should retreat from the public eye in shame and never show his face again.

30 Day Challenge: Day 22 - Favorite Monster Overall

Wow, favorite monster overall.  That's an extremely tough one.

One monster that I've used a lot in a number of my settings is the hobgoblin (although curiously, not in DARK•HERITAGE.  Then again, I don't consider that a D&D setting.)

One of the things I like about them is that they should, by virtue of their description, not really be savage humanoids rumaging around on the fringes of society like so many bandits or tribes of barbarians.  If they're so militaristic, well-organized and lawful (ugh.  Alignment.) then why don't they have fully civilized, militaristic empires?

There was a picture floating around years ago on ENWorld (it's actually still here; I'll hotlink it here in a moment) called "Pax Hobgoblinica) which perfectly illustrated this exact concept, and I've loved it so much that I've incorporated some aspect of it into tons of my settings, with the exception like I said earlier, of DARK•HERITAGE.  But wait!  Even that's not so simple.  Kurushat, an important component of DARK•HERITAGE actually started out as a hobgoblin empire.  I later decided that hobgoblins were too traditional fantasy to belong in that setting, so I made them a human ethnicity instead.  But I didn't change anything else about them.

Eberron kinda sorta did this, with the nation of Darguun (and the past Dhaakani Empire) but even they couldn't manage to avoid the primitive savage mindset most of the time, at least until Don Bassingthwaite wrote the Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy of novels and fleshed it out a lot more.  Iron Kingdoms did it even better with the skorne.  Which, I know, I know, weren't technically hobgoblins.  But they have the same look and feel, and take the place in most respects of hobgoblins in the setting (much like trollkin take the place of orcs, and gobbers take the place of goblins, etc.)  Kurushat borrows a great deal from the Skorne Empire (and a great deal more from Roman history).

So, hobgoblins it is.  Not necessarily because they're really my favorite favorite, but because lacking any other criteria to pick my favorite, I'm going with what I've probably used the most.

30 Day Challenge: Day 21 - Favorite Dragon Color/Type

Yesterday was a complete bust.  To catch up, I had to do two posts yesterday, and two every day (except over the weekend, when I rarely post anything at all) and now I'm even further behind.  It's possible (although not likely) that I can do four posts today and get caught up.  More likely, I'll do three today and three tomorrow.

Or, if it keeps slipping, I'll be late and sneak a post or two in after the month is over.  But I hope to not get that far.  In terms of today's question, I honesty haven't ever been all that fond of the notion of color-coded dragons.  I don't mind some variety in dragons.  Sure, fire-breathers (i.e., the reds) are the classic, but appearance and abilties shouldn't necessarily be in lockstep.  And I do quite like some of the other breath weapons.  Frost/white dragons having a cold breath weapon only makes perfect sense, and some of the other options (especially dragons who spit out a big ole honkin' lightning bolt from their mouth, which is just plain cool) are attractive.

But, like I said, I don't like color-coded dragons.  Frankly, I don't like the notion of dragons being common enough to have their own societies, based on color.  I like the idea of dragons being much more singular.  If a setting has more than a dozen or two dragons in existance at the same time, then it's already over-run with dragons.

Iron Kingdoms has done dragons the best, in my opinion.  Every dragon is a singular entry.  They don't just have their own abilties, but they're got a lot of other variety and personality to them too.

So, in that sense, I'll have to break my own rule (maybe its really more of a guideline, given that I break it frequently) and quote a third party source.  My favorite dragon is Lord Toruk.

Monday, September 23, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Day 20 - Favorite Monster (Humanoid/Natural/Fey)

This run of favorite monsters on the 30 Day Challenge is getting tiresome.  I've got three more entries, but then we get into even more esoteric and tiresome questions before finally finishing up with some interesting ones.  This is a stretch of the doldrums that indicates to me that this challenge really shouldn't have been thirty days.  Twenty-five would have been plenty.

That said, I'm committed to finishing the series, and I'm committed to doing so before the end of September.  I'm doing no.s 19 & 20 today (which is the 23rd) so I'm a bit behind.  However, if I do two entries every day this week, I'll catch up on Thursday, and Friday I can do entires for Friday and Saturday--Monday, I'll do entries for Sunday and Monday, and barely end on time.  Woohoo!

And then, maybe I'll be a little more careful on what I decide to commit to doing--even if that commitment is really only to myself.

That said, tiresome or not, I'm going to go with a humanoid from today's category (I'm not even sure what a "Natural" is, and I'm kind of hit of miss on many of the fey.  I love what they've done with the fey category in the Monsternomicon books, but being "unofficial" I'm not going to count them here.  But as you probably can tell if you've read any of my other entries in this series, I'm playing kind of fast and loose with my interpretations, and often changed how strict I am (or not) on a whim to give me a reasonable choice to present here.

In any case, I clearly do have a favorite humanoid: the tiefling.  I really prefer the 2e incarnation of the tiefling (which carried forward into 3e, 3.5, and Pathfinder) to the 4e version of the tiefling.  But I really dig the 4e backstory of the tieflings.  My own DARK•HERITAGE setting clearly has nods to both versions of the bad boys.

The best source-material on tieflings that I've ever seen is Paizo's Blood of Fiends title, which I've reviewed here when it was new, too.

D&D—without the D&Disms

One of the nice things about a really nice, robust, well-developed rule set like D&D 3.5 is that you've gone well beyond the "basic" options and have all kinds of other things in print (this is even more true when adding in third party supplements, but even without that, it's still remarkable.)  The same claim could be made for a rule-set like Pathfinder, or probably 4e too.  One curious option that this allows is that you can play D&D that doesn't feel anything like D&D in most respects, by eliminating availability of some of the really basic options and replacing them with other options that are out there instead.

Why would you want to do this?  For variety, of course, in my opinion.  For me, it's a bit more than that, since I'm not really a fan of a lot of the basic D&Disms, but even if you ignore me and my little tantrums over here about things I don't like, I think it's not unusual for many players to want to do something different.  I've found that with my group, for instance, while there's one or two guys who are always up to play the elvish wizard or dwarven fighter or whatever other D&D cliche you can come up with, most of us are looking to do something a little bit different, and we highly value the variety inherent in a system like 3.5, where you can dig well beyond the core rulebooks to get something quite a bit different than a basic elf or dwarf, or your basic wizard or cleric or whatever classes.  But an entire game that specifically disallows some of those iconics, and only allows non-iconic, "oddball" options?  Can it work?

Absolutely.  In fact, one of my most successful D&D games ever specifically operated on that premise.  If I were to do something like this again, here's what I would probably do.
  • Halfling, half-elf, elf, dwarf and gnome races are completely disallowed.  Can't use 'em.  From the "basic" list, that still leaves you the human and the half-orc.
  • What other races would I allow?  Well, if you've got half-orcs, why not full orcs too?  Hobgoblins and goblins can be in (although probably require a bit of tweaking for balance) and all of the genasi and other planetouched races--although, again, I'd prefer a variant of LA +0 rather than LA +1.
  • The Eberron races--you can use them.  This includes the shifter, the kalashtar, the war-forged and the changeling.
  • There are also some LA+0 Expanded Psionics Handbook races that I like--the xeph, elan, and dromite and maenad, in particular.
  • Any class with a spellcasting progression is disallowed.  From the basic list, that means that you can only pick the fighter, the rogue, the barbarian and the monk.  Feel free to use archetypes (adapted from Pathfinder) to further customize your class.  There are also a number of options in print to turn the ranger into a spell-less class, or you can use a full-blown alt.ranger (as well as an alt. anything else that has a spellcasting progression, although I'm struggling to imagine an alt.wizard or alt.cleric that is worth taking which doesn't have spellcasting or other supernatural abilities.)
  • The psionics classes, from Expanded Psionics Handbook and Complete Psion can be used.  Other classes, such as the swashbuckler from Complete Warrior or the ninja from Complete Adventurer and others of that kind of pedigree are also good--assuming that there's no spellcasting progression. 
  • Obviously, the point I'm making is that psionics replaces magic entirely in this game--both divine and arcane.  And if you're going to do that, might as well revise the race list while you're at it.
  • Although not directly related to that premise, I'd have one or two other house-rules as well--the Defense bonus option would be turned on, Action Points would be utilized (including an additional use of action points where you can use one as a Healing Surge, i.e., it replicates the effect of a potion of CLW when you spend one.
  • Guns.  Black powder guns, probably the rules from Freeport, as replicated here would be the best alternative, but there's lots of other alternatives in print--Iron Kingdoms, d20 Past, Pathfinder, the DMG, etc.
  • Also, I hate alignment.  I never use it in any game if I can help it, but I would also specifically disallow it as a major focus here.  If you take an alignment, it'll basically never come up as relevant.  If you don't even assign one, that's fine too.

30 Day Challenge: Day 19 - Favorite Monster (Elemental/Plant)

What an odd pairing!  What do elements and plants have to do with each other, and why would you pick between them?  Honestly, I don't really like any plants very much in D&D.  I can kinda dig treants, since they're clearly a slightly re-named ent; the exact same concept as Tolkien's Quickbeam and Treebeard, etc.  And elementals?  Bo-ring!  They exist merely to be summoned.  They have no personality, nothing about them could possibly make them a favorite (in spite of the fact that they tend to be pretty ubiquitous in fantasy literature.)

Rather, there are other creatures, which aren't technically elemental in nature, but which are much more likely to get my vote.  Mephits, for example, are like imps or quasits, but instead of being overtly fiendish, they're overtly elemental.  Nice one.  Genies are also much like bigger, badder elemental-like creatures.  Some of them (efreeti in particular) seem to converge in concept with fiends.  I know, I know, the basic original of them is from Arabian folklore, while fiends come from Judeo-Christian writings about demons and fallen angels, and the devil, and whatnot.  After later Islamification of Arabia, the genies existed alongside folkloric entities that were more directly applicable to Judeo-Christian fiends.  But still, they seem to fill a cosmologically similar niche.  Or, if the cosmology is different, it seems to lead to only superficial actual differences.

So, since I like fiends a lot, naturally, I like genies a lot, as an Arabian Nights themed variety of fiendish-like creature.  And since I like fiends a lot, naturally, the efreeti are my favorite of the genies, since they bear the closest resemblance to "classic" fiends, in most respects.

Friday, September 20, 2013

RT 1: Set-up

An important conceit of the REALMS TRAVELER setting is that it can work like a sandbox in many ways, by borrowing elements from a lot of other sources.  Needless to say, I'm only going to develop a bit of the setting, and I'm going to concentrate on a fairly linear path from point A to point B.  That's not the only path from point A to B; just the most direct.  You can choose to go many ways.  But in order to do so, as a GM, you'll either have to make up a bunch of stuff, or borrow a bunch of stuff.

I anticipate that descriptions of realms will be much like the descriptions of planes (or at least a single layer of a plane) in books like Manual of the Planes for instance (3rd edition version.  I don't know much about the AD&D version of the book.)  That is; they may be hypothetically infinite, but in terms of described areas, they are geographically quite limited and circumscribed.  There may be up to about half a dozen locations, described in a paragraph or two each.  A few general characteristics of the realm.  What kinds of inhabitants you can expect to interact with and how.  In all, I don't imagine that these realm descriptions will amount to more than about two to four pages worth of text, total.

Then, I'll focus on what, specifically, I expect the PCs to need to do in realm.  What they need to do to move through it and on to the next.  What they need to do in the meantime to either earn their passage, or kill time until they can leave, or whatever the case may be.

Remember; I consider this to be a fairly "On the Road" type of adventure.  Nobody goes to a new realm to set up shop permanently.  No single realm is the campaign setting; rather--the entire cosmology is the setting, and the point is to sample many realms while moving from one to the other.  Like episodic TV shows that featured moving protagonists--Wagon Train, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica (the old one), etc.   Or more accurately, Sliders is the model for which this will work.

I've got a partial list of realms that I will use.  These are largely either planes from other sources (or more accurately, layers of planes from other sources) or other similar entities (such as planets in the Pathfinder solar system.)  Most of them can be used more or less as is, but minor adjustments to fit them into the context of a "River of Worlds" type cosmology might be necessary.  This is not meant to be exhaustive.

Realms borrowed from Manual of the Planes
  • The Plane of Shadow
  • The Ethereal Plane (blended with some elements of the Astral in the Deep Ethereal to form the Ethereal Sea)
  • Lunia (first layer of Celestia)
  • Ocanthus (bottom layer of Acheron)
Realms borrowed from Beyond Countless Doorways
  • The Underland (also utilizing material from the Darklands book
  • Avidarel (the dead void)
  • Carrigmoor (post-apocapytic dome-city)
  • Faraenyl (season based quartiles; fey and elf dominated.  With some modification of my own.)
  • Lizard Kingdoms (fewer unique critters.  No bugs.)
  • Curnorost (angelic tomb world)
Realms borrowed from Distant Worlds
  • Akiton (maybe blended with Mars d20 and plain ole Barsoom)
  • Eox
  • Verces
Realms borrowed from Fiendish Codex 1
  • Gaping Maw (Demogorgon's Realm)
  • Thanatos (Orcus' Realm)
  • Androdynne (eladrin vs. demon war)
  • The Demonweb (Llolth's realm)
  • Yeenoghu's Realm (unimaginitively named, yeah.)
Realms borrowed from Fiendish Codex II
  • Avernus (rubble-choked battlefield)
  • Minauros (polluted swamp, with Jangling Hiter hanging above)
  • Stygia (icey place.  Combine with other icey plane ideas if needed)
  • Nessus ("bottom" of Hell)
Realms borrowed from other sources
  • Shadowsea (Dragon Magazine article on Dagon)
  • Hollowfaust (city sourcebook from Scarred Lands of the same name)
  • City of Brass (original concept is from 1,001 Arabian Nights, but I've got options on D&D sources)
Realms of my own invention
  • Demons in the Mist setting
  • Ape Kingdoms
  • Leng (although, yeah--borrowing lots of ideas from Lovecraft here)
  • The City - the entire realm is a vast city
  • Shattered World - floating worldlets in a vast atmospheric sea and flying ships
  • Nephilos - realm ruled by fallen angels
I still don't know what realm I will use to start the game, but I want one that's suitably generic and suitably small in scope.  Maybe I'll trawl through my old campaign notes for some small little duchy or province or something.  All of the realms above, even those borrowed from another source, are subject to modification, occasionally intensely, to make them better fit my needs.

All realms go into and out of conjunction with other Realms.  Ideally, I'd like to have several options for PCs to pick from when looking to leave a Realm, but I'm not sure now much of that I'll do--if options are needed without additional preparation, well, that's when borrowing something already written goes into play.  However, without doubt, the first realm that the PCs have to travel too (after leaving their home realm) will be the only realm in conjunction at the time that they wish to leave, so they'll be bottlenecked through it whether they wish to be or no.

Some of the planes that have been adapted into Realms for my game are heavily influenced by the alignment based Great Wheel cosmology from whence they originally came.  There is no such thing in my setting as alignment--or, if there is, it'll be mostly marginalized to importance, and most creatures will read as "unaligned" by anyone who wishes to check.  Yeah, yeah--this is more of a 4e concept, but it's my one concession to alignment at all.  I think 4e should have gone all the way and chucked alignment, but I'm OK with a toothless version of alignment.  If a realm is considered a Heaven (like Lunia) or a Hell (like Nessus or Thanatos) that's because of the nature of the place and its inhabitants, not because of its "alignment."

Similarly, losing this focus on alignment frees me up to ignore a lot of weirdness in D&D monster listings.  What, really, is the difference between a devil and a demon in D&D?  How about between them and other hostile outsiders like oni (from Oriental Adventures) or demodands, or efreeti or slaadi?  Nothing, really--except the bizarre categorization of alignment and a handful of minor subtype abilities.  This means that I can have much more "cosmopolitan" Heavens and Hells than D&D offers.  Angels and ghaeles, or devils and demons, have little reason to consort in D&D, but much moreso to do so in my setting.  Don't make assumptions based on what you think you know from D&D.  It may not be valid here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Day 18 - Favorite Monster (Immortal/Outsider)

I've said it before, and I will again (in fact, here I go right now!) but I think the game Dungeons & Dragons almost should have been called Dungeons & Demons instead.  The iconic foes of entire campaigns are not, in fact, dragons, but high level demons.  Particularly demon lords; the unique, ruling, powerful creatures who have darkened the table of many a game since at least AD&D's Monster Manual if not earlier.  Demon Lords play a prominent role in the adventure paths (Demogorgon in particular in Savage Tide.)

Keep in mind that while the Adventure Path as a specific form of campaign adventure is relatively new (piloted with Paizo's run on Dungeon in the later days of the 3.5 era) more loosely, you could say that they existed earlier in the G series, or the D series of modules from the AD&D era.  In these, demon lords also featured prominantly.  In addition, such classic modules as The Temple of Elemental Evil or Dead Gods also focused on the plots of demon lords.  I honestly believe that demon lords are the iconic high level opponent for PCs, and the fact that they can have servitors, minions, and patsies that the PCs must thwart from the very early levels makes them ideal mastermind menaces for an entire campaign; a role that few other monsters can take on credibly.

And even if you don't actually mean to ever fight them in personal combat, they still are just so iconic, their imagery so fascinating, and the background information on them so interesting in its own right, that the demon lords easily get my vote as the best Immortal/Outsiders in D&D.  In fact, I don't intend for them to ever fight PCs directly in personal combat at all, unless it's meant to be a complete rout or TPK for come-uppance (and that's a situation I prefer to avoid.)  I really like the "Demonomicon of Iggwilv" series of articles in Dragon that had the demon lords statted up, clustering around CR 30.  I have no intention of ever running a game over about 10th level.  Heck, at 10th level, even the Fiendish Codex versions of the demon lords that barely top out over CR 20 are still pretty much out of reach in a direct confrontation.  That's totally OK.

But... which ones, of course?  Some are better than others.  Juiblex, for instance, is basically just a shoggoth, except somehow a bit sillier.  The Queen of Chaos is Ursula from The Little Mermaid.  Zuggtmoy has both a silly name and a silly concept.

The "big three" demon lords are, however, clearly Orcus, Graz'zt and Demogorgon.  While, to my mind, Dagon is a "newcomer" that approaches them in terms of coolness, he lacks the iconicness, since he wasn't established as a D&D entrant until late in the 3.5 era life cycle (he makes up for this by being an actual Philistine god, adopted by H. P. Lovecraft as the shadowy figure behind some of his most iconic stories, though.)  Among them, it's really tough to pick a favorite.  So I'm going to fudge it and just say all three (or four.) 

Here's some pictures of Demogorgon, by the way.  I already did some Orcus ones earlier in this series, so it's the two-headed baboon-headed guy's turn.  Both of these pictures are thanks to Paizo's run on Dragon and Dungeon.  There's another great Wayne Reynolds picture of him too, but digital copies of that image are not easy to find...

30 Day Challenge: Day 17 - Favorite Monster (Animal/Vermin)

I think animals are severely under-rated as opponents in D&D.  Part of this is the design flaw of level escalation.  If a game stays at more "human-level" heroics, rather than "Justice League in fantasy drag" level heroics, animals in fact should always be dangerous.  At least some of them.  You ever faced a pride of hungry lions out on the grasslands at night when there's just four of you sitting around with swords by a campfire?  How about a herd of angry mother elephants who think that their calves are threatened?  Ever worried about getting trampled by a stampede of 1,500 to 2,000 lbs. bison?  Ever tried to kill a grizzly in the woods with a bow and arrow?

In the real world, these are harrowing experiences, and the survival of the poor little human(s) involved in them is not assured by any stretch of the imagination.  When you get a little bit further into more exotic animals--sabertooths, dinosaurs, etc., it's even worse.  I mean, everyone's seen Jurassic Park, right?  Well, T. rexes are a perfectly viable D&D animal.  They've been out there since the first Monster Manual at least.  SRD dinosaurs like Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus have CRs in the 8-9 range (curiously, the CRs are flip-flopped in the PRD for Pathfinder.  But maybe that's not really terribly significant.)  You've got to be a fairly high level party of adventurers to not be challenged by a CR 8-9 animal... especially if they appear in larger groups (as paleontologists think that they did.)  Higher level, in fact, than research by WotC back in the day suggests that most groups routinely play.  Higher level, in fact, than I'm really ever interested in running for my players.  And even if you don't use dinosaurs, SRD elephants are CR 7, so they're in the same ballpark. 

So animals, if you get into exotic animals particularly, can run the spectrum of most of an entire campaign.  If used effectively, they can be as frightening as any monster.  If used poorly, as throwaway straight-up combat encounters, then they're probably forgettable, although the same thing is also true of most monsters anyway.  Animals also have another great use at the table--as animal companions, familiars, and mounts.

Vermin, on the other hand, I don't really have much use for.  Yeah, yeah--I know. Giant scorpions are kinda a classic (Clash of the Titans, anyone?) but I just tend to think that giant bugs and stuff are kinda boring.

Rather than pick a single favorite, I'm going to have favorites for different purposes.  As an opponent to be faced in a good encounter, I'm going with lions.  At CR3, but appearing in prides, you can easily make an EL 5-6 or so encounter even if it's just a straight up fight.  If it's an ambush hit and run, at night, when the lions have all the advantages (well, curiously, lions don't have low-light vision in the SRD, but I'd assume that between that and their scent, their knowledge of where the PCs are in a fight is preternatural) then it can be a harrowing encounter indeed for low level, or even mid-level (by my standards, where I tend to top off campaigns at 10th level, or even lower.)  To mix it up, you can assume some cave lion type animals, or even just extraordinary individuals are actualy dire lions (at least in terms of statistics) to make it even tougher.  As a familiar, I like a monkey.  Agile, smart, funny, cute--what's not to love?  Plus, it automatically makes any character seem more piratey to have a monkey around.  As an animal companion, the trusty wolf makes the top of my list.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Announcing Realms Traveler

My Myths Revisited series has stalled a bit. I was on the verge of tackling the Norse myths, after updating the Greek myth cycle, but I realized that the whole thing would quickly get repetitive. In fact, I realized that I didn’t really have much to say about any of that other than the high concept. It probably never was deserving of a “series” at all; it probably was only ever a post or two worth of content. So, although I may (of course) return to the Myths Revisited series as a form of setting development, I also may not. And I don’t feel regretful about it; I think that that series never had very many places to go anyway.

Rather, I have another bit of setting development I’m interested in doing, alongside of regular DARK•HERITAGE updates. This time, however, I have a very specific plan. In fact, when I’m done, the entire thing will be a fairly detailed outline of an entire campaign that can be run, not unlike a Paizo Adventure Path or something like that. Except that I’m not filling in any stats or too many details; rather, this is in outline form and could be adapted to any D&D-like game system.

Also, in a move that is not my normal wont, this one is very specifically D&D, and meant to be from the get-go. Therefore, the rules to support it should probably be a variety of D&D. Although, of course, that’s a somewhat loose characterization these days. I would probably run this as either D&D 3.5 (either with the E6 tophat, or with slowed advancement so that it never got higher than 8-9th level at the most anyway) or standard m20. It could also be run with AD&D, 4e, D&D Next playtest, Pathfinder, Trailblazer, Labyrinth Lord, Sword & Wizardry, Microlite74, Old School Hack, or any other game that approximates, in a generic sense, the feel of playing D&D.

To start this off right, here’s the précis for this campaign or setting, which I shall call REALMS TRAVELER—both because it sounds vaguely like Blues Traveler, and because it has to do with hopping from one realm to another. I’ve been toying with this idea for some time, although I first called it somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Wagon Train to the Planes.” It’s the same idea. Borrowing the high concept from the old TV show Sliders, where a group has to travel from one world to another to reach a destination at the end of the show, much of the source material is going to be adapted from Manual of the Planes, Beyond Countless Doorways, and Distant Worlds—because those are source books that have a lot of exorealms in them (a term I’m coining to refer generically to worlds that are not the standard, basic campaign setting world itself.) I’m probably also both consciously and sometimes unconsciously going to be influenced by another great fantasy series that had to do with exorealms, the Myth Adventures series of books by Robert Asprin.

Basically, the premise of the game is that the PCs need to make their way from a city in one plane to a destination in another plane. To get there, they need to travel through a number of other planes on the way. While this seems kinda railroad, that’s only in comparison to the platonic ideal of a sandbox. After all, nobody really complains that they’re being “forced” to go through Dayton if they’re on their way from Detroit to Cincinnati, you just do it because, hey, it’s right there on the way on I-75. It’s up to the GM to make sure that the game doesn’t feel like a railroad by giving the players plenty of freeform stuff that they can do on their own in each realm.

For my purposes, a realm, or plane, is a smallish area. Sure, according to D&D cosmology, they’re infinite, but realistically, each one will provide about a “module’s” worth of adventuring locales, before you’re off to the next one. What’s to impel a group to continue moving? Hopefully the carrot of getting to the final goal is sufficient, but as in the Sliders show, I think there needs to be a time that the gates are open, and the rest of the time they are not, or some other reason that compels the PCs to stick around on the realm for a little while. This means that you don’t just get to “pass through” a realm, you actually have to spend enough time on it to “adventure” a bit.

Also; there’s an expectation or belief that “the Planes” (to which my realms are directly analogous) are for high level PCs only. This clearly isn’t the case here, where right from 1st level, the PCs are expected to hop through a gate and go somewhere else. This means that GMs will need to be a bit judicious in how they handle threats—as will players. Don’t pick a fight with a really big angel or demon if you come across one, because it’s probably not scaled for you to handle. As GM, don’t send the PCs to a realm that will drain hit points at a rate of 1d6 per round without giving them some kind of (at least temporary) protection to deal with it. In fact, finding the appropriate protection before they move on can be the entire purpose of adventuring in one realm, sometimes.

Needless to say, the Great Wheel cosmology does not exist here. I’m actually doing something more akin to the “bubbles” cosmology described in Manual of the Planes, or more explicitly described in Beyond Countless Doorways. Planes can be coterminous with several planes at once, but certainly not with all of them. This requires that one often has to travel through many realms to reach a destination on some other realm. Again; think of driving cross country from the East coast to the West coast. You have to pass through many states to reach your destination. This will be the same. Also, it’s expected that most people you come across is at least familiar with the notion of multiple realms. While visitors might be rare, they’ll never be completely unheard of, and in many cases, some realms will be major crossroads, with folks from all kinds of places wandering elbow to elbow.

When I come back to this, I’ll have a simple schematic for the “River of Worlds” plus some detail on the realm in which I intend to start this whole shebang.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Day 16 - Favorite monster (aberration)

Aberrations are another D&Dism that I have a soft spot for in some ways.  It seems to be the the home for a number of creatures that are weird and alien, and... dare I say it... Lovecraftian in theme.

That said, as in Lovecraft, sometimes they fit oddly into traditional fantasy.  The mindflayers are pretty quintessentially D&Dish, yet they use a number of concepts that are more peripheral to D&D overall--like psionics, time travel, and some science-fictiony concepts, especially as described in Lords of Madness.  Others, like the beholders, are just really D&Dish, and have no conceptual counterpart anywhere else.

Sometimes all of this detail gets in its own way, of course.  The gibbering mouther is an aberration.  It's rather obviously based on the concept of the shoggoth from Lovecraft, yet shoggoths, when statted out (in the d20 Call of Cthulhu book and in Paizo's Bestiary) is an ooze.  What?  Why aren't these two creatures even the same type?  Curiously, in the Paizo book, in the flavor text, it refers specifically to the mouther as being theorized to be a lesser version of a shoggoth.  However, they're not even the same creature type.

In the end, I think being iconic to D&D is a great deal lesser than being iconic overall.  Since the gibbering mouthers are conceptually the same as weak shoggoths, I'm going to unilaterally decide that shoggoths are also aberrations (even though they're not statted as such) and pick them as my favorite type of aberration.  They're a great deal more iconic than illithids, beholders, neogi, or even aboleths (as Lovecraftian as aboleths are anyway.)  So, they win.

30 Day Challenge: Day 15 - Favorite monster (undead)

Ah, monsters.  The heart and soul of many a fantasy RPG, especially D&D.  The vast catalog of monsters was always one of my primary attractions to the game; even before I was really playing it, I noticed the original AD&D Monster Manual on bookstore shelves and thought it looked interesting as... well, as a catalog of monsters, unrelated to gaming.  That said, there are many aspects of monsters in D&D that are simply quite foolish, in my opinion.  Undead in particular suffer from this.

I like undead a lot.  Given that I routinely characterize my campaign as as much horror as fantasy, this should seem natural.  The word undead itself (in the sense of a dead creature returned to unnatural life, not in the sense of simply being not-dead, which predates Stoker) seems to most likely have been coined by Bram Stoker and was an alternate title to his novel Dracula.  From ancient folklore and mythology to modern horror flicks, undead still reign nearly supreme as the fundamentally unnatural horror opponent.

And not just in horror.  If one accepts Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as a watershed moment in the development of fantasy the genre as it's understood today, then keep in mind that it was also chock-full of undead.  From the Black Riders (Ringwraiths) and Barrow-wights, even to Sauron himself (who died in the fall of Númenor, but who's spirit "endured"--and who was known in the time of The Hobbit as the Necromancer--sounds like pretty classic undead to me.)  Fantasy and horror are often much more similar than a lot of people realize; the main difference being how the story ends.  However, as The Lord of the Rings itself demonstrates; that can be a spectrum.  LotR isn't really a triumphant and glorious ending to the threat (although there are elements of that) nor is it a grisly and horrible loss, as is often the case in horror novels.  Dracula itself has the titular character on the run and ultimately destroyed at the end of the novel, whereas Tolkien's magnum opus has Frodo and others too damaged by their experience to ever return to normal.  The shades between fantasy and horror are already awfully thin to begin with.  When openly embracing dark fantasy, as I do, they are practically non-existant.

However, in D&D undead are often confronted by the cleric, a made up archetype that has little literary or folkloric precedent, and my least favorite class (conceptually) of any ever published for D&D.  The cleric's Turn Undead abilities often function as a de facto "get out of undead free" card in a very real sense, meaning that undead are either quite horrible (or worse, simply frustrating) to deal with for parties that don't have clerics, and merely a boring speed bump for parties that do.

The other problem (and this isn't unique to undead, although it seems perhaps a bit more acute in that area) is that the same monster conceptually has proliferated into a huge variety of similar monsters in the game, often using a thesaurus to create new monsters out of synonyms for an existing monster.  In some cases this is merely to add variety, but in some it's to have the same conceptual monster be available at varying levels of play.  This is an unfortunate artifact of the design decision of D&D back in the day to be an exponentially increasing PC power curve, a problem that has become runaway in many versions of the game, rather than being fixed.  This variety means that undead in D&D is increasingly bizarre, esoteric, and strange.  I'd like to see the power level convincingly fixed and flattened, so that existing monsters can be properly challenging for a much larger stretch of a normal PCs career.  I'd also like to see monsters collapsed into fewer monsters, with a la carte options as monster powers.  For example, incorporeal undead can have as a menu the CON drain of the wraith, the negative levels of the spectre, the Madness attack of the allip and many of the abilities associated with the ghost template (from a 3.5 perspective, the version of the rules with which I am most familiar.)  GMs could then pick which ones to use based on any given campaign's needs, while not putting forth the bizarre idea that there are literally dozens of minor variations on the same concept of "ghost."

But, my reservations about the state of the game (and the place of undead within it) notwithstanding, I need to actually pick a favorite.  For that, I'll go with the eldritch from Privateer Press's Monsternomicon.  Conceptually, the eldritch is basically a vampire.  But, rather than being a specifically Count Dracula like being, with the exact same traits, abilities and weaknesses as evidenced in his novel, the eldritch is a bit different.  More flexible.  More scary, really, in most respects.  I use the template, ignore the restriction that it only be applied to elves (since my setting has none anyway) and call the result  a vampire.  Done.

You can pick up a pdf of the 3.5 update (the original was in 3e; I have that in hardcover, and the update in pdf myself) right here from the good folks at Paizo.

Vézhok, capital city of Tarush Noptii

Vészok is the capital city of Tarush Noptii, and is notorious for several distinctive features.

As one approaches Vészok, one sees a massive fogbank, about thirty miles away from the city center in every direction. This fogbank stretchs up like a cloud wall to a height of many hundreds or even thousands of feet into the air. Passing through the fogbank is a relatively quick and painless procedure. The bank is extremely thick and visibility is sharply reduced for about a mile. It is so dark that it appears to be night inside, even at mid-day.

Once past the fogbank is where the really bizarre features start to take shape. The fogbank ends, and one walks out under the open sky again. It is frequently overcast inside the circular fogbank, but not always. It is, however, always night. Even at mid-day without a cloud in the sky, the vault of the heavens is pitch black and stars can be seen wheeling overhead. Strange stars, often, that do not match the constellations elsewhere except at Vészok. The moon often rises and sets on a different schedule than elsewhere, and the mares on the moon have a completely different pattern here, sometimes showing the "old" pattern of the moon before it resembled a skull.  Sometimes it looks like a totally different moon altogether.  There are even reports that at odd or unusual times there is more than one moon in the sky.

No plant life can survive in this 60 mile diameter circle centered around Vészok, of course, although black skeletons of old trees and dried brown remnants of grass still cling to places off the roads that are not trampled or broken by the passage of time. Strange, and occasionally phosphorescent fungi grows in strange patches as well.

As one nears the city itself, the ground starts to slope upward. Vészok is built around the rim of a large crater, nearly a mile across, and in fact, the buildings go all the way over the edge, and are carved into and hang from the sides. The inside of the crater is a vertical shaft, descending into pitch blackness. Nobody known today has ever descended into the shaft and returned. Legend has it that the crater is the mark of the fall of Tarush, a god of death, from the heavens to the material world. The first vampires were those champions who went to ensure Tarush remained sealed and defeated in one place, the Primogenitors. This, however, is legend. No confirmation of these rumors exist, and if Tarush exists, no one has ever seen or heard from him. Certainly, however, some supernatural power hovers over the site, causing the bizarre stars and constant nightfall that make it the perfect environment for a capital of vampires.

Vészok is a large city, of well over 100,000 regular inhabitants, and tens of thousands of temporary inhabitants at any one time.  While the fact that it is ruled over by and preyed on by vampire overlords is well known, in reality, that doesn't necessarily mean much to every day, regular life.  There are only a few hundred (at absolute most) vampires in the city, so one takes ones chances on being hunted, but with some suitable precautions, the risk is relatively low, and the Tarushans find that they like the enforced peace and prosperity that strong rulers bring, and can take the risk of vampire attack as the cost of such long-lasting peace and prosperity.  Outsiders, of course, say that all livestock feels this way, and it is a deal with the devil that is never worth the cost.  Tarushans, they claim, are only trying to validate the life that they have and can't do anything about; but living in constant fear is never worth the cost.

Vészok is quiet.  There is little crime (since convicted criminals are where the vampires hunt first--a concession towards efficient management of their chattel amongst the humans).  Valuable travelers from outside--merchants, caravans, and their entourages, are given small brass tokens that mark them as Untouchables--vampires who feed on them forfeit their life and estates to the Ruling Council.  While all of the Vampire Houses have their own estates and holdings in the city, the Ruling Council also has it's own, unaligned brigade of Untouchable soldiers, who patrol the streets and keep the peace.

Monday, September 16, 2013

30 Day Challenge: Day 14 - Favorite NPC

After this one, the 30 Day Challenge schedule calls for me to pick favorite monsters (by type)--a task that keeps me busy for nine days.  Given the importance of monsters to D&D, though, it seems an important category worthy of mulitple questions.  On the other hand, I'm struggling just a bit to develop my answer to the question: who is my favorite NPC?

Sometimes with these types of questions, I'm not sure whether I want to answer in a personal way (i.e., from my own campaigns and games) or in a "populist" way; i.e., NPCs that are famous from modules, campaign settings, or novels or whatever, and are therefore known by many gamers all 'round the world.

In the end, on this one, I decided to split the difference somewhat.  My friend Corey Reid ran a lengthy campaign using a fairly heavily house-ruled (mostly redacted to limit options, at least until such time as the players discovered more options) 3e game.  He ended up posting a write-up of the game on the good ole ENWorld Story Hour forums.  He later actually compiled this into a PDF, which can be bought from Lulu.  Here's a link.!!!-COMPLETE

In many ways, he's very up front about this being the story of an NPC, the Demon-Goddess, Madam Yuek Man Chong.  It wasn't meant to be; he had a great ensemble cast of great players with interesting characters.  Something one of them did made the entire campaign take a hard right turn.  A character who was meant to be a throwaway appearance--a super-powerful Ten Who Were Taken style sorceress who shows up and scares the PCs a bit or something.  He had, at the time, a funny little set of house-rules.  Swash-cards, he called them.  They were cards that the players were dealt, that they could play for interesting, modest benefits in game.  One of them was that an NPC would fall head over heels in love with the PC.  When a player pulled this one unexpectedly on one of the most powerful NPCs in the entire campaign setting--who at the time, didn't even have a proper name assigned to her--he's very upfront about how the campaign was turned on its ear and became something that he never envisioned.  Reading his account of this is interesting; it's a great example of how to roll with unexpected punches as a GM, how to play a fascinating and horribly unbalanced NPC and yet make it not overshadow the players own characters, or ruin the game, and it's a great example of just the sheer potential of our game to deliver honest to goodness great drama and entertainment.

Yuek Man Chong is, again to make a reference to Glen Cook, very similar in many ways to The Lady, or Soulcatcher.  She's not only insanely powerful, she's also actually insane.  This is par for the course for any sorcerer who manages to survive long enough to practice their craft in Corey's Barsoom.  But her integration into the game is what really works.  She never overtakes it, even though I've heard Corey occasionally lament that he's afraid she might have.  I think she's a ton of fun to read about, but only because the player characters are themselves interesting enough to go toe to toe with her (in a narrative sense, not in a let's roll initiative and take her down sense). 

When we come back for day 15, it's my favorite undead.  Which is difficult, I think, because I like the concept of undead (have I mentioned before that my game is as much horror as it is fantasy?  Well, probably not recently enough.)  However, I think D&D is guilty of ridiculous over-splitting and specialization of undead.  Finding the one that's "just right" and does what I need is easier said than done.

30 Day Challenge: Day 13 - Favorite trap or puzzle

While traps and puzzles are an old-timey D&D staple, I've never liked them.  Either as a player or as a GM either one.  I don't think that they're fun.  They're usually frustrating, and certainly extremely gamist.  They also don't really reflect much of anything in the fantasy literature from which the game sprung, or which some of it's players (i.e. me, at least) like the game to more closely resemble.

That said, there is one "trap" concept that works quite well for me.  Haunts, from Pathfinder, first released as a 3.5 mechanic, but later ported into Pathfinder.   It would work well in any d20 game, and is also easily enough adapted to any other game, for that matter.

Haunts really represent some elements of the more classic ghost story.  They don't represent an actual ghost per se, but most ghost stories have all kinds of creepy events that work, if you really dig into its nuts and bolts, more like a supernatural trap than anything else, and haunts are this exactly.

Here's the link to the relevant section of the PRD, so you can read how they work.

30 Day Challenge: Day 12 - Favorite Dungeon Type/Location

It's the 16th and I'm on challenge number 12.  I knew I'd fall behind on the weekend!  Sadly, had to watch my Aggies (two time alumnus) lose to the Crimson Tide, but honestly, I can't argue with what was a really great football game.  To add insult to injury, the first topic in my quest to get caught up today is favorite dungeon type.  Luckily, it's slashed with Location, because I have no favorite dungeon type, I hate dungeons (the next challenge is even worse.  I hate traps and puzzles.)

So, by hanging on as if to a lifeline to the Location option, I'll grab on to fantasy cities.  From Sanctuary (of Thieves' World) to Haven (of Hawk & Fisher); to the Maul (of Conan) and Lankhmar (of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser fame) fantasy urban cities tend to err on the side of being "wretched hives of scum and villainy" and that's exactly how I like them.

I actually have a number of fantasy city sourcebooks, or fantasy city descriptions in other form (as in for an Adventure Path in Dungeon magazine) and some of them are among my favorite setting sourcebooks around.  These include Five Fingers, Freeport, Cauldron, Sharn, Riddleport, Magnimar, Katapesh, and more.  I like having these, because they havemaps I can raid.  I also like having lots of locations I can potentially raid.

That said, as with all officially published setting documents, I can't ever really use them as is.  I have to simply borrow from them instead and use them in my own way.  Part of this is because it's too much work to memorize all the details, and I'd rather just have a big pool I could pick through for details when needed.  Part of it is because I just always like to put my own spin on things, and have the ability to cherry-pick ideas from others, as well as my own ideas, or even invention as the son of need on the spot.

I do have to admit, however, that my cities tend to feel the same.  It is often difficult for me to make really meaningful distinctions between cities in my settings, that come up often enough to really feel significant.  Then again--this is often true for actual real cities that I've been to as well.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Gaming Vlogging?!

While searching for some other blogs on Day 12 of the 30-day challenge (because I wans't sure exactly what they meant, and I wanted to see how a few other people interpreted the question before charging in myself) I came across this response--a very simple vlog.

I could do this!  Not as often as I blog regularly, probably--but still.  This might be fun.  I do have a youtube channel (that is completely fallow; I loaded up a couple of stupid videos years ago and never used it again), so I'm all set!  Anyway, check it out--it's only a few minutes long.

Although, if you're like me, you really wanted to find the comments screen after a while and yell RUINED!  Don't leave out the [i], or you're just talking about a city that's covered in runes!

30 Day Challenge: Day 11 - Favorite Adventure You've Run

Well, this one is tough for me to answer.  I don't really run adventures.  Ever.  Sometimes I read them.  But not to run them, only to raid them for ideas.  So I literally have no idea what to answer for this one that really is completely "on topic."

So instead, I'll "cheat" just a bit.  While I've never run any D&D adventures that I can think of, I have run the infamous DARKMATTER adventure, "Exit 23" (which was included in the original campaign setting book) several times.  Although never in its original Alternity form; I've run it adapted (by me) to d20 Modern.  This little gem of an adventure is about perfect for a 4 or so hour convention game, which is about how I've always done it, although I added a little more to make sure it filled the time completely.  It was meant, I think, to be done with six players (and that's mostly how I've done it) but I've done it before with an impromptu seven too.

It also helps that as a convention game, you can really play up the horror angle a bit more.  If a character goes down, well, that's OK.  It's just a couple hours of one-shot anyway.  The horror angle is handled very well; there's really only one monstrous encounter (an ice demon of some kind) but this is a great example of how to "milk" a monstrous encounter so it doesn't feel routine (as is so often the case in D&D.)

And that's really where the module shines.  It's moody, and it perfectly hits that horror-tone.  Sure, it ends up being all Larry Correia, where the solution to horror is to blow it up (it does take place at a gas station where the power's out, after all--and everyone knows how explosive gas is.)  There also seems to be a surprisingly amount of running into and over things with semi trucks.

I honestly can't even remember ever running another another pre-written adventure--of any system--other than "Exit 23".  So, while it's not a D&D adventure, I think it probably has to qualify.

That said, I'm a little tempted to adapt some Paizo adventure paths into something I run for my group.  They'd be heavily adapted, but they'd still be more or less recognizable.  I think either Carrion Crown or Serpent's Skull are the ones that most catch my eye.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Race names

In my effort to distance myself from D&D (and sometimes other fantasy settings) in my DARK•HERITAGE setting, even when I'm cribbing ideas directly from D&D, I've often led myself into a state of semi-confusion with regards to nomenclature.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the names of my non-human races.  To rectify this, I've decided I need to quit messing around with names and decide on one name for each race, and stick with it.  I also need to avoid names that are used for other concepts in D&D--for example, I've used changeling (which is, of course, a name rich with folkloric meaning) to refer to my take on tieflings and shifters both--a situation which only tends to confuse me more than anything else.

This post will rectify that--establish once and for all the PROPER name for each race in the form that I'll actually be using it.  It may lend itself to verisimilitude to have multiple names for each race, but it doesn't lend itself to ease and clarity on my end.  Of course, I say that and... they'll be one or two exceptions.  I love the name Kvuustu, for instance, but it's not very reasonable to expect that someone in a Mediterranean style setting would be able to say that. Cavusto as an alternate is perfectly fine.

Without further ado, here are the list of races and their "proper" ID tag, excluding the various human ethnicities, plus the "concept" from which I originally got the idea.

  • JANN.  Original concept from D&D: fire genasi.  Brick red skin, usually blondish, wispy hair, yellow eyes, Arabian Nights style culture.  The jann claim to be blessed with the blood of the ifrit from the legendary City of Brass in their distant ancestry.  Luckily, for this one, I've had a pretty consistent take on the name.  I've always called them either jann or the very similar djinn.  Mostly jann.
  • WILDLING.  Original concept from D&D: shifters from Eberron, although the tharn from Iron Kingdoms made an important contribution.  Also, based largely on the wild man body of Medieval folklore, not to mention toned down werewolves.  This is one I've had lots of problems with.  Wildling may not be a great name, or terribly original, but it's awfully descriptive and does the job.  I've toyed with calling these guys wildmen, woses, vucari, and changelings, as well as occasionally slipping and calling them shifters.  I'm going to stick with wildling and be done with it.
  • KEMLING.  Original concept from D&D: tieflings, but they're really as much based on Nightcrawler and Darth Maul as anything else.  Not to mention Graz'zt, old witchcraft trial accounts of Satan visiting witches as a Black Man, and even Nyarlathotep for that matter.  Another bad draw for me; these poor guys have been called darklings, tieflings, hellspawn, hellkin, and changelings.  Because they have a culture that's supposed to be reminiscent in some ways of the Bronze Age ancient Near East (as well as names from that region) the name I've come up with is original, and yet oddly similar in basic concept to the D&D term tiefling.  The suffix -(l)ing is a really old (as in Common Germanic old where it was *ingaz, and it carries forward into lots of Old English words, and a handful of modern English words still too--sibling, darling, duckling, etc.)  It's a masculine suffix that connotes a sense of belonging to, or son of--later corrupted to mostly being a diminuitive.  It's also the suffix used in Wolfgang Baur's coining of the term tiefling in the first place.  Apocryphally, Baur coined tiefling based on the German word for devil, which is Teufel, but that's a bit debatable since that should have rendered as Teufling.  Tief in German means deep, so tieflings are directly translatable into English as deeplings.  Either way, it's supposed to suggest their nature--the descendants, via twisted and obscure lineage of humans and some kind of fiend.  Kemling, then, has a similar meaning, using the Germanic suffix -(l)ing and the ancient Egyptian word kem, which means black (suggesting the skin color of kemlings in DARK•HERITAGE, it is both descriptive and evocative of their culture, their heritage (which is dark.. Hahahaha.  Umm. Yeah.) and their actual physical appearance all at once.  Also: hamazin in this scheme becomes merely a place-name or nationality type, i.e., someone from the Baal Hamazi region, whether human or kemling, either one.
  • CAVUSTO/KVUUSTU.  Original concept: these are late surviving neanderthals.  That name obviously won't really work, as it's specific to the Neanderthal, or Neander Valley in Germany, where the first neanderthal fossils were found.  As I mentioned, I'll keep the two names, since one is clearly derivative of the other.  This actually is one that works well at lending some verisimilitude without being confusing, unlike the other examples I was courting.
  • NEPHILIM.  Original concept: the Nephilim, from Apocryphal Judeo-Christian tradition.  Also, aasimar from D&D, except that the angels who are the distant ancestors of nephilim in my setting are, of necessity, fallen angels.  I never really had another word for this one, although I'd have liked to.  Nephilim is so Hebrew that it doesn't really seem to fit as a word that would be used in the Mezzovian Sea region.  Oh, well.  It fits the concept perfectly, and it's already well-known.  I'll just live with it.

30 Day Challenge: Day 10 - Craziest thing that's happened that you saw...

I've seen lots of interpretation of this.  I've heard of all kinds of crazy things happening in sessions from a meta standpoint, i.e. crazy things players do (as opposed to characters.)  One post on this topic I saw referred to a guy at a con game mooning the GM and doing a little dance of some kind for a roleplaying benefit, since his character was doing the same to somebody else.  Another guy I know went to a game of folks he didn't know, and one of the guys there decided that he was LARPing in the middle of the session.  And that he was playing a vampire.  And that he was going to try and bite another player on the neck with his fake vampire teeth.

I consider it a privilege not to have any stories of that kind to tell.  I do have some stories of crazy things happening, but it's always to characters not with players.

Which one to tell?  I actually have quite a few, and narrowing it to the most crazy is probably not something I can do.  Here's a pretty entertaining one, though. 

Shautha was a character in a game I was GMing.  She was a half-orc barbarian with a charisma score of... I don't remember, about 5 or so.  Not an attractive character.  She had the sex appeal of an angry shoggoth or Lena Dunham (but I repeat myself.)  But for some reason, the player decided that she was going to play up this character's obsession with girly things.  She really wanted to be a pretty little princess.  Or something.

There was a great moment where they were in the house of a suspicious minor lord who they knew was up to no good, but they didn't know exactly what his deal was.  So Shautha decided to flirt with him.  I can't remember anymore exactly how it happened, but somehow, although initially horrified, this minor lord somehow decided that really beefy half-orc gals were his thing, and they retired (with another character, who was actually attractive) to his bedroom suite as a distraction while the other PCs searched the manor.  Trying to lead him on without going too far (while Shautha on the other hand, horrifyingly wanted to see what a sexual encounter could be like) while the other characters raced to discover what ended up being the body of the patron that they were supposed to meet in town got really wacky really fast.  When the characters finally busted into the room to confront him on the death of their patron, the one character--a normal human rogue--who had at first led the flirting distraction, was desperately trying to escape the room, while the NPC was motor-boating the half-orc and singing "Oh, you touch my tra-la-la" to her and bouncing on the bed.

Naturally, it didn't end well.  The house ended up burning down, although the minor lord escaped thanks to his army of trained and armed gorillas (yes, this was the same game as mentioned in the post below) and the party was left with nothing better to do than attempt to rescue their characters, who as I recall, were carried off by demon lords.

Later, they encountered this guy again.  He had been nursing a burning crush for Shautha even after everything, and tried to convince her to leave her group and run off with him.  I think she almost did it too.  Especially after they discovered a cache of bad poetry written about her.

So, anyway.... Most crazy I've ever seen?  Probably not really.  But it's certainly a crazy story, and it's the one that came to mind today.

30 Day Challenge: Day 9 - Favorite character you haven't played

I GM a fair amount.  Therefore, it's probably actually quite a bit easier to pick a favorite character that I witnessed from another player than to pick one of mine.  I've had some real great ones.  I'm reminded of Eladkot, for instance--an unscrupulous, cowardly wizard who pursued knowledge best left undiscovered in my Pirates of the Mezzovian Main game--the D&D game which revamped my direction on the DARK•HERITAGE setting forever.  The characters had found an oracle, who said that her best work was done via anthropomancy.  Although this particular group of PCs weren't exactly anywhere close to heroic archetypes, even they balked at that.  But not Eladkot.  While he accepted the group's decision at the time, I got a private message from Eladkot's player between sessions, and we roleplayed out the notion of his character sneaking out that night, going to the slave market and buying the reediest, sickliest, and most importantly, cheapest halfling slave he could find, taking it to the oracle and having the slave slaughtered so the future could be read in his entrails.  (Needless to say, we didn't really roleplay out the details.)  I rolled up a number of predictions, and gave them to him via email.

When we got together for the next session, and he proudly proclaimed that he had new knowledge to help in the PCs quest, the interaction between the players was priceless.  They naturally very quickly cottoned on to what had happened.

Ricardo Murcièlago
That whole episode is actually one of a few short-list candidates for the next topic on the 30 day challenge; what's the craziest thing you've ever seen happen.  But I won't use it, since I just described it here.

Actually, that player has a history of having created a number of highly amusing characters.  I can't remember the character's name, but the tall, scrawny fella, who he described as looking like Disney's version of Ichabod Crane with a patchy, thin beard, who so related to dwarven culture that he believed he was a reincarnated dwarf who had lost his memory, was pretty darn amusing.

But no.  My favorite has got to be Ricardo and Lash.  Wait, that's two characters! you may be saying.  Well, sure.  But sometimes characters are nothing without their relation to another character.  Who is Abbott without Costello?  Who's Oscar without Felix?  Who's Moe without Larry and Curly?  Who's Tony Curtis without Jack Lemmon, or Rock Hudson without Tony Randall, or Bing Crosby without Bob Hope? (OK, those last three examples maybe don't work quite as well.)

Ricardo was a fantasy Don Juan--selfish, self-centered to a caricatured level, always more interested in whatever female company was in front of him than in anything else.  He was a male human swashbuckler (from Complete Warrior in build.)  His best friend was Lash, a fighter/rogue hobgoblin who's major frustrated goal in life was the acquisition, by hook or by crook of a ship, so he could have the piratical career he always dreamed of.  I did a little exercise prior to the start of the campaign in which all of the characters had to write very small little vignettes that put them in each other's past a bit.  Ricardo and Lash somehow quickly evolved into a long-running partnership of sorts.  They frequently hated each other and bickered like an old married couple, but in reality, they couldn't imagine life without each other.  Ricardo's distraction whenever a skirt was anywhere in sight frequently threw Lash's schemes into disaster, and Lash's preoccupation with his schemes frequently threw Ricardo's conquests into similar disaster.  The notion of these two bumbling con-men and hucksters who went through life inadvertently frustrating each other's goals, yet somehow unable to conceive of parting ways, resonated very quickly with me as the GM, both of the players of the characters, and for that matter, with the other characters in the group, who quickly allowed the two of them to ascend to a hilariously ineffective leadership role for the party overall.

You know how Jack Vance is often cited as being central to the formation of D&D?  Mostly, that's because of some superficial and obviously derivative similarities between the magic of the Dying Earth series and D&D.  In my game, however (which had no regular magic use at all, as a matter of fact) it was rather influential in the sense that Lash and Ricardo were like Cugel the Clever, a self-centered patsy who wandered from one misadventure to another, leaving disaster in his wake but not self-aware enough to realize it.  That was Lash and Ricardo to a T. 

Lash after being reincarnated as a gorilla
The wackiness of that particular game grew rapidly.  When a female demon-lord appeared in front of the characters in a harrowing, disturbing form that was emasculating to the characters--both figuratively and literally--Ricardo was unconscious.  She realized that her memory of the female human form was hazy and flawed and fixed it just in time for Ricardo to wake up, be instantly enamored of her, and swear his service to her in behalf of the entire group.  They couldn't stop him in time!  What a riot!  Ricardo nearly fainted again when the group quite angrily explained to him what he had done ("she had shark's teeth between her legs, Ricardo!")  Later, when the group had taken a number of casualties after visiting the Lost City of Naked Hotties Who Ride Dinosaurs Into Battle (otherwise known as Opar, although I don't think anyone ever asked) the demon-lord patroness reappeared to the group.  Sad to see Ricardo dead, whom she had become somewhat fond of, she reincarnated him into the body of one of the slain Naked Hotties (described as looking like a Fast Times era Phoebe Cates).  The infamous Don Juan reincarnated as a cute as a button little hottie was good for a laugh, and we got several sessions worth of amusement out of that.  Lash, on the other hand, had stormed off in anger while she was doing the magic that would reincarnate Ricardo.  Caught in the crossfire, his own consciousness was also torn from his body and reincarnated into that of a dead gorilla (long story; the Naked Hotties of the City of Naked Hotties were at war with sentient gorillas.)

Lash's player actually enjoyed being a gorilla more than being a hobgoblin, I'm sure.  After a while, both of them got their original bodies back, but I think the players were kinda reluctant about ending that chapter of their character arc.  They agreed that the joke was starting to get a little played out, but at the same time, they definitely enjoyed it while it lasted.

In an almost Seinfeld like conclusion to the campaign, the group inadvertently kicked off the apocalypse that would destroy the world they knew.  They wandered off blissfully unconcerned, whistling casually so nobody would think that it was their fault (metaphorically, not literally) and too self-centered to believe that the apocalapse would actually affect them personally.  After all, they were above such things.

We later tried to revive the characters for another campaign (in another setting, actually.)  Although it went reasonably well for a time, and we had some great moments, lightning couldn't strike the same place twice, and it wasn't quite the same.  Personal matters started to interfere and the participation of the players became a bit inconsistent... eventually, the campaign withered away with a whimper.  But the memory of the first great Ricardo and Lash campaign (no disrespect intended to the other PCs in the group, several of whom had some great moments of their own which may make the cut for the next post yet) is something that I'll have with me forever.