Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fantasticalisms

I'm with this guy.

Here are the things I use to try to keep the game genuinely fantastical...

Caveats:

1-In a sandbox, knowledge is freedom , so none of this means players should be enmeshed in such a mystery-universe that they can't make decisions. Only that a certain level of inexplicability needs to be enforced.

2-In the process of trying to get shit to work and trying to make jokes, players will do their damnedest to banalify the gameworld. Usually accidentally. That;s ok, it's their job. Just as you keep trying to kill them you have to keep trying to surprise them.

3-You can go completely the other way and still be a great GM. I've seen it done. Pretty much every time I've been a player. This is just my rules for me.

4-Most of this is probably old news to longtime readers.

So here's what I try to do:

-A player who has never played before needs to see a picture or a mini or they need to be able to imagine the creature just from the words you use to describe it.

-The word should be evocative in itself. "Goblin" is an evocative word. "Kobold" isn't.

-Don't use the same monster twice--unless there's some clear connection to the first time it showed up. Like goblins can show up more than once because it's established there's a goblin empire, but that wandering monster table with giant spiders on it again has got to go.

-Never use a monster with the same basic visual idea twice unless there's some clear connection to the first one--like never use 2 spider monsters, 2 two-headed monsters, 2 snake monsters, 2 wolf monsters, etc.

-Each session should include at least one new, freakish thing that you made up yourself.

-No grass. It isn't there. There's snow and, under that, stone. Elsewhere there's water, or sand. Maybe there's sand in the Sythian plain far off to the east, maybe. There might be cows and/or farmers, but you never hear about them unless you, the PC, specifically seek them out.

-Never make monsters "scalable" unless they're basically humanoids with levels like the PCs and so the PCs can tell them apart as characters. Dragons are big and tough and there's no ascending-HD parade of firedrakes or fire lizards before you see dragons. Your first dragon is a scary big deal. And maybe also your last dragon.

-Using the word "dragons" plural, is a warning sign.

-No standard-D&D alignment-as-cosmology.

-No magic-as-technology.

-No ubiquitous public organizations. "Society of the Back Ear" or whatever.

-Finding an NPC cleric willing to heal you is fucking hard and generally involves some creepy religious thing happening. Because miracles are rare.

-Don't write down any detail of the game world unless you're having fun writing it down.

-Don't write down any worldbuilding detail unless the players could: A) Find it out, and B) Care if they found it out.

-In other words, try to treat building and revealing the world as much like a fiction-writer as possible while still revealing enough to allow meaningful player choices all the time.

-It sure helps to have players who have only been playing for a few years.

-There aren't very many magic items you can carry and use--and the ones you do find usually just work once. You'd never find a "sword +1".

-It's hard to figure out what magic items do.

-If it looks dumb in my head, I'm not putting it in the game. No fucking running around whomping on an owlbear with a fucking Ioun Stone whipping around your head. The players will make things silly all on their own.

-No self-referential "screwjob" monsters: Oh-you-thought-it-was-a-rust-monster-but-really-it's... Trickery is fine. Trickery that assumes the players think the world's a bunch of tropes strung together isn't.

-You don't know what the spells cast by the enemy wizards are called. And if you do, it isn't "improved invisibility".

-Never have an NPC use the same spell twice. At least not in the same way.

-Try to give PCs access to nonstandard spells at every level.

-Adventuring is weird. Never use the "thousands of adventurers have been in this dungeon before" trope.

-Players have an understanding of the world that is imperfect, but accurate enough that they know basically which subgenre is in each direction. Even when the provided maps are basically 100% accurate (down to inch-per-mile-scale), they look inaccurate and eccentric, like a mappa mundi.

-No "chain of humanoid enemies". Goblins are weird fairy tale monsters with their own empire, gnolls are slavering barbarians, jackalmen wear robes and know magic, crowmen are semidemonic and rare, white leopardmen serve a Frazettastyle ice witch and bugbears and hobgoblins and what-all are bizarre unique things you haven't met yet.

15 comments:

  1. I think not fighting the same kind of monster twice is bit rough. I can understand the logic behind though. Instead maybe it could be: Never fight the same monster in the same way. A giant spider that lives in the web that is blocking the cavern is one thing, but a giant spider than pounces on you and secretes a paralyzing venom is something completely different.

    I think it's all right to have dungeons that others have gone to before, but those who come out of the dungeon have never made it all the way through, lost friends along the way, been horribly scarred physically and psychologically in the process, and seen some crazy monsters - though their descriptions of said monsters are far from accurate.

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  2. Love this...I am starting to do this in my own game. Doing the same thing over and over is boring. You have given some great ideas.

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  3. -No self-referential "screwjob" monsters: Oh-you-thought-it-was-a-rust-monster-but-really-it's... Trickery is fine. Trickery that assumes the players think the world's a bunch of tropes strung together isn't.

    Thank you for calling this one out, because it's poison. (Notably common in hated 2e-era adventures.)

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  4. @welcome

    When I'm a player, I don't mind. If the DM's using tropes then, hey, why not use antitropes? It's just not fun form me as a DM

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  5. When I'm a player, I don't mind. If the DM's using tropes then, hey, why not use antitropes? It's just not fun form me as a DM

    To each their own but it's a buzzkill for me as a player.

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  6. "No self-referential "screwjob" monsters: Oh-you-thought-it-was-a-rust-monster-but-really-it's... Trickery is fine. Trickery that assumes the players think the world's a bunch of tropes strung together isn't."

    I remember playing a game once where a mountain lion turned out to be a Krenshar, and I really liked the whole "you thought it was a normal cat but then the skin peeled back off of it's face" element. Does this count?

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  7. @Tom

    Not at all. A mountain lion is something everyone knows, not a convention only known to D&D veterans.

    A troll that's --OH MY GOD!--not vulnerable to acid! Is more what I'm talking about--or a Rakshasa that's not a rakshasa, just a tiger head guy in a smoking jacket. these are plays on D&D-specific tropes. And I don't like them.

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  8. "Using the word "dragons" plural, is a warning sign."

    I was intrigued by that line. Do you mean it's a warning to the players (i.e. "A dragon alone is bad enough; dragons, plural, mean you're dead.") or as a warning to the DM (i.e. "If you overuse dragons you risk cheapening them and reducing their impact.")?

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  9. @morganmay
    definitely the second

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  10. @Zak
    I always kind of struggle with that. Dragons are in the title of the game and players expect to encounter them, but as I see it, the whole point of dragons is to be unique and terrifying. I think in my next game I'm going to try to split the difference by treating dragons almost as major (rare) terrain features. No sane person enters the territory of a dragon. Merchant caravans will go far out of their way to avoid a dragon's lair, and those that don't tend to disappear without a trace. Dragon lands are largely unexplored and could contain creatures that have died out elsewhere, giving them kind of a Lost World vibe. That way the players are aware of dragons from early on and their presence is felt in the campaign but they are rarely, if ever, actually encountered. And when a dragon is slain, it's a major event not just for the players but for neighboring kingdoms, as the dragon's lands suddenly become available for exploration and settlement.

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  11. Another take on magic items: Cursed items should be the norm. When you find a magic item, if you're smart you won't touch it, you won't even look at it. Very carefully, you can try to ascertain whether it's safe to examine, and if it is, with great trepidation you can try to figure out how to use it without triggering it against you.

    An example would be the Bowl of Commanding Water Elementals from the DMG, except that it's huge and heavy, and if you gaze into the water without the proper command words/etc it forms a water weird that tries to kill you. (and even if you use it successfully you still have to control the elemental through force of will)

    Items you can actually carry around with you should be unreliable or dangerous even if you know the right way to use them. A cursed berserker sword that when unsheathed makes you fight insanely until you or everything around you is dead (but gives you hefty combat bonuses). A lucky coin that lets you make rerolls, but sooner or later all your bad luck comes back at once. A few items are actually more or less safe to use; those are the ones that players will cherish.

    Also, it seems to me that having numerous magical items in one place should be dangerous in itself. If you have a party of five people each with two or three different magic items, all those powerful objects in close proximity should definitely pose a risk of some kind.

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  12. Great post.

    -Don't write down any detail of the game world unless you're having fun writing it down.

    and

    -If it looks dumb in my head, I'm not putting it in the game.

    bear repeating ad nauseum.

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  13. @John -Yes! The Dungeon Crawl Classics rpg is handling magic items in a very similar fashion. In fact, their manifesto for the game is very similar to what Zak is extolling above.

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  14. The magic items thing makes me think the problem is with the D&D ruleset: there's not enough granularity in the mundane items so your progression goes sword-masterwork sword-magic sword. Instead of starting with crappy scavenged equipment that keeps breaking so when you get a proper new sword that's great and "never dulls and can't break" is actually something you want in a weapon rather than a bit of flavour.

    Might stem from the idea that everything should be balanced, particularly with armour- cobbling together a full set of metal armour over the course of a few sessions is miles cooler than trading between splintmail plus 1 and splintmail plus 2, but too many games use some sort of rule that means the amount of protection having more armour gives you is balanced out exactly by reduced mobility, meaning the only way up is magic.

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