Saturday, October 31, 2009

What's In The Box? Pain. No, wait--Fun.

The Glass Box In Maleketh's Dungeon

The precise purpose of this item is unknown.

(Actually, the purpose of this item is to quickly introduce new people to the game--in the sense of both "quickly introduce new players to the way D&D works" and "quickly introduce those players' new characters in the middle of a dungeon at the beginning of a session where the original PCs are about to get into a fight with something they ran into at the cliffhanger ending of the last session".)

The cube-shaped (or oblong, or whatever) box is made of glass--2 inches tall on each side--and has gems set into five of the sides.

(Actually, the box is made of clear plastic and the "gems" are sphere-headed pushpins hot-glued onto it.)

The gems, set one to a side, are black, red, green, white, and blue.

(Or whatever color the pushpins you have are.)

Inside the box is a scale model of an existing chamber somewhere in Maleketh's dungeon.

(Whatever chamber the original PCs and their foe/foes were about to fight in when the last session ended.)

The real chamber will have an alcove attached to it.

(The alcove is where the new PCs wake up.)

Inside the box are tiny and fully-functioning scale replicas of everyone and everything in the chamber.

(Namely, the original PCs and the monster or monsters they were about to fight)

The actions and movements inside the box correspond precisely to whatever is happening inside the chamber.

(Which will be obvious to the newly-arrived PCs because they will wake up with the box lying within reach and they will be able to see out of their alcove and into the replicated chamber through the gaps in a steel grate that separates the chamber from the alcove.)

Touching the gems will cause various events to occur:

Touching the green gem will open or close the grate separating the chamber and the alcove.

(The new PCs will eventually figure out they have a choice about whether to get into the fight immediately.)

Touching the blue gem will move each individual in the chamber (i.e., in the fight) to the position occupied by the next individual in the chamber clockwise from him or her.

(In the right hands, this can be devastating, but more importantly, it'll teach the new PCs something about how combat works.)

Touching the red gem will heal everyone in the chamber for one hit point of damage. This effect only works once every 24 hours.

(This might keep your new PCs from dying immediately. It might also bring the monsters back from the dead if they get knocked unconscious and then somebody starts thinking "Now what does this box do....")

Touching the white gem will turn every living thing in the chamber invisible--and close the steel grate if it's not already closed.

(Which might be good for a laugh.)

Touching the black gem will cause a trap door in the ceiling of the alcove to open and cause an unconscious civilian to fall through.

(So that's how we ended up here.)

The box and associated chamber may have other secrets as well.

(But that's probably enough to keep them busy for the first session.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

In Reality Good Religions Don't Exist

This isn't a full post, my post for today is actually the one below about pictures of monsters.

This is just the name of the post that I want to write but am not controversy-hungry enough to actually write containing my immediate reaction to this on the Bat In The Attic blog.

Pictures That Make Monsters Stop Sucking

I drew this thing. Then I realized it's kind like a roper, only not stupid. Now, ropers are still on my list of monsters too dumb to use, but I have to admit, nothing makes me re-evaluate my "do-not-use" list like a good picture.

I'd never use goblins if I thought they looked like these hapless mooks:

So now when there's a goblin I show my players this:

And I feel fine about it.

Here are some other pictures I've found around the internet that rehabilitate lame monsters:

Is that a troglodyte? A draconian? Either way, it's not stupid anymore. Thanks Keith Parkinson!

No matter how hard they try, TSR and WOTC treants all look like log-bumpkin hybrids about to yell "Get off my lawn!". Ian Miller, on the other hand, knows that trees don't care about you at all.

It takes a seriously awesome picture to make a snob like me want to stat up a demon rooster.

Blindheim, anyone?

This kind doesn't shoot eyerays at you. You just look at it and it's so fucked you go blind.

Continuing on the fiend folio theme...when I saw this able but uninspiring image of the kenku...

...I thought--"Does this game really need budgie men? Does any game need budgie men? Do humans, as a species, even need the concept of budgie men running around in our collective consciousness? What are we, as a society, coming to?"

When then I saw this:

I had no idea it was supposed to be the same monster. I also, for some reason, assumed they were like 8 inches tall and roamed Lankhmar stealing shiny objects from unconscious drunks. So I made some up and that's what they do.

However, if the full-size kenku do come around, I'll have them look like this.

Unicorns aren't so bad, I guess, but now I really want to use one--if David Lynch ever makes a movie about a little girl with a unicorn, this is what the poster'll look like.

This is a Bakezori--a kind of Japanese spirit that posesses an ordinary household item--which is a fine idea for a monsters, but who would've thought you could've pulled it off with a sandal? Well, Shigeru Mizuki, for one. He was right, too. Now you are scared of a sandal.

Now it's tough to beat that, but prepare for the ultimate feat of artistic reinvention. Brace yourself...

Behold: a cool bard.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Cruellest Kill

My girlfriend's sister wanted to learn to play, and she wanted to be a witch. I said alright, roll some dice.

Like most 1st level AD&D wizards, my girlfirend's sister's first character had way more gold pieces than she could spend.

You can't buy armor, you can't buy weapons, so...?

When I last faced a similar problem, I noticed that the cp-sp-gp-whatever conversion rates made it possible to buy a phenomenal amount of beer for, like, 10 gp. So I did. My character was so drunk I didn't name him--I figured he couldn't remember. We called him "The Wizard."

Sis, on the other hand, her eye gravitated toward the "livestock" section.

"I want six pigs--three full size and three piglets."

Hey, it's on the equipment list.

She commenced to name them. She also figured out how to talk to pigs somewhere along the line-I think I was using Fairy Tale Rules for magic-user languages. Wizards willing to forgo Orc or Dragon can talk Pig--why not? There's gotta be some compensation for having the balls to walk around with one hit point.


So it was one of those "You wake up and you don't know how you got here and you don't know where your stuff is" adventures. (Because I am of the Walter Hill* school of DMing.)

"Are my pigs here?"

"Not in this room."

My girlfriend and her sister are funny. Promise them gp, xp, magic items, present moral dilemmas and opportunites for character growth, this does not motivate them particularly--take away 75 gp worth of stuff they bought during character generation, however, and in every room it's like "Is my stuff here? Did that goblin have my stuff? I cut open the dragon's stomach with my bastard sword--is my stuff in there?".

Too many video games I think. Because, like, in video games, if you lose your stuff, this is the apocalypse.

So anyway, in this dungeon, if you got past the baby black dragon hiding in the halfling vampire queen's coffin, the treasure includes "any equipment lost by first person who asks if their stuff is there."

So Sis asks: "Is my stuff here?"

"Why yes it is."

"And all my pigs?"

"Well, one of them,"

"Which one?"

"I don't know, which one do you want it to be?" (Dig the thorough and meaningful integration of Cooperative Narrativist elements.)

"Charles." (or something)

"Ok, there's Charles, he is very pleased to see you. He bats his big piggy eyelashes. Squeee! Squeeeee!"


So there were some adventures, and then the party came to a dark stairwell. Who knows what lurks down there?

"Send the pig down," suggests one fo the boys.

"Ok, I send the pig down."

Now--the stairwell is full of undead birds.

Vultures with skull heads. They were inspired by things called "carrion" in Warhammer Fantasy, and there was a really nice one on the back cover of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #17 by Bryan Talbot. Too tired to google it.

So the predictable thing happened. I narrate thusly:

" Charles is borne pitilessly aloft by the unliving raptor he cries 'Oh, why have you betrayed me? I trusted youuuuu....'"

"Awww..." Horrible look on sis's face.

The party moves on, talks to a sphinx, finds out about stuff, etc. etc.


Play ends.

So then I try to sleep.

I have trouble sleeping.

I keep picturing that pig in those bony claws "Why have you betrayed meeeeee.....?"


Next game starts.

I say Hey everybody, Settle down kids, and I recap last game then I go:

"...aaaand, ok, everybody if you were here last time you get 308 x/.p., check to see if that levels you up and, also, I made a mistake last time, Sis's pig's last words were not actually 'Oh, why have you betrayed me? I trusted youuuuu....' they were actually "It's ok! I regret nothing! I had a lot of fun I wouldn't have otherwise had if I hadn't gone with you on your adventure! I've had a full life, thank you, goodbye!"

*Walter Hill:

"I very purposely--more and more so every time I do a script--give characters no back story. The way you find about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue." --Walter Hill, quoted in David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (New York: Alred A Knopf, 1994)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Imaginable Monsters, Sci-Fi Monsters, etc.


So when I posted about the moat dragon, Mathew Slepin wrote this:

This brings up some interesting issues; among them is Player Expectation.

On the one hand, I totally get the idea of using Player Expectation for effect--the "Oh, shit! It's a Beholder!" thing. And clearly there has been decades of expectation now since the game first codified certain monsters.

But on the other hand, the original players had no expectations. They wouldn't know what that eyeball-thing was. And that's how I tend to play--I like to change the monsters enough that you get a general reaction of "Oh shit! What is that thing!". With the consequent expectations only occurring after some experiences.

Anyway, so, yeah, new and totally unexpected monsters are good.

On the other hand, D&D is a game of imagination. You sit around a table and all imagine the same thing. I tend to assume that the more concrete and detailed this shared imagining is, the more fun the game is. And it's easy to imagine something everybody knows, like a minotaur. Ok, team, synchronize imaginations...we're all imaginging a guy with a bull's head? Ok, let's go...

The trick to making new things in fantastic scenarios interesting is, I think, making new things out of parts that are easy for your players to imagine.

The handsnake is a new monster, but it's just a hand--which we all have--and a snake--and we all know what a snake is. This makes it to imagine than, say, that. And, perhaps more importantly, easier to remember than that.

Looking at these two articles about creating "monsters with traction", what surprises me is that they fail to note this--or at least note it enough.

The most successful D&D monsters that don't come from old folklore and myth tend to be ones that, visually, fit the "made-of-identifiable-parts" rule: the beholder (a big floating eye with eyestalks), the mind flayer (a guy with an octopus for a head), the demon princes. (As do most of the monsters that do come from folklore and myth that have traction--the medusa, the couatl, etc.).

The otyugh and the umber hulk and the xorn aren't as popular for a reason. (The even less popular catoblepas and leucrotta, while arguably made of identifiable parts, are harder to convincingly describe--and, more importantly, to consistently picture while playing.) People who remember them tend to be people who grew up with them and so have seen the picture.

That's because the other way to make a new monster imaginable is to make well-known images of them--that's why the githyanki has traction and the githzerai (from the same book but not in full color on the cover) doesn't.

Primal Symbolic Stuff

Making a monster out of eyes or snakes doesn't just make it easy to imagine, on some level, things like eyes and snakes (and wolves and stags and bats and bears) mean something to the human unconscious. They create uncanny semi-recognitions. It's familiar, but wrong which is creepy. In a good way.

It's no coincedence that fantastic monsters work best when they refer to symbols that are psychologically important to people because, the fact is medusas and dragons and cyclopses really did emerge from human psychology.

Fantastic Monsters Vs. Sci-Fi Monsters

Now, all this sounds reasonable, but it all goes out the window in sci-fi where it's a mark of both creativity and "realism" (in the hard-SF sense) to make monsters that don't look like anything we're familiar with.

This is a weird situation for the artist who wants to create something compelling. In sci-fi movies it's no problem--the thing's on the screen where you can see it so the only restriction is the budget. In sci-fi books, the best authors--the Phillip K. Dicks and the Ballards--actually use the undescribability of the aliens to their advantage. It's not really that a Vug or a Vogon is truly indescribable, more that, in literature, there's often little, aesthetically, to be gained from a detailed description.

(Lovecraft--and sci-fi horror in general--is an interesting middle case--we all know he combined sci-fi with the fantastic, but he also combined the emotions associated with them. That is, he explored the primal and recognizable emotion of being horrified by that which is fundamentally unrecognizable. The undescribable is alien, but the fear of that which is alien is not alien.)

In an RPG, despite it not being a visual medium, there is much to be gained from having a creature be describable--whatever it is, players need to know how much space it takes up, how many weapons it can hold, how hard it'd be to knock it over, etc. etc.

This "monster imaginability factor" has had a considerable effect on sci-fi gamers. Consider the most popular sci-fi games:

In Star Trek and Star Wars, the aliens are familiar from the big and little screens.

In Shadowrun and Warhammer 40k, the aliens are, largely, based on familiar fantasy races (eldar are elves, etc.) and in Warhammer 40k, once unfamiliar aliens started being introduced, they always had miniatures made with them to reinforce their visual identities. (The ones that didn't disappeared--Catachan devil? Jokaero?)

Rifts is a mash-up game, so pretty much everything in it was familiar from another source. Even the splugorths are basically Lovecraftian old ones. The original things in Rifts that have any "traction" are backed up by copious illustrations (the glitter boy, for example). Other iconic pieces of Rifts--dog-boys, skelebots, skull-walkers--are all made of identifiable parts.

Traveller was originally a meet-whatever-the-hell-you-can-imagine-in-space game, but the races that were thoroughly catalogued and illustrated by the game's authors quickly came to dominate the game and a continuity got created. These races were mostly familiar looking--wolfpeople, lionpeople, lizardpeople etc.

Bold, Sweeping, Conclusion with Surprisingly Broad Implications

I think, in general, this may be why D&D is still more popular than its sci-fi competitors despite the fact that sci-fi is theoretically always a more hip and groovy and flexible and accessible and popular genre than the fantastic. It's because RPGs are about imagination, and one of the most fundamental ideas in truly good sci-fi is getting to see the totally unimaginable and that fundamental idea is difficult to pull off week after week in a game of imagination, and it is impossible to put in a game book because as soon as you do, the players can imagine it.

On the other hand, the fantastic is about moving toward the primal and the primal is somewhere inside all of us. Either as "basic desires and symbols and what they imply" or as in "stuff that happened a long time ago". A dragon is an inkblot that the human race has been staring at for 300,000 years. Players don't mind the unexpected and the alien in D&D, but they also welcome the chance to confront dragons, because that means something to them already.

In other words, sci-fi is more about the possible, and the fantastic is more about the psychological.* Sci-fi is about what might be out there, the fantastic is about what might be in here. Sci-fi is about the difference between what is and what could be and the fantastic is about the difference between what is and what we think is.

Neither is a more noble or useful pursuit than the other, but there may be reasons (other than the obvious historical one) that the latter genre has survived more totally among the fans of a game of imagination than it has in any other medium. And why it has survived better than any other genre in that medium.

*This is perhaps why, in the hands of a hack, sci-fi tends toward cold invention-of-the-monthery and, in the hands of a hack, the fantastic tends toward sentimentality and wish-fulfillment.

Hey bloggers, I got a question--my little skeleton head doesn't pop up in the list of "people following this blog" for othe peoples blogs I'm following, even though they're on my blogroll and on the blog reader for this blog. Like if I go to Monsters and Manuals there's no Zak S under "Followers". Is the idea I have to get a gmail account and subscribe to the blog thru that in order for that to happen? Let me know. If so, just know that's not happening, so even though my head isn't there, I'm probably still reading your blog.

images: shadow king by Jiri Trnka, spider by Manny Schongut, other pictures by me.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What My Players Are Doing When They're Supposed To Be Listening To My Enthralling Descriptions Of 10' x 10' Rooms

If you click on the picture, you'll see a meticulous list of magic-items the party's acquired. As for the rest...what is that, paladin-playing-guy, a bear wearing paisley? And what's with the bunnies? There are no bunnies in this dungeon.

The "fail" I think refers to the paladin's die rolls. The misspelled "Fale" in the upper left is a reference to "Yale" the artist's alma mater. As for "Don't Shake Me Lucifer" well, we were listening to Roky Erickson. As you do.

This drawing has been censored to spare your delicate sensibilities. Note the flail snail.

Yes, I made them fight a flail snail. This is largely because I am awesome.

The rogue player illustrates her exploits. Left--attempting to seduce the White Elf Amazon guard. Right--dwarf attacking the skin-stealing gremlin after it leaps from the hollowed-out-body of a party guest.

This character sketch was drawn on the back of one of those shiny lid things you get on top of mexican food. By someone with a master's in fine arts.

Somewhere in one of the 666 layers of the Abyss, they are showing this drawing to a 4-armed demon and going "Yeah, man, this is the palooka that natural-20ed you from behind."

Horst Von Chasm--1st level wizard--who survived a slime trap only to be crushed by a giant toad. He might've pulled through if the cleric hadn't decided Hey, he'll probably die anyway, why not test this red potion on him?

Hey look, somebody's mapping. Excellent. Note the "ribbit noises" in the lower right hand corner.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Moat Dragon

This semi-domesticated aquatic offshoot of the black dragons is a product of selective breeding. While their breath weapons, wings, and legs were bred out of them centuries ago (mostly to protect their owners) and they are generally too isolated from their own kind to learn magic, their main appeal is that they grow to enormous and peasant-intimidating size at a ridiculously young age. There are dozens of known strains, and subspecies with unusual features such as venom sacs, goat horns, tentacles, and chameleonlike-skin have all been reported.

The powerful lords who own and trade moat dragons generally house them in palisaded pools or moats far too deep to escape, and have the animals killed when they outgrow their enclosures. On rare occasions, however, they escape or (even rarer) are released into the sea, where they grow bitter, ancient and coarse-scaled in the deep water, develop algae-filled beards and vast, flowing fins like tattered warship sails, and learn strange magics from the cold and cryptic things that sleep far beneath the waves. Such creatures, while no longer "moat" dragons, are so rare as to have no common name, and the few who have seen them, for panicked seconds, can perhaps be forgiven for not taking the time to thoroughly detail the many differences between the ancient moat dragon and the Eastern Sea Dragon or Lung Wang.
Design notes:

So this monster addresses two "problems":

(1)--There are dragons in moats in medieval art and stories, but not in the game,


(2)--If it's Dungeons and Dragons then low-level players may well wonder when they get to fight a dragon. And not some little not-quite-a-real-dragon like a five-foot-long wyrmling or a pseudo-dragon. So the moat dragon is a full-size, honest-to-god dragon that low-level PCs might actually have a chance with. However, it's visually different enough from standard dragons that it won't spoil the reveal when the serious villainous reptiles show up.

Now, as it says in this article:

There's a natural tension built into the notion of a monster that you can fight at low, middle, and high levels. On the one hand, scalability adds a sense of continuity. But if every monster is perfectly scalable, players don't get the sense of dread from knowing they're facing a particularly tough monster. Most D&D players shudder the first time a beholder comes floating down the corridor. But if they've been fighting 1 Hit Die beholders from their very first session, the 11 HD version is just another monster.

So, basically, that means I'd take care--when using this monster--to make the PCs realize that a moat dragon is a different and far less sophisticated animal than its land-dwelling cousins (thus the tentacles). Oh, that thing you just killed? That was just a moat dragon--didn't even have any spells.


Ordinary young moat dragons have as many hit points as they need to have in order to put up a decent fight with your PCs the first time they meet one (and they have whatever armor class, too). Offensively, beyond maybe the occasional drown or gore attack, they do roughly what you think a big sea snake would do.

Ancient moat dragons are some serious arcane mythic Lovecraftian shit and should be statted accordingly.

Images: Photo from Claire Nouvian's (rad) book The Deep, the Tom Waits -looking dragon painting's by Piero di Cosimo, the hit location sketch is by me, and the etching is by somebody who's dead and will probably be ok if I don't credit him.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Is This Game?

My general feeling about games is--play whatever system, and hack the hell out of it to fit your--and your players'--taste.

However, when you ask someone if they want to play D&D with you, they kind of expect certain things, and if you change those things, you should tell them first. Also, when and if you complain about D&D, you really can only complain about certain things, since the rest are easy to change.

Here's my list of core things that define the game* for my players and/or are complicated to change:

1-Characters have races and classes (or race-as-class)
2-The classes include (at least) fighters/warriors, magic-users/wizards, thieves/rogues, and clerics/priests. Fighters can use any weapon or armor and are good at it, wizards use magic, clerics use magic and can fight ok, thieves have sneaking abilities.
3-Characters get experience points and go up in levels
4-PCs have 6 ability scores (Dex, Str, etc.) and they're mostly on a scale from three to eighteen
5-There's a list of spells and, when the PCs use them, they generally do what it says in the book--especially the ones low-level players get (like magic missile)
6-It's set in a version of medieval europe and the player races are derived from european folklore and include--at least--the major races in the Lord of the Rings books.
7-Characters and monsters have an "armor class" that combines size, armor, and dexterity
8-Physical damage is recorded as hit points
9-In order to attack, you make a "to hit" roll on a d20 versus ac (including dex, str, and other bonuses)
10-Going up in levels increases your hit points

These are the parts of the bike that, if you change them, it'll make people start thinking it's not the same bike. Change more than half, and it's not D&D any more. Which is fine, but you might want to ask your players if they mind. These are merely the assumed defaults.

(I should stress that although I think this list is pretty exhaustive for my players your mileage may vary--some people you know may squeak if they find out you're playing fast and loose with, say, alignment.

If you feel there are any "core" things that would have to be added to this list to describe your players' idea of the game, let me know in the comments.)

(Looking at the comment below from Carl, I guess I should also stress that nobody I know particularly cares if we suddenly aren't playing D&D anymore. They just like to be told first.)

Pretty much anything else about the game other than those 10 I know I can hack and my players either won't care or won't notice or will not bat an eye when I tell them I'm changing it.

So, a list of things that are not-the-core of D&D would include: what you get xp awards for, magic items (effects and distribution), alignment, deities, fire damage, trap disarmament procedures, time scale, encumbrance, which weapons do what damage, how hard it is to perform noncombat operations, what happens when you get to 0 h.p., running, jumping, climbing, spotting, hearing noise, initiative prcedures, character movement speed, how wizards learn spells, what exactly you can see with infravision, monsters used, whether you are actually ever in a "dungeon", system shock survival, rules for henchmen, assasination, character interaction, light sources, diseases, tracking rules, the precise ranges and durations of monsters' spells and spell-like abilities, how long it takes to cast a spell, rules for grappling or grabbing or unarmed combat, whether there are planes of existence, and everything else in the DMG or players handbook or anywhere else in the published game.

So: D&D as a mental construct in player's heads consists largely of a combat system, a (partial) spell list, a character generation & advancement system, and a vaguely-defined setting. The rest gets regularly hacked all the time, often by DMs who don't even know they're hacking it.

If anyone complains about D&D and is complaining about anything other than one of these 10 concepts, then you'd just ask "Well why not just house-rule it?"

"The casting time rules are confusing!" Well change them, waterhead, glue-sniffing 8th graders have been figuring out how to do it since 1979. The same goes for the retroclones.

Some things I notice when I make this list:

>I--like many gamers, and nearly all game designers in history--am often sorely tempted to hack items 7-10 (over a third of what makes D&D truly D&D), and I don't because I know it'd confuse and consternate my players since they're all pretty casual gamers and it's not really worth it in the end since we all have lots of fun with 7-10 the way they are so whatever.

This guy would--very reasonably--ask "Well why play D&D instead of some other system?". For pretty much the same reasons international diplomats use English. Given the extant state of the universe, it's just the easiest. If, instead of a bunch of thoroughly distracted strippers, porn stars and artists--some of who are just now getting the hang of simple things like writing down on their character sheet how much damage their own weapons do--my players were all hardcore RPG-bloggers, we'd probably all be playing Rolemaster. (Which I would totally be into.) Like I said, until we stop having fun, I'm not fucking with it.

>2, 5, and 6 are often expanded far beyond the limits of the original game design, and it usually works just fine. That is, new classes, spells and setting elements can be bolted on at will and there's very little problem with that. Only taking away stuff that's in these rules will confuse or upset players or have a ripple effect that screws up the rest of the system.

>Hardly anybody ever expresses a desire to change 3 or 4 unless they're making a whole new game. They're fairly robust concepts and pretty much work well enough, even intelligence and wisdom being two different stats. Charisma gets a bad rap and in one version there was Charisma AND Comeliness, but eventually it got changed back. I personally like Charisma alone since it says, in effect: "17 Charisma? Maybe your character is charming, maybe your character is hot, maybe a little of both--defining which is up to you, the point is this character has this much ability to influence others. Envisioning the character is the player's prerogative, defining his or her effectiveness is the dice's prerogative."

>None of these core, defining rules are incompatible with bolting on mechanics that encourage role-playing or storytelling if that's the game you want, with the occasional and very very narrow exception of rules 8, 9, and 10 since they sort of abstract what happens in combat and so make saying, for example, "he lost an eye at the Battle of Scuffleheim" difficult.

(In my own games, I throw in a hit-location system, but I warn everybody.)

Semi-Related Stuff:

If you go here and listen to "meta-episodes" 1, 2, 3 and (more recently posted) 4 of this podcast you'll hear a really interesting discussion about combining D&D mechanics with the mechanics of new school games. I should note here that these people play their game in a way I probably never would--waaaay too emohippiegamey for me and my players (plus it's 4e)--but I feel like it is one of the most intelligent and least condescending discussions of what D&D can and can't do by storygame-friendly gamers. I don't agree with everything they say, but I do appreciate the fact that they discuss the issue without the "D&D is primitive and now we're beyond that" mindset that some storygamers seem to have.

(In general, I like that podcast--I have no desire to run that adventure or play the way they do, but I like hearing how other people can play vastly different games than I do and still have fun, plus it's extremely professional and well-put-together--plus when they get drunk it seems like all their "planned character development" goes out the window and they're just trying to kill things and have fun.)

For a different--equally interesting, if shorter--point of view and one with which, I largely happen to agree, see this. The same example (coincedentally?) comes up in both podcasts--the example of "role-playing a game of Clue"

*Obviously this list leaves out philosophically "outside the box" defining features like "in the game, you pretend to be a person that is not yourself and you pretend to exist in another world yet you do not actvely believe this or imagine anyone else to believe this". I'm just talking about things that define D&D against other pen & paper RPGs.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Eye of Dread

The Eye of Dread--the unnatural union of a thief's hand, a snake's body, and the eye of either a blind child or a lunatic--is a kind of evil humunculus created by witches of the northern wastes, who employ them to spy on their foes and, occasionally, to suffocate them in their sleep.

The eye set into the withered palm acts as both a scrying device and a weapon. If the creature was made using a blind eye, then anyone gazing into the eye must save or be blinded for 1-4 rounds. If the creature was made using a maniac's eye then the victim must save or roll on the Insanities That Are Actually Interesting In Combat Table (the effect will last 1-4 rounds).

Insanities That Are Actually Interesting In Combat Table

1-Target becomes a kleptomaniac
2-Target PC does exactly the opposite of whatever player wants him/her to do
3-Target needs a strong drink before taking any action
4-Target attacks nearest friendly PC
5-Target believes s/he is nearest friendly PC
6-Target is paralysed with indecision
7-Target is confused
8-Target thinks s/he is dead
9-Target thinks s/he is nearest foe
10-Target becomes obsessed with nearby irrelevant object
11-Target moves toward highest point within his/her ordinary move range and jumps off
12-Target drops his/her weapon and begins to cry for help in any and all languages known to him/her

Though posessing a rudimentary intelligence, an Eye of Dread, unlike the handsnake, is little more than a tool of its mistress, and cannot breed.

If slain, the creature turns into a glove. The glove will fit no-one except the witch who sent the Eye, and will fit her in whatever guise she may adopt.

The Eyes have 1-3 hit dice, and what armor class they have will be due to their small size and relative nimbleness. They grip, poke and choke with an 18 strength.

Design note:

In movies, you get attacked by werewolves and the next morning you go "Hey, Weird Local--what the hell is going on in this village?" In D&D you get attacked by a werewolf and in the next morning you're just glad it wasn't a weretroll. The Eye may just be weird enough that the PCs might actually investigate it after it tries to kill them.

Also, since, other than the gaze, the Eyes themselves are pretty weak and rely on strangling and grabbing and surprise, I find they, during combat, bring the environment into play a lot more than a basilisk or something--which can just bite you or claw you if its evil eye doesn't work.

In play:

A few of these, well hidden, turned out to be a serious bargain on the mayhem-per-hit-point exchange. One PC went blind and one thought he was an Eye of Dread. So he sat there and looked evilly at his friends. Meanwhile the eyes were busy choking everyone. Then someone cast darkness. The eyes couldn't see anybody but everyone could feel the Eyes crawling on their faces so the PCs started pounding on themselves in the dark. The eyes who escaped crawled into the light and started attacking the blind guy...

The mini is from Games Workshop's "Realms of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned".

Friday, October 23, 2009

Songs Useful In D&D Games Renamed To Reflect The Situations Wherein I Have Used Or Plan To Use Said Music

Eerily Quiet Place Where There Are Probably Bad Elves With Knives

Vs. Wolf Demons in a Waist-Deep River of Blood

Song Appropriate To Play Right After Your First-Level Magic-User Uses "Sleep" For The First Time And Everybody's Impressed Because It's AD&D So The Gnolls Get No Saving Throw

Encounter in the Chamber Wherein Dwells the Halfling Vampire Queen and Her Pet Vampire Monkey

Fighting Witches In Their Creepy Witch-Place

Yeah, Sure Villagers, We'll Take Your Money, We'll Solve Your Little Problem. Where? Over In That Ruined Subterranean Complex? No Problem. What? Yeah, A Little, But We Can Still Pass A Breathalyzer Test

I Know You Guys Know What's In The Next Room And I, As Your DM, Would Just Like To Reassure You That Everything Will Be Ok, Just Let Me Switch The CD, Now, Ok, What Were You Saying Your Plan Was?
(Dylan--"Fixin to Die")

Vecna's Bride Held Aloft In The Center Of Undead Army On Palanquin By Zombies Visiting Vengeance On All Mankind

A Dimension Warp Opens And Things Suddenly Get All Arduin and Shit
(Dead Link--Monster Magnet "3rd Alternative")

Emerging From The Dungeon To a Twisted Frostscape of Withered Trees

Helm's Deep-Esque Epic-Hopeless-Stronghold-Defense-Type Situation
(dead link--Metallica "For Whom The Bell Tolls")
You Summoned It But Now It Wants To Eat You So Now You Are Running Away
(I cannot for the life of me remember what I linked to here)

Any Scene That Feels Like RE Howard Wrote It

Any Scene That Feels Like RE Howard Wrote It (drunk singalong)
(I am guess in this was an Iron Maiden "Sun and Steel")
The Fact That Nothing In This Abandoned Temple Has Tried To Hurt Us Yet Only Makes Me More Nerv...FUCK!

The Fact That Nothing In This Ruined City Has Tried To Hurt Us Yet Only Makes Me More Nerv...FUCK!

Wait, That's The Same Flail Snail Who Killed My Last Character?
(dead link to Screaming For Vengeance by Judas Priest)
Goblin Attack!!!!!

Oh My God I Am Rolling Dice And Cutting Stuff Up And This Rocks And I Rock And You Rock And This Dip Rocks And I Can't Believe I Ever Stopped Playing This Game

(...Twisted Sister? Wish I could remember)

Heading Toward Certain Death On Viking Warship

Now The Viking Warship Is On Fire And There's People With Axes Trying To Board It

Pursued by Death Knight On Tenebrous Steed

The Twisted Chaos Sorcerer Has Transported Us To The Elemental Plane of Fucked-Up Stuff Erol Otis Probably Drew

It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time To Kill the Plant Monster In Death Frost Doom But Look What Happened

Helplessly Watching the March of the Army of the Demon Prince That You Probably Should've Levelled Up Before Pissing Off

I Expect You'll Be In Combat For Another Hour So I'm Just Gonna Put This Bolt Thrower CD on Repeat (Bolt Thrower, obviously)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

3 Items My PCs Aren't So Sure They Want to Use

The Trapping Mace (also sometimes known as the Screaming Mace or the Swearing Mace) is an elaborately carved weapon--technically a mace-and-chain--with an extremely unusual and cunningly layered openwork head. When found, the cagelike macehead will contain a small iron sculture of a disembodied head. This head will be a precise, small-scale likeness of the head of whatever being was last slain by the mace.

(If the last being slain by the mace had no identifiable head then it's the DM's discretion as to what's in there.)

Inside this head, the being's soul is trapped. If a new being is killed with the mace, the original soul is released, and the most recent victim's soul is trapped in the same manner, the tiny head warping and changing into the face of the new prisoner.

A trapped soul may, and generally will, speak, (it will telepathically be fluent in the owner's language) and--in nearly all cases--the soul is so eager to escape the mace and move on to whatever afterlife is proper to it that it will provide any information it has that might help the mace's owner successfully kill something else and thereby release it. Although the trapped souls will be, of course, angry with the mace's owner, the agony of existence in the mace is so exquisitely cruel that the trapped souls fear nothing more than the owner being slain and the mace being lost--dooming the soul to lie unfound in the unhallowed iron limbo for indeterminate years. Further, the trapped soul is magically bound to answer any question put to it (that it knows the answer to) and to tell the truth--though PCs may not be aware of this.

In combat, the mace acts with no bonuses, though it counts as a magic weapon.

The Teeth of Vorn
are large and ancient swords--while the pommels, hilts, and guards vary widely, their long blades are inevitably hewn from what appears to be yellowed and black-veined bone. Priests of Vorn claim the blades were made from the rain god's teeth by his first acolytes, to protect his enormous form while it lay insensate for nine thousand years beneath The Dreaming Mountain. There were once 32 in existence, it is not known how many are left.

In practice, a Tooth acts as a bastard sword at -1 "to hit" (the character will realize this--the swords are unusually heavy and strangely balanced)--but once a Tooth has tasted its target's blood, it operates with a damage bonus of +1. Furthermore, with each successful hit thereafter, the blade gains another +1 damage bonus against that target or other targets of the same species. There is no upper limit to the damage bonus that may eventually accrue, but the blade will "reset" at the next sunrise.

(When a PC finds one of these, the DM must cue this song up to 0:34 seconds and hit -play-.)

The Oil of Zaymot

This crimson product of Yuan-Ti alchemy is inevitably found in a double-stoppered vial. It has no effect unless two different living beings each drink a dose from the same batch. Once this occurs, any damage taken by either recipient* will be halved, and the other half of the damage will be applied to the other recipient. Likewise, any enchantments or other magical effects incurred by one recipient will affect the other, but at only half-intensity. Petrified recipients will find only the right or left halves their bodies turned to stone, recipients who have magically lost their sanity will be able to tell a hawk from a handsaw half the time, polymorphed recipients will be gruesomely hybridized, recipients may end up half-charmed, half-asleep, half-cursed, half-blessed, etc.

The effect is temporary, but a permanent version--known as the Oil of Tomacs--is known to have been developed.

*Except the damage dealt by the potion itself, of course. Don't be a dickhead.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where The Action Is (Part 2) (Grognardia, Jack Vance, The Meaning of Life etc.)

(This post follows the logic of the last one--about the original D&D x.p. system--so if you haven't read that, you might want to start there.)

How There's Meaning In A Game of D&D Even If You Don't Know It

As James M. over at Grognardia has pointed out before, D&D emulates a picaresque--a story that is essentially a series of short stories about the same character strung together which may or may not develop an obvious theme or meaning.

Other picaresques include: James Joyce's "Ulysses', all mainstream superhero comics, Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories (a huge influence on D&D), "Don Quixote", Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas", Jack Kerouac's "On the Road", Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", all unplanned serialized adventures (like a cliffhanger TV or radioshow that goes on for years and has 20 writers), Joseph Heller's "Catch-22", etc.

The late George Plimpton on picaresques:

Such novels are invariably lengthy, heavily populated with eccentrics, deviates, grotesques with funny names (so they can be remembered), and are usually composed of a series of bizarre adventures or episodes in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another. Very often a Quest is incorporated, which keeps the central character on the move.

James M has this to say on Picaresques and D&D:

My feeling is that one's level of dissatisfaction with D&D is closely related to one's dissatisfaction with picaresque stories. If your preference is for something more "epic" than a bunch of rogues -- possibly with hearts of gold -- on the make, then you're likely to see D&D as lacking in some way.

As someone who liked Thomas Pynchon's picaresque "Gravity's Rainbow" so much I once drew a picture for every single page of it, I think it's fairly obvious where I stand.

The picaresque is derived (a little bit ironically, considering James' choice of words), from a pattern found in epic poems (early ones like Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, not later ones like The Aeneid or Paradise Lost) which were, themselves, stitched together from series' of short stories about individual heroes and gods. (These shorter sub-stories are often built around a character cleverly solving one individual problem without too terribly much character development happening all at once--like a Sherlock Holmes story or the stories of Hercules' labors.)

The most familiar other kind of story--let's call it "traditional drama"--is derived less from epics than from tragic theater--this type of story is the one where the plot is largely an extension of the characters' personalities and flaws, this kind has a fairly obvious moral, and the The Law of Conservation of Detail is observed relatively carefully--this is the efficient kind of story that you find in mainstream melodramatic novels, "Madame Bovary", the majority of literary novels (good and bad), individual episodes of sitcoms, Shakespeare, most Hollywood movies, and, as far as I can tell, in the ambitions of most people who want more "story" or "meaning" in their games.

In short, if there's a gun in the first scene of a traditional drama, it's probably Chekhov's gun but if there's a gun in the first scene of a picaresque, it's probably just Chekov's gun.

(TV shows like Star Trek are kind of both, actually--an individual episode may be a tragedy-derived traditional drama--a character has a quirk and the end of the episode revolves around addressing that quirk--but the series taken as a whole--as one long multi-year story--is inevitably a picaresque since there's no way to tie up every last implied character arc before the show ends. The same occasionally goes for heroes in series' of novels or novellas--an individual James Bond story might be a traditional drama--but the overarching "story of James Bond" is a picaresque.)

Obviously, there are hybrids of these two ("The Hobbit" might be an easy example--part Bilbo-learns-about-life part random-wacky-adventure) but what I'd like to do now that I've gotten the distinction out of the way is point out how a kind of meaning or depth or character development does emerge, even in the purest picaresque.

Building a long story one-short-story-at-a-time by the picaresque method allows the story to be uniquely expressive of the builder's own personality (as opposed to the builder's intentions), as one anonymous commenter ("the emonator") (not me) points out in the comments to another of James M's recent posts:

D&D exposes the hidden theme within the DM. A spontaneous story evolves out of the dice rolls and lethal rules, the player's actions and personality, and the personality and interpretation of the DM.

In OD&D characters carve out an emergent history action by action, roll by roll, with some awareness that they might be snuffed out at any time by the rules or a fickle DM...This creates a gameworld which is strange, does not conform to many bread&butter narrative tropes, and is often senseless in a cause/effect kind of way.

The only books that I have read which felt like this were Jack Vance's Dying Earth writings.

As an example, seemingly major characters often appear and disappear in the story with little lasting impact and many seemingly important McGuffins are brought up and dropped with little lasting effect to the story.

Best of all, Vance's characters respond to important mind blowing things in a nonplussed and often irritated manner, EXACTLY LIKE SOME VETERAN PLAYERS DO!

In Vance's Dying Earth, there is little of consequence despite the scope of many of the adventures. This is mostly because the Earth is nearing its inevitable end. Yet the characters, while generally aware of this, behave with often great gusto and luxurious language while doing little to nothing to try and "fix" the sun. The only character who even think it is possible are treated as imbiciles by Cugel.

What all this makes me think about:

-Jack Vance and James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon and Miguel Cervantes and Hunter S. Thompson and the guys who wrote The Wire for HBO and most other well-known purveyors of picaresques are not just known for being picaresque writers, they are known for being very stylish writers. That is, they tend not to be of the less-is more/plainer-is-better school when it comes to density of the language.

-This suggests that meaning in a picaresque, or in a game that develops a picaresque narrative style is conveyed less by the fates of the characters than by the style in which the tale is told.

-i.e. When you cease to use plot developments as your main conveyor of message and meaning--style is substance. And substance can be found there.

-The Grognardia post that commenter was commenting on was about how people who came after RE Howard and JRR Tolkien used ideas from their worlds, but not their themes. The reason is, I think, those worlds grew organically from those themes. If you take, say, a hobbit, much of what JRRT thought about the world could be deduced from:

*The fact that he invented them, and
*the fact that he chose to make them the heroes of his stories

In much the same way you can reconstruct someone's DNA from a drop of their blood, you can reconstruct a good writer's worldview from the stylistic choices and inventions in their work. This isn't on purpose, this is just what happens when you're trying to do a good job--your personality sinks in there.

Sucky writers who used barbarians and hobbits etc. later were largely sucky because they didn't realize (or, sometimes, care) that the very shape and substance of the sandbox they were playing in was devised to reflect someone else's psyche and if they were going to be good at fantastic literature they couldn't just pile a little bit of plot and a few cosmetic or political ideas on top of someone else's inventions and style, they had to re-invent the genre to reflect something that was in them, and that, therefore, they could see all the way to the bottom of. This doesn't mean imposing your own worldview on the world in some obvious way that reflects your value system, it means letting the world reflect your actual imagination.

-Look at comic books, the pre-eminent purveyor of serial-format adventure: Spider-Man isn't really about what eventually will happen to Spider-Man when the comic ends one day (that last issue right before the sun explodes), or indeed about any character development that happens to Spider-Man during a story arc (since the writer of a given issue is aware that all character development in comics is reversible)--Spider-Man is really about what you know you'll get when you pick up any issue of Spider-Man. That is: a guy who looks scary and alien and ominous yet is simultaneously friendly and funny and humble getting through life by defeating jackasses who are full of themselves. The weird visuals came from the psychedelic, agoraphobic mind of Steve Ditko, the jokes came from Stan "the living PR department" Lee. There's more meaning to understand there than in, say, how Spider-Man's failure to stop the Green Goblin meant Gwen Stacy died.

-One could argue that serial heroic fiction in general is less about the moral meaning of what happens to the characters than about modelling different styles by which a person can get through life and defeat obstacles. The Spock style is not the Kirk style, and the Conan style is not the Elric style is not the James Bond style, and the Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac style is not the Raoul Duke/Hunter Thompson is not the Don Quixote style.

Conan can save the world by eviscerating the man-scorpion, Spock can save the world by tricking the man-scorpion into eating the poisonous jubjub fruit, James Bond could save the world by seducing the man-scorpion's wife and then planting a bomb in his bedroom--different heroes model different methods.

If these were heroes in a Greek (or Shakespearean) tragedy, we would undestand them and their flaws in terms of what eventually happened to them--but this isn't the way picaresque heroes work. Picaresque heroes' fates in the end are always the same--at the end of each episode, they are back on the road, ready for the next adventure. If they eventually die on the page, that death is not necessarily tied to events put in motion earlier, and therefore the death is not as integral to the story as the death of a tragic character--whose method-of-death is, in a sense, the point of the whole fatalistic story.

In a sense, nothing ever happens to James Bond or James Kirk--they just go on forever demonstrating a way in which heroism can work. The serial or picaresque hero is not designed in tandem with the plot (as he or she is in a one-shot work like, say, "Hamlet" or "Pride and Prejudice" or "Napoleon Dynamite"):--rather the plots of serial or picaresque adventures are designed to test and stretch and display and probe the many posibilities of the already invented hero. Just like in an rpg.

-So this is what a D&D party so often is: not a group of people necessarily destined to grow and change and bend to conform to Principles of Drama, but a group of people who demonstrate, with infinite variation, how you can get through life by enacting different styles of being week after week in different short stories.

And what styles are these? These are styles that emerge organically from the psychologies of the people playing them, and styles that, from a distance all look like "pulp fantasy" but, on further insepction, reveal shades of differences in tactics and role-playing that are really differences in outlook. And when you put these differences in outlook together in a crowded matrix of poorly-lit 10x10 rooms for a few months, you get drama. And comedy. And it's all a surprise. And it's fun.

It was great when, somewhere in the middle of Star Trek:TNG, Data and Worf emerged as the funniest characters in the series. The android and the Klingon. Nobody saw that coming, but it was in the actors, and that's far more interesting than the cast and writers' constant, conscious planned-from-the-beginning atttempts to convince us that Wesley and Whoopi Goldberg were supreme space geniuses capable of solving any problem.

In Empire, George Lucas wanted it to go:

Leia: "I love you"
Han: "I love you, too."
(into the carbonite chamber.)

But, on the spur of the moment, just before the crew was supposed to break for lunch, they ran it and Leia said: "I love you."
and Han said "I know."

If you want a "meaning" to the Han Solo character it's more in that moment (a moment the "player" just threw in) than in that obviously pre-marital kiss he shares with Leia at the end of the Jedi (a moment of character development and plot resolution that'd been planned more-or-less since they first told Lucas he'd get to write a Star Wars sequel).

-And in the end, that surprise "meaning"--the revealed meaning of what's inside the people playing individually and as a group--the subtle differences between what they as people find compelling and interesting and generally effective even when they're not trying to is as real and meaningful a meaning (for those who care about looking around for such things once the blood's dry and the owlbears are dead) then any kind of meaning that a DM or storygamey consortium of players puts together on purpose.

-Everybody likes heroes and wants bad guys to lose, so that's not the surprise or the meaning and so the fact that someone decides to play a hero tells you nothing new about the human condition. The interesting bit is which hero and how they defeat the bad guys.


Post-rant note: I'd love to hear anybody's thoughts on this BUT I know from long experience that when you use specific examples (Star Wars, Conan, Catch-22) in something like this, you tend to get a lot of comments nit-picking about whether the specific examples fit the ideas you're putting forward rather than whether the ideas are any good. SO--please don't do that. If you think, say, "On The Road" isn't a picaresque, fine, great, I believe you, that's ok, let's move on.

Another note: I'm not much of a Tolkien fan, actually, or a Trek fan. But they offer pretty good examples.

Where The Action Is (about Experience Points)

Whether or not he wants it that way, the "comments" section of James M.'s (fantastic, scholarly, useful) Grognardia blog has become a sort of forum for everyone who wants to talk about what they do or don't like about D&D (guilty), no matter how tangentially related to the topic it might be. So, predictably, when he posted this relatively innocent bit about experience points it ignited a comment-storm about xp.

Now, I don't know about your players, but here's the deal on mine:

Experience points don't motivate my players at all.

(This is my Rule About X.P. #1)

Don't get me wrong here: my players like xp, my players will take xp, my players will get angry if you try to take xp away from them once they have it, but they never do anything because they think it'll get them x.p..

Here's how things usually go:

The players show up. They are excited to finally get to play D&D.

They get their PCs out and then try to figure out where the action is--"action" can in this case be defined as "whatever seems interesting to do, find, or kill in a given adventure".

They find some action. They have fun and snacks.

This Action either: Reveals More Places Where There Might Be Action or Sets Off An Unfortunate Chain of Events. Or both.

The PCs try to find more Action, or extricate themselves from the Events, or both. They have more fun and snacks.

Then the players go home.

Then a few days later they get an e-mail where I detail all the x.p. they got and how, and they go "Oh yeah, xp! Sweet."

If they get enough then maybe they level up--this changes the nature of the game slightly and so keeps things interesting.

Anyway, the point of rule #1 is that the widely-held belief that xp is necessarily an important motivating engine in a game and therefore knowing what players get xp for in a game allows you to gauge the philosophy, meaning, or morality of a given game is a fallacy. At least with the people I play with.

There are many corollaries of this rule--one being that not "rewarding" something with x.p. doesn't mean it's not an important part of the game. So, while it's true that in OD&D the players don't get xp for role-playing (in the sense of "acting"), neither do they get xp for eating pizza or quoting Monty Python movies--but just try to stop them.

If you look at the AD&D DMG, despite lack of rules rewarding good role-playing, there are rules which punish bad role-playing. The DMG also has recommendations for punishing other kinds of behavior at the table which make the game less fun. The idea is: Gary assumed the players would be role-playing and not acting like dicks, so he felt no need to positively incentivize them to talk like a funny dwarf or not attack other players for no reason. It was only when RPGs got so popular that dickheads and teenagers started playing them that more complex incentive schemes started getting developed.

(Incidentally, in the DMG, Gary also seemed to assume--correctly in my limited experience--that storylines would naturally develop out of games and so storytelling didn't need to be incentivized either.)

I beg you to keep Rule #1--the only important rule--in mind while we move on to the other Rules About X.P..

(#2) The X.P. Value of A Given Treasure is Presumed To Be Proportional To The Amount of Problem-Solving Required To Get That Treasure

Bilbo didn't get x.p. for trusting Gandalf, walking around with dwarves, surviving a goblin attack, and then beating Gollum at a riddle game. But he got x.p. for the ring, which abstractly represents all the effort of doing all of that stuff and more.

The idea is to reward problem-solving without having to calculate every little thing--so instead of rewarding the individual steps in the solving of the problem, the game gives a lump award in the form of treasure.

It's not meant to be "a reward for stealing" (though it can be that) it's a reward for all the adventuring that lead up to the stealing.

D&D is, as everyone knows, very big on abstractly resolving stuff involving a lot of variables rather than calculating all those variables separately. And yes, such abstract systems are not infallible--but rule #2 is the intention behind xp-for-treasure, and if you want to fuck with a rule, it's good to know why the rule was there in the first place.

(#3) The X.P. Reward For Killing Monsters Can Be Thought of As A Bonus Reward on TOP Of The Abstract Treasure Problem-Solving Bonus

In other words, you get a treasure reward that accounts for all the blood, sweat, tears, and problem-solving involved in getting that treasure, but if some of that problem-solving took the form of monster-killing, you get a bonus.

Why exactly you get this bonus is a matter of debate, but I think one of the most important reasons is: unlike traps and other problems you solve in D&D, monsters are entirely defined in the rules. That is, you don't get a set xp for solving riddles or defeating traps because Gary had no way of quantifying how hard your DMs traps or riddles were, but he knew how hard your monsters were because he statted them himself. So the monster bonus represents a degree of granularity and detail tacked on to an otherwise abstract system.

In 3e, they tried to break it down further by giving traps challenge ratings just like monsters, but that still left every other challenge a DM could think of unquantified, and stil left puzzle-traps unaccounted for. A published game can, obviously, never prescribe an appropriate general reward for puzzles because: 1-The difficulty of puzzles can't be abstractly generalized and 2-The moment you get more specific about a puzzle in the published rules, the players know the answer to the puzzle and it's not a puzzle.

(#4) X.P. is, Therefore, An Abstract Measure of The Amount of Problem-Solving A Given Player Has Done With A Given Character

It's not How Much Fighting Your Fighter Has Done or How Much Stealing Your Thief Has Done, or How Long Your Wizard Has Spent In Front Of Spellbooks, it's a reward for the player. And the reward essentially is: solve enough problems with this kind of character and eventually you earn the right to try to solve different kinds of problems with a slightly different (i.e. levelled-up) character.

Which leads to:

(#5) The Purpose of X.P. In The D&D Is To Create An Automatic Method By Which The Nature of the Problems Faced In The Game Will Change Over Time So The Game Won't Get Stale

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Finally, A Post Specifically About Porn-Star-Related Issues

DM: "Ok, as the guests walk in, there are female Elven guards standing on either side of the gate, and they look kind of like...this":

(I hold up John Blanche's Amazon painting.)

Player 1: "Hot."

Player 2: "Hot."

Player 1: "She has great shoes."

Player 2: "Those are really great shoes."

Player 1 is Satine Phoenix. Player 2 is Mandy Morbid. Player 3 is a guy and says nothing.

So, I'll stop here and I'll answer the kind of question that gets discussed when the issue of Women In Gaming comes up.

Zak, how do your own personal feminist female players feel about the often hypersexualized depictions of female characters in games?

They like it. They feel good about it. They are 14-year-old-boys about it.

I asked Mandy about the whole "bust-waist-hips-chart-in-Arduin" thing.

Mandy: "Well I think it's alienating to some women, but not to me. I'd totally roll on that chart and think it was hilarious."

Me: "What do you think of this?"

Mandy: "I think she needs to be hotter. She's all hagged-out. And her hair is gross."

Me: "What about that Reaper Mermaid Mini?"

Mandy: "She has nice tits and a small waist, plus if you turn her around she has a big ass. You know who was really hot is that Guild Wars Necromancer. There was a life-sized cut-out of her outside the game store when I was a kid. She has nice hair. But my necromancer was even hotter than that--she had better hair and she was wearing less clothes."

Me: "Your necromancer? You mean in Diablo?"

Mandy: "Guild Wars. The Amazons in Diablo had big tits but the necromancer was kind of hotter."

Me: "What do you think of this article?"

("I Was Teenage Con Bait" on


Mandy: "I didn't have low self-esteem when I was a teenager--that wasn't one of my problems. I never felt that my body was the only worthwhile thing about me. I can't relate to this woman at all. I mean, how do you know that those girls aren't really more comfortable in a chainmail bikini than a turtleneck and jeans? At that age, what made me feel insecure was when people told me to cover up, or to stop talking about sex--or about anything else."

Adventure resumed:

We all know why there are these guards--there are guards so you can get past them and get treasure. In this adventure, getting past the guards was not meant to be the main event--there was one guard near the door, and she was tipsy.

Satine distracted the guard with her feminine wiles (opposed charisma v. wisdom roll) while the other players knocked the guard out. Satine liked that so much she drew a picture of it while she played:


So this is how my players are.

So, in answer to another question that people on reality shows about What Adult Film Starlets Are Really Like might ask--what kind of characters do porn girls like to play when the cameras are off?

Caroline Pierce:

"I always play sluts."

One more question on the subject:

Me: "Mandy, do you think male characters in heroic RPGs and the like are sexualized? I mean, to you, whether or not their creators meant them to be? Conan, Aragorn, Legolas, Elric, Spock..."

Mandy: "Yes. And Han Solo...if you want another example."

So, yeah, chainmail bikinis are ridiculous. But so is the mostly naked movie version of Conan.


"Y'know another thing that makes Conan sexy? It's the slave girls. That's an important part...I think I might have to buy that chainmail bikini that's at Bed Behavior..."


P.S. Mandy's still looking for monsters and things to put into the adventure she's writing. So if you've got something, let us know.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Wandering Monsters + Mandy Needs Your Help

I wrote earlier about the excitement that gets generated in a game during an important dice roll--even when it violates the rules of realism. Here's another trick I like to use to raise the tension:
Four of the PCs are sleeping soundly. One is on guard.
"You hear something to the west."
"What is it?"
"Well are you gonna look?"
<--"Ok, roll on this chart" (Everybody stops what they're doing to look at the chart and the die.)
'Something huge rears up in the dark' uh, ok...what is it?"
"Well, now you know it's bigger than you. Are you gonna move closer and see?"
"Uh..." (Player looks around at other players.)
"Don't ask them, they're asleep, girl."
"Ok, I'll go look."
"Ok now roll on this chart."
(Dungeon Master pulls out homemade Chart of Possible Size L Wandering Monsters for this environment.)

(Player looks at all the things that could be in the next room.)

(Moment in real life where hearing a bump in the night makes thoughts of every single thing that that sound could possibly represent cycle through your head is effectively simulated.)

(Player holds breath, rolls dice, prays for a 1.)


Now, for something completely different. Pictured above is miss Mandy Morbid, star of stage and screen. She is getting ready to write and run her very first adventure. The problem is: since I want to play in this adventure, I can't help her that much or it won't be a surprise when I go through it. Thus, I'm asking you for help: Mandy needs monsters for her upcoming adventure. It's going to be a sort of evil-enchanted-forest-fairy-tale-witch kind of adventure for low-level players.

So, if you've got monsters (or any relatively modular trick or trap or location or item that you can drop into in a scary enchanted forest) please either leave a link in the comments (I will give it to Mandy and won't click it myself), or, if the info's not on the web, e-mail it to me--(zakzsmith at hot mail dot calm) and I'll forward it along to Mandy unopened, just put "Mandy Adventure" in the subject header . Monsters can be in any D&D system, just as long as you note which one it is. I promise a player report on anything she uses that you suggest. I suspect she's going to use one of these.

P.S. Just got an interesting question from Matthew Slepin
"I have a question with no snark intended: does the title of the blog mean that you're going to discuss some of the idiosyncratic nature of playing with porn stars OR is it just a way to get our attention (no bad thing)."

And the answer to that question is:

I mean to discuss gaming with porn girls specifically very soon, but those articles are a little complicated to write (they involve a little amateur sociology) so I'm starting off with stuff that hopefully any D&D blogger can use while I think about how exactly to tackle the subject. Expect something very soon.