Monday, January 30, 2012

Dwarven Tanks

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this in the past, but I'm a huge fan of oldschool Final Fantasy games. Any numbered games X or prior are great, but IV, VI, VII, and VIII are my favorites by far. Amusingly, I've never really had a taste for western RPGs of the video game variety, such as the Elder Scrolls series, or Mass Effect games. They much more closely emulate my one true love--tabletop games--but I think there's a sort of "uncanny valley" effect for me. I like linear games, and I like games with true tactical infinity, but games which emulate tactical infinity without actually giving me infinite options can just be frustrating.

I think it was on my second or third play-through of Final Fantasy IV when I had this idea. There's a point, about halfway through the game, after you steal the airship from the evil city-state of Baron. The heroes must fly into a giant crater which connects the surface world to the vast underground realm of the dwarves. Almost immediately you find yourself in the middle of a pitched battle between the Baronian airship navy, and the land-based dwarven tanks.

The tanks make a few more appearances throughout the game, and the idea intrigued me. I am apparently not alone in this, because both the Warcraft and Warhammer franchises employ dwarves with tanks. Perhaps it's because the race themselves--short, squat, and unimaginably tough--fundamentally resemble tanks. Whatever the reason, I decided that dwarven tanks would make a great addition to my D&D games. However, I'm not a huge fan of including technology in fantasy games. It can be a fun twist for a setting, but as a general rule I like the most advanced technology in my games to be a crossbow. So the challenge was to create a dwarven tank which didn't rely on technology, but also did not rely on an excessive use of magic, since dwarves would probably find distasteful. This is what I came up with. Lali-ho!

The Dwarven Tank

The main body of the dwarven tank resembles a boxy steel shell, longer than it is wide. Along the bottom edge of the shell are small steel sheets, attached to the shell by hinges. When the metal sheets are raised, one can see that there are four large iron wheels supporting the shell, and that it otherwise has no bottom to it. On top of the shell, in the center of its surface area, is a large flat disc, and from that disc protrudes a long cylindrical barrel, 7ft long. On both ends of the long shell are small protrusions, the purpose of which is not readily apparent.

As large as the dwarven tank may seem from the outside, within things are positively cramped. Each tank employs crew of 11 of the strongest dwarves available. Six dwarves serve as "movers," two dwarves serve as backup movers, one dwarf serves as spotter, one as driver, and one as hammermaster. Since the tank has no bottom, all eleven dwarves must walk in unison with the tank's movements, which is surprisingly difficult for a large number of dwarves to do within such a cramped space.

The six movers are divided three to each side, where they take hold of sturdy bars mounted into the inner-walls of the steel shell. Their task is simple: push in unison, either forward or backward, according to the instructions of the driver. The six movers are rotated in shifts with the two backup movers, to ensure that no dwarf ever spends too long at the strenuous task of moving the behemoth dwarven tank.

The two protrusions at either end of the tank are periscopes, which are used by the spotter to give instructions both to the driver, and to the hammermaster. The tank completely lacks windows , or openings of any sort save the flaps at the bottom of the tank, so without the spotter and his periscopes, the dwarven tank crew would be blind. The driver stands at one end of the tank, where a number of controls are mounted. A wheel for steering, various pulleys to raise the metal flaps to help the tank move over obstacles.

The hammermaster mans the gun, or the "Shock-Put" as the dwarves call it. He uses a pair of heavy cranks to adjust the vertical angle from 0 to 80 degrees, and the horizontal angle up to 180 degrees. These cranks are adjusted according to instructions from the spotter. Once the gun is aimed correctly, the two movers currently off-duty take one of the "shock rocks" from the large bin on the opposite end of the tank from the driver. The shock rock is then loaded into the bottom of the shock put, which is then sealed.

The seal of the shock-put holds the shock rock in place while the hammermaster prepares his swing. When the crew is ready to fire, the hammermaster takes up a large two-handed warhammer, and strikes the the bottom of the shock-put, where a piston is mounted. The piston has a special permanent explosive rune enchanted on the inside, which strikes the shock-rock with all the force the hammermaster can transfer into it. The resulting explosion, which varies in strength based on the force with which piston is struck, sends the shock-rock careening out of the shock put at fantastic speeds, often flying as far as five or seven hundred feet when struck by a skilled hammermaster.

Most dwarven tank groups also carry a small supply of explosive shock rocks, which are themselves covered in explosive runes. These projectiles cause significantly more damage, but are difficult to create, and thus not used as frequently.

It is said that once, long ago, a great dwarven king built a mithril tank which, due to its relatively light frame, could move twice as fast as most dwarven tanks. However, due to the rarity of mithril, this tale is often dismissed as a fabrication.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Succubi in Succubus Town

I'm obsessed with Comma, Blank_'s Google Analytics profile. Fiddling around with it, learning new things about my traffic, and watching the ways in which my readership has grown in the last few months tickles me pink. And more than anything else, I obsess over are search terms. Knowing what people are looking for when they find your site is not only useful, but it can be gods damned hilarious. Someone searching for "bar0n'ika" ended up finding Colorful Characters 4: Baron Ika of the Treebreaker Tribe, and someone searching for "erotic art inspired by the dungeons & dragons monster manual" found a scan from the 3.5 Monster Manual which I once uploaded but never used.

Hits from unusual search terms like those listed above tend to be rare. Most people find Comma, Blank_ by searching for much more mundane terms: dungeon door, elf archer, orc ranger, etc. One unusual term, however, is actually quite common. In fact, it is the number one search term which leads people to visit this site: "Succubi in Succubus town."

The page these folks are finding, of course, is my post from early December entitled "Succubi Deserve More," which I think is among some of my better work. I'm only too happy that people are finding it. But I can't help but wonder why in the world so many people are searching for this term in the first place. I tried searching it myself, and can find no reference to any kind of succubus town whatsoever. Mostly it's just novels by a woman named Nina Harper. I would think that, given the frequency with which the term is searched for, that it was an actual reference to something which could be found online. But no such luck.

In discussing this oddity with some of my friends, we got to joking about what a succubus town might look like. Which is when it hit upon me that I should actually start taking notes on our conversation, because writing a post about a town populated entirely by succubi sounds awesome.

The City of Al Uzzara
Colloquially known as "Succubus Town," or just "Sex City," Al Uzzara is an opulent metropolis located on the 570th layer of the Abyss; Malcanthet's Domain. Unlike many parts of the abyss it is generally considered a pleasant place to visit. The entire permanent population of Al Uzzara are succubi and incubi, and within the city limits these otherwise evil creatures seem intent on nothing but making their guests comfortable and happy during their stay.

Unfortunately, no one is able to truthfully explain precisely how their stay was made pleasant. A permanent and powerful enchantment on the city of Al Uzzara causes any non-succubus who visits to completely forget anything which happened there within an hour of their departure. All they are left with is a vague sensation of how they felt about their stay.

On the surface, Al Uzzara is a place where any being can satisfy their carnal urges easily and cheaply. Every inn doubles as a brothel, and every eating establishment is accompanied by a burlesque show. Demons are the city's most common patrons, but beings of many cultures which view planar travel as commonplace visit Al Uzzara frequently. Even humanoids are a common enough sight here, though few creatures of a goodly alignment ever willingly travel to the abyss.

The succubic residents of Al Uzzara happily alter their mannerisms, their forms, even their gender, so as to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of their visitors. And succubi are very good at determining a creature's innermost desires. The guile and trickery which is known throughout the multiverse to be synonymous with succubi seems conspicuously absent here. Most who venture here become overwhelmed by the decadent possibilities to dwell on that curiosity. Those few who do look beyond the surface of Al Uzzara quickly find the natives to be much less friendly. If they are unlucky enough to actually discover anything, they may never return from the city of sex.

In truth, the city is, literally, a breeding ground of demonic soldiers and slaves. The succubi of Al Uzzara entice their male visitors to engage in as much debauched sex as possible, allowing the succubi to give birth to demon spawn which may then be sold as troops for the generals of the blood war, or as slaves to anyone who desires them. Female visitors are likewise encouraged to entertain their wildest desires, only to then be drugged, and have their gestation periods magically accelerated. When they awake they will never know what evil's they've helped bring into existence.

Al Uzzara is a walled city, with many high towers and sky bridges overlooking the beautiful, but deadly, gardens of the 570th layer of the abyss. It is divided into a number of districts designed to appeal to a variety of archetypical sexual predilections. There are posh pleasure palaces, and lascivious libraries. A district of seedy back alley debauchery, and one of not-so-chaste religious figures--though none of the churches here are consecrated of course. There are even areas of the city for those who like to dominate, or be dominated by others. The city's main roads are designed to allow visitors to travel directly to an area which suits their desires, without passing into an area they may not want to visit.

The Nexus: All throughout Al Uzzara are hidden doors. Every bedchamber, every harem, every place where a visitor might think themselves alone (save their companionship) is accessible from the nexus. It is a circular stone chamber, buried deep beneath the deepest basements of the city above. Seven ascending ramps spiral outward from the bottom of the chamber. Every few feet along the wall of the chamber is a portal, showing a view of the chamber it leads to. Walking through the portal causes one to appear in some innocuous place out of sight of the room's occupants. The Nexus is used both to carry female guests to the birthing chamber, and to secretly switch out a male guest's companions, so that his previous companions may visit the birthing chamber.

The Birthing Chamber: A short hallway at the bottom of the Nexus leads to the Birthing Chamber. Succubi, inherently capable of controlling their own reproductive process, visit here only to drop off their spawn in cages to be sold later. For the non-succubi who are brought here, there are a rows of comfortable couches attended by succubi particularly adept in sorcerous magics. They accelerate the gestation periods of these females, dull their pain and heal any damage caused by the birthing, then call on others to carry them back through the nexus while their young are prepared for sale.

The Horns: The horns are the two tallest buildings in Al Uzzara. They are conically shaped--wide at the base, and rising to a point at the top. This is the only visible portion of the city which visitors are not allowed to access, and in fact, it can only be accessed by one with the ability to fly. The right tower is the seat of the city's government. Malcanthet reigns supreme over Al Uzzara, as she does over the entire 570th layer, but she rarely visits this city. The rule of Al Uzzara is largely left to a council of 30 succubi, whose primary concerns are drawing willing victims to the city, and bartering deals with those who wish to purchase the slaves the city produces. The left tower is home to the city's enforcers, collectively known as biters. Violence and conflict are rare in Al Uzzara, and when they occur there is normally a succubus on hand who can easily handle the situation themselves. The biters primarily concern themselves with watching for any who have remained in the city too long, or who seem to be paying too much attention to how the city is run.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Magical Marvels 3: Wallcraft's Offerings

This week's artifact duom spear, also from my Ascendant Crusade campaign, is again illustrated by my ladyfriend. You should check out more of her art on her DeviantArt page.

Wallcraft's Offerings
Artifact Duom Spear


The Duom spear, introduced in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 supplement Arms and Equipment Guide is a longspear with a standard spearhead, as well as two blades curved so that they point backward along the shaft. The weapon has reach, allowing you to strike opponents 10 feet away with it. Those proficient with the duom can also attack adjacent foes with the reversed heads using a practiced "reverse thrust." Apply a -2 penalty on the attack roll if you use the duom to attack a second, adjacent opponent in the same round you attacked the first opponent. Duom spears cost about 20gp, deal 1d8 damage for medium creatures, with a critical multiplier of 3 on a natural twenty. They weigh 8 pounds on average, and deal piercing damage.

(Main Blade)
1d8 + 5 (Piercing)(20/x3)(10ft.)
(Reverse Blades) 1d8 + 5 (Piercing)(20/x3)(5ft.)
(Shaft) 1d6 + 5 (Bludgeoning)(20/x2)(5ft.)


At Will- Unhallow, cast by thrusting Wallcraft's Offering into the ground for two minutes. (Pathfinder Core Rulebook Pg. 363)

At Will - Animate Dead, cast by letting the droplets of blood from Wallcraft's Offering fall onto a viable corpse for 1 full round. (PFCR Pg. 241)

  • Though Duoms are not made for throwing, Wallcraft's Offerings magically gives it a throwing range increment of 20ft.
  • At will it can be summoned to its owners hands.
  • At will, the blood dripping from The Blind Empress' hand can create a cloud of red mist around the spear's blade, granting a +5 to bluff checks when attempting to feint.
  • Once per day, The Blind Empress' discarded eye can guide the spear in magical flight. A target who is within the sight of the thrower must be selected, and the thrower must speak the command word "May Vecna make my aim true!" Wallcraft's Offering then flies through the air at a speed of 120ft per round, following the target even around corners, and up to one mile distant from the thrower. After either hitting or missing the target, or reaching 1 mile of distance, Wallcraft's Offering is magically summoned back to the thrower's hands.
  • Wallcraft's Offering grants the wielder a +10 on Spellcraft, Knowledge(Arcana), and knowledge (Religion) checks.
  • When attempting to recruit followers of Vecna, the wielder is granted +5 to their leadership score. All normal leadership restrictions apply.
  • The character wielding Wallcraft's Offering is treated as one level higher for the purposes of determining how many undead they can control.
  • Wallcraft's Offering can be used as a holy symbol by followers of Vecna.
  • Wallcraft's Offering radiates a strong aura of Necromancy and Evil.

The blade's shaft is made of a polished bronze, which is perfectly smooth, yet does not slide in the hand when gripped. The shaft ends in an expertly crafted bronze skull, from which springs the the adamantium spear blade. A pair of imp's wings, torn from the back of one of the foul creatures, have been magically turned to iron and shaped into the duom's reverse blades. The Whispered Queen's eye, plucked from her own head, is mounted between the two wings. Likewise her hand, cut from her own arm, clutches the duom's shaft just below the spear blade. Though it has been severed for years, it still bleeds profusely. Any blood which falls from it, however, disappears shortly after it touches the ground.

Not much is known about the early life of the woman for whom this weapon was named. She was always shrouded in mystery, and what was known of her has now been lost to the mists of time. What people do know are the titles she earned for herself. Vecna's Heartfelt Voice, The Blind Empress, the Whispered Queen, Lady of the Ascent--Warmisstress Wallcraft. From her granite throne at center of the Citadel of the Seed, she ruled over the known world with an iron fist for a thousand years. Though it has been centuries since the end of her rule, there are few more terrifying figures in history than she. Perhaps even more so, now that she sits at the right hand of the god she served so well.

It is said that the Whispered Queen was chosen at a young age by Vecna himself. That he groomed her, and guided her to usurp the leadership of his religion from her long forgotten predecessor. That when she stood over the bloody corpse, she turned the knife on herself, and cut out her eyes and her left hand in honor of her god.

The followers of Vecna--those few who still remain--know the story to be a little less dramatic. The Whispered Queen did usurp leadership of the Cult of Vecna from the former leader, and in doing so, obtained both The Hand and The Eye. The removal of her own hand and eye were a gesture of faith, yes, but it was also necessary for her to affix the powerful artifacts to her own body. And she only removed one eye, as the other had been lost during her youth. But even the faithful do not know that tale.

After gaining control the Cult of Vecna, The Whispered Queen took her severed hand and eye, and forged them into one of the most magnificent weapons the world has ever seen. Working with her companions, including master tactician Kisteer Forktongue, The Whispered Queen systematically conquered kingdom after kingdom with ruthless efficiency. Often neighboring nations were completely unaware that their ally had been conquered until the forces of Vecna were on their own doorstep. The world fell before her might, and her empire lasted a thousand years.

But all empires must fall. The Whispered Queen finally met her end at the hands of upstart peasants, and Wallcraft's Offering was seemingly lost to the ages.

What is not commonly known is that one of the peasants who defeated the Whispered Queen, a paladin named Toryan, tried to destroy the vile weapon, but could not. No fire would smelt it, no axe would sunder it, no hammer could even dull its razor edge. At a loss for options, she gathered together three dozen other paladins from her order, and they traveled deep into the wilderness. When they reached a suitable place, they all dug together for nine days, and placed the spear in a sealed adamantium box, upon which they placed powerful wards against evil and divination--hoping to keep its location hidden from the god of secrets himself.

The 37 paladins then buried the box again, and vowed to dedicate their lives to its protection. They settled there, and built a small farming community on the ground above their ward. Generations have passed, and the community has grown to a small town of 300 people. Most know nothing of their town's founders, or of their town's sacred purpose. They are no longer even deep in the wilderness: civilization has spread out around them, and there are several other communities nearby. Only the twelve town elders, and the town's High Cleric know of the secret beneath the earth, and even they know only that a great evil rests there which must be protected.

But centuries have passed, and the magical protections have begun to weaken...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Personal History of Role Playing

When I was young, I liked to play pretend. When we're young, we all do. I played "Star Wars" a lot, putting myself into the role of Luke Skywalker, waving sticks around and making "vroosh!" noises with my mouth. As I got a little older, and my friends started to be more interested in bicycles and video games, I continued to enjoy playing pretend. Which isn't to say I didn't love video games or bicycles. I distinctly remember being a member of a "biker gang" which wasn't allowed to cross any streets, so we just rode around the block over and over. But while my friends stopped playing pretend, my fantasies only became more elaborate. I even started making up my own characters, drawing pictures of them, and writing notes about their various abilities and weapons. Looking back on it, these pieces of paper were proto-character sheets.

I owe it to Bill Amend, the brilliant cartoonist behind the long-running syndicated comic strip Fox Trot, for first introducing me to the concept of tabletop role playing games. You see, one of my other passions as a young child was reading the comic strips in the daily newspaper. Even after my family stopped having the paper delivered, because my parents didn't have time to read it, I convinced my grandmother to save the comic page for me. I even kept all of the comic pages in a box under my bed. If you're not familiar with Fox Trot, one of the primary characters is ten year old Jason Fox, a geeky kid who excels academically, and is passionate about many "nerdy" pursuits. I can't recall precisely when, but at some point during my childhood the strip featured Jason and his friend Marcus playing Dungeons and Dragons. The game wasn't mentioned by name, but the core elements were all on display: a dungeon master's screen, dice, and the DM weaving a world for the player's character to explore.

The notion intrigued me. I was too young then to remember what precisely went through my mind, but I knew that whatever they were doing looked fun, and I wanted to play too. I constructed a GM screen out of black construction paper, and glued little pieces of note paper to the inside of it. On the note paper, I wrote the rules I had made up for the game. I also recall creating small tokens--doodles on pieces of paper--to represent adventurers and monsters. I also had a bowl with numbered scraps of paper to take the place of the dice. My parents warned me that the game I was emulating was an evil one--which would prove to be a major point of contention later in my life. But, to their credit, they didn't go so far as to forcibly stop me from pursuing the project. I spent at least a few days working on my primitive version of D&D, but never really figured out how to make all the elements come together into a cohesive game. Nor could I convince any of my siblings to play with me. Eventually I gave up and largely forgot about the project, as kids are apt to do.

Eventually I joined my friends in growing out of playing pretend--though I never did stop quietly imagining myself to be someone else. That's something I still do to this day. But so far as role playing is concerned, I didn't take my next step until I was about 14 years old. That's when my family finally got an Internet connection, and an entire world outside of my orthodox catholic homeschooler existence opened up. Writing about my history with the Internet and the impact it had on my life could be a whole other post altogether. But what's important is that it didn't take long for me to break my parents rule about never talking to other people on the Internet. In short order I found forums, and on forums, I found people role playing.

It was awful. The role plays I participated in those days were all themed around the Legend of Zelda mythos, yet most of the players were playing Final Fantasy characters. Not ripoffs mind you, characters like Auron, Sephiroth, and Red XIII were (for some reason) determined to save Hyrule. I hesitate to even mention the character I played, because I don't think anyone directly involved remembers, but my character was actually named "Link Skywalker." He traveled through dimensions living through other people's lives. After living through someone's life, he had all of their abilities and equipment. I honestly cannot tell you how tempted I am to simply edit this paragraph out and let my readers go on blissfully unaware of how shamefully bad my early role playing was.

It was around this same time that I joined a saber fencing class, which may seem irrelevant. However, this is the class where I first met Jeremy. He was quite a bit older than me, and in the advanced class, but we connected over our shared nerdiness. It wasn't long before we spent more time talking than we did fencing, and I eventually learned that he played Dungeons and Dragons. I had always been interested in D&D, since I realized it was what Jason and Marcus had been playing in that old Fox Trot comic. However, my parents had made it very clear to me that such games were strictly forbidden--not just by them, but by "almighty god." I wasn't really convinced that D&D was evil, but at that time I was scared enough of my parents that I didn't pursue the topic further.

My forum role playing continued for several years, and the quality of it improved a great deal. I abandoned my original character almost immediately in favor of one I dubbed Beloch Shrike (partially after the villain from Raiders of the Lost Arc, and partially after the villain from The Paradise Snare by A.C. Crispin.) The rest of the group similarly matured, and we experimented with a lot of different things. Some of the most important friendships of my life were formed during these early role playing experiences. Eventually, I even attempted to start a website, titled Epic Journeys, which would serve as a nexus of tools, information, and guides to help people facilitate running their own forum role plays. The project never really got off the ground, though I did actually manage to accomplish one thing. As part of the project, I coined the term "Online Text Based Role Playing Game," or "OTBRPG," and added it to Wikipedia (not then fully aware that this was a serious violation of Wikipedia's rules.) Not only was the article never removed, but I have since actually met people who use the term without knowing I invented it. Seriously, google it. The phrase has entered somewhat common usage. This never ceases to crack me up, but I digress.

Everything changed for me, quite suddenly, in the last half of 2004. I was seventeen, still heavily involved in forum role playing, and starting to develop a taste for philosophy. My continued interest in Dungeons and Dragons led me to begin looking through the Catechism of the Catholic Church (big book o' rules) looking for any mention of role playing or D&D. After finding none, I went online and found a forum dedicated to Catholics discussing their faith. I asked them what they thought about D&D being evil, and if you want to see something hilarious, the entire thread is still online and available to read. (Though apparently it now shows up as an unsafe link in most browsers. As best I can tell it is still safe to visit.) Most of the answers from other posters seemed to agree that there was nothing inherently wrong with D&D, so I printed the thread out and proudly presented it to my parents. After reading the printout, however, they summarily denied my request to be allowed to play the game. My parents were pretty terrifying people, and I grudgingly obeyed them.

Two months later, in September, I met Stephanie, and the changes in my life accelerated. We had a lot in common, including a shared interest in Dungeons and Dragons. At that time I had still never played, and she had played only once or twice. I won't go into the details of our relationship, as is still somewhat painful, and certainly outside this blog's subject matter. Suffice to say that I was head over heels. By November we were dating, and the relationship lasted for six years. In those early days of our relationship, I did a lot of things in order to spend more time with her. I bought a copy of Starcraft so we could have dates. And, more relevantly, I took my fencing buddy Jeremy up on his standing offer to borrow his copy of the Dungeons and Dragons third edition core rulebooks. I hid them under some papers in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. Most kids are probably hiding weed, booze, porn and sex from their parents when they're 17. I was hiding role playing sourcebooks. Some might see it as sad, but I'm actually rather proud of that.

The first little bit of D&D I ever played was with Stephanie. It was bad. I GMed a really short adventure for her where she fought a mummy. I didn't understand any of the rules, and I was throwing stats around left and right without any idea what they meant. Fortunately, my parents and the rest of my family were out of town the following week, so Jeremy came over to give me a proper introduction to the game. Again: most kids throw drinking parties when they're seventeen and their parents are out of town. I threw an adventuring party, and I'm proud of that. When Jeremy arrived he brought a gift with him: my own set of dice. They were a deep red with blue flecks, and they came in a plastic cylinder. He also brought with him his brand-new 3.5 edition core rulebooks, helped me roll up my very first rogue, and ran me through a simple Colosseum adventure where I fought some green needle monster things. It was glorious.

I continued in that way for quite some time. I purchased my own copies of the 3.5 rulebooks, and Jeremy would GM for me at his home. His ladyfriend, Jacie, eventually joined me as a gnomish cleric, and the two of us had many fine adventures together. I don't remember how long it took for my parents to find out, likely just a few months if I remember correctly. I had just returned from a game at Jeremy's, and went to find them to let them know I was home, my laptop bag filled with D&D supplies still in hand. They looked at me funny, and asked what I did when I was over at Jeremy's. I tried to be nonchalant, and told them that we mostly just played games. They responded;

"Do you play Dungeons and Dragons?"

"Yes," I said.

They didn't really react much at all to that. Merely nodded and seemed to accept that this was a thing I was doing now. I never have been able to tell what things will make my parents angry and what things they can accept. For awhile I thought that, perhaps, they had mellowed out a bit, and become more accepting. That notion was proven wrong recently, when I asked them if I could buy my younger brother the Pathfinder Beginner Box for Christmas. They denied my request, adding that they didn't like what "those types of games" had already done to one of their children. Cest'la vie.

Never the less, I took my books out from the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, and placed them lovingly on one of my bookshelves.

Jeremy and I continued to play together, and I tried my hand at GMing several times. I've always loved crafting worlds. In fact, as a young child I used to spend a lot of time drawing complex maps for a monster-filled series of caverns.* I was born to be a GM, but running games for one person can be a limiting experience. I needed a larger group, but I had been home schooled since the fourth grade, and didn't really have the social tools to make friends. At least, that is, until I enrolled in college for the Fall 2005 semester. College is supposedly an eye opening experience even for kids who attended an actual school, so you can imagine what a change it was for me. I met so many wonderful people there, including Chris and Jeremy. They were my first gaming group. I was so happy to finally have one that I actually purchased Player's Handbooks for both of them. We had some great games together, and they even invited some of their own friends along, giving me a nice full party to work with.

To repeat an old cliche, the rest is history. Gaming groups have come and gone, and there have often been weeks or months at a time when I don't get to play, but my love for the game always remains. It's been over seven years since I picked up my first sourcebook--which seems like such a short amount of time compared to the lifetime I feel I've lived as a gamer. Jeremy plays in most of my games, and still serves as my GM whenever we play Zalekios. And if there's anything I've learned, it's that there will always be people out there who want to play games. All they need is someone to suggest it, and be willing to show them how it's done.

*Holy shit. I can't believe I never thought of using these old drawings as a dungeon for my players before. I know exactly where they are.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Monstrous Culture

Culture is important. No matter how much of an individual we think we are, each and every one of us is shaped by our culture in profound ways which we aren't even aware of. For example, those of us who pride ourselves on individualism? We probably come from cultures, like the U.S., which emphasize individualism as a positive trait. Given all the fundamental ways in which our culture shapes us, it should be obvious that understanding a person's culture is an essential element in understanding their outlook. Where am I going with this?

The cultures of the most basic, most iconic monstrous races in fantasy adventure games are all shit. And it ought to change, because I'm tired of ostensibly different creatures being functionally identical. Take, for example, four of the paragon monstrous races which have been harassing adventurers since first edition D&D: Orcs, Goblins, Kobolds, and Gnolls. Below, I've reduced the small amounts of cultural information for each of those races, taken from the Pathfinder Bestiary, to bullet points. If you'd like to check my work, these monsters can be found on pages 155, 156, 183, and 222.

Are violent and aggressive.
Are led by whoever is strongest.
Take what they want by force.
Don't have regard for the lives of others.
Are not good at farming or herding.
Prefer to take things from others rather than earn those things for themselves.
Their largest group is a "band."

Are filled with hatred.
Live in dark places and caves.
Are superstitious.
Scavenge items from the more civilized races rather than producing anything for themselves.
Are universally illiterate.
Their larges group is a "tribe."

Live in caves and other dark places.
Are overly proud of their distant relationship to dragons.
Are cowardly.
Are schemers.
Prefer to attack in large groups.
Their largest group is a "tribe."

Prefer to scavange or steal kills, rather than hunt themselves.
View non-Gnolls as either meat, or slaves.
Enjoy fighting, but only if they have an overwhelming advantage.
See no value in courage or valor.
Their largest group is a "tribe."

Based on those elements, how different are those four really? Is a goblin's rage significantly different from the violence and aggressiveness of orcs? Why do Orcs, Goblins, and Gnolls all universally prefer to take rather than to make? The similarities become even more obvious if you expand the cultural definitions beyond what is found in the scant few lines offered in the bestiary. Ask any gamer to give you the primary characteristic of goblins, and I'll bet you a shiny new platinum piece that they'll say "cowardice" nine times out of ten. That makes three out of four monstrous races which, despite supposedly being threatening, are culturally defined by their cowardice.

Most people who play tabletop games are familiar with the phrase "humans in funny hats." A human in a funny hat is a non-human character who is played without regard for race defining characteristics. Such as a dwarf who doesn't care for gold, or ale, or stonework, and prefers to live above ground. Such characters are, essentially, being played as humans. They're merely wearing the skin, or the 'hat,' of another race.

Here I think we're dealing with a similar problem. Out of four monsters, most of their cultural traits overlap with each other. The problem only becomes more pronounced if you begin to add more creatures, such as lizardfolk or bugbears. In the end there really seems to be only one or two different types of monster cultures in play, reiterated through lizard people, dog people, dragon people, green people, small green people, and so on. A GM who wants his players to face a large force of angry, marauding creatures without regard for human life could sub in any one of these races without needing to alter how his or her campaign is constructed at all.

I'd like to try to develop legitimately distinct cultures for each of the monstrous races in my campaigns, starting with these four.

I'm rather fond of the "noble savage" version of orcs put forth in the Warcraft games. I'm not sure where this depiction of orcs originates, but I think it has merit. A race which is warlike and brutal, but which also holds honor above all other concerns. Of course, different Orcish subcultures define honor on their own terms. For some it might mean victory in fair combat, for others it might simply mean the number of notches on a warrior's axe.

Given their warlike nature, I would think that Orcs are carnivorous rather than omnivorous. They are master hunters, and the hunt is a central theme in their culture. Orcs often attack other orcs, or other races, on sight. Orcs who have not spent a great deal of time amongst other races will not understand that non-orcs do not view fighting and death to be desirable.

Given their constant warring, both with themselves and with other races, most Orcish tribes lag far behind other species technologically.

Of all the monstrous races, I think goblins are most fit to keep most of the traditional monster culture. They are a weak and cowardly tribal people, who feel anger and rage more strongly than any of their other emotions. Since they rely on each other for self preservation, they turn their anger outward, towards other races. Though plenty of goblin squabbles still turn deadly.

They are a sadistic lot, and enjoy taking out their anger and their hate on those who can't properly defend themselves; be it small animals, commoners, or adventurers unprepared for the sheer number of goblins they faced.

Goblins are also stupid and superstitious, often attributing magical or divine properties to the mundane. And lastly, goblins are scavengers. They live in caves or in abandoned structures, and like to collect items stolen from other races.

I went over some of my thoughts on Kobolds in my recent Magical Marvels post. I view them as a humble people, who look to dragons as their great rulers or heroes. They recognize that they are weak, and do not seek to prove themselves in combat against other groups or races. Their unassuming nature has made them the doormats of the world, which has prevented them from becoming as technologically advanced as the other races. And since most kobolds prefer to spend their entire lives living with their tribe, few kobolds go out into the world to bring knowledge back to their people.

Their lack of advancement is a shame, because despite their humble nature, kobolds are remarkably clever. The very few who do manage to summon the courage to leave their people, and then are lucky enough to encounter kindly and learned fellows, have proven to be quick learners. More than one great general throughout history has kept a kobold adviser. Many great researchers and wizards have also had kobold assistants. In candid moments, those generals, researchers, and wizards might even admit that some of their great accomplishments were really the work of their kobold associate.

Gnolls are, essentially, 9ft tall intelligent Hyenas. So we just need to scroll down to the behavior section of the wikipedia page and...well some of the basic traits I outlined above actually work pretty well. Gnolls are scavengers and kill stealers. However, they are anything but cowardly as fighters. They fight ferociously, and without mercy. Their greater size compared to other humanoids instills them with great confidence in combat--but they are not above flight if they feel they are outmatched. As noted above, Gnolls do not hold valor as a virtue.

Gnolls are relatively smart, but simple and lazy. They do what they need to do to fill their needs: eating, sleeping, and reproducing. Once they've got those things taken care of, they don't care much for anything else.

NOTE: It occurs to me, having written this, that Paizo has released both a "Goblins of Golarion," and an "Orcs of Golarion" supplement. It is possible that these concerns are partially addressed in those booklettes. I think the larger issue remains valid, though.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Handling Overpowered Player Characters

I spent most of today working on a project which will affect the future of Comma, Blank_. Once completed, I think it will be a huge improvement for this humble blog. Until that time, however, I'm afraid that working on it is consuming much of the time I would otherwise be using to play tabletop games, and write about them for your amusement. I've actually been working on it since early December, and only mention it now because I accidentally let it get far too late on a day which I'm supposed to post something. So my options are to stay up really late to finish today's post, or cop-out. And with work in the morning, I've decided to cop-out. So I hope you liked Gary Gygax's story of the Jeweled Man from last week, because it's time for another post based on The All-Father's column.

This time it's a tale of self-destructing PCs from Dragon #314, first published in December of 2003. Gygax reminisces about an overconfident player with a high leveled character he didn't earn, and gives advice on how to deal with such players. Advice I don't entirely agree with, in matter of fact. But we'll get to that later.

Once again, I will reprint Gygax's original words here, but I do so without permission. I'm doing this because this is from a seven-year-old issue of a magazine which has been out of print for almost 5 years (by Vecna's Eye, has it been that long? ;_;). To my knowledge, it's not currently possible to read this column unless you somehow manage to physically acquire an original copy of the issue. And once again, I will happily remove it if contacted by anyone from Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, or the Gygax Estate.

Self Destructing PCs

Unearned levels are the PC's worst enemy

Many DMs have asked me how I handle characters that are obviously over-powered, "jumped-up" PCs that never really earned their high abilities and survive by massive hit-point total, super magic, and unearned ease in attacking with sword or spell. To such inquiries, I respond that in recognizing this sort of character I simply play the encounters a bit differently, mainly in the presentation of information, not in "fudging" of the dice rolls for monsters. Inept players will destroy their characters without having to resort to such methods. Allow me to illustrate this with the following account:

While at a regional convention in upstate New York, I was asked to run adventures in my campaign's Castle Greyhawk Dungeons. An assembly of players gathered for what was billed a moderate-level excursion. One aggressive young chap came to the table with a 13th-level ranger, supposedly his least powerful character. Although the others in the group had PCs of about half that level and were chary about including the lad with the ranger, I assured them all would work just fine, even with experience division given by shares according to level.

There followed some initial exploration and minor encounters as the team worked its way down into the dungeon maze. The first real test came when the party came into a large chamber with many pillars and several doors. As the main group discussed what strategy they would follow in this locale, a bold dwarf broke off and opened a nearby door. Rather than telling the player what he saw, I told the players this:

"The dwarf slams the door. He reels back and comes staggering towards the rest of you, stammering something that sounds like. 'G-ga-get back! W-wuh... Horrible! A bunch of them!' He is obviously fearful and thus incoherent.

The 13th-level ranger hesitated not a moment. Without consulting with his fellows, the character ran to the door that the dwarf had slammed closed and opened it without concern. The four wights that were preparing to exit their lair confronted him, won initiative, and two succeeded in hitting. In the ensuing melee, these undead monsters managed to strike the ranger twice more, so at the end of the battle, the ranger was of a level more commensurate with the others, 9th as it were.

Much disturbed by that turn of events, but clearly not chagrined by his rash behavior and the results, the ranger insisted on leading the way. Soon thereafter, they discovered a staircase down, and beside it lay an alcove wherein a great clay pot rested, radiating heat and billowing smoke. The other PCs advised leaving the strange vessel alone, but the ranger determined to attack it. As he did so, all the other characters fled the area. With a single blow the ranger shattered the pot, and thus a really angry fire elemental was freed. It didn't take long for that monster to finish off the ranger, and thereafter it departed.

I took the character sheet from the fellow, suggesting that he should be more careful with such potent characters in the future, for surely he had spent a long time gaining 13th level with his now dead ranger PC. He left the table without comment, and the rest of the group went on to several exciting hours of dungeon delving.

This shows that unearned levels don't translate to playing ability. To the contrary, the power gained often makes the player overconfident. Any able DM can craft adventures that weed out unwise and inept players who think to bulldoze their way through problems by use of undeserved power. That's possible only in computer games where saved games and cheat codes serve to reward such play.

Clearly, the culture surrounding the game in those days was significantly different than it is today. I can't imagine a GM taking a player's character sheet like that. But, then, neither can I really imagine arguing with Gary Gygax if he was my Dungeon Master.

This column struck a cord with me because my own character, Zalekios Gromar, is bursting with unearned power. Not only is he a Gestalt character with levels in both Warlock and Rogue, but a few years back my GM facetiously gave him a Ring of 100 Wishes, which rocketed his undeserved power level into the stratosphere. Of course, Zalekios is a very special case. He has no party--no companions to excel in the areas where he is weak. He's got to be able to handle everything by himself. That being said, though, he could still probably out-perform four characters of equivalent level. The character is overpowered. I won't argue that.

The way my GM and I have always handled it is simply to raise the difficulty of the challenges Zalekios must face. And, when we get it right, it works very well. A few sessions ago, Zalekios was very nearly killed when he was attacked by a level 16 gestalt Paladin/Barbarian character. My GM overruled the fact that Paladins must be lawful, and Barbarians must be Chaotic, because he's evil like that. The combination of rage and smite evil very nearly ended Zalekios career. If not for some clever tactics on my part, using Dimensional Door and Eldritch Blast to keep my foe at range, I would not have survived.

And if all the players are overpowered, that's a fine solution. But most often, that's not the case. Players being different levels than one another is not often a problem in modern games, but power disparity will always exist. Sometimes players pull min-maxed builds off of the Internet. Other times, you underestimate just how effective a certain magic item will be in the hands of your players. Or, occasionally, a player just gets really stupidly lucky with a Deck of Many Things. And in this, I think Gary's advice is eternal.

Let player skill determine whether your player deserves what he or she has. Give them opportunities to be overconfident, and pay for it. A player who has easily cut through challenges which the other players would have struggled with is going to come to expect it. So throw them a curve-ball. Drop a high leveled monster on them, and watch as they refuse to run away from a fight. Don't take their power from them, just put them into a position where foolish action will cause them to lose it.

Of course, this may not always work. If your player is just as skilled as they are powerful, then you may need to reassess. You don't want them to ruin the game for the other PCs who are left to stroll in their companion's wake. But neither do you want to punish the player if they've made no mistakes. At this point you might consider making a loss of their power part of an important quest. Perhaps the artifact they acquired is evil and needs to be destroyed, or perhaps it is the lost blade of a celestial general who needs it to continue the battle against evil. If the deck of many things granted the player millions of gold, let him learn that an equivalent amount of gold disappeared from the coffers of a small nation, which is now unable to feed its people during a famine. If all else fails, you can just buff up the rest of the party, and the encounter level along with it.

As a side note, is it just me, or does it seem really uncool to take control of a player's character? I know role playing games were different in those days, and the particular instance here is pretty mundane, but I can't imagine ever doing that. The control a player has over their character is sacrosanct in my mind. I would have at least allowed him a saving throw versus fear.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Magical Marvels 2: Kofek's Tongue

As I mentioned in last week's Colorful Characters post, I've been thinking about spicing up my Friday update, (never mind the fact that they've been going up on Saturdays lately). So from now on, Fridays will be a toss up between three regular features: Colorful Characters, Magical Marvels, and Malevolent Monsters. (Anybody admire assonance and alliteration?) I'm not going to make any special effort towards making sure there's an even distribution between the three, but if my readership gravitates strongly towards one of the three I'll see if I can't give it some special attention.

This week is a top-tier rogue weapon which has shown up in my Ascendant Crusade campaign. Special thanks to my ladyfriend for providing the art for it. You can find more of her artwork on her DeviantArt page.

Kofek's Tongue
Intelligent Artifact, Small Scythe


(Main Blade)
1d6 + 5 (Slashing)(20/x4)
(Staff) 1d4 + 5 (Bludgeoning)(20/x2)
(Switchblade) 1d3 (Piercing, Slashing)(19-20/x2)(May be activated as a swift action. Weapon is concealed until then)
(Dart) 1 damage. Each coated with Nitharit poison (Con damage, PFCR pg. 560) (Only 2, must be reloaded as a full round action) (Darts are fired from the eye sockets of the kobold skull mounted at the top of the blade's shaft)


6/day - Suggestion (Pathfinder Core Rulebook Pg. 350)
1/day - Invisibility (PFCR Pg. 301)(2 minute duration)
2/day - Scorching Ray (PFCR Pg. 337)(Ranged Touch, 4d6 fire damage) (One comes from each of the two rubies mounted in the small marble skull's eye sockets)

  • The wielder can make telekinetic trip attacks at a range of 30 feet. Trip attempts are otherwise treated normally.
  • As a swift action, the wielder may utter a command word, causing the shaft to split in the middle. The two halves are connected by a chain. This allows the scythe blade to be used as a 10ft reach weapon.
  • The scythe blade can be "thrown" by Kofek's Tongue. The blade deals damage normally, and has a range increment of 20ft. Once the blade stops, it magically returns to Kofek's Tongue.
  • The wielder gains a +10 to their combat maneuver bonus relating to trip attacks.

EGO 22; INT 20 (+5) WIS 18 (+4) CHA 10 (+0)
Senses Darkvision 120ft, Blindsense, Hearing; Communication Speech, Telepathy
Languages Common, Draconic, Goblin, Halfling, Gnomish
Alignment True Neutral
Purpose Kofek's Tongue is driven towards subterfuge, traps and trickery. During periods of downtime, it will often drive its wielder to perform practical jokes on their own companions, to slake its own thirst for trickery. The weapon would strongly resist being used in an open and honest fight, such as a duel, or military assault.
Racism The weapon can abide gnomes, but CANNOT be weilded by one. Any Gnome which attempts to hold it takes 10d6 damage/hour.
Kofek's Tongue has a simple brown shaft made of fine polished wood. At the head of the shaft, a kobold's skull and jawbone are mounted. The scythe blade is clutched firmly in the skull's mouth (thus, it is the "tongue.") On the opposite end of the shaft is a small ornate skull made of white marble. In each of the two eye sockets rests a small ruby. A small switchblade is mounted at the bottom of the shaft, which can be released by depressing a small button on the handle, causing the 5" blade to extend straight from the bottom of the shaft, protruding from the small marble skull.
As a species, kobolds are smaller, and more physically feeble than most of the common races. They've learned that the best response to confrontation is to flee, which has earned them a reputation as a cowardly lot. However, kobolds are also exceedingly clever. They know that they do not need to fight their foes in order to harm them. The astounding, even instinctual trap making abilities of kobolds are renowned throughout the world. And none more so than Kofek.

Kofek is a Kobold hero, one of the few the species has. She was the matriarch of The Redscale Clan, and taught her people to make traps more devious and deadly than any made by kobold kind before her. The stories told of her by firelight have grown grandiose and distorted through countless retelling, but the core of her legend is true: no adventuring party ever managed to survive the approach to the Redscale village. And when she turned her mind to vengeance against the humans who had driven her clan into the mountain a generation before, the devices Kofek's clan hid throughout the human lands caused many to flee their homes.

Then the gnomes came. A band of ten kobold hunters, called by the leader of the human village. He arranged a meeting with Kofek, ostensibly to negotiate an end to hostilities. Instead, the noble Kobold leader was ambushed by the gnomes. Her loyal guards died defending her. Kofek was tortured. Her eyes put out with hot irons, her tongue forks stretched apart, her scales pulled off her one by one. The gnomes demanded to know how to bypass the traps which led to her village, but she never told them. After three weeks of unceasing agony, Kofek died. The gnomes attempted to assail the village on their own, but were killed by the deadly traps. Kofek's vengeance from beyond the grave.

With the gnomes gone, and the human forces weakened and demoralized, the Redscale Tribe armed themselves, and marched on the village in force. Many were killed in the battle, but none would flee. Such was their love for the great Kofek. They recovered her body, and brought it back to the village to honor it properly. Kobolds do not bury or burn their dead. They honor them by using their remains to support the tribe. Her scales were made into the raiment which would forever garb the leader of the Redscale tribe, her claws and teeth were made into spear tips and arrowheads. And her skull and jawbone, with her brain still inside, were lovingly crafted into the most magnificent scythe the tribe's weaponsmith ever crafted.

For generations, the scythe, named "Kofek's Tongue" served as a badge of office for the village's greatest trap-smith. Until a young kobold, a traveler from the Forktongue tribe, visited the Redscales. His name was Kisteer, and he had heard rumors that Kofek's wisdom still spoke to the one who held the magnificent scythe. Kisteer spent many hours with the tribe's trapsmith, discussing new designs and pretending to learn from the older kobold. While the old kobold was sleeping, Kisteer stole the scythe, and fled from the village.

Kisteer wielded Kofek's Tongue through many adventures, and even improved upon it with his own modifications. His mechanical skill and trapping instincts eventually rose to such prominence that they were said to rival Kofek's own. However, most kobolds have no love for Kisteer. As a lieutenant of The Blind Empress, he is viewed as an evil conqueror. And, after the establishment of the Blind Empress' Empire, Kisteer further enraged Kobold kind by visiting many kobold tribes, and robbing them of their strongest and most intelligent members, to establish his own Tribe of The Black Eye.

Since Kisteer's death, Kofek's tongue has been passed down through the generations to the leaders of the Tribe of the Black Eye. And is still held by them to this day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


If you visited my blog within the last 24 hours, you know that on January 18th, 2012, I joined the rest of the Internet in protesting SOPA and PIPA, two bills presently being considered by legislators in the United States. And though it falls outside the purview of this blog, I think it's relevant for me to take a moment to explain how important this is to me, and why it should be important to you. And to help you understand that, let me explain just how important this blog is to me.

Before I started Comma, Blank_, I was not very happy with my life. If you go back to the first post on this blog, entitled “Worthlessness,” you'll get an idea of just how unhappy I was. I was struggling through the depths of severe depression. The woman I love, who I had been with since I was a teenager, had left me. I had been forced to drop out of college, and was working a dead-end job that I hated. And all of those things are still true. But Comma, Blank_ gives me hope. Comma, Blank_ makes me feel like I'm improving myself every day by forcing myself to become a better and more consistent writer. The opportunities it has granted me in the few months I've been writing it give me hope for even greater opportunities to come. Comma, Blank_ is my life preserver, and I cling to it tightly.

And today I shut it down. I turned away potential new hits. I prevented anyone new from discovering my work. Because stopping SOPA and PIPA is that important.

This legislation will smother the Internet to death. Blogs like my Traipsing Through the Timmverse will be shut down without trial or due process by media corporations. Let me reiterate that last part in bold: by media corporations. Not agents of the government, not duly elected officials, not judges or any part of the judicial system. That's the kind of power Big Media is attempting to take for itself. And the United States Government is considering giving it to them.

We're gamers, so lets put this into our own terminology. The Internet is, among many other things, a producer for entertainment. The media industry is, also, a producer of entertainment. Allowing media corporations the right to shut down sites on the Internet is like giving Wizards of the Coast the right to shut down production of any RPG don't like. Do you trust Wizards of the Coast with the fate of your favorite indie RPG?

The Internet stands among the greatest accomplishments of our species. The very idea that someone would try to harm it should enrage you. This is a book burning for the modern age.

At this point, I'd like to direct you to something written by my friend Rilgon. He's much more involved in the industry, and more educated on the topic, than I am. He's written something eloquent and informative. Something everyone should read.

Whatever else you do: contact your representative. You've got a congressperson and two senators. That's three phone calls.

You can do it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Theoretical RPG

After the recent announcement of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, and the news that Wizards of the Coast is looking for fan input to help them design it, I've seen a lot of talk around the web. Thoughts on what people think it will be like, and thoughts on what people think it should be like. Personally I have no talent for prediction, so I won't waste anyone's time with my expectations. I do quite like to theorize about game mechanics, but I see no reason to restrict myself to the D&D model.

Dungeons and Dragons has been a great game in the past, and I will always love it for that. But lets be frank. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are dead, the company they founded defunct, and the 5th edition of D&D will be the third edition since they had any input on the game's development. These days, Dungeons and Dragons is nothing but an IP. It is the continuation of the world's oldest role playing game in name only.

While some small part of me likes to hope that Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition will be good, I do not believe it will be. I think it will be more to my liking than fourth edition has been. That's only logical to conclude, since Wizards has no doubt noticed that Pathfinder has held onto more market share than D&D for two quarters straight. However, at this point I doubt we're ever going to get away from things like healing surges, "powers," and endlessly ascending player stats. If that's your cup of tea, I bid you enjoy it. But I've no interest in pouring any for myself.

Huh, I guess I ended up making some predictions after all. Sorry about that.

So in light of everyone else on the Internet talking about their ideas for Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition, I thought I would share some of my own ideas for a future RPG. I've been pondering these for several months now, and they have little to do with Dungeons and Dragons. It just seems like an opportune time to write about some of them.

Two-Tiered Rule Complexity

Oldschool Dungeons and Dragons had a "basic rules / advanced rules" division, but they were two separate games. I'd like to see an RPG which allows groups to play in either a rules-heavy, or rules-light mode, without breaking gameplay when switching between the two. Because sometimes you're looking for a deep, gourmet gaming experience, and other times you've only got time for a one-shot with whoever happens to be around at the time. Your players may want to spend hours fine tuning every ability on the character they've been playing for years, but if that character is out of commission for a session, they don't want to waste any time at all building the throwaway character they'll be playing until their main is available again.

Ideally, these two modes of play could even be run simultaneously. With new and inexperienced players using the light rules, and more advanced players using the more detailed rules. For example, "rules light," players could be given a selection of classes to pick from, and that class would provide the player with all the information the player needed on what their character could do. Perhaps some minimum level of customization would be available under the light rules (such as selection of race, and the assignment of something like skill points) but the goal is that everything the player needs to know about their character can be found on 2-3 pages of the sourcebook.

Players using the heavier rules would have no class. Instead, they would build their own class by selecting various skills and abilities using a point-buy mechanic. All the skills available to rules light players would be available here, as well as a plethora of alternative options. However, it would be difficult or impossible to create a character using the heavy rules which could completely outclass a character built using the light rules. The classes available to light rules players would simply be pre-optimized characters, built using the heavy rules by the game's designers.

Theoretically, the game could even include 3 tiers of rules. Simple, Normal, and Complex. I think that could be really fun, but even two tiers would require a lot more pages than a game with a single tier of rules. To mitigate that, the core rules would be stripped down to precisely that: the core of what an RPG requires. Character creation rules, and combat resolution. Everything else would be handled by my next idea:

Modular Rules

Every GM knows that rule 0 is always at their disposal. If they don't like a rule, they can change it, or drop it from the game entirely. The problem with doing so is that removing a rule often causes problems elsewhere in the game. To use Pathfinder as an example, if you stop using the diplomacy skill because you prefer to have your players role play through situations that require diplomacy, then the player who put points in the skill gets screwed.

So what if non-core rules were presented as "modules," which could be inserted into or removed from a game without penalty. For example, the game could include the encumbrance modular rule. Everything to do with encumbrance, its effects, and ways to mitigate them, would all be contained in the same place. The game would be designed to function completely with or without encumbrance. So instead of "Is this unfun enough for me to justify invoking rule 0?" the question becomes "is this fun enough to include?"

There could even be multiple modules for a single mechanic. Many games have come up with many different ways of handing encumbrance. And while the game might have a "primary" version of the encumbrance rules available in the core rulebook, alternate encumbrance rule modules could be released with supplemental books, providing groups with a handful of different mechanics to choose from.

Bell Curve Die Rolls

There's not a lot which really needs to be said about this which wasn't already said by one James Beach back in 2001. So I'll spare you the lengthy recap. Simply put, die rolls should be handled in such a way that they produce a bell curve of results, rather than a linear progression of results. Personally, I like the idea of rolling 3d6 or 2d10 to resolve most problems.

I recognize that these ideas have flaws. Perhaps insurmountable flaws. For example, wouldn't modular rules prevent classes from interacting with them, lest the GM decide not to use the rule? I'm not saying I have actual answers to these questions. These are just thoughts I've had rolling around in my head for awhile, and I thought I'd put them down.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Gary Gygax, the Jeweled Man, and Letting Your Players Fail

I've always had a love for magazines. During my youth, one of the most exciting days of the month was when my issue of Star Wars Insider would arrive. Magazines are like proto-websites. Which perhaps explains why many magazines have made the successful transition out of print, and onto the web. Still, there's something about holding the monthly publication in your hand which feels a great deal more substantial than bookmarking a website does. It makes me sad that magazines are slowly dying off. Which might explain why I've occasionally been called a Luddite.

Of course, if we didn't have the Internet, then I'd be trying to get these blog posts into a magazine, and probably having most of them rejected. So you don't hear me complaining.

Given my love of magazines, I doubt anybody will be surprised to learn that I've gathered a decent collection of Dragon magazines over the years. (Funny Story: most of them are from the personal collection of Jeff Grub). They're all piled into a cardboard box underneath my sourcebook shelves. I haven't had the time to read even a tenth of the issues I already have, which is kinda nice, because I can always just pull a random issue from the pile and flip through the pages to find something new.

One of my favorite features of many of the issues of Dragon is a regular article called "Up on a Soapbox, All I Need to Know I Learned from D&D." These articles were written by the Gary Gygax himself, and were often retellings of his earliest campaigns. It's always fun to read about what he was thinking, and what he experienced, which shaped Dungeons and Dragons in those early years.

Today I opened up Dragon issue 290, from December 2001. In it is a story by Gygax entitled "Lesson #4: The One That Got Away. It tells the story of a golden man, encrusted with jewels and gems, which his players encountered in Castle Greyhawk. Back in those days, experience points were primarily earned through the acquisition of treasure, so a man made of gold was quite a find. Unfortunately for Gygax's players, the man always ran away, and they were never able to catch him, though many attempts were made over the years.

I have some things to say about this story, but first, I think it would be nice if people had an opportunity to actually read it. Unfortunately, I can't find it replicated anywhere online. And, unfortunately, issues of defunct magazines from over a decade ago aren't something most people can easily find. So, after some consideration, I've decided to type up the article and include it in this post. I will happily remove it on request from anyone at Hasbro, or Wizards of the Coast. Hell, if the Gygax estate wants me to take it down, I will.

The Jeweled Man

When reminiscing about the "old days," players in the original Greyhawk campaign still bring up the Jeweled Man. Although there were victories aplenty for those who adventured through the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, those veterans are still trying to discover who and what this figure was. That's because nary a PC managed to catch this incredible thing, the Jeweled Man. All such speculation is to no avail, of course. Until some player's character manages to discover the truth about him, the mystery will never be revealed. That's a secret, and mystery is part and parcel of a good campaign.

Once the teams of PCs delving into the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk had made their way down to a moderate depth, all were after greater treasures. That was the natural way of things; in the original D&D and AD&D games, experience point awards were primarily based on the value of a defeated monster's treasure hoard, not on the power of the monster. Of course, XPs were given for slaying foul creatures, successful use of spells, and other heroic acts. Even the most rigorous use of sword and spell, however, was insufficient to gain the large amounts of experience points needed to gain a level. In short order, the players learned that copper was dross, silver meaningless, and even gold a middling reward at best. Platinum? A bare cut above gold. Gems, jewelry, and magic items, those were the goal of every party's explorations, the wherewithal to become more than one's class.

It was around the dungeon's 8th level that the first bold adventurers came upon something they had theretofore only dreamed of. Tenser, Robilar, and Terik were delighted when, upon entering a large chamber, they saw a figure apparently made entirely of gold. This sight was all the more wondrous not because the man-like thing was animate, but rather because the glitteringt yellow metal of the figure's body was encrusted with faceted gems of all sizes and shapes. Even from a distance, it was plain that thousands of carats of diamonds, emerals, sapphires, and rubies--the whole spectrum of precious stones--were embedded in the thing's golden body. Surely, the strange golden automaton represented millions and millions of gold pieces worth of wealth--and enough experience points to advance a large, high-level party to the next level of power.

Even as a spell was cast to keep the Jeweled Man from acting, warriors were rushing to come to grips with this marvel. Alas for the adventurers, the spell had no effect, and before the eager fighters were near, the figure was off and away, running so quickly that even boots of speed could not keep pace. Down a passageway went the glittering form, the party in pursuit. In all too brief a time, however, the Jeweled Man was lost, vanished into the labyrinth of the surrounding passages. Swearing to return, the adventurers went away empty handed, settling eventually for far less precious items taken from likely more fearsome opponents.

The players of course, embarked on a series of expeditions comprised of both the original team and other characters--even lone PCs. Most of the groups managed to make their way to the location, and of those finding the great chamber, the majority encountered the Jeweled Man therein. Each successive encounter saw the would-be captors become more and more frustrated, more aggressive, and more mystified at their lack of success. Their reason for failing to capture the prize might well have been the close-lipped nature of the would-be plunderers.

Almost everyone knew that it seemed impossible to take the creature by surprise, but teams and individual characters kept their own counsel concerning the success of other actions. Clearly the incalculable worth of the treasure and the repute to be had from gaining it worked to diminish cooperation, the one thing that makes success in adventuring most likely.

This effect was not foreseen, but the actions of the players made it easily recognizable. To reflect the attitudes of the PCs, it was natural to use innuendo to suggest one or another character was planning to capture the Jeweled Man alone. Solo adventures among the most able players were rare thereafter, as their peers were loathe to allow one of their number a chance to catch the Jeweled man alone.

To this day the begemmed thing--and I use that term advisedly, as no one has discovered exactly what it is--haunts the great chamber in the mid-levels of the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk. it has been years since any determined effort to capture the creature has been made, but the veterans of the storied times when exploration and derring-do were meat and drink to a large company still speak of it. Suggestions that it was an illusion fall flat because several different groups launched failed attempts to prove it unreal. there are growls about "DM cheating" too, but these complaints are half-hearted. Simply put, the players concerned know deep down that they never made a truly concerted effort, and each suspects they just might one day succeed.

Perhaps they will, and then the tale of that triumph will be told and retold. As it is, however, only sad stories of the one that got away are related.

Of course, I now realize that this was a terrible idea. Juxtaposing Gary Gygax's thoughts on role playing with my own is not likely to create a favorable comparison. But what's done is done. I can only hope Wizards of the Coast demands I take the post down.

Among the number of lessons to be learned here, I think the most important and the most clear is that it's important for players to be able to fail. Gary certainly thought so, because as best as I can determine, he took the secrets of The Jeweled Man to his grave. I managed to find a forum post, apparently written by Gygax, which was written just about two years before his untimely death. In the post, he says he'll discuss the concept in general terms in some then-upcoming modules, but that he does not intend to reveal how the encounter operated in his original campaign.

That's dedication to the craft.

Personally, I don't know how he did it. When I GM, and I make something cool, I want to tell people about it. Of course I want my players to figure it out on their own, so I don't drop any undue hints. And if they fail to solve a mystery I've crafted, I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from giving it away to them right then and there. Then I have to bite my tongue again at the end of the adventure to avoid letting it slip during the post-adventure chatting. It's difficult. I think I'm missing a few pieces of tongue at this point.

The best solution I've come up with is to tell people not involved in the game in question all about my brilliant game mastering. That's not always advisable, though, because sometimes those people later want to join the games I've told them the secrets for. That has happened to me, and it's a pain in the ass. But I've meandered off topic.

I feel that the importance of player failure is undersold by most of the modern sourcebooks I've read. Many people will agree that one of the best parts of role playing games are the stories you get to tell about your adventures. And the best stories always contain an element of failure or sacrifice. Like the time you were ambushed on the way to the dungeon, and killed in a single blow. Or the time your paladin died to foil the villain. Or, in this case, the way the Jeweled Man always managed to get away.

Players can always roll new characters. And if you let your players fail, then they'll know that their successes are their own. Not just fudged dice.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Colorful Characters 13: Maedhar Krekpe

Note: I'm considering supplementing Colorful Characters with some other features. Something like "Malevolent Monsters", or "Amazing Artifacts." Just to give myself some more options on what to post on a Friday/Saturday. Let me know in the comments if you would like more variety like that, or if you'd prefer Colorful Characters remain a weekly feature.

Maedhar Krekpe was born in a massive city to an affluent merchant family. He was always a thin, bookish child, and excelled in the expensive private academies his family sent him to. He decided very early on in life that he wanted to become a Wizard, and worked hard to pursue that goal. He applied to the magic academy when he was eleven. His aptitude was so impressive, that one of the test administrators offered him the opportunity to become her personal apprentice. An offer the young boy accepted eagerly.

They boy excelled in his studies, which focused primarily on the school of evocation and the practice of alchemy. In the evenings, his teacher--an elderly woman, with leathery skin and calloused hands--would tell him stories about her life as an adventurer. Tales of goblin tribes and slain dragons. Some were perhaps exaggerated, but they none the less filled the young students head with visions of himself as a traveling wizard, using his skills and knowledge to triumph over evil, and rescue a village in the process.

Maedhar grew, and learned, and when he was 28 he joined a small group of adventurers as a fully certified Wizard. The group went on a number of adventurers together, and in many ways it was just as Maedhar had imagined. He never managed to slay any dragons, but he did stop a tribe of orcs which was stealing pigs from an outlying village. After a couple years on the road with his companions, the group heard that a barbarian tribe was poaching in the King's forest, and took it upon themselves to bring the uncivilized brutes to justice.

They scoured the forest for a week before finding the tribe's encampment. They contemplated whether or not to attempt diplomacy, but the party's leader--a cleric with much more experience than the rest of the group--decided that it wasn't likely enough to work for them to sacrifice the element of surprise. They made plans, and launched a surprise attack.

They were slaughtered.

Maedhar awoke days later, bound in a tent. He wasn't sure why he had been spared, because the last thing he remembered was seeing his compatriots hacked to pieces by the masterful barbarian warriors. He waited, unable to move, for some time before anyone came to check on him. The barbarian spoke a few words, but Maedhar didn't understand his language. Then the barbarian pointed to Maedhar's ring--which depicted a bear--and then to his own chest, which was tattooed with the silhouette of a roaring bear. Apparently the tribe viewed him as somehow connected to them, and had decided to spare him. At least, for a little while.

He was then unbound, and led through the village to a large hut, where a middle aged woman sat on a large chair. He was made to sit on the ground before her, while she questioned him in broken common. He gathered that they were the Tribe of the Dire Bear, and that she was their matriarch. They did not understand that this was the King's forest, and did not accept that they were not allowed to hunt here.

During his questioning, Maedhar heard wet, sickly coughing from the corner. He looked, and saw a young boy laying on a mat on the ground, sweat covering his forehead. He asked what was wrong with him. The matriarch did not answer at first, staring at him in stony silence, contemplating whether to humor him. Finally she answered that the boy was her son, and that he was very sick. They had been unable to help him with any of their traditional remedies. Maedhar offered his help. Again, the matriarch considered, obviously distrusting of the violent outsider, but eventually allowed him to try.

Maedhar still had a few healing potions with him, given to him by his adventuring companion. He gently poured the magically healing liquid into the boy's mouth, and he visibly improved instantly. He sat up, and quaffed the rest of the potion in a few large gulps. There was a murmuring in the hut, and the Matriarch approached Maedhar. She kissed him on the forehead, and said.

"Dire Bear send you to help us. You be Clan of Dire Bear now."

Maedhar wished to return to civilization, but the matriarch would not have it. She said that he must stay with them, for he knew the location of their village. And, after seeing the brutal efficiency with which they fought, the bookish Maedhar was not inclined towards any foolish escape attempts.

It has been three years since Maedhar was accepted into the Tribe of the Dire Bear. In that time he has integrated himself fully into their society. He has married a woman, and has a young child of his own. He no longer wishes to return to civilization, but still views himself as a scholar.

Maedhar has not lost himself in barbarian culture. He is still a bookish fellow, without much interest in developing himself physically. However, he now holds community and family as paramount values, which he feels civilization has lost sight of.

He speaks boldly, and cares deeply for the members of the Tribe of the Dire Bear. He is also compassionate and welcoming towards outsiders, but is deeply distrusting of them at the same time.

He is always eager to study the spells or scrolls of Wizards he meets. A lack of magical study material is, he says, the only downside to living among the Tribe of the Dire Bear.

Maedhar is not a close quarters combatant, and he knows it. In battle, he lets his barbarian compatriots handle the direct combat, while he stays to the side and focuses on buffing them, and casting ranged damage spells such as Scorching Ray and Magic Missile.

If forced to fight alone, Maedhar will prefer to flee. If he can't, he will cast Mage Armor and Shield, and quaff his Potion of Bear's Endurance, before attempting to fell his enemies with his offense spells and clumsy dagger thrusts.

Thoughts on Use
Maedhar could show up in a game in a number of different ways. If your adventurers encounter a group of barbarians, the presence of Maedhar can provide an unexpected challenge. Not only is Wizardry an unusually skill to find amongst barbarians, but education is likewise uncommon. If your party is attempting to negotiate with the tribe to get them to leave the lands of Baron Hammak, Maedhar will be able to tell his barbarian cohorts that Baron Hammak is untrustworthy, thanks to his knowledge of the nobility.

Maedhar's affluent family might also engage the PCs to find their son. They would likely believe him to be dead, but they might have heard tales of the wizard who lives amongst the barbarians.

Maedhar Krekpe (CR 3)

XP: 800
Male Human Wizard 4
LG humanoid
Init +2; Senses Perception +0

AC 12, Flat Footed 10, Touch 12 [10 + Dex(2)]
hp 29 (4d6 + 2)
Fort +3 Ref +3 Will + 5

Speed 30ft
Melee Silver Dagger + 0 (1d4 - 2/19-20 x2)
Wizard Spells Prepared (CL 4th; Concentration +7;)
2nd (3/Day)-- Bear's Endurance, Scorching Ray, Scorching Ray
1st (4/day)-- Magic Missile, Magic Missile, Mage Armor, Shield
0 (At Will)-- Acid Splash, Flare, Message, Message

Str 7 (-2) Dex 14 (+2) Con 14 (+2) Int 16 (+3) Wis 13 (+1) Cha 13 (+1)
Base Atk +2; CMB +0; CMD 12
Feats Scribe Scroll, Brew Potion, Metamagic: Empower Spell, Metamagic: Extend Spell
Skills Craft (Alchemy)(+10), Knowledge (Geography)(+10), Knowledge (History)(+10), Knowledge(Nobility)(+10) Spellcraft (+10)
Languages Common, Elven, Gnomish, Tribe of the Dire Bear Tongue
--Bonded Object:
Masterwork quality silver ring, with a bear etched into it and gilded with gold. A single small emerald is set into the ring, serving as the bear's eye.
--Evocation Specialist. Opposition Schools: Divination, Necromancy
----Intense Spells
: Evocation spells which deal HP damage have their damage increased by 1/2 the caster's Wizard level.
----Force Missiles: (6/day) As a standard action, you can unleash a force missile which automatically strikes a foe. The missile deals 1d4 points of damage, plus the damage from Intense Spells. This is a force effect.
Gear Fine Purple Robes, a few pieces of ornate silver jewelry, 2 Potions of Cure Light Wounds, 2 Potions of Bear's Endurance, Small silver dagger
Level 0
-- Resistance, Acid Splash, Daze, Dancing Lights, Flare, Light , Ray of Frost, Ghost Sound, Mage Hand, Mending, Message, Open/Close, Arcane Mark, Prestidigitation
Level 1-- Burning Hands, Magic Missile, Shocking Grasp, Mage Armor, Enlarge Person, Feather Fall, Magic Weapon, Shield
Level 2--
Bear's Endurance, Darkness, Gust of Wind, Scorching Ray
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