Friday, February 28, 2014

Shit + Time → Monsters

On the Spontaneous Generation of Monsters

Night soil, excrement, sewage: thinking beings have a powerful aversion to their own waste. It breeds not only foul miasmas and disease but stranger mischief. There is strong reason shite is kept closeted, closed, and buried out in the country. (Unlike those foul cities further inward, where it flows open through the streets if rumour can be believed.) The further one gets from the King at Ashnest, the wilder and less certain the world becomes.

Left unchecked and exposed to night-air, shite will generate foul and monstrous things. [Sewage left under starlight has a  25% chance per hour of generating one monster per gallon. Landslides, floods, and earthquakes can open up municipal and rural latrines making bad situations terrible.] Called by some accounts goblins or kobolds or cess-trolls [a more general term], these small noisome creatures usually have little more than animal intelligence. Frighteningly enough, these abominations can breed themselves from their own droppings. [Only 1 out of 10 of these kobolds, gremlins, or whatever-monsters are capable of sexual reproduction. These elite breeders have intellects running the gamut of human potential and typically branch off to form their own tribes.] Often violent in the defense of their territory, cess-trolls can quickly overrun an area. If left unchecked they can deplete the countryside of resources in short order.

Some few of these strange beasts can rise above their station and are capable of rational thought. This trait unfortunately begins to breed true in successive generations. As time passes, the likelihood of more powerful and cunning monsters increases. [1 out of 100 2nd+ generation cess-trolls will give birth to male/female twins of a different, stronger variety of monster such as pig-faced orcs, foul ogres,  or beast men. These new monsters grow rapidly and always leave to form their own clans. Luckily these new forms are incapable of asexual reproduction.]

Know too, snake eggs grow like a fungus upon the graves of liars. Should a bird make nest above such graves, there is a small chance that each egg lain will grow to an enormous size and produce a fearsome wyvern. [1 in 1,000 chance of 1 wyvern egg per nest.]

Furthermore, bats are born from the screams of lost children rebounding off stones in the wilderness. [Any scream of a sentient being in the night has the possibility of producing a bat. Each successive echo of that scream breeds another bat.] However, should the screams cross a unconsecrated grave thrice, a terrible, bloodthirsty Night Stalker shall be formed from the bones. [AKA a Vampire. The grave doesn't have to be unconsecrated, any unmarked grave will do. The first victim is usually the screamer. Sometimes it's the one causing the screaming, but the world is rarely that just by nature.]

The Dragon is, of course, born of the ashes of the Kingdom falling...

...None know why the many gods have wrought the world this way, but they have. For good or ill, it is our lot to live in it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Real Weight of Hundreds of Dead Orcish Babies*

I'm a big fan of hard choices and uneasy morality in my games. When your character kills something that's capable of thought, it ought to be a dramatic moment. It doesn't mean there won't be fighting, violence, and swordplay in my games. It does mean that I prefer the players/characters to wince at the gore and be a bit trepidatious about handing out death. (This assumes of course the player isn't playing a really mentally unbalanced character. [You've got to be a bit unbalanced to go adventuring at all, you know.]) Myself and the people I play/played with like exploring the idea of how far your character is willing to go accomplish his/her goals. Kill to defend yourself and others? Striking preemptive blows against enemy tribes/nations? Sidestepping unjust laws? Outright revolting against social injustices? What if that revolution requires the wholesale slaughter of the nobility? Is that ok? Is there another way?

Because we like exploring these ideas, we kind of ditched the idea of inherently monstrous sentient species a while ago. Most orcs are probably violent assholes because of the culture in which they were raised (in reality because of individuals with which they've interacted). This violence, however, isn't an essential part of orcishness; it's learned behaviour. Just like the racial hatred elves feel towards orcs is learned. Just like the 16 year old soldier on patrol in the wilderness, she's learned that if you see green skin put an arrow in it before it puts an arrow into you.

Adventurers, murder-hobos, space-tramps, gunslingers, and all the other types o' Player Characters are usually outsiders to one degree or another. This (potentially) gives them a unique perspective capable of seeing through the bullshit of the society that spawned and spurned them.

That's all well and good, hippy, but how do I introduce these kind of concepts to my group of gleeful murderers?

First, you might want to consider whether you actually want to bring in these themes. If your group is gleeful, you probably ought to consult them before fundamentally changing the tone of your games. Compromise may be necessary. A big part of the role of GM is managing expectations.

(Should you find yourself desperate for a deeper and/or darker game experience, and the players are unwilling, it may be time to find another group.)

That being said, consequences is the name of the game. Whether this takes the form of weeping orcish widows, the power vacuum left by that slaughtered goblin tribe, or the blood feud caused by rescuing that princess is up to you. Try to consider the reality of whatever it is the player characters are doing and skew your descriptions and NPC reactions as appropriate. (No one is going to be happy to see blood-splattered weirdos, smelling like old graves, slime, and sulphur, wandering into town... until these scary strangers start spending yellow coin.)

You're also going to need deeper motivations for your antagonists:
Why are most goblins/orcs/ogres/alpha-centaurians/etc. so opposed to the typical PC species?
Why would anyone forge a bond with a forgotten cosmic horror? What more human horrors brought him/her to this point?
How do the Nobles maintain control of these giant populations of slaves? How do individual Nobles usually justify owning folk?

Anyway, you get the idea.

Gaming with hard choices requires more work, but I find it to be well worth the effort. By their nature, these sort of themes breed drama from player agency and support (almost require) character immersion. Drama + Agency + Immersion : That's the Fuck-Yeah! triad of awesomesauce gaming.

Thoughts? Comments? Objections? Interjections? Contradictions? Grammatical Critiques?
Post 'em in the Comments, please.

* On average 209 dead orcish babies will weigh approximately one ton (US).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Some Rough Impressions on Gaming in Hangouts

I have now GMed one game via Google's Hangouts feature. Thus, I am an expert in the matter.*

Last Sunday, I managed to force two hours of free-time into my life.

So, I ran a 1 on 1 game for my buddy, +Joe White, through the mighty inter-webs. Beyond checking out Hangouts Roleplaying generally, we were also play-testing a new system of my devising and a module I'd written. We crammed a whole lot of new into those two hours.

I improv'ed the setting pretty-much whole cloth; which, in retrospect, was likely not a wise choice. I was already a bit nervous about the new format of playing, the completely untested system, and not having GMed anything in months.

Also, Joe had somehow lost his laptop so he was using a smartphone.  It wasn't an ideal setup.

About Hangouts Roleplaying:

  • I felt like there was a slight barrier that prevented me from GMing as well as I would've face-to-face.
    • I've gotten very used to "feeling the energy" of the room and adjusting my Gamemastering to suit. It's part taking in body-language, part noticing what the players' eyes are fixed on, part tone of voice, and partially a thousand other specific little things I'm not consciously aware of. I just couldn't get a good read .
  • Any accidental misinformation was a harder to correct. 
    • If we misheard each other, it seemed like we were much further along before we noticed than would be the case in face-to-face roleplaying.
  • I tend to GM with my whole body; I couldn't do that as effectively.
    • I was able to gesticulate more or less fully, but the lack space as dictated by the webcam was a mild constraint. The experience has actually made me realize how much I rely on physical movement as a GM, for good or ill.
  • The above points combined to make the immersive, "Theater of the Mind", character's eye-view roleplaying we prefer generally more difficult. I can see why all those battle-map applications are so popular. 
  • While I felt the audio quality to be pretty damn good, all things considered, it seemed like some of the more emotive tonal qualities got lost in bit-packet translation. C'est la vie.
  • With Hangouts, you're probably going to want to use either a very simple system or a system everyone knows inside and out. The potential for miscommunication is compounded by the format alone. Why would you want to further complicate the issue?
  • Prepare yourself for technical issues. It's the sort of thing that just comes with the territory.
  • The format seems best suited for shorter sessions. Without the sense of presence that being in the same room with a person brings, there's simply less "energy" to put into it.
All in all, it was a good experience, and the choice between hangout games and no games ain't no choice at all. As an adult with a baby and a job, I really don't have the time to roleplay any other way. I'm looking forward to more games and figuring out the format. 

Anybody got any similar or dissimilar experiences and/or advice?

*Citation Needed

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Maps, Maps, Maps

Maps and RPGs go together like bacon and breakfast. You don't have to have bacon to have breakfast, but breakfast is definitely better with bacon. 

Whenever I'm coming up with a new setting or adventure idea, I usually start with a map. I've got a very visual imagination so getting the physical space in order first just makes sense to me. I can't really draw very well, but that's fine for a couple of reasons: 

A) Maps are abstractions; so long as a map conveys its meaning, it's a worthwhile map.
B) I've learned how to use GIMP and some other graphics programs. With a liberal dose of ctrl-z, I can take a map from bad-looking to mediocre in just hours!

"The Clodbreaker Burrow" -The Clodbreaker Wyrm's been slain, but strange lights can still be seen emanating from deep within its packed dirt lair. "Come to think of it, nobody's seen the Shire Reeve since the day afore yester'."
To my mind, a good RPG map will be evocative of the area it describes, and a great one will imply a story. Whether it's the story of the creatures that built the dungeon, the tale of the current inhabitants of the village, or the epic battle that just has to happen on that bridge, great maps are kind of like visual narratives. Remember though, if it's just a sketch for your personal game, it only needs to tell you a story.

"Horror of the Mine-shaft" - One unfortunate miner broke through to a forgotten void, deep beneath the earth. There was something there; now all that's left of the fellow is a splash of blood on fine yellow sand. (Sand that has no earthly business being in these stony bowels.)
Maps have also become a way for me to stay connected with gaming and other gamers; despite that I have little to no time for gaming. There are some great communities over on the G+ for making, sharing, and discussing gaming maps. I share a fair number of mine there. But don't worry, people that can actually draw share as well. If you're looking for a ready to use map or some inspiration, it's a good place to start.

You don't have to be able to draw to make a worthwhile map...
There's also people like +Dyson Logos who puts up incredibly awesome maps on his blog, all the damn time. +matt jackson does the same thing. And if you get some use outta those guys's blogs/maps, you can support 'em with Patreon. It's always a good idea to throw good money at good things when ya happen to have both.

Anyway, the point is I like maps.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

d20+ What's the name of that Band?

Gaming in modern settings is paradoxically easier and more problematic than the more fantastical options. It's easy because everyone already has a baseline for it: the actual world around us. You can explain yourself by simply saying something like: "It'll be a modern spy thriller one-shot..." or "...Like Buffy but, ya know, late seasons, really grim Buffy..."

Those same baseline assumptions can also make modern settings a daunting prospect. Players may expect to be able to google whatever they're after, to know the date and time off hand, for the bartender to have a first and last name, and a slew of other very specific details. 

In modern settings (especially with investigative adventures), the need for minutia is mighty. Little tools like this d20+ chart can be invaluable for filling in small gaps. 

Need a random band name because the PCs went to that seedy bar you didn't think they would look into? For the opening act at the local stadium? For an NPC's terrible yet pretentious high school rock band? For the "Top of the Pops List" at Space Station AlphaNumera?

Roll a d20. If you know what genre you want, roll the appropriate die instead.*

*This is actually a really good way to arrange encounter charts: one generic, more random chart for a broad terrain-types with built in sub-charts for more specific areas. 

Want more rock and roleplaying? Click Here!