Friday, July 31, 2009

Learning What Not Do To From Dean Koontz's Frankenstein

Sometimes you read a book and think, "Man, that was one of the worst things I've read in fiction in a long time. There is nothing I could learn from that book."

But you'd be wrong!

While running a campaign is not exactly the same thing as reading a book, if there are things you enjoy in the book, you should try to bring that essence to the game. If there are things you don't enjoy, you should try to avoid them.

For example, don't introduce multiple plot threads that essentially end with no help from the players.

In this book, and beware the spoilers ahead folds, Dean Koontz brings forth several elements from the previous book and ends them not with a bang, but with a whimper. For example, Werner is a biological creation whose DNA has completely rewired itself and continues to fail and transform. He is killed off stage.

Chamelon is a hunting drone that is perfectly invisible and can kill anyone. Until its destroyed by a midget.

The midget in turn was initially introduced as a potentially fearsome murderer but is instead a child like clown.

The main villain of the series? Punk'd out by some otherworldly entity that itself was introduced as some vile and vast evil that gladly gives it live to save others.

There is a saying that you don't show a gun in the first scene without using it before the last scene. Dean throws the gun out the window and ducks back quickly when it goes off and shots someone walking down the street.

When creating a build up for your players, when telling them how fierce and powerful their latest adversary is, don't have some half dead gnome walk up to it and kill it. When discussing how dire and terrible some elder god is, don't have it destroyed off stage. "Oh yeah, that big finale you were looking for? Yeah, that elder god fell into a chasm and is dead. So yeah, don't worry about it."

Now if the players can use the environment and can act quickly and can make things interesting without having to actually draw blades, and they're happy with it, perfect. Run things in a way that makes the players the heroes and rewards them for their clever thinking. Don't let the players lose the potential for earning their glory. It cheats the players and it cheats their characters. They don't spend hours pouring over tomes of new mechanics to NOT use them. Give the players the chance to be cool.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wrong Blog!

Argh. Posted some pics of skeletons and a human rogue to Appendix N instead of 52 Weeks, 52 Miniatures. My bad!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Doc Savage Fortress of Solitude by Kenneth Robeson

"Seven Months later, John Sulight stepped out on the bridge of the icebreaker, and forty-six persons sank t otehir knees in craven terror. This pleased John Sunlight. He liked to break souls to do his bidding." (p.8)
"Queerly, too, Civan feared John Sunlight inifintely more than anyone else. John Sunlight saw to that. Terror was the rope that John Sunlight kept around men's necks." (p.9)
In standard combat encounters, the players are more likely to be interested in what the enemy can do as opposed to who they are. In order to bring some role playing to the table for the players, the Game Master should introduce details about the big bad long before the players are even aware that such an individual will soon be tangling with them.
In making the villain personal, the GM should look to the backgrounds of the players. If any of your players are like mine, you have numerous players with no family, all dead in some orc or bandit attack. Give the villain a specific name that mimics the action the player suffered. "The Slaughterer of Ticendia." or "The Unspeakable Slave Taker whose brands can never be removed.... even through magic!" Giving the players hooks, however small, can lead to them taking an interesting in stopping the big bad.
"Doc Savage's five assistants loved excitement and adventure, and that bound them to the bronze man." (pg. 20)
"Their credentials got them through the ring of police guards around the place." (pg. 21)
In many ways, the assistants of Doc Savage and the Doc himself, are a pulp day group of Dungeons and Dragons adventurers. All are the best they are in their field and can be called upon to show resourcefulness and cleverness to pull the entire operation off. When the party is a known quantity in a large city, while perhaps not given a 'pass' on any illegal activities, it should not be unusual for the city watch or local militia to seek out the party's assistance, or to allow the party assess to scenes that the party may be able to assist the government with. Adventurers are a powerful commodity and when possible, a wise ruler would due well to keep them close not only to keep as powerful allies, but to know what these potentially unknowable characters are actually up to.
"What were those things in the dome that you told us never to touch?" he asked....
"Things that the world was better off without," Doc said...
"I do not understand," Aput said..."
"If you found a seal that was poison, Aput," Doc said, "what would you do with it?"
Aput answered promptly.
"I would bury the poisoned seal," he said, "where none would ever find it." (pg. 58)
For some reason, there are times when a hero will gain something that is evil and foul and not destroy it. This can be as much an archtype as the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings to actual gaming material like Monte Cook's The Banewarrnes.
"They found John Sunlight's rifle, a little of his clothing. That was all...."If John Sunlight is not dead," the bronze man said, "we may have something pretty terrible ahead of us." (pg. 64).
Unlike a story in other mediums, such as television, books, or movies, the Game Master does not always have the option of bringing the villain back for another round. In many combats, the fights are to the finish, especially if the villain is trying to escape using a mundane means like his poor legs or a horse. Characters generally tend to have an awesome array of abilities designed to take down the prey at range.
However, even when the nemesis cannot escape, the theme of the nemesis can.
1. The villain was not the only one of his kind.
2. The villain planned for his death. This can involve something as magical as a resurrection carried out by his followers or slaves, or a bargain with some dark deity. In cases of the latter, the individual may come back in some form that the players do not recognize at first and latter learn the true nature of their enemy.
3. The villain has family. An interesting twist on this could be faimly members who personally believe what the villain was about was indeed foul but family honor demands that vengance be taken against those that slew a member of the clan. In 4e, you can have villains who perhaps are unaligned are are not murderous masters of evil themselves.
4. The villain was a lower level run in a high running chain. In such an instance as this, the players have only unearthed the tip of the iceburg and must now find out where the chain leads. In WoTC first 4e print adventure path, it's strongly tied to Orcus with numerous minions, necromancers, undead, and demons leading up to some type of final confrontation. The higher up the chain you can plan this event in the first place, the better off you'll be. In addition, be ready to throw some non-related events and encounters into the mix. No players want to be lead around the chain until the 'real' boss becomes evident.
5. The villain has followers. Perhaps not initially. Perhaps not even followers but those who admire the work of the villain. Those who are fascinated with the hows and wheres of what the villain did. In essence, a 'copy cat' villain.
Doc Savage and his crew can be good reading for those who want to see how a team of individuals equipment with goods and gear that no mundane force of their time handle menaces that no mundane army or watch can handle.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Man's Home Is His Castle (Sometimes...)

I've been trying to expand my reading base. I'm very comfortable with 'popcorn' fantasy like the old Forgotten Realms Novels, as well as stuff by Raymond Feist. I can generally read one of the Feist books so quick that I rarely buy them anymore because I'd be very annoyed.
At Borders, they were putting the various Doc Savage and the Shadow books on sale for $5 for an oversized rail thin magazine sized bit that contained two books. Having never read any Doc Savage, I figured it would be the perfect time to catch up and bought the first four volumes.
While I haven't sunk too deep into the novel, the introduction by Will Murray speaks of his Fortress of Solitude.
In previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons, there were rules for having your own 'castle'. Now it may not have been a castle per say. If you were a rogue, who back in 'dem days, was called a thief, you formed a thieves guild. A fighter build a castle, a wizard, a tower, and a cleric, a church. I'm not too clear on hazy memory of what the other classic classes did but the idea was the same. If you reached 'name' level, you could build your home.
In looking at such a dwelling, while 4th edition doesn't have any rules for them, the players should be allowed to have a stable base of operations. Sometimes they may have a powerful patron they work for. How well do they know the layout of their home? What is it about where they live that makes it home?
By making the player's home more than just a place to store their armor and equipment, the Game Master can make things more personal for the players if anything threatens their home. These threats can be physical and need to be fought off such as a rival guild, or they could be political. What if the current ruling body has it in mind to outlaw the religion of the party's resident paladin or cleric? While not specific to having a church as it could effect the players regardless, if they do have such a santuary, they are more likely to try to get to the root cause of that instead of just packing up the bags and going for the next dungeon crawl.
Make sure that players have a home to hang their hat in and that it's more than a place to store their treasures.

Monday, July 6, 2009

In Honor of the Henchmen

Let's start off with Planet Stories line with one Elak of Atlantis by Henry Kuttner.
"Lycon stirred and writhed in his arms. "More grog!" he muttered. "Oh gods! Is there no more grog?" A maudlin tear fell hotly on Elak's neck, and the latter for a moment entertained the not unpleasant idea of dropping Lycon and leaving him for the irate guards. (p. 80)

"What will you pay?"
"A thousand golden pieces."
"Fifty thousand cups of mead," Lycon murmered sleepily. "Accept it, Elak. I'll await you here." (p. 83)

"I won't kill you qucikly," said Lycon, a fierce grin of satisfaction on his round face. "No. I've suffered your insults too long. I must bring an offering each day to the altar of your stinking god, eh? An ear for that!"

"He brought down his sword in a vicious sweep.

"Good! Now your nose, Xandar- you've sniffed out too many victims with it already. Thus-" Again steel flashed.

"And an eye, Xander - see? I remove it with the point. Very carefully. For a copper coin I'd make you eat it."

"Drunker little fool, " Elak said, coming over to the table. "Leave the roasted pig alone. It won't be fit to eat after you've finished carving it." (p. 99)

Now in the same line of books, let's go to Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon.

"He gives them a secret worth a kingdom!" wailed Boghaz. "I have been robbed!" (p 110).

The fat Valkisian seemed genuinely affected. There were tears in his eyes as he looked at Carse.

"Yes, like my own brother, " he repeated unsteadily. "Like brothers, we have quarreled but we have shed blood together too. A man does not forget."

He drew a long sigh. "I should like to have something of yours to keep by me, friend. Some small trinket for memory's sake. Your jeweled collar, perhaps your belt you will not miss them now and I should cherish them all the days of my life."

He wiped a tear away and Carse took him not too gently by the throat. ( p. 119)
The Valkisian closed his eyes. "I am tempted," he murmered. "As a craftsman, as an artist, I would like to see the flowering of this beautiful deceit." p. 120.

In looking at henchmen or the loyal sidekick, there have been many throughout the years of fiction, both fantasy and more historical. One of the more well known uses of such a character may be the red headed Moonglum or indeed, any of the companions (Eternal Companions) of the writer Moorcock's themed Eternal Champion characters, like Elric.

In some game systems, the henchman is some one brought into focus by the character's charisma or power of personality. The loyalty to the character is determined not only through that personality, but by other factors like alignment and how the non-player character is treated by the player.

But in new editions, the idea hasn't taken a lot of root. It's an artifact of the old editions.

How would you use henchmen in today's game?

1. Used to provide the players friends and allies in various ports that they stop in. The characters get a chance to talk big of their old friends, show them off, and provide future plot lines for the characters as they move along the locations.

2. Used in a game missing some players. So you've only got three players and the scenario is really designed for four or more? Break out some loyal characters to the players. That paladin of Torm whose always been about healing the sick and donating his funds to the church? It's touched a priest, a cleric of Torm, who has sought out the paladin to learn his ways and spread that strength of faith to other lands.

3. Used in a game to betray the players. Yeah, you know that one was coming. Sometimes it could be a magical construct or duplicate that only looks like the loyal sidekick. Othertimes, if the players treat their henchement poorly or don't acknowledge them at all, then let the dice fall where they may. Note, the GM should provide some warning in the latter case. In some casual games, the players may not expect that they have to 'babysit' the NPC character whose show such personality in the past.

4. Used as a source of information/entertainment. Sometimes the party may be wandering off the tracks and an NPC can ask, "Is this really the way we're going?" Other times the GM may want to lighten the mood of the campaign with NPC's with lines those those found above.

5. Take that final blow! It's an old cliche, but if the players are down to the last chips and are getting ready to be killed, it never hurts to have the NPC bite the dust instead. That last blow that would have finished off the player now turns into a fatal blow against a loyal friend. In 4e, you might want to make it even more dramatic and rule that the player can spend a healing surge in his horror and anger to avenge his long time friend.

Henchemen can be useful for all sorts of roles and if the players and GM are comfortable with them, these old style parts of older editions, should not be left on the stepping stone.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Shadowrealm: The Twilight War Book III by Paul S. Kemp

Below I'll be discussing some things I'll try to remember and apply when I'm running my Forgotten Realms 4e set in 3e campaign. It's going to be a quote and spoiler filled discussion so if you're not hunting for any spoilers for Paul S. Kemp's Shadowrealm, read no further.

"Rivalen recalled his own fight with the green dragon outside the walls of Selgaunt. He'd learned a lesson in that combat, one he intended to teach to Kesson." (p.274)

While the comic, Order of the Stick, did what Rivalen is speaking of, it could be any stragety that the players themselves did not think of. When breaking out the big guns or unusual methods when having the monsters battle the characters, remember that the characters could be impressed enough by these actions to take them as their own. Then as a Game Master you've got to figure out a way to make sure it doesn't become the default strategy. Few things are more boring than having every fight go the exact same way. This may involve using more opponents, it may involve using enemies who have a completely different specialty. It may involve a shift in the campaign focus while you try to figure out how to get the game moving again.

"A sculpture of glistening black stone dominated the courtyard. It depicted a tall, faceless woman in flowing robes. A circle of tarnished silver, ringed in amethysts, adorned her breast. Before her in a fighting crouch stood a shorter male figure, a man clad in a long cloak. Leather armor peaked from under the cloak and he held a slim blade in each ahnd. A black disc adorned his chest." (p. 200)

Shake things up. If all of the players know that certain deities act a certain way and have certain relationship with other deities, don't be afraid to take what's in the settings history and flip it on its head. Prior to the books of the Twilight War, Shar and Mask have little interaction in most Forgotten Realms products. One of the last books on the gods of the setting noted that Shar had taken an interest in claiming Mask's portfolio. Some may find it works too much against the history and not appreciate it.

However, from the players point of view, from the characters point of view, what they've experienced and encounterd in your own campaign should count for more than antying written in a supplement that they may or may not have read.

"Furlinastis," Cale called into the shadows." (p.231)

When a player does something with no expectation of a reward, the Game Master can take those times and provide one. In this case, Cale is calling on a shadow dragon that he brought back from the dead because the creature had been ill used by a former chosen of Mask. Without asking for anything, the creature agreed to perform one service for Cale in the future. There is no reward system like this in most role playing games. This requires the Game Master to roll up his sleeves and decide if something like this is warranted. It's a reward that has no gold piece value. It's a treasure that can't be spent easily.

Note that unlike previous books in the series, this one includes an epilogue. If the campaign has reached it's organic end and the players and Game Master know what the future of the campaign is going to hold, an epilogue may be appropriate. Give the players a taste of what's to come. Let them know what happened to all of the friends and enemies they made. Let them know what happened to the cities they walked through and the treasures they once had. Allow them to share in it even by allowing them to describe how they imagine their own characters, those that survived it at least, enjoy retirement.

Shadowrealm takes a lot of high powered action to a level where chosen and dragons must ally themselves with former enemies to have a hope of fighting stronger evils. Lot artifacts must be recovered and friendships taken to the ultimate level of sacrifice. Game Masters should be able to pilfer themes, elements, and scope of elements that a campaign can enjoy

Friday, July 3, 2009

Shadowstorm: The Twilight War Book II by Paul S. Kemp

Below are some ideas dregged up from my ole brain by reading Shadowstorm and how they might apply to your own role playing game. As usual I'll be using quotes from the book with a page indicator so spoilers will be here. Reader beware.

"A bargain, devil." (p. 12)

There are times when the players will get themselves into events far beyond their ability to control. In such instances, if the players have anything of value, even if that is information, if possible, nudge the players into that direction if you wish to avoid what is commonly referred to as a Total Party Kill (TPK). In some instances, the party may be setting up their own future adventurers and will have a chance to come back to the situation that lead them to the bargain in the first place.

Dawn's light, as pink as a rose, radiated through the slats of the closed shutters. Abelar rushed to them and threw them open. Rose-colored light bathed the room. Its touch warmed Abelar, calmned him. The light washed over the entire village, casting it all in a pastel glow." (p.114).

Sometimes the actions of a deity do not take form of a massive column of flame enguling the enemy. It's not a parted sea rushing together to crush the foe. Sometimes it's something that will be of help to the party that is not of direct combat. It could be the saving of resources for latter. It could be the temporary boost of power that a group needs in order to be somewhere else.

In many cases, the divine favor should be used sparingly. The players should never come to rely on divine intervention nor come to expect it. Players that do so are going to be let down when the Game Master does not provide that extra assistance.

"He and the Maskarrans learned only what you wished, Divine One. They destroyed your simulacrum and think you dead." (p. 229)

Everyone loves a good villain. An enemy that is harder to kill than originally thought. A villain that keeps coming back for more. If the Game Master has a villain that the players enjoy fighting and thrwarting, there are numerous ways to keep such a villain in the game. In the case above, the heroes of the novel weren't even fighting what they suspected they were but rather a duplicate. In fantasy role playing games, such an event can be common ranging from an actual clone to a dupe dressed as the villain. Marvel Comics was notorious for using robots for Thanos and Dr. Doom to explain their numerous losses to what would be considered 'C' listers.

"Love is a lie. Only hate endures. Light is blinding..." "All is fleeting." (p.79)
"The Light is in you, my friend. It shines brightly." (p.112)
"May Lathander watch over you and the dawn bring you hope." (p. 113)

In terms of players having a patron deity, if the GM has a list of catch phrases that is common to the faith, it can help the players to bring more to the table in terms of potential for role playing. A character with strong faith may have have an outlook that is colored by the faith. If the rest of the party members share the faith, it can provide some common bonds for them. If they do not, it can create friction. In many fantasy settings, including the Forgotten Realms, generally only classes that directly rely on divine power have a single patron deity with others praying to whatever deity is in charge of the current issue. For example, the 'Bitch Queen' is the patron of storms and sailors often pray to her to spare their ships as they sail across the waves.

Look for ways to bring details to the game that will give each campaign setting its own flavor and the players will look for that flavor. Some will pick up on it and bring their own ideas that can be incorporated, making the game as much theirs as yours.