Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Shadowbreed: The Twilight War Book I by Paul S. Kemp

I'll be discussing things that I've found useful to think about in terms of role playing games, specifically, my own Dungeons and Dragons 4e Game set in the year 137X (haven't decided the final yet even though we're played several times.)

This time around it's book one of the Twilight War, Shadowbreed. Another book by Paul S. Kemp featuring Cale. As before, spoilers will be coming fast and furious with quotes and page references so reader beware.

"Nem said he heard you protect us because you had a friend who was a halfling and you...could not protect him." (p.14).

What happens when the players fail? If the players are not killed in the failure, how do they take something from it? What do they learn? Does it effect their behavior? Does it change how they approach situations and challenges? In my own game, I tend to run things at or a little lower for the characters because I'm still learning the rules. In running a set piece from Open Grave, one of the bits is a 3rd level lair of undead. One of the undead is not meant to be fought because the creature is far more powerful than the players.

One of the players decided to attack it and well, the party suffered a bit, begged for life, received it, but the player who attacked? Not him. The party wound up having him raised in the city of Silverymoon and I'm still working through some of the role playing elements I can bring to the game. When death isnt' that difficult to overcome, the GM should have fun with what it means to cheat death. Nightmares? Visions of the future where the character is killed over and over in horrible ways? Memories of salvation in the land of the characters forefathers? A yearning to return to oblivion?

"Be still." Rivalen commanded the creature, and it was. (p.28). I made mention of a huge kraken that Cale and his comrades fled. It was a creature too much for them. In this book in a manner of pages, a new enemy has conqurered the monster.

This is a common tactic used in movies, television and comics. Showcase how awesome and great the new villain is by easily trashing the old villain. It can work well if not used too much.

Note also the character's name here, Rivalen. One of the other main characters in the book is called Riven. For me as a reader, that was a little annoying. It was easy to tell each character apart by their actions, but the similiarity of names is too strong. When desinging your NPCs, always look at your list of names. This is more important for NPCs who are going to be sharing the stage a lot rather than minor players. You don't want the players to mistake the king wizard for the lord assassin at the wrong time.

"He would recover the coin when he recovered the city." (p.32) One of the things Paul S. Kemp does successfully, is to give the characters little things that make their personalities a little easier to keep in mind. He's done this for character in previous books and continues to do it here.

What do the players have their characters do, and NPCs do when they are not working on perfecting their lore?

Do they engage in drugs?

Do they have hobbies?

Are they obsessed with style?

Do they enjoy sports?

By knowing what the characters want out of life, the GM can arrange events to move in directions that act as natural hooks for them. If one of the players has a fighter that collects different types of weapons, hearing of a ruin where swords the like of which have never been seen before will be a quick way to grab his fancy. If running a character that has a weakness for sweets and candies, the GM can introduce far away locales that specialize in such.

Using elements like this allows the GM to showcase that the world isn't just a dungeon.

"There are some here you could have trusted. And we could have managed the rest." (p.69.)

In a fantasy game where the standard is often human, the GM can easily abuse the role that the rest of the world has in dealing with what choices the players make in terms of their characters. In this instance, Magadon is speaking with a caravan master who is assuring the mind mind with otherworldly blood that not all people judge another just by looks. While it can be fun to play the misunderstood hero for a while, in a long term campaign that can have it's own drawbacks if you're always the one left out of the ball, always the one being spit on, always the one under scrutiny. The GM shouldn't give players of races that are not part of the standard menu a free pass, but he should not penalize them to the point where its not worth playing. If the GM doesn't want a certain race, class, or other mechanic in his campaign, summon up the intestinal fortitude to say, "I'm not allowing that in my campaign."

Cutting things off at the pass is much better than wasting the players time and your time in trying to 'fit' something in that neither one will be happy with.

"She sensed her physical body, still asleep in her bedchamber, trembling with ecastacy and exquisite terror that accompanied contact with the divine. (p.49).

Why do certain NPCs worship evil deities? The afterlive of these deities is generally not a good one. The penalties for failure are server. Sometimes the penalties for success even more so as no deity wants to bring forth a potential challenger.

However, the deities of evil are still deities. They are still majestic. They are still beyond humanity's ability to dismiss. The warm of a deity of light is no more divine then the chill of a deity of shadow. The loyalty of a deity of paladins is no less demanding than the divine right to rule through tyranny from a master of discipline.

Evil deities have followers because they are divine. The mere act of contact with a deity, which in most games is a given for those who are generally healers or have a power source of divine or in say, Rolemaster, Channelling, the act of gathering power is in and of itself something worthy of worship.

If you have players who have divine powers, tell them what it feels like. Describe their powers in terms of what it looks like according to their own worship. Customize their faith and visuals without actually changing the way the powers work.

Shadowbreed is a quick moving book that has numerous things that a GM might pick up on. While the power level isn't necessarily two rogues fighting in an alley, there are bits and pieces that range from political playing in Sembia to ancient artifact recovery and manipulation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Midnight's Mask: The Erevis Cale Trilogy Book III

I'll be talking about Midnight's Mask and what a Game Master or player might draw from it. One thing to warn of though is that this is a spoiler filled review. Lots of discussion about various parts of the book.

"His girls were gentle creatures- he had no idea why--but he did know that gentleness was not rewarded on the street. He had learned that lesson often in his youth. But somehow his girls had managed to survive without becoming vicious"..."Friends," he said softly, and pondered (p.86-87).

In almost any game and any setting, there will be those players who insist on playing the loner. They will want to be the Wolverine of the X-Men. They will want to be the Punisher of the Marvel Universe. They will want to be the Assassin in the group of paladins. If the players can work among themselves how this will work in the actual game, that's great. The Game Master should try to foster enjoyment of the game for everyone and if one of the players must be the lone one eyed assassin, ask that player why on earth the other characters would travel with them. In some cases, the answer may indeed be as simple as friendship. In long term campaigns, this can be more problematic as opposed to one shot games where the length of the game may determine that a good reason for adventuring once is no longer valid.

"What he saw froze him. His numb hand fell from Jak's shirt....A virtual mountain of flesh was squirming itself loose from the ruble. Cale had never seen a creature so large. He recalled the size of the shadow dragon they had encountered on the Plane of Shadow. This creature was easily several times that size." (p. 224).

One of the great things about games like Dungeons and Dragons, is that the Game Master can throw some larger than live elements into the mix. As a Game Master, not only may you benefit from having a huge library of books, but having a great imagination. When possible, always try to impress upon the players the fantastic of what they are encountering. Always try to keep the wonder alive. Always try to make the players wonder what it is they're encountering. Good description can go a long way in this avenue.

"The slaadi began to change. As before, when Riven had watched the Sojourner transformed them from green slaadi to gray, now they were transforming before his eyes into something even greater." (P. 252)

When playing in a long term game where the players may be meeting the same foes numerous times, try to insure that the enemies don't fall behind them on the power curve. If the players gain numerous new abilities and powers as a result of their adventurers and those long term enemies remain the same strength, the end meeting will result in the quick destruction of the villains.

There will be some stories and some themes where that's perfectly fine. If the party is continously pushing the envelope and the GM is showcasing the bad guys perfectly at contentment with the status quo, then have them remain the same. If the villains were numerous levels ahead of the players, have them stay the same.

But whne the last fight needs to be one where the heavens shake? Make sure that the players know that these foes they face are not the same as they initially encountered. Make sure to showcase the new abilities.

"She's waiting for you. She and your father. Your grandmother too. Even your younger brother Cob. Do you remember him?"

"Remember him? Of Course!" Jak could hardly believe his ears. He had not seen any of these people for years, not since they all had...

Not since they all had died. (p.275)

To all good things an ending. When characters fall and the player wishes to move on, if appropriate and time allows, give that fallen hero a send off. Explain what the afterlife looks like to that character. How does his deity approach him? What is the sky like? How good does it feel?

It's also a good event to use for downtime. Do the other players bury the character? Is there a funeral for the character where NPC's who know him can come and speak? Do the players enact any rituals? Do they enjoy that fallen character's meal as a salute to him? Do they return the items to the character's family? Do they use the items themselves in that character's name? Do they take a page from Yellowjacket and take on the name of the fallen? Do any of the other characters take on new traits?
"Men always ask why, as if there must be some overarching reason for events. Not this time, priest. There is no such reason. Thousands will die to satisfy my whim." (p. 295)
In three books, the main character has hunted down a wizard of immense power who put into play an event to change the face of the setting. The wizard did this because it reminded him of a childhood memory and he wanted to experience that event again under his own power. In doing so, many died. There was nothing personal to the wizard in regards to the hero. What if the characters in the game aren't even on the radar of the main bad guy as nothing more than an obstacle to a desire that in essence, makes no sense to anyone outside of the villain? It's not the accumulation of further arcane power. It's not the creation of a new empire. It's not the birth of a new monster. It's something the NPC does simply for the sake of doing it that makes sense in the context of the NPC's background. If the Game Master can bring that type of indifference to the main villain and at the same time, make it personal to the players, he will have created a villain that players will talk of for months to come.
There are other bits in the book that could be used as a reminder to a Game Master. For example, that massive beast that Cale sees? They don't fight it. A good example of there always being something bigger than yourself. In that same sequence there is some action on the magical plane that doesn't take effect in this book, but is strongly hinted at having greater repercussions. If the Game Master can sow the seeds of future events, especially off of things that the players are currently doing, it's all the better. The players will see that their actions have a direct impact on the world and at the same time, provide the game with some focus that can take the campaign in directions the Game Master never would have thought of.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace is the second James Bond movie in the new 'reboot' of the venerable character.

It starts off with high action. This is a mantra often repeated in various fiction writing fields and has been mentioned for RPGs as well. Start off in the middle of a scene.

It has several plot twists and turns. While difficult to do in a game when the players are more interested in looting a dungeon then in a long term campaign, it is still possible. Red herrings about the types of treasure being sought for example, could lead the players to surprise when they uncover the real treasure that has nothing to do with what they thought it did.

Ambiguous allies and love interests. There are times when watching Quantum when as a viewer, I'm wondering who is loyal to the main character and what their own private motivations are. How far are they willing to go to fullfill what they consider to be their roles. In terms of love interests, much like plot twists, sometimes characters never seek out such relationships. In others though, they can be complex as the game master makes them. For example, instead of saving a princess from a dragon, what if the princess is the dragon's ally and resents the player's actions?

Keep Things Moving. Not as easy as it sounds, especially in a game like 4e where you have managed resources in terms of daily abilities and healing surges but if the party starts to get bogged down, keep them on the move. Throw a new clue at them. Have an old friend give them a hint. Have an enemy attack when they least expect it.

Let the players be cool. Sometimes this is as simple as letting them use their signature move. Other times this may be using the environment to act as providence and knock the bad guy down for a moment while they get back to their feet. It may be them finding a cast off weapon after a rust monster destroys their old trusty blade. It could be making a last minute dex check to grab the bad guy and pull him off the cliff with the player where the two of them must make saves every round to avoid smashing into the cliff face and instead use vines and trees to slow their descent.

The world is bigger than you think. There's a scene where James Bond says something to the effect of, "Judge a man by his enemies." By putting the players against a wide variety of enemies from a wide variety of sources, the game master provides the players with a greater feel for the world and more potential plot lines than if he just has them fight orcs or undead all the time. This is especially true of some game systems where there are only so many types of creatures that the players can go against in terms of level appropriate fights.

Quantum of Solace has a lot of things that a high energy, high action game can take from it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Twilight Falling

Twilight Falling is Book I in the Erevis Cale Trilogy by Paul S. Kemp. I read a previous book by Paul called Shadow's Witness. That book also featured Erevis Cale. In addition, it seems that after this trilogy, there was another, also with the same character so some odd seven books with the same character. If you're not into spoilers, best to look away. Below I'll point out a few things that made my 'gaming' brain work while reading.

"He had finally concluded that serving Mask was different than serving other gods. The priests of Faerun's other faiths proselytized ministered, preached, and in that way won converts and served their gods. Mask's priests did no such thing. There were no Maskarran preachers, no street ministers, no pilgrims. Mask did not require his priests to win converts. Either the darkness spoke to you of it didn't. If it did, you were already Mask's. If it didn't you never would be." (p. 11)

What role do the gods play in your campaign? More importantly, at least from the player's side of things, what role do the priests of the gods play in your campaign. Do they have temple quarters? Do they have special weapons? Do they pray at a special time? Do they have a special ritual that needs to be enacted at certain times? A useful thing about answering some of these questions is that later on, you can find exceptions to the cause. Things like lost branches of the religion or faithful who aren't actually priests, 'merely' worshippers of the cause.

"I knew a psionicist once. Little different than an ordinary wizard." (p.126)

"I told you I once knew a mind mage." (p.272)

Foreshadowing is a useful tool. Try to give the players ideas of what may be coming down the road. Sometimes this may be failry easy when tales of war and war refuges start steaming into town. Othertimes it may be as mysterous or unknowable as a dream or a different way of looking at things. If the players can 'crack the code', they may have a leg up on things.

"Before long, the two-story brick and wood buildings of the Foreign Quarter gave way to the more elegant and architecturally varied worked-stone residences near the Temple District." (p.147)

What does the architechture of the city say about it? Is it one unified style? Are there several styles to it? How old is the city? Are there foreign quarters? Are there parts of the city that are unsafe to go?

Twilight Falling does a nice job of showcasing how three rogues, two of them multi-classed into rogue priests, work together with a rogue whose more assassin than rogue. It's a nice example of how players who are of similiar talents might work together and showcases some of the strengths and weaknessess of such an approach. For example, with no wizard, things aren't as always easy to... to take a 4e term "control" as they might be.

The book showcases a lot of action in several locations. A good indication that a Game Master should never become too comfortable in one region for too long. For example, I generally tend to love city based adventurers. Waterdeep, with it's various incarnations, is one of the most detailed cities in the market for long time gamers. Ptolus, with one massive sourcebook is another.

However, sometimes the party needs to get on the road. The characters here travel by boat. They travel overland. They travel to another city with a much different guise than their starting point. Showcase the breadth and wide of the world when the game calls for it.

More importantly though, you have an opportunity to do so for free. The Wizards of the Coast site has a free PDF of this novel here.

Using Inspirational And Educational Reading

In my old weather worn and well used Dungeon Master's Guide for 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, on page 244 is Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading. Numerous fan favorites of the authors are listed there. Appendix N has also been used as a reference point by many bloggers ranging from gaming professionals to those who love to game.

My own Appendix N would vary depending on what I was running and what I was trying to emulate. The materials I enjoy referencing in Mutants and Masterminds are very different than those I would return to or seek out for a dark and gritty game of Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing.

The.. 'purpose' of this blog will be to occassionaly discuss what things I find useful for gaming purposes in the fiction I'm reading or have recently read. Older stuff that I've read, outside of some great quotes like Stormbringer's parting words to Elric, is still in my brain, but my recollections of it and how I'd react to it now are probably much different than what I thought of it at the time of reading.

Be warned though. My first few posts will probably focus on stuff I've been reading for direct inspiration for my Forgotten Realms 4e game (set in the pre-Spellplague/Spellscar/4e era) will probably focus on several Forgotten Realms novels and what I take from them and may/may not directly plunder!

Until then though, good reading!