Thursday, April 29, 2010

Heaven & Hell - Bible Black

Heaven & Hell is a music group that is essentially the old Black Sabbath group with Dio as the lead singer. The old Bible Black song is one that has many parts to it that could easily be slipped into a role playing game.

At last alone, his fire dying, burned another day.

Now to pretend and make up an ending somewhere far away.

He reached for a book all bound in leather. Something that he knows he's never read.

And the first page says beware you've found the answer. The next one says I wish you were dead.

Don't go on, put it back, you're reading from the bible black.

What's this word I see. Who are you and who are me. Maybe I just stumbled in the dark.

I must have been out cold, but the way the story's told they found my lying naked in the rain., yeah.

Let me go, I've seen religion, but the light has made me blind.

Take me back, I must have the bible black.

Well here I go again, from the startand to the end I wish I could remember what I've done.

Now here's another spell, it could take me straight to hell, and I feel I'm getting closer to my home.

Let me go, I've found addiction, and it makes me feel alive.

Take me back, I must have the bible black.

He locks himself away and tastes the silence.

Hungry for Another bite of wrong.

And just the words "Oh Lord please take me with you

Took him to a place we don't belong

Let him go, he can't come back he's reading from the Bible Black.

So if your fires dying, and what's the use of trying I may know another place that you can go

Its hiding in the pages, but you may not come back, your reading from the bible black.

To me this suggests a strong campaign element with either a priestly type whose more of a scholar or the dreaded mage who seeks too much information.

The characters either have this individual as a patron or personal friend, perhaps the actual mentor to the group as a whole. They may notice that lately, the old mentor hasn't been doing too well lately. He's never without his classes. He complains of chill in his hands. His tires easily. His face is more wrinkled than ever before and his hair whiter than the players have ever seen it. However, as an old man fond of books, he has had a new collection come in lately.

His behavior starts to change. Those in the priesthood or the guild of mages swear up and down that it's the combination of the liquor that the old mage has been hitting, but also, the loss of his mind. That the poor man's mind goes sometimes and that everyone is lucky that thus far, he hasn't wound up dead at some thug's knife point. The players may speak to him of it and notice that his mind isn't really with them during the conversations. That he seems to be staring into a place that no one else can see, that he's hearing things no one else can hear. That his senses are working overtime and that he claims he can 'taste the silence'.

But there have been others reports in the low end of town. Reports of a man possessing strange vigor and a touch that burns with essence not of this world.

And then the mentor is gone.

Behind he's left notes on the book's he just inherited, including one bible black. It has notes that cause insanity in those who read it, but also contain information on how to return those who've taken that final page and went into the far realm. In 4e, the GM can treat this like a disease. The more the players use the book, which is filled with rituals that may have the standard game effects but with a far realm twist, the harder it gets to shake off the disease.

Those who know of the book recommend vaulting it. That the mentor must be left in the far realm and that he's contaiminated by that realm's very difference. The mentor may be returned to the world, but his sanity is gone and in his place is merely a shell, another victim of the bible black.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dungeon Siege II

When it comes to video games, I'm way behind the curve. I've only recently been playing Dungeon Siege II on my old PC and pondering it's utilities for gaming.

1. Betrayal is a good motivator. At the start of the game, your character, a mercenary, is betrayed by his employer. Ah, the old classic. How many times has its use favored a movie or comic you've enjoyed? There's even the old tag line, "Curse your inevitible betrayal."

2. Loss is a motivator. The character's home comes under attack and losses mount up. This is a classic ranging from Batman's loss of his parents to Superman's loss of his people.

3. Magic is everywhere. Sometimes this takes the form of shrines, other times portals. In a game like 4e, there could be several types of shrines. The first would be one that allows a reactivation of daily powers. In DS2, you can select from several 'big' powers but they take time to charge. The shrines however, allow you to bypass that. Next up, would be another type of shrine that would allow the use of a ritual, perhaps without the associated cost, as long as you do the ritual at the shrine area itself. Lastly, there are the old portals. There are two types in the game, those that allow transportation between local spots, teleporters, and actual gates that lead to other lands.

4. Magic Items are commonplace. This is one of those things that tends to work for new gamers and that members of the OSR tend to look down upon. I can see it going either way. The best thing about the game though, is the horde of names that come up. If you're terrible with names, play for a little while and get the naming conventions down. In addition, there are some great visuals on the items. Various types of weapons ranging from serrated two handed blades to great mauls along side kite shields and various types of throwing weapons ranging from knives, shuriken, axes and daggers.

5. Remember the little things. This is going to sound strange, but the game does a nice job with some little touches. For example, after a disaster strikes one region, there are monsters feasting on the cattle. The water runs down the falls. These little things add up.

6. Vary the quests: Trying to save the world all the time can get, if not boring, someone lacking in variety. In the game, the character is approached by individuals of various worth and type ranging from scared travellers to mighty mages. Give the players different types of quests with different types of rewards, make some of them even ones that rely on the players (gasp!) being heroic.

7. Share the spotlight: Even though your main character is the one with the destiny and other bits, the other characters have dialog and sub plots that relate to them. Try to tie in all of these various activities into one cohesive whole unit and make things flow for all the players, not just the ones who put together the most interesting backstory.

Dungeon Siege II has a lot of things going for it in terms of story telling and visuals and it's far from the heyday of computer games.

Monday, April 26, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

I took the girlfriend to see How To Train Your Dragon. Thank the lords above that she was pleased with it.

But what does that have to do with your game?

1. Broad Strokes and Themes: The Vikings on one hand and the dragons on another are a solid way to get a campaign theme started. The vikings mostly speak the same, look the same, and only a few bit players here and there, in most games, this would be the player characters, stand out as different. The theme of man versus dragon is build up in the history of the vikings not only in the combat scenes, but in the books which are somewhat humorous in their "if meet, kill immediately" theme.

2. Background imagery. While this is indeed a 'toon' style movie, the backgrounds are breath taking. There are several scenic images, such as when the vikings are sailing through various rock formations that jab out of the water like broken claws or when the dragons are soaring majestically through the air, that are wonderful to behold. Such vivid descriptions can be difficult to pull off in a role playing game if the GM isn't prepared so prepare. Take a few bits where you'll know the landscape and write down what's awe inspiring about it. Maybe the players will surprise you with 'stunting' or using that environment when the old combat comes along.

3. The Enemy of My Enemy: When we are initially introduced to the dragons, they seem mindless, intent only on causing damage and stealing the very food stuff of the vikings. We latter learn however, that these various dragons, are merely doing the bidding of a much larger dragon that eats them if they fail to bring it enough food. In the old First Comic company, there was a comic about a futuristic robot fighting machine, Dynamo Joe, that fought against another race of organic aliens. Turns out at the end of that series that those aliens too were on the run from a greater foe and were merely trying to get past the people they were fighting.

4. Skill Challenges: The big bad at the end of this movie is like the Tarasque of Dungeons and Dragons fame with multiple eyes, wings, and vast fire power through its breath weapon. There is no way that the main character and his dragon should be able to beat it in terms of blow for blow exchange. However, like in video games (no, not the comparission), by completing a series of checks on the environment and turning things to his advantage, the heroes are able to win. In some ways, it's like the old Greek Myth of Talos where he has one weak spot and no matter how tough you are, if you don't hit that weak spot, you're simply not going to beat him. Make the players think things through. In older editions, this could just be that. Having the players think things through. In newer editions, make them use those skills in imaginative ways as long as they apply. Have fun with it.

How To Train your Dragon is visually entertaining and while not deep, is told well and easy to watch and the visuals are inspiring.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Primeval: Or Dinosaur and Giant Bug Fighting

Quite a while ago, some of my friends were telling me about a BBC America show called Primeval. Being one of those without cable and too lazy to surf the net to find out more, it wasn't until I got good old Netflix that I learned of how interesting the series is.

For those who haven't watched the show and may be wanting the old spoiler warning, consider yourself so warned.

Primeval is a show set in modern Britain where wormholes in time called annomalies open up. Through these holes in the fabric of space and time, come various visitors. The cast and crew of the series job is to prevent general panic from breaking out, try to find out as much as they can about the annomalies, and to be good heroes in that their there to save people.

The implications for a role playing game should be fairly obvious. In many ways, game companies have been doing this for decades. Dungeons and Dragons of course has the whole Isle of Dread to start with or at least to make the whole dinosaur island concept popular. The core Dungeons and Dragons experience though, has often used giant versions of normal creatures and in a setting using the ideas of Primeval, it's easy to make these entities into the prehistoric version of themselves instead of just giant varieties. Giant spiders, scorpions, ants, and other critters abound in slime infested past portals as do mighty raptors and T-Rex.

But Primeval takes it a step further than that for you see, these portals in time also lead things from the future back into the past. Have some Gamma World monsters you've been wanting to throw into the campaign? Want to give the players tantalizing glimpses of a potential future shaped by the events of what they're currently doing? Have them go through a time portal to the future.

While the random arcs are good and entertaining in and of themselves in terms of the monster of the week bit, there are other agencies at work. Some of these agencies are in fact, actual agencies with their own goals and agendas that don't match the heroes. Others are merely lone players driven mad by their knowledge of how the world ends. By making the random elements of dinosaur weekly tied into personal connections with the players, the Game Master can make the players curious enough to continue going down the rabbit hole.

In a fantasy game with long lived individuals, the Game Master can even play with the players meeting different versions of themselves. What happens with that wise old elf with one hand and bandages over his eyes reveals herself to be the sultry wizard? What happens when the players learn that they've been betrayed by one of their own?

The series has a lot of twists and turns but ends kinda in the middle. Ironically, this is like many campaigns where just when things start getting good, outside forces force people to call it a day.

If you're looking for some ideas on monster design and futuristic horrors, Primeval is a good show to view.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dawn of the Dead

The remake to the original Dawn of the Dead took many of the familiar elements of the original and 'cranked' them up a notch. To some, this is not a good thing. To others, it's a fine remake with several nods to the originals.  Zombies in RPGs are nothing special. They are a standard type of undead in many Dungeons and Dragons variants. There's even a whole game line to tell these types of stories and a comic book series, Walking Dead, to follow adventurers of those who fight the undead. How does that effect your current campaign though?
1. Determine the scope/duration. If you're not ready for a zombie apocalypse, don't do it. Have a small outbreak occur in a remote mountain village. Have it occur at a walled town where the town itself is then cut off from the outside world. Have it occur in a demi-plane where the residents can't leave.

2. Define the disease. This isn't necessary in any real sense of the world, but I mention it because in a role playing game, essentially, if you're bit, you're dead. Might be a tad harsh in the old rpg realm on the newer versions of the game where character creation can take a half hour or more. Might want to make it a progressive disease, or one that the players have somehow become immune to, or one that can be cured by the great quest.

3. Define the zombies. In 4e, it's probably easiest to look at these type of zombies, those that go down with the head shot, as minions. That may sound crazy considering the amount of sheer physical trama they can take, but if thep layer rolls low enough to miss in the first place, describe his weapon hitting the creature solidly with chunks of skin and bone flying off with apparently no other effect.

4. It's about the psychosis of man. This one can be hard to pull off but a good zombie movie isn't necessarily about the zombies at all. It's about what will you do when the world is ending. Do you strive for the common good? Do you horde? Do you enslave? Do you put others at risk to save yourself? It's also about character growth and evolution. If the party is one that will work together, then even if at the start there are members who are selfish, they may learn the benefit of keeping the other members alive. Those that may once have had a different calling, may now find themsleves doing things they would'ven ever thought possible.

5. Remember, the characters are all professionals. In the remake, across the way is a gun shop owner called Andy. He easily uses his sniper rifle to blow away several zombies in order to provide entertainment to his friends. His skills with the weapon are remaked on several times. All of the players are Andy. They are all specialist. None of them are, in game mechanic terms, the helpless young teen who has just watched the last of her family die and needs a man. Mind you, Dungeons and Dragons runs that way, as does Rolemaster and most other games. If you're playing a low end Hero or Gurps point total, then yeah, ignore that. the point is, the playes will probably be able to bring it to the table in a manner that those in the movies simply cannot.

6. Supplies are both unlimited and limited. Much like I mentioned with the Omega Man, supplies tend to be easy to come by. However, this limitless bounty also goes in reverse for specialized supplies or for supplies that are not easy to get to. For example, Andy, despite his vast wealth of weaponry, suffers the pangs of starvation. In games like Mightnight, the OGL game by Fantasy Flight Games, the setting relies on the weather and the lack of supplies to help wear down the characters. That can be true in a zombie based campaign just as well. Magic hasn't gone away, it's just all of the specialized components to use it are increibldy difficult to find. Clerics might still be able to commune with the gods, but all the sanctified symbols are gone and all the holy water is inert from lack of maintenance.

7.Direct confrtonation is hopeless. Even with minion status, the whole fear of the zombie isn't the lone zombie. It's the horde. It's the endless wave. It's the withering army. Any direct confrontation with the zombies should rely on the zombies using mass and teamwork, not necessarily cordinated but waves of them, to pull down their enemies. Grappling rules might make for an interesting twist to get characters pulled to the ground, as might disarm attempts disguised as weapons getting lodged in bone.

Dawn of the Dead has some solid action sequences, some character growth, and some characters that you love to hate. Those looking to expand their zombie lore could do worse then to check it out.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Naama War by Charles R. Saunders

The Naama War wraps up the Imaro series begun so long ago by Charles Saunders. Originally unpublished by the first and second publisher, through the magic of Lulu, we have a conclusion.

But what does that mean for a role playing game?

1. Temptation Awaits: Bohu, Imaro's nemesis first introduced in the previous volume, is much like Darth Vader in that in Imaro, he sees a worthy ally with many similarities to himself. Unlike Darth Vader though, there is no redemption for Bohu. Rather, he is there to act as a counter point for Imaro and as a source of temptation. As something to make Imaro think of his own life and the similarities that he and Bohu share.

2. Defeat Awaits: While being the 'star' of the book, Imaro is not invicible and suffers a few setbacks in his time. One of those set backs results in the death of yet another of Imaro's loved ones and showcases the dangers that normal people put themselves in when they associate with heroes.

3. Adventure Awaits: Despite his truimpth at the end of the novel, Imaro is a wanderer who seeks answers about himself rather than power over others. This isn't necessarily something that's a problem in 3rd and 4rth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, but in previous editions, when characters came of name level, they might retire and build their own little castles, allowing the adventure to come to them so to speak. Like the previous book, Imaro had a life that would be considered sheltered at the start of that novel and action happened to make him seek out adventure. Here, despite the lure of ruling a people who need him, Imaro heads out for further adventure. This allows the writer to place Imaro in all sorts of situations in the future should he choose to do so.

4. The Named: Shingane is known as the Great Elephant. He is a named character. he is a great and dangerous warrior who fights for the enemy. As I've mentioned before, giving a character a name and a title makes the players know that they are onto something and that their encounter with such a named individual will not be standard. Even giving weapons a name, such as the Great Elephant's stabbing spear with a barbed head has one, Ixwa "I eat". Named weapons, even when non-magical, have history and association attached to them.

5. Beware the Scope: While The Naama War is the most epic Imaro novel yet, it almost suffers from the lack of Imaro in it. While there are other important characters in there, Imaro is the star so to speak and having such a wide scope when the rest of the cast isn't... weak, but rather, not initially given the star time that Imaro was nor the build up, the sections between Imaro and the rest makes for a contrast. Try to insure that everyone is getting the star time they deserve but if there are players who aren't interested in such, move on.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Trail of Bohu by Charles R. Saunders

In the start of volume three, Imaro, the hero of Trail of Bohu in the third book in the series, is no longer the roaming adventurer he was of previous novels. Upon suffering a terrible loss, he embarks on a question for vengance! Now this is an old tried and true troupe of the genre, heck, of story telling, but there are some who feel that such plays are over used. 

But what else can one draw from this third book?

"Never did we guess that they would have their own equivalent of you." (pg 43)

Imaro is a great warrior in the first two books but now his fate appears to be evolving into something much more. And in a twist, the villains also have their own choosen one. Something done before and again, but usually such an enemy isn't the 'choosen' one like the main character, but rather the big bad. Here, Bohu is Imaro's nemesis in many ways without being the big bad of the series.

When named, Bohu is not just Bohu, he is the Disrupter and the Bringer of Sorrow. Giving things names, especially multiple names, gives the players an idea of their importance in the rank of things. By naming Bohu in such a fashion, the author has assured the reader that this isn't some nameless minion fit only to walk on stage and be slain by a thrown spear.

Imaro takes another voyage over the water and guess what? Yup, another sea attack, this time by the undead. The undead make good warriors to use at sea. You can fold them up for ease of conveyance and launch them at the enemy. Or as in the case here, they can cling to the underside of a ship and attack at night when those who live no longer have the advantage of sight.

Remember that as you set up the adventurers and if the players take their lead and provide their own, keep things in the background moving. While Imaro is the star of the series, things across the whole land are moving towards a conflict between good and evil which Imaro has a staring role to play. Having all of the generals and kings line up and prepare the way for the main character allows the players to feel their importance in a conflict even as the rest of the world continues to move without their direct presence.

As the players wander the world, remember not only is the world large, but unless your running a high epic fantasy campaign iwth lots of methods of near instant communication, news travels slowly or not at all. Imaro, despite his heroic and unheroic deeds of the past, isn't known everywhere and Imaro himself, doesn't know everything.

This leaves to some give and take. While Imaro initially sets out on a journey of vengance, some of the questions of his own heritage are solved. Here the book takes a huge step towards high fantasy as opposed to the more humble sword and sorcery origins where Imaro was strong and different than his fellows but was essentially still human. Here Imaro's heritage is traced to the Cloud Striders, a race of 'good' outsider deities that fight against the demon gods who seek to upset the balance of Imaro's home. In learning of his background, Imaro is able to close some of those gaps in his own details and is able to end some long standing mysteries. This can be an important element in a role playing campaign but can be hard to time. Does the player learn about the secret of his sword this session or next or ever?

In looking at the deities of the setting, there are three types; native, the earth bound entities, and outer, broken into the Cloud Striders and the Demon Gods. Of these native gods, each tribe tends to have their own specific beliefs and their own specific afterlife. When building your campaign or allowing players to wander wild and free, it couldn't hurt to have some basic roots of what each region they travel in does for the dead, how marriage works, what role the gods play, etc...

The Trail of Bohu sets the tone of the series in a different pace and may not be for everyone but the anticipation of seeing Imaro and Bohu's clash is set and leaves the reader eager for the next volume.