Monday, March 28, 2011

A-Z April Challenge

Over at ye old B/X Blackrazor blog, there was mention of an April A-Z challenge.

I loved the Dungeon Alphabet so think I'll riff off that using the old Urban Fantasy/City Fantasy instead of Wilderness or Dungeon. Should be fun right? Right?

Afro Samurai Resurrection

Afro Samurai is a strange hybrid of different cultural elements. On one hand, it's the high energy Rap music wrapped up in Eastern Samurai warriors dressed like some weird combination of hip hop apocalypse survivors, which doesn't seem that far from what it actually is.

But what can you drag out of it for your own campaigns?

Actions have consequences is a theme I've mentioned before. In the original movie, Afro cuts a swathe of destruction through the land in his search for the #1 headband, worn by the man who killed his father. Friends, loves, and others all suffer under... almost indifference... to the need of his quest for revenge. Many of those people who die, have loved ones who aren't happy with those results. In this movie, they come back for some of their own revenge.

The Nemesis Effect is also in play here. Afro has proven himself fit against a robot duplicate of himself in past performance, and referenced here, but what is it that drives Afro? His father. So using the post-modern super science of the era, the villainess of this piece brings Afro's father back to life to act as his executioner.

It's not a one way street though. In order to challenge the #1, now Sio, Afro needs the #2 headband. The current owner of it is travelling with a child. This doesn't stop Afro mind you and much like the young heroine at the end of Kill Bill, Afro lets the child know that when he's ready for the fight, Afro will be there. This makes things cyclic. There are no real good guys here, just people obsessed with following their own agendas.

Some game systems build these types of innate activities into the player's through game mechanics. Games like Dungeons and Dragons use alignment as a broad guideline in allowing how players act. Hero and GURPS have psychological disadvantages with different strengths that show how the players may react to different scenarios.

Simple Plans Are the Best: This resurrection of Afro's father probably wasn't the best thing to do for several reasons. The first, is that Jinno and Sio had already proven their superiority to Afro in the initial conflict. To go further in the name of bring further pain to Afro, works against the act of killing Afro.

This is a common problem that many ego-maniacs have. When you are designing your head villains, how powerful do they think they are? How untouchable do they believe themselves to be? The more on the crazy scale they are, the more likely they are to make plans within plans within plans that can fall apart without that much required to happen. This desire to inflict more than pain and to inflict incarnate suffering leaves the hero too many opportunities to overcome.

The Control Effect: Like any good monster, Afro's father quickly falls out of control from Sio. What's worse, is that her brother, Jinno, is still Afro's friend underneath all of the cybernetics and takes this time to renew that friendship by trying to save Afro from his father. This of course leads to the resurrected father killing pretty much everyone that gets in his way leaving Afro a few moments to gather himself and claim victory.

It may seem that some of these things could only happen in such an anime but in my opinion, this could almost have been a Godzilla movie where the bad guys bring bad another giant monstrous enemy of Godzilla and lose control over it only to have it turn on them and be saved by Godzilla at the end.  The common themes of arrogance, cyclical events, and things beyond our control, are common to story telling and can be used in many mediums.

Afro Samurai boasts some great action sequences and some interesting character designs. If you're looking for some high powered post-apocalyptic action, Afro Samurai Resurrection hits the spot.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Black Blood Brothers

When I think about the origins of Appendix N, in the first Advanced Dungeon Master's Guide, I often wonder how things would have been different had it been done years later. Anime and manga really hadn't made it over big in America at that point yet, and while Appendix N didn't cover comics or movies for that matter, the idea of seeing some of the self spoofs like Slayer's on such a list makes me smile a bit.

Having said that, I used my good old Netflix account to watch Black Blood Brothers. It's a short, 12 ep, feature, each one being a half hour, that brings a few interesting characters together for some big battles and brings with it some things I'd crib for my own games.

For instance, one of the main characters, Jiro, has a few earned names of his own including the Silver Blade, named so after his sword, and the Kin Killer, named so because he had fought and killed a lot of other vampires. Many of the other characters, even those that don't get a lot of screen time, have their own long lists of alias and earned names. If you can provide the players some earned names, see if they stick.

This is something that was looked for in the book, The Heroes. The people of the north went out to war to earn their names like the Bloody Nine for example.

There's also the idea of the Kowloon children. In this series, you generally don't become a vampire unless you're given the blood. The Kowloon Children however, are highly contagious and just a bite will turn man or vampire into one of the Kowloon Children. It gives people reason to fight together when something no one else wants starts cropping up. In some ways, its similar to a zombie plague, another great disease based undead attack theme.

The thing I would try to avoid taking from the series though, is letting the NPCs NOT do their job. At the end of the series, the King of the East is cleansing the city left and right of the Kowloon Children. Another power player, an 800 year old pyro master, is burning them up with his fire eye. All of this and they let one of them get away because the main character, Jiro, was fighting her. If I was the King of the East or one of the others, it'd be bye bye Jiro as all of them would get the hand of god cleansing. Maybe I missed it why they couldn't specifically take care of those two individuals and had to have Jiro do it but it seemed a cop out to give Jiro a chance to shine and then allow his failure to actually happen.

Hulu has some of the series on now: and as I've already mentioned, Netflix has the whole run and apparently other venues are available to those who wish to watch it and judge for themselves.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Usagi Yojimbo: Demon Mask comments Part 2

Stan Sakai brings new characters and scenarios up in the later part of Demon Mak by using some of the old favorite methods of getting Usagi involved by showing up unannounced at the action. While on the road seeing if it's safe to move the sword Grasscutter, Usagi comes across a duel where one of the swordsmen is wearing a demon mask.

He soon becomes involved with in the mystery of demon mask. This includes learning that his reputation, from his work with Inspector Ishida, has passed around, at least to those who work in the same field, such as Inspector Kojo.

Stan lays down several clues through the adventure until Usagi finds the identity of Demon Mask.

The real charm of the story though, is in how Stan brings to life the minor characters that fill the story. This ranges from Assistant Inspector Nitta, a son of a disgraced samurai who hates ronin and perfects his sword skill against his assistants and in continual training.

It comes in through Kuroda, a sickly, elderly samurai who has his own motivations for hunting down Demon Mask. We discover that he is Nitta's father.

It comes through the assistants of Nitta who are eager to help but who aren't up to the levels Usagi is. Usagi manages to use his native charm to win them over. Buying them liquor doesn't hurt either.

While doing so, he continues to bring to life different parts of Japanese culture. This includes their fire brigade system implemented to fight fires which could quickly burn down a town, as well as the enjoyement of the game go, to the value of a samurai's sword, as being his soul.

The next story, Kumo, starts innocent enough. Usagi decides to take a short cut through a pass over the mountains. While doing so, spiders begin to swarm about. Not enough to be that unusual, but enough to be noticible.

Then there's the large lizard stuck in spider's webbing. Poor guy, looking for a snack, and then caught in the webbing. Still, at least the lizard doesnt' do as bad as the guy Usagi comes across that's stuck in the webbing and already dead eh?

Upon getting to the town, Usagi relays the information about the spiders as well as the dead man who turns out to be Ichiro, a villager missing for days.  It is during this time of villager panic, that Usagi mets with Sasuke, a man who claims to be a ronin who introduces himself by what is part of his catch phrase, "You must have introduced yourself when you came over. Don't you remember?"

Instead of Usagi stumbling upon the adventure, this time it comes to him, While sleeping, giant spiders break into the tavern and steal the daughter of the innkeeper.  Usagi, Sasuke, and a group of villagers go to bring the daughter back. Here Stan brings us some more words from Usagi's time including Obakemono or haunts as well as Maho, or sorcerery, which Sasuke apparently knows.

As they move on, a single attack by a giant spider, a 'watchdog', shows the difference between Usagi and the farmers. Usagi stays and helps Sasuke fight off the monster. The villagers? They run. In many ways, this showcases some of the standards of fantasy role playing. The characters are often cast as the heroes. Giving them the spotlight helps enforce that.

Usagi learns that Sasuke is fighting Kumo-Onna, the Spider Woman, and this his comrade is a demon queller.  During the fight, Usagi learns that sword skill isn't necessarily as useful as magic when fighting the supernatural. After they complete their 'mission', Usagi notes that he hopes he never meets Sasuke again.

Usagi continues his travels and Stan continues to bring forth elements of a Japan populared by samurai, sorcerery, monsters, and the far more common, very human characters that populate it.

If looking for ideas on how to model NPC's like guards, one could do much worse then see how Stan does it in Demon Mask.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Usagi Yojimbo Demon Mask: Book 14 by Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai continues to showcase his talents as a storyteller involved with the long term development of his main character, Usagi Yojimbo in volume 14.

Part of the methodology that he uses, is humor. Usagi gets into all sorts of situations, some of them quite dire, but Stan manages to often put a few smiles in there. His encounters at the Inn on Moon Shadow Hill involve deception, but not malice, and he turns a bet into an event for the other patrons of the Inn while pocketing some nice change. When the GM can encourage the characters to win without having to kill everything around them, it makes a nice change of pace. To do that though, the GM has to put characters IN such situations where they don't have to be bloodthirty barbarians.

Stan also doesn't shy away from the follies of youth nor the caste system that Usagi's world works in. When Usagi is assaulted by a teen claiming that he wants to become a samurai like Usagi, the samurai notes that peasants cannot become samurai warriors.

In another story, while taking shelter with a merchant family, the family notes that "To have one of the saurai class act on our behalf will ive our humble wars great prestige." The merchants aren't kissing up to Usagi, that's the way the world is, even as Usagi, whose now been on his warrior pilgrimage for a long time, does not necessarily see it so that way anymore.

The background of known characters continues to be expanded on even as events which are not directly tied into Usagi at the time, are fleshed out. For example, the Ninja leader Chizu and her first Kagemaru are involved with handling deserters and the two disagree, the latter taking action without the knowledge of the former.

In large organizations, especially those of the various nameless mooks that players may be struggling against, such as Zhent agents, Red Wizards, and good old bandit kingdoms, somewhere near the top, someone else wants what the person at the top has and with such individuals being of a generally less benign nature than the players, blood is often spilled to get it. If possible, let the players know of the various doings of different organizations as new blood comes and goes within it.

In other areas, Usagi's old teacher has another new student, this time it's Jotaro. Usagi's son follows in his birth father's footsteps without even realizing it and their eventual metting and adventurers have those seeds started long before the metting.

Note that some of this advice may be entirely useless depending on the length of the campaign. If you're running a convention one shot, you might be able to have the players take the roles of the outsiders to build some connections with them. You might be able to start at the very begining of the game with some background information. But usually, without longer term play, the depth of those relationships doesn't have time to grow.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Wolf Age by James Enge

The third book featuring Morlock by James Enge, The Wolf Age is the best in the series so far. The cover is a powerful piece, featuring Morlock surrounded by werewolves with his magical sword and a flaming brand. I think the switch to darker colors for Morlock's clothing helps set the tone of the character better than the old red-blue on the previous covers.

I'll be discussing spoilers from the book below so if you wish to know no more, read no more.

"Sorry it's so heavy - can we change it for silver, somewhere?"

"Silver," said Hrutnefdhu faintly. "Are you still crazy?" pg. 144

"You should stay back. This hillside was a silver dump, I think. There may be some of the metal in these dust clouds." pg. 207

Morlock's capture by the werewolves has left him without funds and when he acquires some, in the form of copper, the fact that werewolves, indeed, a werewolf based society, would have absolutely no use for silver, comes to the forefront of things. When designing those alien societies and those monstrous societies, what standards would become the norm?

Would vampires outlaw the growing of garlic? Would they outlaw mirrors? Would they damn all streams and rivers to prevent running water?

On the other hand, such a scenario as the werewolves brings up a great opportunity for a heist style game. The werewolves don't want others to have the silver because its a weapon against them. Others, like the players, would want the silver because its worth money. The werewolves are allowing it to go to waste. In situations where silver may be slowly accumulating in a werewolf community, it probably all winds up in one spot. What happens if the players know of that spot? Ocean's fourteen?

Morlock's casual assumption that he would fight alongside Rokhlenu when the time came eased the werewolf's mind. pg. 172

Today your blood was shed for me and for these others. I will pay for that blood with the blood of your enemies. Blood for blood: that is the only law I know. Pg. 190

Rokhlenu, I will have blood for my friend's blood.
Is this what Hrutnefdhu would want?
I don't know. It doesn't matter, anyway. I am myself, not him. pg 330

This comes up several times. Morlock is the type of individual who when he befriends someone truly does so. His motives are that they are now his chosen family and blood is thicker than water. It makes him a great ally to have and a terrible enemy to betray.

In many ways, if the players can work out this type of alliance among themselves, it will help insure smoother game play while at the same time removing some of the potential fun game play of that nature involves itself with. The important thing though, is that everyone is on the same page. If you're bringing a new player into the game and he's unaware of the political alliances and ramifications the group has within its own dynamic and he assumes everyone is buddy buddy right from the get go, unless he is deliberately playing a naive character, the inevitable treachery such games encourage will not be seen as a good thing.

It's okay to have backstabbing and villains and morally gray ground in the campaign as long as everyone knows what the game is about. Rare are those who will week after week crawl into dark places to steal treasures of the ancients with people they can't trust at their back.

"Archers!' he thundered with what was nearly his last breath. "Sardhluun boat outside the fence! Kill all but the steersman. He's one of ours."

It was sheer bluff. pg. 180

In 3rd and 4th edition of D&D, skills came into their own a bit more than in previous editions where secondary skills and non-weapon proficiencies were the standard. Bluffing your enemies can be a skill check in the later editions and if the GM feels that the situation and role playing attempt deserves it, reward those actions in older editions. For those GMs of older systems, if you want to encourage this type of role playing effort, make sure that it works occasionally. Players will pick up their cues from what the NPCs do, how other NPCs react, what they do, and how the situation changes accordingly.

If they keep trying to use skills like bluff, intimidation and information gathering with little or no results, they'll stop doing it.

"I hate this place," she whispered, when they were fairly out of earshot. "I hate the stinking dirty water and the bugs in summer and the rickety lair towers and the mud and the wobbly boardwalks. But it is mine. It is mine. They gave it to me, after my last husband died; they made me First Wolf for life. I won't let anyone take it from me. You can go if you want." pg. 185

Possession and ownership of a thing provides responsibilities and loyalty to that thing, even if initially it wasn't something that was wanted. Give the players a run down keep that has to deal with raiders who used to use it in the winter, with orcs who used to stomp past it in the summer, and with politicians who seek to reclaim it once the players have put the hard work in or restoring it and see what the player reaction is.

"You don't want that swill," said Rokhlenu. "try this!" He cracked open the jar, poured a stream of purplish red wine into the bowl, and proudly handed it to Morlock. pg. 242

Character flaws are a great thing for a game master to use to further complicate the lives of players. Morlock, in addition to having a fiery blood, in addition to being a great swords master, in addition to having magic unlike most, in addition to have weapons of glass capable of cutting through armor, is a drunk. He didn't mention the drunk part to his friend, only that he had a preference for wine. So when its presented as a gift at a wedding, Morlock starts down the long downward spiral again.

Morlock opened his right hand and shrugged pg. 244

I know that seems like a weird thing to throw into the mix, but in terms of characters, both PC and NPC, having characters who not only have distinctive looks, like Morlock does, and distinctive catch phrases like Morlock does, goes even further when they have distinctive physical movements like Morlock does. This can be something done at that table.

In one game I ran, one of the players was a half-orc monk. Prior to every combat, the player would physically stand up and crack his knuckles loudly and smile. He didn't do that with his other characters and so it became something that character was known for.

He turned back and tried to find Iacomes' shop, but he lost his way in the twisting streets and finally had to give up.... "The streets shift. They say nothing is ever in the same place twice. All sorts of weird entities come and go." pg. 268

Towns and cities and forts should have their own distinctive ticks and tricks about them. The little things can make even the most boring village come to life.

"If he does, I'll buy him enough wine to stay drunk every day of his life, even if he lives to be a hundred." pg. 295

Morlock has not hidden his age, being hundreds of years old, but few believe him. In the old Kane novels by Karl Edgar Wagner, the same was often true. There may be rumors or hints of greater age and power behind the hero, in this cane Morlock and Kane, but the belief factor is low. This should make people underestimate them. Of course other ancient entities like outer planar creatures, ancient undead, and other near immortals won't make that mistake, but the standard folks in the setting? Why would they be expecting the middle aged man to actually be a powerful wizard?

There was a silence, and Wuinlendhono said with amusement, "Are you proposing that we eat fish?" pg. 216

When looking at different cultures, especially monstrous ones, what is the standard? For werewolves, apparently fist aren't even considered part of the menu despite the ease of access. This may be a cultural bias that has something to do with events in the far past. For example, several religions forbid the eating of Pork products. Ah, delicious pork products he said eating his ham steak and eggs..

Someone had crept into the den while Morlock was drunk, killed his friend, decapitated him, and escaped - not just unharmed but unchallenged. pg. 327

Morlock is far more dangerous than Hrutnefdhu so why would an assassin come in the middle of the night, kill Morlock's friend and make off with it?

What would happen to the book if indeed Morlock was killed? What would happen if the GM threw a skilled assassin that made all his rolls and killed all the party members through a combination of poison and stealth? The current game would end.

While that may be a fitting end, providing punishment to the heroes, in this case Morlock's friend's death, is more of a reminder of what can happen when vigilance isn't used. In a game, perhaps the players lose something of value? Perhaps one of their friends suffers retaliation for something the players did? Failure does not have to equal death unless the Game Master is set on having the players roll up new characters and to be frank, he could waste a lot less time by simply telling the players to roll up new characters.

Brum silently prayed to his gods in the dark, the Strange Gods. It was the Coranians who had first spread their worship through the north. Brum's people in the old time had persecuted and tortured and robbed and murdered the Coranian prophets. But the Coranians worked certain miracles that impressed the people deeply and led them to believe in the Strange Gods, even as they continued to rob and murder Coranians. pg. 344

So where do the religions in your world originate? In a setting like the Forgotten Realms, there are home grown deities, deities that arose from the ranks of modern man, deities from other setting, etc... Deities that are new to the setting should have a path that others can trace if they choose to. Such information might come in handy.

The manifestation of Death became disorganized and ceased to represent an individual identity.

Even in long ages, Death cannot die. Death continued to stand at the end of every road, the darkness framing the light of everything that lived until it lived no longer.

But Death who had been one of the strange Gods who had once been a woman, who had walked arm in arm with her sister Justice on the western edge of the world and talked of the way things were and the way things should be, that Death was gone.

In this limited sense, Death was dead. pg .447

In speaking of the gods a little more, what do the gods actually do in terms of the organization of the setting. In the 4e printed adventure path, Orcus seeks to take over for the Raven Queen. She is the god of death. Orcus the god of Undeath, well, demon prince of it at any rate. Does fighting the gods have unnatural effects on the setting?

Neil's the Sandman did a great job of illustrating some of the weird things that can happen when an aspect itself suffers as happened during the initial launch of the series where the Sandman, the master of dreams, is captured.

As the players continue to rise in level and the unthinkable becomes thinkable, in ever edition (yeah, Odin's tough but those 400 hit points in 1st ed ain't an infinite amount), think about what happens when the gods die.

The Wolf Age by James Enge is well worth a look to see how a standard adventurer may act in a supernatural setting where the werewolves aren't masters of horror, but just another civilization with its own ups and downs where the gods are interfering.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

This Crooked Way by James Enge

Since I already own the first three books by James Enge that feature his character Morlock, I figure I'd delve right into the next one; This Crooked Way.

Unlike the first book, this one isn't told from a single viewpoint by a single character. We get several first personal views of what Morlock is like, as wel las numerous interludes and a few of the standard third person chapters. Overall it works but doesn't work as well as I've seen in other places including Usagi Yojimbo.

Below I'll be pulling some quotes out of the book and there will probably be spoilers. Read no further if you'd care to avoid that sort of thing.

"My name is Vost. I was Lord Urdhven's right-hand man. His cloest friend. You killed him. Destroyed him. And now you come here." pg. 17

When players are fighting the good fight, their foes may be more than just the ones that are immediately in front of them. In a military based battle, there are numerous chains of command and if the players are focused on one level, the highest level, those below the military commanders the players slay, could one day seek vengance.

"They called it the winterwood. The trees stood on high rocky ground; it was cold there, even in summer. the trees there, of a kind that grew nowhere else, flowered in fall and faded in spring. They resembled dark oaks, except their leaves were a dim blue and their bark had a bluish cast." pg .54

Providing the local forest with some unique color goes a long way in establishing the players need to pay attention to things going on around them. Providing unique elements to the campaign severs to provide some unique game play options to the setting. The standard of classic fantasy are that way for a reason, but that very ample soil leaves plenty of room for customization.

"Yet you wander from place to place... like some kind of magical tinker, when you might command fear and respect the way a general commands an army."
Morlock shrugged irritably. "Why?" pg. 71

One of the things that's interesting about Morlock is that his ability as a maker allows him to manufacture a wide vareity of devices. If he so choose, he could set up shop in a major city and become a world reknown power. But those things doen't interest him. He's an adventurer you see.

When you have players who are interested in the actual adventuring process, of going forward for the experience itself as opposed to the gold and glory, you're able to throw a little more into the campaign. Gold and glory are great motivators in and of themselves and can be useful carrot and stick approaches, but when the players want to adventure on their own in the first place, this makes the GM's job easier.

"That's the one law the Riders carry with them through the lawless hours: bring the bodies out. For every body left in the woods after dark became the subject and sustenance of our enemy, the Boneless One, the Whisperer in the woods." pg 109

When possible, think about the long term effects of the magical and other unnatural elements of the campaign. For example, if there are undead in the campaign, either zombies or skeletons, those that can be crafted from the dead, or ghouls or those that feast on the dead, why are there corpses?

"The crowd's horror burst into panic. I wasn't the first person to rush for the door, but i wasn't thel ast one either." pg. 131

This one is a simple one. Not everyone in the setting is hard core ready to fight to the death and ready to kill for whoever tells them to. When things from beyond creep into the game, try to recall that the players are a step above most of those they encounter and that whats normal for them, may seem especially strange to the 'normal' people in the setting.

"A shape flew between Besk and me- a darkly luminous green bird whose form would not quite come into focus as if it were wrapped in a dark mist. It flew around Besk's head three times. With the first pass his eyes closed; with the second his head slumped; after the thrid he fell to the ground. The green bird flew back to where it came from: the door of the smith. Morlock, standing there, caught it in a glass bottle and closed the bottle with a stopper.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Sleep," Morlock said. Pg. 138

One of the things I like about 4th ed is that it's all about 'reskinning'. Its all about providing your own flavor and your own description to abilities. I've seen this done in the past as well where Dragon articles would encourage you to customize your character by describing special effects that your spells had about them. For example, elves using magic missles that were living wood or frost mages using frost missles. The problem happens when players try to take the extra step and throw in some other abilities that the core ability they're reskinning doesn't have. Allow description to run free but don't allow it to provide additional game mechanics unless you're doing some stunting like found in Exalted.

Morlock shook his head. "You go on," he said. "I have to find Tyrfing." pg. 153

A character with a unique signature weapon isn't going to leave it behind unless he absolutely has to. On the other hand, as Morlock revoers his weapon less than a page latter, he shouldn't have too do that too often. It's an abuse of the character concept and if the GM is dead set against that type of character with that type of weapon, he shouldn't allow it in the first place.

There are few thing more angry than a player told he can use X, Y, and Z and watching as X, Y, and Z are nerfed to whatever the GM prefers. Take the high road and just disallow it in the first place.

"May I offer you something, my boy? A glass of wine, or perhaps something stronger?" pg. 288

One of the thigns I haven't really touched on is that Morlock is the son of Merlin. And they're not really on good friendly terms with his father trying to kill him and all. Family can provide many a useful plot hook to the campaign and is of far greater use to the GM than some loner with no family and a mysterious past.

In this case though, the father is pushing the envelope by offering Morlock wine. One thing I may not have mentioned is that Morlock is an alcoholic. While it doesn't feature prominently in this book and didn't overall effect the previous book in the series, it's part of Morlock's character. Unless you're using a point system that has the characters roll to resist vices or be rewarded for falling into them, in games like Dungeons and Dragons and Rolemaster, this should be trapping or surface flavor.

"Morlock walled away quickly. He had the feeling that Trannon was intent on doing something that would wreck everything Morlock had done." pg. 352

One of the things about the real world is that you can't save everyone. Some people don't want to be saved. Depending on how the GM introduces such concepts to the game, this could involve alcohol like Morlock himself, drug use, or enuii. People may struggle to overcome their base instincts but cannot do so. In some instances, if the players are heroes higher than Morlock whose involvement is almost more of an honor thing, such as good friends of such a character down in the dark, they may be able to acheive a true intervention. But as Hollywood celeberties prove time and time again, having all the money, wealth, and adoration of millions might not be enough and the dark roads may be calling.

This Crooked Way continues the adventurers of Morlock with James Enge providing some solid humor and a stoic character that is at once heroic and self contained. His unique weapon and James take on the magic of that setting provide solid twist and turns along with a unique bestiary.

Those looking for fantasy entertainment that's not too high strung and isn't thousands of pages long with dozens of carefully created NPCs will enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Blood Of Ambrose by James Enge

In between working like a slave for a company currently under sale, I also game, paint, and read numerous forums and blogs.

On one of ye old blogs, I stumbled across a book called This Crooked Way by James Enge.  Sounded right up my alley but didnt' sound like the first book in the series. After a trip to Half Priced books, as well as a visit to Borders with a 40% off coupon and Amazon, I was the proud owner of Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way and The Wolf Age by James Enge.

Good enough and time to start on the series.

Blood of Ambrose isn't as gritty as any of The First Law series or the books that come after it. It is not a ground breaking series like the Wheel of Time was thought at one point or A Game of Thrones currently is (thank you HBO).

However, that doesn't stop it from being a fun read. Taking some cues form Arthurian mythos and bits of fantasy, James Enge provides some interesting characters in interesting enough situations that Blood of Ambrose is well worth a read.

Below I'll be talking about some of the bits that I found interesting. If you wish to avoid spoilers, read no further.

"In all his life he had one friend, and now that friend was dead. What was an empire compared to that?" pg. 136.

Okay, a cheap start I know, but perhaps I'm reading too many blogs and forums where the basic question of why do characters fight and die for each other. It's not a question I gave much thought to when I first started gaming. My first role playing experiences were with Marvel Super Heroes. It was pretty much the standard that you'd rather die than abandon your friends in the middle of combat with the Red Skull or Thanos.

As I moved into fantasy games, that wasn't always the case. As I played with more and more people though, it seemed to fall into the category of 'dick players'. If everyone in the game but you dies, you're not a hero, you're a dick.

Sorry, but whose going to travel with you once its known that you've left other player's characters die, especially if the new characters are made by those same player's? Sure, you can say its the players being dicks in and of themselves, daring to use that foul meta-knowledge that your character values his own life so much that he'd abandoned them but hey, the other players are going to make their decisions based on what you've already done and meta-knowledge be damned.

I'm not saying that if you as a player had your character say, "Hey, this is crazy. We can't go in there and expect to live." and then stayed behind and didn't do everything in your power to help others out. But if you're the mage or other high level caster and your combat spells consist mainly of those which get you and you alone out of a tight situation? Yeah, good luck with that next group of adventurers wanting to travel with you.

"But no one knows him as well as I do. And I know not only that he's breakable, but that he's broken." pg. 145.

In making characters, one of the standards seems to be that everyone has feet of clay. Morlock ,one of the main characters of the novel, and the hero in many ways, has a lot of faults. But those days of being inactive and doing nothing are behind him. When players are designing their characters, I encourage the GM not only to point out the obvious faults with them, but to note how those might come back into the came to haunt her. If the player is dead set on making a drunk whose will is so weak that even in a game with no penalties for doing so, that they fall to alcoholism when drink is merely mentioned, they might be taking it too far. The clay should be something that the characters are working against as they start the game, not something that they are so rigidly defined by that any NPC with a roll of 15 or less on 3d6 knows that weakness.

"The sunkillers had taken an interest in our world and intended to conquer it." pg. 149

The whole thing here of another race deciding to take over the world is one that bears some mentioning not necessarily because you want to start the players off against such seemingly epic foes, but rather because it indicates that the width of the campaign is larger than the pond they're currently in. They should want to fight their own Sunkillers some day and to take their own steps "beyond their world" so to speak.

"When was the last time any of you guys heard any news from Invarna?" pg. 156

One of the hardest things for me to remember as a GM, and something I have to enforce with that same authority, is how little modern communications played in the settings we're often playing in. In order to enforce some of that feeling, it's good to have news come in from outside via caravans and other travelers. But sometimes, especially when the players are seeking to stir up trouble, they might ask, "Hey, when was the last time anyone heard anything about X." and because modern communication standards aren't in effect, they should get the benefit of the doubt. The opposite is also true of course...

"All that is left of that once was Urdhven is a slender thread of ego trapped inside that slab of meat." pg. 181.

The main villain at this point is the Protector to the king. He's a man obsessed with taking over the lands and ruling. He appears normal enough at first until his head is cut from his body and he still lives. When such things happen, well, there has to be something else behind it no? It's a good way to set up the otherness behind some of the villains in the campaign and to hint at things to come down the road.

In the same vein,

"He says there is a danger we aren't facing-"
"Yes, I know: the Protector's Shadow, Urdhven's magical patron." pg. 208.

When the players do manage to take out one villain, they may discover that he was just a puppet of a stronger villain. When you face cultist, their leader is a necromancer, who gains strength from demons, who gain strength from their patron Orcus, and in between the cultist and Orcus are numerous encounters and challenges ranging from champions and servants to unique monsters and environmental issues that require more than just brawn and power to overcome.

"...among the crystalline shards was one_ long, swordlike, and dark_ which fell into Morlock's outstretched hand. It was tyrfing, the accursed sword, its blade like dark basaltic glass glimmering in the fitful light of the stormy evening." pg. 182

Not every game models every genre or even every weapon within a particular genre well. The first thing I thought of when I read about the "veins of glowing white crystal within the dark blade" wasn't D&D, it was Rolemaster. The blade has more of a magical nature than a mere bonus and that made me think of an essence multiplier or addition to the power points a character would gain from holding it. Keep the game you're playing in mind as you read, but don't be afraid to let bits you read find their appropriate place among other game you might enjoy.

"this time I got there in time," pg. 190.

Players fail. It happens in almost every game and every genre. In fiction, the writer has the ability to give the characters a second chance at doing what they failed to do. When possible, take a nod from this and allow the players to enjoy success at something they failed at before.

"that satisfied some of the Protector's Men; others, who knew or had heard a truer version of the fight in the Great Market, quietly deserted." pg. 206.

You've got this awesome villain but he's such a scum bag that if people truly knew what a vile source of scum he is, they would quickly leave him but yet the players have found him out and proven his vileness! What to do. Depending on the nature of the outing, have some loss of power occur. If you don't you're taking away from the player's victory. Why bother exposing the villain if there's no effect of doing so?

"You don't sign peace treaties with your friends, Wyrth; you sing them with your enemies." pg. 212

Wow. What a piece of advice for a game that may have too many foes for a typical party to overcome. when dealing with things like war, as I mentioned in my ramblings of the Heroes, there may be too many foes for the players to overcome. In order to cut back on sheer bloodthirst and rampage, hinting that the players may want to capture enemies and resources so that they may barter with their foes for terms of peace may be a way around the death toil that could otherwise come around.

"It looks as if you're going to have to continue those lessons in the Sight." pg. 249

One of the things that always brings out my Internet fighting form, is talking about game design versus game play. I've seen Champions characters built with 350 points that look nothing like Champions characters that were played from 250 to that 350 point total. Game play in and of itself indicates a LOT of what will happen in the game. Worried that wizards and clerics and druids are just too damn powerful? Allow them in the campaign and see what happens through, you know, actual game play. Sure, they may want spell X, Y, and Z, but the campaign may call for them to use A, B, and C. The theory of game design and optimal choices may be vastly different that what's useful for your own campaign.

I'm not saying ignore advice and bits of wisdom you come across when seeing how people deal with a particular issue, but understand what your own campaign issues are prior to adapting someone else's solution. It may not be a problem in your campaign if Clerics are the most powerful class in your campaign and they don't need nerfing at all.

"Suppose that the magical adept is not, in fact, Urdhven's patron. Suppose that Urdhven is merely the dupe or pawn of this adept, who uses him to distract us from some under taking of the adept's own." pg. 250

There may be times when the foes of today's game are the allies of tomorrow's game. There may be times when the depth of the characters you've developed to interact with the players go beyond merely killing them. The motivations of some of the cast may clash against the motivations of others of the cast. In those times, allow the characters to grow through the actions of the player's characters and the world they inhabit.

There are a few others bits within Blood of Ambrose that are worth quoting and thinking about, but the Patron is flowing  strongly and it's well past the old sleepy time form me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Heroes: Bayaz, First of the Magi

If you're a fan of fantasy fiction, and of Dungeons and Dragons, chances are, you've stumbled upon Elminster. He is often used as a reason to actively dislike the Forgotten Realms setting. He is pointed at as being one of the root causes of the setting having issues.

Elminster, in terms of raw power, is probably more powerful than the person I'm about to talk about here, Bayaz, First of the Magi.

In Heroes, Bayaz is out field testing some canons on the bad guys. Pretty much whatever the canons hit, they destroy. He is in full love of technology and progress wishing it to continue its advancement so that he can use it to pound his mortal enemies back into the dirt.

In 4e, the canons would be too powerful to use against characters directly, but in The Heroes, there is a scene where one of the stones is struck and it sends shards of rock flying everywhere. You could use this as a hazard in 4e where if the characters occupy a space where a shard is lodged, they loss a healing surge. Sure, no obvious fatal damage, but the use of resources is still felt.

But back to Bayaz. Not only does he work the Union, the people fighting the Northmen, he's using the 'Celt' analog further north of the Northmen, he's using elements within the Northmen. In short, he's backing every player and his goals and plans will simply not be stopped. They may no proceed as he wishes them to. They may not be over as quick as he wishes them to. But he is going to get his way.

In a role playing game, if you're the player and you've go the Bayaz thing going on, awesome job. You've managed to showcase a lot of social skills, pure power, and the ability to manipulate. If you're the GM and you run a charaacter like Bayaz is run here, you're doing a terrible job if the players know that they are being manipulated by Bayaz.

As terrible as Elminster is as a all powerful NPC, he's not the complete and utter vile scum that Bayaz is. Letting the players know exactly up front that whatever they do and seek out that they are doomed to only stay within your pet NPC's maze? Not good.

This isn't to say such a character can't work. He just can't work as someone who lets others know that they're under his thumb and when his actions are discovered, the players, unlike the characters in a novel, better damn well be able to do something about it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Heroes: Bremer Dan Gorst

I'll be talking about Joe Abercrombie's new book, The Heroes below so if you would wish to avoid spoilers, read no further.

On the insdie flap, we're introduced to several view point characters. Bremer Dan Gorst, disgraced master swordsman, has sworn to reclaim his stolen honor on the battlefield. Obsessed with redemption and addicted to violence, he's far past caring how much blood gets spilled in the attempt. Even if it's his own.

Wow. If several bits of that don't described most dungeon delving warriors eh?

The thing about Joe's writing though, is much like the writers of Futurama, he likes to occassionally stick the knife in and twist. In this instance, Gorst is out there in the field as only an observer. His hunger to reclaim his faded glory though, keeps him going into the front lines and getting into the deep ends of combat regardless of the ods.

As the book goes on though, towards the end, he receives a letter from the King. It's a letter telling him that he needs to return home immediately. It's dated before the conflict has started. It puts all of his mental doubts and death seeking look foolish in contrast to what was actually happening around him.

As a GM, you'll have information that the players will not have. Occassionally, you might be able to have an Abercrombie moment. A time when you can allow the players to go forward with some plans they have when you already know that there are better, easier, and more sure proof ways of taking care of the issues that plague them. When the players are headstrong and willing to charge forth into that mouth of death without exploring all of their options, enjoy your moment.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Heroes by Joe abercrombie

I've read the previous books written by Joe Abercrombie with much enjoyment. There is a lot of character building going on with a lot of emphasis on people as people as opposed to heroes or high morals. In some ways, much like the Black Company in its gritty take of standard high fantasy elements.

I'll be discussing some of the material below, so if you want to avoid spoilers, read no further.

Names: One of the characters in the book has a weapon called the Father of All Swords. Now this isn't the first time Joe's come up with some great naming conventions. His term for Death? The Great Leveller. I snagged that right away from my old character's fullblade as it fit him. Weapons don't have to be magical or unique one of a kind for it to have a name.

In addition, when you see the name of the book, The Heroes, it makes you think that its going to be about heroes right? Well, that's another nice trick. The name is the reference point for the actual circle/ring of stones that is called The Heroes because its supposed to have famous heroes buried under it. Another great use of the 'gotcha' by Joe.

History: The Father of All Swords had several names before it was the Father of all Swords. While the history isn't a significant part of the book nor does it take up much space in telling, the same is true for role playing games. Giving weapons a history gives them depth. Even if it's just another NPC telling the player that he heard of the Dreaded Black Wand of Agnash when it was called simply the Death Kiss of Korrus, before the dread lich Agnash had it.

Hoarding Resources: One of the things that gets a lot of talk on the internet is the '15 minute adventuring day' that is supposed to have been I guess, an everyday thing in older editions of Dungeons and Dragons. You know, go into the first few fights while expending all of your spells and abilities and some how finding your way back to territory safe enough that you can just rest and recover your abilities while the bad guys sit around wondering who just broke into their home and killed uncle Bob?

Since the Heroes is set during war time, there's no such thing really as 'break off' the engagement. You beat the first wave of soldiers? The next wave is up. You have a paladin in the party with super high AC? The archers are targeting dexterity. You have that great fire and poison resistance? Its force damage. The point being not that war is a great excuse to punish your players for their hoarding of resorces, but to get them to engage the system, to push them to the limits, to give them the Die-Hard experience.

It also helps break up the standard if that's what your players are actually like. Perhaps its just a reduction of wandering monsters in later editions. Perhaps its the GM not being forceful enough with the players to get more done in the alloted time. Perhaps its the diseased thinking that D&D is a online game where you can just retreat to the town at any time.

But its easy to break players out of the habbit by forcing them to actually fight beyond what they think they can handle. Minions and specialized forces in 4e with roles appropriate to test those defenses the party is lacking in can push the party. Forces that have a lot of hit points and ability to soak up damage to keep the party pinned up until the party finds that their enemies have reinforcements.

But this is only useful advice if you're not out to murder the characters. Don't get me wrong. My expectation as a GM is that if your character does something stupid, that's not a kid glove, it's a boxing glove with a horseshoe that I'm going to punch your character in the jaw with and as Drago said in Rock IV, "If he dies, he dies."

Part of this, for me, goes into building a world that's bigger than the character. If the party of first level adventurers thinks they can take out a family of hill giants and their cave bears because I mention the hills are thick with such monsters, then the party needs to adjust their thinking and try to focus on what their characters can and more importantly, cannot do with innate abilities. Some clever thinking, hiring of mass groups of henchemen, and control of the land could make it possible for a low level group to perhaps survive such an encounter, but the thinking that just because its there means its level appropriate? Out the window with that thinking.

The internet is full of great builds. Its full of useful advice for Max-Min play. It is sadly lacking in talking common sense as that seems to often fall under the umbrella "The GM's job is to take it." so to speak. To allow the players utter freedom to act without consequence. Perhaps I'm too old school in my GMing mentallity but if you charge a group of orcs thinking that they're all minions because if they were anything else they'd be too powerful, well, it's a good think that the DDI has a great online character generator cause chances are you'll need it.

Well, I seemed to have wandered off the deep end there away from the idea of using war as a method of mixing what players expect a standard encounter and resource measurement to be to a rant against some modern thinking in D&D I've seen.

Hang in for next post where I'll talk some more about the actual book!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Legion: The End is The Begining of the Begining of the End?

Spoilers abound so if you don't want to know anything about the post-apocalyptic movie Legion, read no further.

So you want to put together a one shot campaign that ends the world? Legion covers it. God is tired of man and decides that its time to send the angels on down to take care of business again. Pretty simple right? In this instance, its like a zombie plague for the most part. Those of 'weak will' are taken over by angels are go after the stronger willed individuals. And hey, just like with zombies, if you're resolve weakens, you can now be taken over.

But what about a longer term campaign?

The first step, is determine what you want to do with this set up and where you want it to go.

Are the players low level individuals that may be making up some of the militia? Are they the epic level heroes that will lead the resistance into the future with the promised ones show up?

If its the end of the campaign, and you're playing a game where there are users of magic, of almost all sorts, you need to determine, how boned are these individuals? In the movie Legion, the main 'hero' if you will, not only has his superior physical abilities of being an angel himself, but has a hell of a lot of firepower. In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons specifically, clerics and mages tend to suffer a little at lower levels because their spell power at higher levels makes them very potent and powerful against a wide range of characters and obstacles.

But if the astral plane is sealed, and essence dries up, and the gods no longer hear the pleas of mortals... well, that pretty much takes care of psionic power, arcane power, and divine power. It leaves those lowly fighters and rogues at the forefront of things.

But in my experience, high level characters tend to have a lot of magic items as well. What if this new alignment of the planes or this new passing of an era, takes care of those too?

Mind you, these are huge and drastic steps that will have massive impacts on the campaign and the ability of the characters. In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons for example, its often impossible to effect certain monsters without magic items and a high level wizard without his magic is well, a sorry sack of some odd thirty hit points. But if your going for an end of the universe style campaign...

To counter that, perhaps there are some items that not only work, but they allow the cast to draw upon his own pools of inner energy or allow others to provide some type of siphon for him to draw on his power. It could almost be like how Middle Earth Role Playing handled Magic in that it attracts all the wrong sorts of attention to the user. In games like GURPS and Hero, this isn't necessarily the end all be all it is in games like Rolemaster or D&D so remember those long term ramifications.

In addition to providing huge changes to the world, if its more than a one shot, think of the larger consequences. In a setting lik the Forgotten Realms, its been through so much that even the death of the goddess of magic and massive spell plagues didn't do that much to change its overall nature and scope. As a matter of fact, the setting had more magic with Sword Mages introduced along the way. Think not only of the negative, but also the positive.

In the movie Legion for example, while the world is in a new 'Terminator' state, there is still hope and there is still resistance. If the players have absolutely no chance to effect real change or provide that hope themselves, break out the old Call of Cthulhu game and tell them you're running a very special episode of "In The Mouth of Madness."

Jimmy the Hand by Raymond E. Feist and S.M. Stirling

Below I'll be talking about Jimmy the Hand, Legendso f the Riftware Book III. It's not going to include any quotes and is more of a review/rant with a few thoughts on gaming at the end of it, so beware of spoilers if you're not inclined to know more.

The book has a great villain. A noble whose motivation is to save the love of his life, his wife who 'died' during childbirth. There was a visitor to the noble that night though, a powerful wizard, who was able to keep the wife alive in a state between life and death and uses the life force energy of children to keep her in that state between life and death.

While the noble considers himself to have the most noble of intentions, it gets back to the motivation of things. When the players have an idea of what motivates the villains of the game, they may have a greater understanding and appreciation of them. In some instances, they may even be able to provide alternative solutions.

For players, there are a few things to ponder. For example, when Jimmy the Hand meets Coe, its obvious the two are on a different playing level than those around them. In looking at it game wise, they'd be the PCs. To keep things simple, thankfully the author has both of them expalin their motivations to each other quickly and the two become allies. In some instances, with the right GM and the right group, having all sorts of inter party conflict, secrets, alliances, backstabbing and other bits can be entertaining.

In others, when doing dungeon crawls are more casual game play, the players may want to focus on the killing of bad guys and not each other and coming out right up front and in character putting their motivations out there for all to see can work wonders for the moving of the game forward.

In terms of the book itself, its not my favorite of the series. When I read the old Raymond E. Feist books, I'm generally in the mood for what I call popcorn but of a certain flavor. To me, taking Jimmy the Hand out of Kronodor, while going into the details of his 14 year old sex life with various whores, is not getting what Jimmy the Hand is about. Especially when your not doing anything interesting with the character. As the title character, Jimmy doesn't actually DO much except explore Land's End, get sea sick, learn he doesn't ride horses well, and meets a few rubes.

This is something that may be tied into S.M. Stirling's hand. It's not that S.M. Stirling is a bad writer as I've blogged of several of that authors books. It's that when co-writing, there may be a difference of style that is perceptible to the reader.

In terms of multiple GMs running a campaign, in some instances, it just doesn't work. In my experience, I've seen it work best when GMs are running in the same setting and perhaps have some splashes of 'crossover' material. The power levels need to be similiar, the default styles need to be similiar. The default assumptions need to be similiar. For a good example, I look to comics; JLA/Avenger. Sure, the default styles of the core comic companies have similiariest but there are general differences as well but in the greater scheme of the setting, they're not that different. Hawkeye even jokes that the JLA is the Squadron Supreme which considering the Squadron's own origins as homage characters for the JLA, is entertaining.

When thinking of letting another GM run a game you've run, set the boundries at the start of the bit to avoid heartache later on down the road.