Monday, October 16, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the Players

So I recently got to play the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other game, only this time with two girls and one guy. The guy actually gave me a pretty cool, if brief, backstory. It lacked details like names, but definitely left the door open to some neat play.

And that, after all, is the point: encouraging neat play. You want to pack your game sessions with as much cool and excitement as possible. Your background is just another way to do that. But how?

Work with Your DM
Your DM probably has a few themes and ideas in mind for things they want to bring to the table. Ask them about those. See how they might be worked into your background. If you know ahead of time that the campaign is going to be about hunting down a secretive cult worshipping Tharizdun, it’s easy enough to say that cultists killed your family. But you can turn it up a notch to say the cultists are your family! If so, how did you escape? Did anyone else escape?

Feel free to use the Ten Ideas trick. It’s a pretty simple tool for coming up with great ideas. When you need an idea, force yourself to write down ten. The first two or three are clich├ęs everyone would think of. You were probably really stretching through the last two or three, and those ideas, while potential the most creative, are probably too “out there” to be useful. The ideas in the middle are where you’re most likely to find gold.

Ask if there are any institutions that are important to the campaign. Perhaps there’s a temple, a secret society, or a race that figures importantly in your DM’s plans. Find ways to connect your PC to them. This way, not only do you have powerful motivations to get involved in the world, but the DM is going to turn to you to provide exposition and important details.

Don’t be afraid to go big here. My latest campaign takes place in a world ravaged by a war between wizards. The landscape still bears the scars and huge swaths are only habitable thanks to powerful elemental magic supplied by genies. Knowing this, one of my players made her character the daughter of a powerful djinni. We worked together to create a situation where there is a useful link but also insure that her character was independent enough to go out on her own and couldn’t always just fall back on Mom’s influence and power. In spite of that, her ties to the movers-and-shakers of this world have been incredibly useful to both the player and myself in deepening the world and propelling the game.

Work with the Other Players
One of the hardest parts of getting a game rolling is finding a reason for the (inevitably diverse) PCs to join together and stick together. You can not only improve group coherency but also piggy-back on the cool ideas of your friends by linking your characters together before play even starts.

The methods for doing this are countless: family, childhood friendships, old loves and rivalries. You’ve seen all the old tropes in movies and novels for years now. Mine ‘em for their best stuff.

But don’t fall in love with something until you’ve talked it over with the other person. This is all about working with others, and will require some give-and-take. If the two of you can’t settle on something, just drop it; better to play what you want than a character you only kinda like linked to others by bonds you find annoying.

Don’t Stop Working!

It doesn’t do you any good to build all this background if you let it lay fallow on your character sheet. Keep in mind that your DM has a lot of balls in the air between monsters and NPCs and a whole world to manage. If you wait for the DM to bring up your character’s background, it might not happen.

Which isn’t to say you should be pushy and force your character’s background into center stage. The best way to bring your background into play is to ask your DM open-ended questions about what’s currently going on in relation to that background. “Which side of that conflict was my family on?” or, “What sources did my mentor at the Collegia Arcanum use to acquire black lotus?” or, “How did people prevent necromancers from animating their dead back where my character is from?” These are good questions that can deepen the world-building. Understand if the DM can’t address those in the moment; some might best be addressed via email or over coffee between games. And don’t be surprised if the DM throws the question back on you: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Look for opportunities to bring your background into the game, the same way you’d look for ways to use the special abilities of your class or race. Re-read your background regularly to keep the details fresh in your mind. Towards that end, don’t write thousands of words of background. Keep it short and focused on the details. Create a bullet-point version for use at the table. Be gentle; it’s a shared world, after all, and you don’t want to step on the toes of others. But by weaving your character’s background into the story, you’ll be strengthening everyone’s investment into your character and the world you’ve all created.

Don’t be a Passive-aggressive Jerk

This is not an excuse to create traps or subtly influence where the game goes. That sort of nonsense never works. If you want something from the game, be up-front about it with your DM and the other players. Don’t use your character’s background as a club to whack the other players and DM into doing what you want, either. It’s a tool to deepen the experience of play, not a handle for you to drive the game.

Interactive backgrounds that tie the PCs together and to their setting is advanced-level play. It’s not the sort of thing to undertake unless you’re comfortable with your game and you have a good rapport with your DM and the other players. That said, it can also be used to build that rapport, but if that’s your aim, don’t ask it to do any more heavy-lifting until you’ve got buy-in from those players and DM.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Pen and Sword in Accord

There's a lot here I agree with. Especially:

As much as I try and present a story for the players to help flesh out though, I keep in mind that this is a game. In all but the most extreme circumstances, I let the dice "fall as they may", and try not to twist the rules simply to accommodate my story idea.

As it turns out, I think letting the dice fall where they may makes for a stronger story experience. One of the challenges for writers of fantastical fiction is making the world and characters feel real enough for the readers to invest in (aka verisimilitude). When writers talk about creating and preserving verisimilitude, they actually use phrases like: "Your world must be consistent; don't break its internal rules!"

When you fudge a die roll or pretend, "Well, ok, that will work this time," you're damaging your verisimilitude. You're weakening your story. (Likewise, when you whip out your story points to change the rules temporarily, you're weakening verisimilitude unless those story points have actual existence within the world of your story. This is why I can't enjoy most story games; they actually have mechanics in them that damage the story!)

But when you apply the rules of your game consistently, you strengthen the verisimilitude and you make the story more enjoyable. When players know how their magic works, or how likely they are to defeat a troll, or how the city guard will react when they discover a pick-pocket, they can invest emotionally in their characters and the world they inhabit.

In short, if you want your RPG sessions to have the effect of a story (rather than just mimic the structure of a story), you need clear, understandable, and consistent rules. (It’s not all you need, but without them you’re not even going to get started). This is also why it’s important that the rules you choose actually promote the sort of story you want to tell. If you’re fighting your rules, you’ll constantly see your story drift away from the look-and-feel you were aiming for.

Saturday, September 02, 2017


I recently had a chat with a friend who’s running 5e for the first time after pretty much sticking with 2e since the ‘90s. One of his players was playing a rogue, and he wasn’t sure what made that class unique in 5e.

Confusion is understandable, because in many ways, the 5e rogue is the antithesis of the 2e thief. 2e’s thief was often found far ahead of the party, using their stealth and trap-detection abilities to scout out what was around the corner or further down the corridor (or listening to discern what was on the other side of the door) before reporting back to the rest of the group. In a fight, they were either a bodyguard for the magic-user or were sneaking around the edge of the fight, looking to get in a backstab on the enemy spell-slingers, snag the Magoffin, or unleash a nasty alpha-strike on a boss monster. After unleashing their backstab, however, they were a second-rate fighter-type with poor hit points and inadequate armor; they primarily survived because, after unleashing the back-stab, they were not much of a threat to anyone.

Most of the special abilities of the 2e thief are now possible by anyone. Listening at doors is a Perception check; the cleric is likely to be really good at it due to their high Wisdom. Ditto searching for traps. There are a few backgrounds (including Urchin) that grant proficiency with thieves’ tools. Stealth is now something anyone with high Dexterity (and less-than-heavy armor) can pull off, so there’s no reason for the rogue to risk going alone to scout.

In fact, the last thing the 5e rogue wants to do is be caught out by themselves. Their back-stab ability can be invoked anytime they’ve either got advantage or their target has another foe in melee range. So what the 5e rogue really wants to do is back-up frontline fighters and clerics. And they’re really good at this because their Cunning Action ability allows them to get extra movement, or attack and then disengage safely the same round.

This means the 5e rogue makes a great mobile reserve. They can move in against a foe already engaged to ensure flanking bonus or just to deal out extra damage. Or they can rush in to support a character who’s hard-pressed by the enemy. They can support a cleric who needs to take a round to cast healing spells rather than fight.

They could use that extra movement to harass enemy spell-slingers or snag Magoffins, but they’re far less effective combatants when they can’t use their sneak-attack bonus damage. (Besides, the barbarian and druid are both much better at the deep-penetration of the enemy backfield.) They can put together some powerful synergies, for instance by fighting alongside a druid transformed into a wolf (who gains advantage thanks to Pack Tactics), a paladin with Aura of Protection, or a fighter with Commander’s Strike or Rally. And at mid-level, a rogue is able to stay in the fight longer thanks to Uncanny Dodge and Evasion.

5e’s rogue is not the antisocial loner 2e’s thief was. They’re a support-class, rather like the cleric and the bard, but unlike those, they don’t buff their allies but rather get buffed by being close to their allies. A 5e rogue should buddy-up with a character who’s either putting out a lot of damage or can create synergies with the rogue’s sneak-attack bonus damage. And they should stay mobile throughout the fight, ready to hop over to another part of the battlefield to aid someone else.

Outside of fights, they’ll probably find use for their thieves’ tools, but they might not be the only one who’s got them, nor are they necessarily the best at sneaking or perceiving dangers. This does allow the rogue to be much more flexible, concentrating on any holes the party has in their skills. This can be especially useful in a party that doesn’t include a bard.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Making History

My very first issue of DRAGON magazine was #74, an out-of-nowhere gift from my brother while we were on summer vacation. That issue is still magical to me; between Ed Greenwood’s seven magic swords utterly transforming the way I played D&D, to the “review” of Star Frontiers, to the comedic-yet-epic cover by Jim Holloway, I treasured that issue for years.

Amongst all the great stuff in it was talk of this thing called “GenCon.” It seemed magical. A gathering of gamers from across the world. I could barely conceive of such a thing.

And this at a time when attendance could be measured in a mere four digits!

This marks my fourth GenCon and Tam’s second. We have a great time every time. And every time, I do things I’ve never done before. My GenCon experiences include my first games of pictaphone and Dogs in the Vineyard. I met Larry Elmore and discussed my critique of his work for TSR. I’ve met face-to-face with people who, up until then, had only been names on the internet. I got a press badge and did one-on-one interviews with industry luminaries and legends like Eric Mona and Liz Danforth.

And this year, due to a sequence of odd circumstance and luck, I got to host Zak’s post-ENnie’s party.

To everyone who came, thank you so much for being such gracious guests. I’m sorry we had to move things downstairs as early as we did, but as I understand it, the hotel is favored by vendors who have to actually be awake and functioning in the morning. So completely understandable. I hope you all had as much fun as Tam and I did meeting you and enjoying the energy of that amazing night.

However you slice it, this year I got to help create a little GenCon history. My 11-year-old self would have been totally blown away.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Death is Still Boring

This is insightful:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is like a Saw movie for kids: it matches grisly fates to the sins of the children who enter the factory. I needed all or most of those grisly fates to be represented in the adventure: blueberrification, being boiled alive in chocolate, being shrunk and stretched, uncontrollably floating, plus a bunch more of my own design. All of them weird and gory and absolutely deadly.

They were one of the first things James Raggi took issue with.

While LotFP adventures have a reputation as being really deadly, he wanted BitC to be for 1st level characters, and specifically new players. All my listed damage was way too high, and all my poisons too lethal. His point was along the lines of “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?”. He suggested toning down the damage of the adventure significantly, and instead focusing on these poisons and effects inconveniencing players or making them rethink how they play.

This turned out to be a genius suggestion, because it provided a clear through line for the rest of the adventure. Few things in the final draft of BitC are designed to explicitly kill. Instead, they’re designed to unsettle, gross out, and inconvenience players. Body horror carries with it the threat of death, but it’s more about the perversion and grossness of life than it is about death.

This is why death is boring. “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?” Answer: they can’t. They laugh or shrug or whatever and roll up a new character. “What’s next?” they ask.

And understand, I’m not denigrating that kind of play. If a rolling series of grizzly deaths is what gets you and yours excited to play, more power to you. But if you’re into body horror, the joy isn’t in the death, but all the stuff that leads up to it. It’s the inflation, or the bulging of the eyes and the appearance of gill-like slits along the neck, or the way the xenomorph squirms within your belly as it grows. It’s in the way the body devolves, or turns traitor, or evolves in sudden terrible spurts.

And sure, the victims of body horror often die (Aliens franchise) but sometimes they devolve (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) or evolve even to a point beyond fleshy existence (Akira). The real challenge for a DM running a game based on body horror is keeping the horrors and transformations new and fresh. Too much of anything gets boring after a while.

And this same principle largely applies to nearly any campaign; death is anticlimactic. It’s got no answer for, “What next?” except shake off that old character and everything they’ve been through up until now, and start a new one. It violently forces the player out of the fiction and thrusts them head-first into the realm of mechanics (though skilled players can hop right back in again). All the work the group has done to build up tension and interest in that character and their contacts is suddenly chopped off. Death is, in terms of fun, expensive.

Which isn’t to say it should never happen. The fear of death creates wonderful tension in a game. As a DM, killing an NPC you love early on is good way to let the players know you mean business. (Hey, it works for GRR Martin and J Whedon, right?) But it’s vital you keep in mind your themes. Death is rarely the best way to support those, and defeat that doesn’t involve death can give you entire new avenues to explore.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Cant do Paranoia

Outside my home I saw a little triangular rock, all shiny and glisteny if you looked at from just the right angle, that made me think of thief and tramp markings, which lead me on to contemplating Thieves Cant.

What are you doing with Thieves Cant in your game? Probably not much, and that’s understandable. Since you likely only have one (if that many) PCs in the game who understand it, they’re not going to be using it to pass messages between each other. Usually when I see it, if I see it at all, it’s a handy way to get the PC rogue in touch with the local thieves guild.

Still, Thieves Cant is a thing in the game, you might have a PC who knows it, so it’s not a bad idea to see what use we, as DMs, can make of it. I treat it as an additional way to give the players information, almost parenthetically so. It’s a bit like riffing in the dungeon; the whole place is mysterious and dangerous, but some joker who was in here fifty years ago has left what amount to footnotes in the place explaining what they saw here back then.

A dungeon I made recently was a little proving-ground test maze. Rogues, of course, cheat, so there were clues left here and there in Thieves Cant, some even pointing the way to hidden tools to make the challenges easier.

The most well-known real-world version of Thieves Cant (at least before Guy Ritchie taught us all Cockney Rhyming Slang) were the Hobo Signs. These are simple and informative, but can be playfully enigmatic as well. For instance, early in the game, the PCs are heading into your traditional haunted house, and as part of the history of the place there’s a Thieves Cant symbol hidden out front that basically says, “BEWARE: this place has been marked for destruction by dangerous powers.” The idea here is that a group with a rogue in it will know that, whatever happened at this place, it wasn’t an accident. Somebody came and inflicted tragedy here (and righting this wrong could be central to putting to rest the vengeful spirits of the place).

All well-and-good, and more than a little useful. But imagine how the players would react if later they encountered the same sign outside the home of a beloved ally, or even their own residence. Now you’re cooking with gas.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Wicked Reptilian Magic

One of my favorite creations over at the Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons & Dragons is the reptilian Sshian.  These feathered snake-people make an awesome buried-and-forgotten ancient evil for the PCs to accidentally re-awaken.  Of course, when you're looting their tombs, you need to find suitably wicked magic items.  The following were written for 5e, but there's really nothing that needs doing to convert them over to the OSR game of your choice:

Claw of the Lictor
An ornate orichalcum gauntlet with three clawed fingers and little tubes for affixing feathers, the claws themselves are fashioned from black iron. The gauntlet is a simple finesse weapon enchanted to a +1 to hit and damage. It does 1d6 slashing damage. It’s also vampiric; any damage you do to a living creature that draws blood regains you hit points equal to the damage roll.

Looking into the gauntlet reveals a series of hooks, blades, and gears inside the Claw. In truth, it’s not meant to be a gauntlet, but rather a prosthetic replacement hand. Putting a living hand into the gauntlet will cause the gauntlet to eat the hand up, doing 2d6 damage and, assuming the wielder survives, grafting itself to the arm. Only a remove curse or wish spell will allow you to remove the gauntlet.

Crimson Thorn Scourge

This six-tailed scourge is fashioned from braided lengths of manta-ray-like hide, studded with thorn-like hooks of orichaclum. Treat it as a whip that has a +1 to-hit and damage enchantment on it, does 1d6 damage, and is vampiric, giving the wielder 1 hit point for each point of damage caused. The target must make a STR saving throw vs. the attack roll or be restrained (PHB pg 292) so long as it is size Large or smaller. Every round the target is restrained, the whip can’t be used as in an attack, but it automatically does 1d4+1 damage to the target. The target can escape if they roll a STR save of 12 or better.

If the wielder rolls a 1 on their attack, then the wielder is tangled in the web and becomes restrained, suffering 1d4+1 damage (which is not fed back to them via vampirism). The wielder can escape on a STR save of 12+.

Sanguine Cords

A trio of crimson ribbons, stitched minutely with black runes, are attached to a small gold ring. At the end of each ribbon is a small obsidian plumb weight. If a spell-caster of any sort makes a loop through the ring of the cords, places their dominant arm through the loop, and then wraps the chords along their arm, they can then sacrifice 2 HP to increase both their spell attack bonus and save DC by +2. When they do this, their dominant hand exudes a brief crimson mist that trails their gestures.

If the spell being cast causes piercing or slashing damage, the bonus is automatic and does not require the user to sacrifice any hit points. Prolonged use can lead to any garments being worn on the dominant hand or arm to be stained as if with a mist of blood.