27 December 2014

Burning Out

Back in the day (college, and for a few years after) I ran an insane schedule.  There was a time I had four campaigns going at once – three fantasy campaigns with GURPS, one Champions campaign – and I was prone to frequent burnout.  I had to take a few months off every two to three years.

Then I discovered fantasy combat LARPing.  I'd been a GM for twenty years.  I did that about ten times as often as I was ever a player.  Not only did I want to play, but there was the sheer exhilaration of not merely sitting back in an armchair, holding dice and telling a GM what my character was doing, but by-God working my way through a forest, holding a cutlass and leading an actual attack against the bad guys.  Being physical again, as I hadn't been since I was a teenager.

It was full of awesome ... and it also took place on the weekends.  The summer I went full-on, starting a long stretch of 15-20 events a year, my carefully balanced two-weekends-a-month groups went blooey.  I called another "hiatus" -- this one lasted nearly a decade.

But ... combat LARPing is a young adventurer's game.  I'd been LARPing 14 years all told by the early 2000s, and I was a few years older than most of the others when I'd started.  The politicking had long since gotten to me, it was eating my life, and at age 42 (the oldest player in the game), the six hours of fight practice I was inflicting upon my deteriorating joints each week wasn't doing more than slowing the erosion of my skills. I got out.

So I wasn't being creative, I was bored out of my gourd, our social circle had almost all been in the LARP (and promptly vanished when we did), and my fiancee suggested I haul the dusty crates full of papers and gamebooks out of the basement and GM again. That was eleven years ago.

And that's the way to do it.  Burned out?  Your game just isn't satisfying, and hasn't been for a while?  Take six months off and walk in the woods.  Take in some hockey or soccer matches.  Play board games.  Do that volunteer work your gaming schedule sabotaged. Catch up on your reading, go bowling, hit a museum a day a week, whatever.  The official rules of that LARP were ceremonially read before every event, and Rule #1 started with "We should all be doing this to have fun."

I keep that in mind.  We should all be doing this to have fun.  If we're not, we should do something that is, and if that isn't playing RPGs, then it isn't.  No harm, no foul.  Honest.

Seriously, your friends will understand.  Heck, two of the players at the end in 1994 came back, and are in my group today.

20 December 2014

11 Odd Village Customs: Stuff You Can Use

(written for a competition on another site)

We gawked at the villagers, all in their best clothes, marching towards the field to the slow cadences of drum and pipes.  Dray rubbed the side of his head, looking as if he’d swallowed a bead of Dreamdrowse.  “Gwythar,” he muttered, “Am I still drunk, or did that old geezer really say they were all marching to ‘Judgment Day?’”

Me, I wheeled my mount around.  I’d heard it too, and if “Judgment Day” was in that bloody field, I was going to be galloping in the other direction fast as I could!

1) Strewing Day

Every year, on the festival of Barley Harvest (in the late spring), the village of Athelren holds a “hay-strewing” to fulfill the terms of a strange bequest.  Legend has it that a local woman left the field upon which the village’s temple to Ratri -- Goddess of the Shadows -- was built, so long as the villagers provided enough hay to cover the sanctuary floor on Barley Harvest, and did so within the span of an hour.  The reason for this odd condition is unknown, except for the jocular rumor that the woman was troubled by the squeaking of the congregants’ Darkday-best boots -- worn on the holiday -- on the basalt stones of the sanctuary!  An antique hourglass, fashioned of black walnut, is used to time the ceremony, and has a place of pride year-round in a niche behind the altar.

2) Judgment Day

Taking place a week before every solstice and equinox, the manors around the north Aldrya Valley hold local court.  Traditionally rotating around four of the central manors (Diamondblade in the spring, Redwave in the summer, Willowlight in harvest time and Moonfire in midwinter), this is far more ceremonial than a true criminal court, although locals lose little chance to daunt outsiders and travelers.  The people of each manor march to the host manor, led by two sergeants-at-arms bearing polished weapons and by two players with pipes and drum; behind them are two long garlands carried by the village youth -- flowers in season and greenery otherwise.  The stewards of the manors act as a collective court, ruling on disputes between residents of differing manors, as well as handling minor matters of hooliganism and vandalism.  After the court, a festive fair is held.

3) Chase Day

An old tradition in the village of Ambleside holds that the rich fields around the community used to consist of wastelands, scorched and ruled by a terrible dragon.  The mighty hero Princess Verella Waflo Elyanwe, bearing the great battlesword Meldil, is said to have driven the dragon away in a ferocious combat lasting hours, redeeming the land for the ancestors of the villagers.  In the second week of winter, the local church’s bell is rung continually for the three hours the battle was said to take -- to “keep the dragon away” -- and mock combats and tourneys of skill are held amidst the clamor.  One custom for Chase Day is for village maidens to dye their hair to ape the blonde Princess’ flowing tresses.  The festival is commemorated further in slang; someone who makes a great deal of noise in Ambleside is said to be “keeping the dragon away,” and any young woman who practices arms with the village militia is called a “Lightdancer” after the pseudonym Princess Verella is said to have used in her errantry career.

4) The Feast of Wine

Many villages in the uplands of the Mithlantra wine growing districts practice similar customs during the Feast of Wine, which happens in the fall when last year’s vintages are first broached.  Traditional line dances are performed, generally by competing teams wearing colorfully embroidered uniforms (aping the realm’s military dress of four centuries agone) that are passed down from parent to child.  Each team leader -- the team’s “Captain” -- wears a close-fitting cap, each fashioned from the fur of a different animal, after which his or her team is named.  Part of the festival involves the Captains having a dance contest of their own, using long poles with which they mimic the fighting style of a duelist in stylized, improvised battles.  The losing Captains must pay a forfeit of half a gallon of wine to the winner, and the losing team members traditionally each give a silver penny to be shared by the orphans of any dancers deceased in the last year.

5) Blessing of the River

Every spring, on the first Waterday after the ice breaks up on the Aldrya, the manors of the northern Aldrya Valley have this traditional ceremony.  Legend has it that a man fell into one of the creeks of the watershed and was set upon by leeches.  Fearing death, he prayed aloud to Wavedancer, spirit of the waters, who swept the bloodsuckers away with a wave of her hand.  As an offering, he is said to have broken a rich cake in his hands and scattered the crumbs on the water.  Each cottage provides a small cake or loaf of bread for Wavedancer on this day, which the head of the household breaks into one of the local streams; tradition holds that the stream into which a household offers a loaf will draw fish ninefold from it during the year.

6) Packet Race

Some of the finest tea in the world grows in the mountain country of Arsiriand.  The “first flush” -- the first picking in the growing season of the topmost inch or two of the tea leaves, both the sparsest take and the most highly prized of the season -- is picked in mid-spring, and the day this is packed sees this traditional race to the lowland trading stations.  Samples of the new tea is packed into quart-sized stoneware bottles, each handed to a fleet footed youth; depending on how high the village is up the mountainside, the race can be anywhere from three to ten miles long.  The first one to make it to the trading station with the bottle intact wins a coin of gold (generously provided by the tea trading compagnia) and is looked upon with great favor in his or her home village, especially as a marriage prospect.  It is considered very bad luck to interfere with a runner (or for them to interfere with one another).  One bottle is always set aside, and kept displayed in the village’s tavern with those of previous years as part of the historical record of tea cultivation.

7) Binding Festival

This curious custom, now dying out except in a handful of villages in the Linaldan backcountry, is observed in the late spring.  Its ostensible reason, as far as historians believe, was to raise alms for charitable purposes.  The women of the village, on Lightday, will seize an unsuspecting (unmarried) man, blind him with a thick woolen cloth, and demand a forfeit of a coin to set him free; it is considered very poor sport to attempt to break free when surrounded.  The men, on the following day, practice the same bindings on unmarried women.  Those who lack coins -- or who do not wish to pay -- can pay a forfeit of a kiss to one of his or her captors, chosen blind and at random.  It is considered very unsporting for the kiss to last less than the time it takes to recite a brief prayer (30 seconds, about)!  The fun lasts until the village reeve blows an ancient horn, reserved for the purpose in the village tavern, at which time the village gathers for a feast and the collected coins are distributed to those who most have need of them.

8) Toasting the Trees

According to tradition in rural sections of the Aldrya Valley, the third Darkday of the new year is the coldest day on the calendar.  In order to preserve the fruit trees that are the agricultural mainstays of the district, toasts are drunk to their health on this day.  Villagers carrying lanterns and a jug of hard cider (generally provided by the orchard owners or local taverns) make the round of the manors’ orchards after dark.  The children -- who always find it a great treat to be allowed to stay up after dark -- run around screeching out traditional warding cries to fend off evil spirits.  At a designated tree in each orchard, a villager drinks a toast to the tree (often there is a traditional cup, saved for the purpose), wishing it good health and fresh life in the spring.  “Horn fill, horn pull / Give us two score bushels full!” is an example of the toast used, which varies from village to village.  Some villages are said to practice fertility rites after the toast, involving two young volunteers by the bole of the tree after the children have moved on to the next orchard.

9) Kandrice’s Day

“Two in front and two behind,
Wavering in storm and sea,
Lovers wish yourselves to be,
Sealed with tokens sure to find.”

This cryptic charge from the famed seer Sana Kandrice Ravenswing has been long remembered in her home village of Alfirin on the Warwik seacoast, provoking a custom even in her lifetime held around her birthday in late winter, which has spread up and down the coast within the province of Vindelka.  The young unmarried men of the village will spend weeks carving or scrimshawing elegant tokens out of shark’s teeth or bone, and the day before the festival cook them into fruit tarts or pastries.  These are all put on display at the church (or the common room of the village tavern) in groups of two rows of two.  The local maidens are encouraged to use traditional divination methods to discern which tart holds the token of the young man she most favors; these include the throwing of bones or polished rods, the dropping of candle wax drippings into cold water, casting aromatic herbs into flames and watching the smoke, and myriad other methods.  On the day itself, the young ladies each pick a tart, and it is said that the fates look kindly upon her marrying the young man whose token is within the tart she picks ... although a great deal of trading surreptitiously often takes place.  In any event, each group of eight -- the four young men baking the pastries in each double row, and the four ladies picking them -- are considered bound by the choices, almost as if they are kin, and can ask one another for aid or favors in the next year.

10) The Fire Dance

Held on the day before midsummer on the north Warwik coast, this fair is a joyous festival, marked with feasting, agricultural trading and gift-giving.  The cap of the festival is a traditional dance by the village’s seven best dancers.  Each one, a half hour after full dark, appear in a customary costume wrought of gull feathers, dyed in riotous hues and with a feather cape.  The dancers bear torches to the coastline (preferably on a cliff or other promontory, if available) and perform a stylized dance, all in a line, weaving between one another interchangeably while waving the torches around.  It is a dangerous dance, and part of the prowess of the performers is displayed by seeing how close they can come with their torches to one another without actually setting one another on fire.  The origin of the Fire Dance is believed to stem from the old suppressed custom of “wrecking,” where coast dwellers lured merchantmen into the rocks with false signals so that they might turn scavenger on the shipwrecked cargoes, but folklorists do well not to mention this to the villagers, who take strong offense at the suggestion.   

11) Graveyard Day

North Point is a veritable wasteland, thrust out into the sea and scoured by winds; it is a bleak and unlovely place, with only firs and spruces for foliage.  The only protected dell in the village is the local graveyard by the Manannan temple.  Every spring, on a day colloquially known as “Graveyard Day,” villagers come to plant flowers around the graves, and it has become something of a local competition amongst the schoolchildren, who “adopt” graves and turn them into veritable gardens.  A great deal of the children’s spare time is taken up with weeding and grooming the grave plots, a task not appreciated by a certain minority of the village folk, who believe the practice impious.

14 December 2014

R-E-A-L-I-S-M: The Hated Word

 "Realism" is one of the dirtiest words in RPG Internet discussions.  Has been for years.  D&D fanboys
are especially touchy where it's concerned (understandably so, given D&D), as well as the various pedants huffily proclaiming that "fantasy" CAN'T be "realistic," and that we ought to be using "verisimilitude" or "emulation" instead.

(Whatever.  "Realism" is the word in common use.  When I addressed a condolence card to a friend who lives in the state southeast of mine, I didn't address it to "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."  I mailed it to Rhode Island.  If you can't work with terms in popular circulation, the heck with it.)

So by this point I have a sticky response to the issue, which originates from a RPGnet discussion several years ago.  To wit:

I think the real question here is, "why do you consider the mechanics nonsense"? We're talking an imaginary dwarf, with 100 imaginary hit points, falling off an imaginary cliff, taking damage that is, also, imaginary. If the designer finds it desirable that a character could fall off a cliff and survive, it will be so. If not, for whatever reason, it will not be. (The first mention of "but it's not REALISTIC!" gets you kicked. This is all *imaginary*, remember?)

If I had a dime for every time I've heard this over the last couple decades, I could pay all the bills this month.

Well, yes, it's all imaginary.  So why use cliffs, or indeed any recognizable terrain at all?  Why not adventure in big fluffy masses of amorphia?  Or just teleport to anywhere we want to go, and imagine it to be anything convenient to us?

Why should we use perfectly recognizable medieval weaponry?  It's imaginary, isn't it?  Don't limit yourself, hit the enemy with your kerfluffmezoz or your wheezimithuzit!

And since it doesn't have to make sense, we don't need to have these pesky movement rules, besides which we all want to be Matrixy and John Woo-esque, don't we?  Tell your DM that you're running through the air and phasing right through every intervening tree and foe to hit the Big Bad with your wheezimithuzit, and better yet you're doing it before he cut down your friend, because since it's all imaginary we don't have to use linear time either.

No, I don't care that I rolled a "miss."  Skill progression is one of those boring realism constructs, and I don't believe in it.  Let's just imagine that I hit the Big Bad whenever I need to, and for twenty-five hundred d8 of damage, too.  Encumbrance is boringly realistic too, so I’m ignoring it, and I’d rather imagine that my snazzy quilted vest protected me like the glacis armor on a T-72, please.

Alright, show of hands.  Why don’t we play our RPGs that way?

It’s called suspension of disbelief. We put our games into recognizable settings that mimic real life.  We use swords in fantasy games because we have the expectation that such milieus use swords, and those swords do the relative damage of a sword instead of the damage of a 155mm mortar shell because that is our expectation too.  Our fantasy characters wear tunics and cloaks, live in walled cities or sacred groves, and scale ramparts where the force of gravity pulls us downward, not pushes us up.  We have an expectation of how fast we can walk, how far we can ride, and how long we can sail.  All these expectations are founded in -- wait for it -- reality.

To the degree we ignore these things, just because, we lose touch with suspension of disbelief.  If the ten-foot-tall Big Bad hits a peon with his greatsword, we expect the peon to be in a world of hurt; we don’t expect the sword to bounce off.  If the party wizard shoots a fireball at the orcs’ wooden stockade, we expect that it might catch fire; we don’t expect the wall to grow flowers instead. 

And if an armored dwarf takes a gainer off of a hundred foot sheer drop, we expect to find a soggy mass at the base of the cliff.  We sure as hell don't expect a dwarf boinging around like a rubber ball, happily warbling, "Bumbles bounce!"

That there are a great many gamers who want their rule systems to reflect reality, rather than ignore it -- so that we find ourselves constantly sidetracked as to issues of WHY suchandsuch doesn't make sense, or because the GM has to explain how come the dwarf isn't a soggy mass -- ought be a surprise to no one.

Why is it such a surprise to you?

07 December 2014

The Big Bad's Exit Strategy

My job, as a GM, isn't to preserve the life of the bad guy. It's to provide the players a fun gaming experience.

Take one of the classic plot elements: the party has run down a den of Evil Henchmen, destroying the operation and killing or otherwise neutralizing all of said henchmen. Huzzah, they take the clues and info they've gotten from the scene and have dashed off.

Flip that around: you're a PC. You've got some manner of base: either it's your home base, or it's some operation you have going, or it's the manor you were given when the Queen knighted you, or it's the business you bought with the proceeds from two adventures ago, hoping that it'd make some cash for you. And you drop in to check on it, and the place has been tossed and trashed. The staff you hired are all dead or vanished. The guards you hired are decaying piles of gore.

So what do you do? Shrug, murmur "That's life," and go on your merry way?

That's exactly what most PCs expect the Big Bad to do, in any event.

Hell with that. If I'm a PC, and my satellite operation was trashed and everyone killed, and I have no idea who did it, that's going to change real frigging fast. I'm going to hire a wizard to do divination magic/check security footage. I'm going to spread some coin around the neighborhood to see if anyone saw or heard anything. I'm going to do my level best to find out if there were any survivors, and I'm going to be very interested in speaking to any. I'm going to increase security on anything else I have going to the limit of my capability. I'm going to get some investigators on the pawnshops (or going through Craigslist ...) to see who might be selling my stolen valuables.

And I'm going to set the best ambush I can for those bastards, so that I can put their severed heads on the graves of my people, and prove to the survivors that no one screws with me or them with impunity. There won't be frontal assaults ... I have no problem with a crossbow/rifle in the back of the head at 50 yards as one of the bastards is walking down the street, or a spear coming up through the privy hole.

If I don't have the juice to do those things? Then I haul out my exit strategy. I hear Linalda's Pool is peaceful this time of year.

27 November 2014

Random Reaction Rolls

I like reaction rolls for a particular reason, and it's exacerbated by my combat LARP experience.

Sitting in the GM's chair, in a comfy position, with a mug of steaming tea at my hand, I'm far removed from actually being in a stress situation. I know everything that's going on, I know everything that's offstage, I have unparalleled knowledge of the situation in a fashion we couldn't possibly have in real life.

But the world doesn't work like that. The fog of war is real. People don't always see what's going on, people don't always know what's going on, and people often guess wrong even if they have all the information.

In that LARP, I was one of the chief national leaders, and my character was the most powerful wizard in the game. I had to make a lot of decisions:

* Based on information that people told me, colored by their own prejudices or flawed insights.

* Based on the fact that I hadn't gotten any sleep the night before.

* Based on the fact that I hadn't gotten any sleep because the bastard, in my face and telling me I had to do something, was partying all night long two tents down the row.

* Based that I'd reinjured my chronically bad knee two hours before and it was hurting, a lot.
* Based on whether I trusted people or not, based on what I thought I could get away with politically or not.

* Based on my own prejudices, flawed insights, or whether or not I hated Soandso’s guts.

* Based on me just not knowing what I needed to know, and being forced to make a WAG.

Sometimes I got it right. Sometimes I got it wrong. Sometimes I played the odds exactly as I should have, and the odds just fell the wrong way.

Those are all variables impossible to calculate for each and every NPC. I just figure that no matter how smart someone is (or isn't), how capable someone is (or isn't), how well informed someone is (or not) ... sometimes they have bad days. Or very good days.

Heck, the last run I GMed was heavily colored by a NPC making a terrible reaction roll and thus reacting badly to the situation, no matter how much my wife's character was trying to talk sweet reason into him. Sometimes it happens. Random rolls are a good way to emulate that.

Yeah, but what if the NPC’s interacted with the party a number of times before.  So what?  Surely many NPCs have good days and bad ones. Heck, I'm very much a good day-bad day person. Catch me on a good day, and I'll be all accommodating about your request or inquiry. Catch me on a pain-filled day after a night of short sleep? I'm likely to be snarky, and sometimes stubbornly so.

Come to that, my first wife was even more capricious, and in all too many of our fights, I'd pull up short, incredulous that we were fighting as hard as all of that over such a petty thing, and ask "Alright, what is this really about?" Invariably, she'd pull up short, and reveal the subject which was really preying on her mind, something usually having nothing to do with me but about which I could be supportive and help defuse things.

I've kept this in mind when having a NPC snark-out, and a few times the more empathetic PCs have asked, by way of being supportive of their friend and helping to defuse things, "Hey, Nath, you seem like something's got you well off your feed. Anything it'd do you good to get off your chest?" Nice hook for a sideplot ...

09 November 2014

NPC of the Day: Ruy Sanchez Koriskevich O'Higgins

I ran a Firefly campaign for a bit – and would love to run one again.  The campaign was based out of Twilight Station, in the middle of the Black, floating above a pastoral planet of religious fanatics.  It was something of an interstellar truck stop, with a bunch of businesses, and run by unregenerate Browncoats who were seeking to jump start the Lost Cause.

The group was stranded there, but won a decommissioned war surplus gunboat in a poker game, which became their new ship – Nightwind.  Unfortunately, Nightwind came with an extra: a fellow who claimed to be the ship’s medic.  They tried to run him off, but he waved what he said was an ironclad contract for him to be ship’s crew for three years or until he got tired of it, with a guaranteed rate of pay.  Not much they could do about it, so onboard he stayed.

Ruy Sanchez Koriskevich O’Higgins is a bit of a whack job.  He’s swarthy, with piercing black eyes, and long post-Civil War era hair and mustache ... the hair which he dyes mauve.  Go figure.  He’s keeps a shortsword scabbarded to his side, heaven knows why.  Don’t get between him or anyone he feels like beating down, either, because he fights like a wounded weasel and doesn’t really know when to stop.

He’s also a bit of a pain in the ass aboard ship.  He’s a devotee of Feng Shui (whatever the heck that is) and has a habit of rearranging the wardroom furniture and cargo pallets to suit notions of “positioning” ... and if you ask him to explain, the answer is so laden with jargon you never understand.  He also claims to be seeking “satori” (whatever the heck that is), and frequently is doing yoga routines, which he insists on following through no matter the emergency.

Still, he’s a good doc, nothing much ever fazes him, he’s a middling shot, he’s fast as hell, and he’ll always throw in to whatever scheme the crew proposes ... including smuggling, which he’s altogether good at doing ...

One thing not readily apparent (and which he’ll conceal from the crew) is that he took permanent damage from chemical agents in the War.  As a result, he doesn’t eat much (and will throw up if he tries), he’s unusually susceptible to toxins, his senses are dulled, he can easily tolerate very cold temperatures, and he’s just not as physically capable about a third of the time.

ST: 11    DX: 14     IQ: 13     HT: 11     Per: 10    Will: 14     Speed: 6  
Advantages:  Cultural Familiarity/Black, Reduced Consumption / 2/3rds food, Temperature Tolerance+1, Unfazeable

Disadvantages:  Berserk (12); Compulsive Behavior / Wanderlust; Disciplines of Faith / "Satori;" Odious Personal Habit / “Feng Shui;” Susceptibility to Poison; Sense of Duty / Crew; War Wounds / -2 everything, on a 9- or less, for two hours

Skills:  Area Knowledge/Black-13; Boxing-14; Calligraphy-12; Crew/Spacer-13; Diagnosis-13; Fast-Draw/sword-14; First Aid-16; Free Fall-13; Gardening-13; Guns/pistol-14; Housekeeping-13; Meditation-13; Philosophy-11; Physician-14; Pressure Points-14; Shortsword-15; Smuggling-13; Surgery-14

Quirks: Bombastic around women; Constantly snacking (but only nibbles); Eats tapioca pearls in drink; Twirls his mustache compulsively

For further explanation of system numbers, check this link. 

02 November 2014

NPC(s) of the Day: Fourteen Lovers

I've participated in a number of collaborative gaming lists on various sites.  The Small Town Horror post I put up a while back was one.  This is another.  As part and parcel of any rational setting, you're going to have couples as NPCs.  Sometimes those romances are more out there and turbulent than others; here are my parts of a collaboration for lovers.  I don't give stats or details -- for a change, plug them in where you'd want them!

The punch line is that, in every case, these are from prominent characters from my own campaign ... or that I've played one side myself as a PC in either tabletop, a MMORPG or a LARP.

My Chemical Romance:  Whether business partners, next door neighbors, rivals, forced allies or arranged spouses, this couple can’t stand each other.  They agree on practically nothing, always trying to score points off of one another, and lose few opportunities to backbite (or even backstab) the other.  Periodically the hostility breaks into a vicious fight ... which inevitably ends in screaming, clawing, prolonged sex, until the parties are sore and exhausted.  He hotly denies they’re actual lovers, she coolly denies it, and they show no signs of any rapport whatsoever the moment the clothes go back on. 

Class Ringwearers: 
Gosh, they’re so in love!  Why they just celebrated their three-month “anniversary” and his class ring hangs around her neck!  By the standards of their culture, they’re underage and/or immature.  The grownups around them are patronizingly dismissive of their “crushes,” and they’re about ready to scream the next time anyone uses the term “puppy love” around them.  Increasingly angry, they’re on the verge of doing something their culture would consider drastic: having sex, getting pregnant, running off to get married, publicly disavowing any arranged future marriage ... whatever it takes to get people to take their love seriously and recognize that it’s for real and forever!

Pre-Raphaelites:  She’s a celebrated artist.  He’s her model.  His face and body have been immortalized in a half-dozen well-known compositions, and his own poetry -- though somewhat amateurish -- shows the illumination of her soul.  But to touch one another would mar the artistic purity of their collaboration (and age, class and possibly marital barriers intrude) ... so for years now they’ve suffered in silence, unable to consummate their relationship, unwilling to part and so lose each other’s muse.

Bennifer:  They were Yesterday’s Supercouple ... rich, celebrated, the hit of their social circle and so totally wrapped up in one another.  But that was then, and events have pulled them apart.  Their lives are going in different directions (well, in truth, they always did) and the spark is gone, however much they’re not particularly willing to admit it.  ‘Tis a pity that everyone still expects to see them together, harmonious and dazzling as ever, and the act is wearing thin.

Mutt & Jeff:  They don’t have a thing in common ... everyone knows it, they freely admit it.  He’s neat and she’s sloppy, she’s athletic and he’s intellectual, he’s dynamic and she’s live-and-let-live, she’s a gourmet and he’s steak-and-potatoes.  Yet when their orbits intersect, they live and love in tender harmony.  No one knows how they do it, and well-meaning people keep trying to pry them apart in favor of “more compatible” partners ... to no avail.

Bonnie & Clyde:  Yep, they’re in love, since the moment they met.  She loves the exciting times he shows her, and he loves the ebullience and intensity of her spirit.  They’re also complete sociopaths, perfectly eager to rape, kill, pillage and torture their way around the landscape.  The wind’s at their backs, their luck is in, and their hands are dripping red.  If they’re doomed to a bad end, they don’t know it (and might not even care): their focus is only on the next jaunt, the next meal, the next kill.

Putting On The Ritz:  See them on the dance floor (or on the concert stage, or performing as a duo at the local Ren Faire, or the ice dancing Nationals ...) and they’re silken smooth.  They’re just arresting to watch, and the aura about them is tangible – their eyes follow one another like magnets.  But this activity and their athleticism are all that really links them, and they’re awkward and uneasy with one another away from the spotlight.  You could scarcely recognize them, with that vast luminosity of theirs shuttered, and two plain, ordinary people left behind.

They can’t keep their hands off of one another.  Ever.  At every conceivable opportunity they’re stealing off for sex of any sort, and in a night camp they don’t bother much with sleep.  Whether wild and clawing, or completely vanilla, they’re screaming with passion at all manner of inconvenient times.  They’re constantly sore and exhausted, but they not only don’t give a damn, they always have those obnoxiously smug, creamy smiles on their faces after.

Double Blind:  She’s the city’s -- and maybe the realm's -- most powerful wizard, and a gifted enchanter and scholar.  He’s an elven prince of a dynasty older than Time, and one of the world’s great swordmakers.  But they both wanted to live simple lives (and find someone who loved them for themselves, not their fame), and both have been slumming with the gypsies: he works as a blacksmith, and she keeps a very discreet magical watch over the encampment.  She’s now pregnant and happily keeping his wagon for him, and neither of them have any idea of one another’s true identity, a difficulty which preys on them both.

Á la lanterne!:  He’s a key player in the revolutionary government.  She’s an actress devoted to smuggling out of the city the “traitorous class” the newly-ensconced rebels are seeking to execute, for their “crimes.”  Honestly, she was only pretending to seduce him just to get him out of the way for a few hours while the rest of the party did the mission ... and things got far, far out of hand.  He knows who she is, now, and neither of them are comfortable with how far they’re compromising their genuine beliefs with one another.  If his comrades knew, he’d be executed; her comrades do know, and while they take advantage of the access, they don’t care for the relationship.  Nonetheless, the lovers are devoted to one another and can’t bear to separate.

Miss me?:  He was rich, powerful, handsome, brilliant.  She was sixteen years old and a fresh, unplucked flower.  He moved on, with his cronies, as he always had ... until six years later, when she returned with his only known heir.  He won’t marry her and she wouldn’t have him, and they’re both at the opposite ends of a vast gulf of class, wealth and bitterness, but they’re forced into cooperation for the sake of the child.  And she remains beautiful and incandescent, and he remains handsome and debonair, and they both hate themselves for the simmering desire for one another they still find they feel.

Ever After:  The duke’s daughter and the princess’ son were content enough to marry; they were of the right age, betrothed as children, and had no objections to one another.  A pair of unique wedding bands were wrought, out of living crystal, by the King’s Enchantress ... and, in a spirit of fun, the duke’s daughter put on hers two days before the wedding, while the young prince’s best friend put the matching band on his finger.  They turned gazes towards one another ... and were enraptured.  Now they’re fleeing for the border, with household troops in hot pursuit, completely unaware that the rings were enchanted to cause love between the wearers, as a kindness by the wizard towards an arranged couple.

Soulmates:  They finish one another’s sentences.  They seem to read one another’s thoughts.  They absolutely anticipate one another’s needs.  They apparently have the same skill set. They’re always together (and seem badly out of sorts and dissonant if forced to be apart for too terribly long), and seem to savor the same activities and hobbies.  They were even raised in the same small neighborhood/estate/village, and share the same background and memories.  (Alright, it's a pity that they're brother and sister, and even in their tolerant culture going that last step is out of bounds, even if they weren't high nobility and destined for arranged marriages.)

Days of Wine and Roses:  She’s all of sixteen years old, and one of her agemates raised by the Wise and Patient Teacher – plucked from the deeps of Time itself to be their tutor – to be one of the prophesied group who would stand against the Darkness.  She’s diligently learned all his martial arts skills, and already is a formidable fighter.  But now, coming to the Big City, they’ve realized that the time and place from which “Teacher” was plucked are here and now.  They've met him, and he's decades younger, at the height of his powers.  She realizes she’s a woman after all, and she wants to be his ... and be damned to the risk to the timestream.

29 October 2014

The 800-lb Elephant: Romance at the table

There’ve been a couple recent forum threads – and many others over the years – where some posters not only stated that their games don’t involve romance, relationships or any manner of sexuality, not only stated that they’re disinterested in such elements, but went on to express their incredulity that anyone else was and their dismay that any references to the same appeared in published adventure scenarios.

I don't understand this.  For my part, I've been involved in romantic plotlines from the beginning; my very first character, back in 1978, wound up in a politically advantageous marriage with the daughter of a high government official. I've had four PCs married to the characters of other players. (We won't mention the number of marriages and relationships I've had in LARPs and MMORPGs. I can't count that high.)

From the other side of the dice, a great deal of plot has stemmed from romantic entanglements. In my most recent groups, the only PC in one who wasn't romantically involved was a priest of a faith that preaches rigid monogamy. In the second, two PC aristocrats married each other to preempt their families from dynastic shenanigans.  A key element in my wife's one-on-one sessions is the need to keep her young daughter relatively free of the risk of assassination.

A “distraction to the plot,” as many of the antis claim?  Heck, any kind of roleplaying is. Characterization involves ties, bonds, limitations, phobias ... all that can get in the way of a mission. Why, people might be moved by a NPC's pleadings and act other than coldly or logically!

Damn, that leaves out likes, dislikes and character quirks, too. That moron who always insists on wearing red screws up the pattern-disruptive outfit. The fellow who likes cheap tobacco always smells of it, and that can tip off guard dogs. So you want to fight "honorably," blah blah blah ... screw that, just go and do the guy from behind, less risky that way.  Every last little quirk is someone demanding some distracting center-stage time – even if it's but moments – to light up her pipe, recite a prayer over the bodies of the fallen, scritch his cat, grab her favorite pizza or read a few pages from a trashy novel during a lull on the stakeout.  Ego stroking drama queens, the lot of them.  Right?

In gaming groups mature enough to handle the subject (which I agree many aren't), romance is another aspect of the human condition, just as valid for PCs to explore and roleplay as any other. Strange though this might seem to some, not all campaigns are about nothing but the tactical resolution of problems set before the team.

You might ask, "What's the point of having a PC belong to a guild, if it'll only result in trouble - they want help, your status is imperiled, the chapterhouse burns down and they want money from you?" Why bother with the PC having a family, when family members only drag you down in like fashion? Why belong to a church, which only restricts your actions and movements, except in so far as your setting requires it to get clerical aid? Why be a military veteran, because the only time your ex-mates will ever show up is when they're in trouble? Why have neighborhood ties, because getting to know the kindly old priestess at St. Taria's or the tomato seller on the corner just means you're getting sucked into their problems?

And why is it that these questions generally aren't asked, not with one tenth the frequency of angry questions about "Why bother with SOs?" Why is it that ties and plothooks involving PCs are so much more tolerated when the dreaded "R" word isn't a factor?


We have a hobby with deeply misogynistic roots: one that stretched back to a day where rooms full of men and boys played wargames with lead miniatures. The games that stemmed from those were overwhelmingly based around tactical, statistical combat and nothing but.  The problems set before the group to solve were dungeons, involving nothing beyond problem solving, tactical acumen, outguessing the Dungeon Master and dice luck.  Players who could tell you in great detail that they "were" 8th level Lawful Good clerics with Wisdom 17, 36 hit points, Bracers of Wondrous Awesomeness and +3 Maces of Big Bad Smiting gave you blank looks when asked to name their hometowns, describe the clothing they wore or to expound on the doctrine of their deities ... when they'd bothered to name their deities at all, not always the case. The notion that roleplaying = acting wasn't common; third person "My character tells the NPC to back off" modes of speech were.

Quite aside from women not being welcome in that world – what stereotype of female players dominated the first decade of the hobby as heavily as the GM's Girlfriend, generally bored, mocked as incompetent and always marginalized? – romance and sexuality weren't either. Oh, sure, a lot of groups regularly patronized the local brothel ... along with locker room grunts and grins, and the dropping of a requisite few gold pieces. All suitably off-stage, with the (inevitably Frazettaesque-female) courtesans never seen or described, let alone named, extant only as part of some peculiar backslapping ritual affirming its participants as Manly Men.

And to a bunch of 14-year-old boys sitting around the table, clutching their dice, each concerned that they've never been laid and worried that they never will be, I'm willing to give a pass. But for everyone else?

Leaving aside those for whom gaming isn't roleplaying, and is solely about tactics, is there any more reason for sniggering than with any other type of plot, if you have a group not comprised of adolescent boys? Alright, let's get the 800 lb elephant out in the open and admit the secret fear lurking in the hearts of many gamers: that the (invariably male) PC having a serious relationship with the NPC (run by the invariably male GM) will carry a whiff of homosexuality.

(I'm quite serene with my stereotyping, because the number of these complaints coming from female players, with the exception of the I'm Freaking Tired Of His PC/NPC Trying To Get Into My Bodice riff, is about 1/100th those from male players.)

How to get past this, that's a question for which I don't have answers beyond an admittedly pompous and patronizing hope that more gamers just plain grow up.

22 October 2014

Basic expectations

How long have I been talking about gaming?  Over thirty years, at this point.  I was part of the Alarums & Excursions APA from 1979 for a few years.  The first online gaming forum in which I indulged was on the UMass computer system in 1983.  I've been in other APAs and many an online forum.

In all those places, what we expect from our fellow gamers is a matter of constant debate.  What classes they play, whether they buy into PvP or not, whether one can play evil in a good party or good in an evil party, whether people should conform their expectations or proudly dissent.  "Murderhoboing," niche protection, how "paladins" or priests ought to behave, we're vitally concerned with how the other character acts, and we drone on at startling length and persistence on the subject.

We're far less concerned with how the player acts, oddly enough.  But that's as much of a make-and-break as anything else, wouldn't you think?  What I want from my players is ...

* Regular attendance. Someone who misses as many as a quarter of my sessions is teetering on the edge. I do not run one of those drop-in games where it's okay to blow us all off if there's a baseball game you'd rather watch on TV or you just don't feel like shaving.

* Buying in. By virtue of showing up, you're telling me you're willing to play the system I play, in the milieu and genre I'm using, in my homebrew setting, and that you intend to conform to the group you're joining.

* Good behavior. We're all adults here. If you're going to be terribly late, you call. If you can't make it, you call or e-mail.  You pay attention to my game, not to your Words With Friends app on your cellphone.  You leave your cigarettes and alcohol at home, and you don't jeer at my cats, kick people in the head or spit in the snacks. (These last three were not cited at random.)

* Good neighbors. Everyone brings some kind of light snack, and everyone takes turns buying/cooking a meal, since we do eight hour sessions and that's a long time to go without a bite. Chronically arriving a half hour late so you don't have to deal with the pre-game socializing is unfriendly. (That isn't cited at random either.)

* Knowledge. After a certain point, I don't want to have to keep teaching you the rules. Learn enough of them to pull your weight, or else reconcile yourself to the fact that your tactical options are going to be limited to "I attack him with my weapon." I want people invested enough in my gameworld to learn about it, and while I don't quiz people on the handouts, I see no reason why more interested players have to keep coaching the slackers on the basics. As in any other field of human endeavor, you get out of it when you put into it.

* Trust. I am not an adversarial GM. I am here to provide the setting with which you interact, not to provide an omniscient, omnipotent, malevolent force Out To Screw You. If you can't trust me to do that, to be fair, judicious and reasonable, we ought not be playing together. Whoever did you dirt in the past, I'm not that guy.

* Motivation. Shouldn't you be here to play the game, not simply be a passive spectator for my storytelling?  That being said, adventures are -- usually -- about conflict.  Accept this.  Your backstory isn’t immune to being mined for plotlines, the people you know and meet aren’t immune to being mined for plotlines.  Someone who deliberately refuses to give me any handles concedes that adventures will never be about you; only about someone else.  I’m not terribly interested in that kind of player.

* Honesty. If you've got a problem or an issue, I'd like to know it. If you can't hack any of the rules above, I'd like to know that too. Passive-aggressive sullenness does not impress me; I believe that mature adults should be able to have open, honest and civil discussion of their grievances like, well, mature adults ought to do. Problems never go away on their own. And if any of the above is too much for you -- or isn’t the game you want to play -- I hope you're honest enough to give my campaign a miss and not waste anyone's time, your own included.  (Don’t worry.  I won’t be offended.  Should I be offended if you’re not into any of the other things I’m into, from hockey to singing classical music to walking in forests to writing nautical folk songs?)

19 October 2014

NPC of the Day: The "errantry kids"

So ... I've been having private runs for my wife's powerful wizard-princess for a few years now.  One of the customs of the elven empire in which she now lives is "errantry" -- in your youth, you get together with your best buds and go wandering about for a season or two, all under assumed names like "Snowviolet" or "Morningstar" or "Nightflame," and Do Worthy And Good Things, only traveling with what they can carry and accepting no pay for their deeds.  While the tales have it that people on errantry are fighting dragons and battling for the rights of the downtrodden, the elven empire has secure internal borders and good government, and the authorities aren't crazed about young folk wandering across into the truly scary lands beyond them.  So, for the most part, those on errantry wind up teaching schools, helping farmers bring in the crops, building barns and the like ... which is rather the true lesson behind it all.

Some folk make errantry their life, and indeed go out to take on monsters and warring against the over-mighty.  As far as the rest goes ... well, sometimes the teenagers get uppity and want to go out too.  So Princess Elaina, with some restless teens on her own estate, decided to do the local landowners a favor and announce that she was leading a pack of teenagers out on errantry for two summer months: who was in?  Well, damn near everyone, but in the end, she set out with thirteen.  And, much to their dismay, led them to the task she'd already arranged in advance -- helping a village heavily damaged by the spring flood to rebuild.

I did this cheat sheet for the pack, which is far preferable to doing up individual NPC sheets for what is, after all, a group of relatively nondescript teenagers.  It summarizes their race, age, manor of residence, parental background, a couple key skills, and (teenagers being teenagers) whether they particularly Like! or Dislike! those cute kids of the opposite gender, that being in terms of GURPS Reaction Rolls (high is good, low is bad).

The three for which there's scarcely any info are from Elaina's own manor, so I didn't particularly need cheats for them.  But for a pack of NPCs, for which nonetheless you need to RP them and come up with a personality trait or two, this is a good approach and doesn't take all that much work.

12 October 2014

NPC of the Day: Tas

So okay, I'm a packrat.  That's the character sheet (well, filecard) of my first character.  "Tas the fighter" was very much playing against type, but I had fun in the first heady rush of the new hobby.  He was an Empire of the Petal Throne character, and something of a stolid warrior.  He made a brilliant political marriage (fueled by his movie-star looks) to the daughter of a high official in the imperial government, and wangled a post in the Omnipotent Azure Legion, something of a coup for a foreigner in xenophobic Tsolyanu.

A lot of the above is straightforward.  "Eyes," in EPT, are technological artifacts that function, effectively, as magical items: the Excellent Ruby Eye places the target in indefinite stasis (barring another use), and the Eye of Indefensible Apprehension casts a fear spell.  The magic dagger on the right was something like a light saber -- it would flicker out a beam of force extending its range to that of a rapier, and it was Tas' go-to weapon.  The "parrah" on the lower right was a fetish of the GM's -- they're tribble-like familiars which he pretty much insisted every PC have.  Mine was, by parrah standards, a tough hombre.  The "bronze ingot hand" was a bronze ingot which, when palmed, turned the hand into solid, living bronze: great for hand-to-hand brawls or dangerous manipulative tasks.

I traded him out after a while for a wizard, which I preferred -- damn that random gen.

08 October 2014

A troika of bulletpoints

Hey, sometimes I have short rants!  (No need to use ten paragraphs to say something when two will do!)

*  There's a personality problem troubling your game?  All too often, people kvetching to gaming forums about them want the readers to tell them how to solve them without actually having to open their mouths.  In a hobby where most of a GM's job, for several hours in a row, is communicating with the players, I'm constantly flabbergasted at how many of them claim that they have trouble doing so.  This magical thinking -- that there's some way to make evildoers just Get Better without a word being spoken -- is all too common.

There is no way, none at all, to change your players' behavior other than to have an open, adult conversation about your concerns.  Any other way of "nudging" people in one direction or another does not work.  Never has worked.  Never will work. The clueless don't notice, the jerks don't care, and the ones waiting for the aforementioned open, adult conversation resent what they see as clumsy manipulation attempts.

* On gender and same-sex relationships:  It is not my bloody job to dictate to any player the gender and sexual preference of a character. It is my job to provide – and portray – the NPCs with whom the PCs interact. These will be male or female, straight or gay, romantically interested or not, as circumstances dictate.  My masculinity is unthreatened when I play a gay NPC.  Or a female NPC having a relationship with a male PC.  Or a female NPC having a relationship with a female PC. Whatever.  Because I'm not six years old any more, and I see no reason for my reflexive 1960s prejudices to affect my grown-up life.

Screw the squick factor. If a PC wants to murder someone else, do I go all squeamish on him and tell him he can't do it? If he wants to torture someone else, do I go all squeamish on him and tell him he can't do it? Beatings, theft, torture, racism, genocide, slavery, sacrilege, arson, drug use, maiming, murder retail or wholesale, I can set the table for all of it. Torch a village, desecrate a temple, debauch virgins, kick puppies, slit throats, most of us are cool with all of that, but almost uniquely, tabletop gamers draw the line on portraying male-on-male romance?

* “You’re/He’s ruining my fun.”  I stay far, far away from that turn of phrase, if I can possibly help it.  For one thing, "You're ruining my fun" far too often is a code phrase for "I'm a self-absorbed solipsist, and I take failure to conform to my prejudices and whims as a personal attack." It's hauled out as a trump card perceived to end all debate, without examination of how that behavior actually might be "ruining" the speaker's fun, or whether the speaker's POV is reasonable.  I see no reason why it should be used as an excuse to dictate to players what otherwise-legitimate character creation and play choices they’re permitted to pick.

05 October 2014

NPC of the Day: Lady Datia

My wife put in a request for some of her favorites, but I figured I'd ring in an interesting Big Bad.  (Sorry, love!)

Lady Datia, third daughter of the great lord Teraeth val Linix, is tall, willowy, beautiful.  She was the wife of a country squire whose holdings are a day’s ride from the capital, and had a three year old daughter.  Though always careful to display the proper decorum, Datia yearned for the high life, and sought – vainly – to convince her husband to relocate to the capital for the social whirl.

The shenanigans that ensued wound up getting rolled into a plotline, and the party drew her ire when they busted up what she thought would be a permanent gig, forcing her to flee one step ahead of the authorities and leave behind her husband and daughter.  Her pattern since has been to marry rich men, under a false identity, take them for what they're worth and split. 

Feeling vengeful, Datia went to work and learned about the party.  She supplied damaging information about the rogue's father to the rogue's mother, causing the breakup of their marriage.  Her next target was the old alchemist on the corner who was a favorite of theirs, and in marrying and ditching him clipped a heap of gold and a bunch of high-powered alchemical poisons, which she used to great effect -- through cutouts -- in taking out or sickening several folks near and dear to them.  On two other occasions, the trouble coming to the party was provoked by her, unbeknownst to them.

Datia's only significant magical item is a stolen religious relic of some power, much of which she can't use; the key power she can use is that it renders her immune to scrying or divinations. She's a good actress and deft at disguise.  She also has some modest arcane powers, but no one outside of her estranged and embarrassed family remembers that she had a brief wizardly apprenticeship in her teens, and she never lets anyone know.

Beyond that, she’s smart and focused. She doesn't have a gang to betray her.  She's very likeable, and folks trust her instinctively and talk freely in front of her.  If she needs help, she'll beguile a fellow and wrap him around her fingertips, but she'll never let that fellow know where to find her, and she will always have a bolthole and a fast mount available.  She won't let herself get suckered into a confrontation, direct or otherwise.  She doesn't leave trademarks or mocking Ba-Ha-Ha notes.  If a plan looks like it's blown, or she thinks a situation is spiraling outside her control, she'll cut her losses and bolt, and if possible has a secondary mark in hand to take the fall.

In short, she's read the Evil Overlord Rules.

RPG groups, by and large, suck at detective work.  They rely heavily on their widgets and spells, and they count on the bad guys making predictable, cliched mistakes or having blatant, exploitable character flaws. They don't often do patient, and they can't often handle patient.  A hundred times more of these scenarios end because the GM has placed a finite limit on them (and, of course, the PCs always win in the end, right?) or from the foregoing factors than not.

I was proud of her.  It's easy for a GM to beat down a party with overwhelming force, zowie! powers like teleportation or insubstantiality, by a NPC's Epic Uberness, or by a torrent of widgets.  Doing so with guile and misdirection, with a hard-keyed scenario (hey, if they had made all the right guesses and been a little lucky, she could have been nailed much sooner), that's harder.

What they never did attempt was to trap her at the only spots of vulnerability: (1) There's only a finite number of rich, single guys out there who get swept up by a beautiful, cultured woman from Somewhere Else and who loves the city life; and (2)  She still had affection for her first husband and for her daughter.  It took the main party nearly five real years to catch her, and in the end only because they called in some major favors and brought some immense arcane powers to bear.

ST: 9     DX: 11     IQ: 13      HT: 10    Speed: 5.25      Move: 5  

Advantages: Acute Taste-Smell/1; Beautiful; Charisma/1; Comfortable wealth; Empathy; Magery (Body Control spells only)/2; Serendipity; Smooth Operator/2

Disadvantages: Callous; Greed; Minor Medical Ailment/migraines; Social Stigma: outlaw; Major Vow: Revenge!

Skills:  Acting-15; Administration-13; Area Knowledge: Warwik royal demesne-15; Baseball-13; Body Language-14; Current Affairs/high society-15; Carousing-15; Connoisseur/music-13; Dancing-12; Detect Lies-14; Disguise-15; Erotic Art-14; Fast-Talk-15; Filch-13; Forgery-13; Holdout-13; Knife-12; Mimicry (human)-14; Musical Instrument / lute-11; Needlecraft-10; Observation-13; Poetry-12; Poisons-13; Savoir-Faire-16; Search-14; Sex Appeal-17; Vajikry-13

Grimoire:  Arousal-13 †; Birth Control-13 †; Choke-15; Comfortable Seat-13 †; Fair Skin-14 †; Rapid Intoxication-13 †; Resist Intoxication-13 †; Resist Pain-13; Stun-15; Tears-15

Maneuvers:  Ruse / w/Sex Appeal-16

Quirks: "But wealth IS power;" Attracted to "bad" men; Fashion slave; Overestimates her luck; Soft spot for animals & kids

Explanations: Serendipity means something just goes seriously right for you, once per adventure: a tree branch breaks over the head of the guy who's about to run you through, the first box you break open in the warehouse has the Ark of the Covenant, that sort of thing.  Smooth Operator gives bonuses to social skills (which are figured in already) and you’re recognized as a suave person.  Migraines?  Make a HT roll every day.  If she blows it, she’ll have about two hours worth of -2 to everything, at some point (she's taken too many alchemicals over the years, and the headaches are a side-effect).  Yeah, they play baseball on my world, and it’s considered an avant-garde spectator sport in the capital.  Vajikry is a game that's something of a cross between checkers and Stratego.  Her Ruse maneuver basically drops a guy’s combat defenses by heavyweight vamping; letting her top fall open or off is a favorite.

I’ve invented a bunch of spells (well, a couple hundred of them); the ones marked
† are the non-book ones.  Comfortable Seat prevents saddlesores and jostling in carriages.  Fair Skin keeps your complexion mild.  The others are self-explanatory, and I’m quite narked that SJ Games saw fit to exclude a birth control spell, which you’d think would be one of the more fundamental spells in any realistic culture.  If you prefer GURPS RAW, substitute others.

For further explanation of system stats, check this link. 

30 September 2014

Special Snowflake: A Modest Rant

"Special snowflake" is a term in common use on a number of gaming forums.  For those of you unfamiliar, it's a slur hurled at those who stand out among us for being oddballs.  Most often, it's aimed at characters who (theoretically, at least) are disruptive to the milieu.

I've always had a problem with the term, and my dislike for it -- for the syndrome, come to that -- has crystallized over time.

It's meant, considerably more often than otherwise, "someone or something that stands out in a way I don't like." Play a preteen character? "Special snowflake." Play an alignment different from ours? "Special snowflake." Turn in a two-page backstory? "Special snowflake." Fail to march in lockstep with my paradigm? "Special snowflake." Is more flamboyant than the speaker? "Special snowflake."

What especially bothers me is that this comes from this, of all hobbies. For pity's sake, we're all weird. We sit around making pretend that we're wizards and elves and cyberjackers and secret agents and barbarian warriors. We're all aware -- and in many cases, painfully aware -- that we're "special snowflakes" to most mundanes around us, playing that stupid nerd game that loser junior high school boys too scared to come within ten feet of a Gurrrlll played.

Now I can see why, in turn, we seek to find people within our own community whom we can viciously disparage and denigrate, but it doesn't make it right, and it happens quite a bit more often than the "special snowflakes" actually disrupt things.

24 September 2014

... and so are you.

A common slur flung around in gaming debates is “Elitist!” You take pains to design a coherent, sensible setting?  Elitist!  You think people ought to know the milieu they’re GMing?  Elitist!  Heck, you think it should be incumbent on people to bother to learn the rules of the game they’re playing?  Elitist!  At any level and in any aspect of gaming, anywhere someone could make some effort to improve, there’ll be people willing to jeer at you for it, especially if you're silly enough to publicly say that you think everyone can (or should) do the same.

I believe in excellence.  I don’t think there’s anything ennobling about mediocrity, and I don’t find anything about mediocrity worth praising.  I think, in the words of the old Army commercials (before they ditched the tagline as being, well, elitist) that we should all be the best we can be.  Yes, indeed, I’m an elitist.

What’s always amused me, in this anti-intellectual society of ours, is that everyone else is too.  If you’re (say) a football fan, and your team is a basement dweller, I’m sure you wouldn’t be thrilled to hear the players say that, well, they're just in it for the paychecks, so where do the fans get off on dissing their record?  I doubt you’d want your doctor, or your car mechanic, or your kids’ teachers to do any less than their elitist best, or that you’d accept mediocrity and good old college tries in place of the skilled service you believe to be your due.  From the kid who shovels our driveways to bank tellers to insurance adjusters to entertainers, we expect quality work in anything we care about, and we get downright frosty if all we get are people going through the motions.  It’s only when quality is required from us – or if the matter under discussion is something we don’t care one way or another – that we fling “Elitist!” around like a slur.

And gaming’s immune to it?  Please.  There are hundreds of threads on gaming forums, and tens of thousands of posts, about no-good players and no-good GMs and poorly written game systems which somehow didn’t measure up to our expectations. A fundamental element in almost all of our games is experience, which unless you give the same amount each and every time to each and every player, means that you judge the players on their performance.  And that isn’t, by any accepted standard, “elitism?”  I can’t imagine how.

Do I give more experience to some players than to others?  Yes, I do, when I judge their play to be superior in roleplaying, tactical acumen, getting the job done, and the obligatory extra 1 XP per session to the player who most doubles me over in laughter.  Oddly enough, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that either.  In a chess game, someone generally does better than the other.  In a poker game, some players do better than others.  In a hockey game, one team does better than the other, fueled by players that perform better than others. I’d sure bust a gut laughing if someone shouted “Elitist!” at the TV showing a World Series of Poker match.

17 September 2014

Gaming slang

Silly is good, I find, in small doses: it breaks up the mental palate.  Some time ago, I had cause to compile some of the insider slang that's been used over the course of my campaign.  So ... for your psychic sorbet of the evening, here 'tis:

Melonballing: A combat strike which takes out the genitalia. It got to be enough of a cliche that my wife bought a melonballer to hand out to whomever scored the most devastating hit in any given session.

Goat! Goat! Goat!:  So the party was in the worst dive on Tortage, the capital of the Pirate Isles, and the crowd was getting weird during the all-too-sexualized floor show. Goat! Goat! Goat! is now used at any time there's an unruly crowd scene or, well, when a goat makes a prominent appearance.

I pity tha fool!: Delivered Mr. T-style, this was used by a player who said, at perhaps a bad time to do it, "I pity tha fool who gives us a wandering encounter now!" I determined on the spot to do exactly that, and it was quite a hair-raising one. The phrase's meaning has morphed, consequentially, to mean a player who's about to do a very dumb thing.

Quail before the might of Larindo the Witherer!: Alright, the player had a reasonable expectation that the mooks would go knock-kneed before a necromancer in full battle array. Unfortunately, they all had stout, manly results on their reaction rolls, and the mook leader shouted, "Damn, dey got a wizard, kill 'im quick!" (Or some such: it was twenty years ago.) Current meaning: your ego is getting the better of you.

Bubble of Improbability: If a player can't make a session, the character just isn't there, and I don't bother parsing the which or the why; I say that the character has entered a "bubble of improbability." Beats the hell out of me why I settled on that turn of phrase, but it's well-understood.

Nike Ninja: Mook NPC fighters. Originally the term for one particular figure in my ninja set of minis, which out of a certain level of perversity I painted in US Army jungle camo pattern.

Nath, Naghan, Larghos and Ortyg: Bunch Of Faceless NPCs. These are four of the most common male names in my gameworld.

(steepling my fingers and touching my index fingers to my lips): This action, sometimes paired with the phrase “Is that what you’re doing?” when the room falls silent, has been a code phrase for “... and what you’re planning on doing is amazingly stupid” in my campaigns for decades.  I am pitiless in dealing with those who blithely ignore the message.

Gritty!:  I strive for a gritty, realistic, middling-level fantasy campaign; not quite Harnworld, but I'm not what you call cinematic or slapstick.  But one of the crosses I bear is that I'm a lifelong insomniac (as witness me posting this at 4:30 AM).  Sometimes I'm working on three hours sleep when the run starts, and I'm punchy from fatigue.  One player would -- if things got too silly -- turn to me and say "Gritty," in a flat voice, deadpan expression.  (He may have the best deadpan I've ever known.)  I would nod, and respond "Gritty," and more often than otherwise would sober up.

Hrm.  He was in my campaign for six years, and do you know, I never did know whether his catchword was subtle admonishment, a gentle reminder for me to get back on track, a moment of humor, or some or all of the above.  I remember it fondly, nonetheless.

15 September 2014

NPC of the Day: Eve

I’ve watched a few war-related series of late: Band of Brothers, The Pacific.  My favorite is Tour of Duty, a critically-acclaimed Vietnam War series focusing on a platoon in the boonies.  I never saw it in first run; my household watched China Beach, its competing ‘Nam TV show.  Beyond that, we were St. Elsewhere fans, where ToD’s star – Terrence Knox – had been a scumbag.  Knox’s Sgt. Zeke Anderson is anything but on ToD, and it gave me some ideas.  (Okay, okay ... “Fantasy Effing Vietnam.”  Sue me.)

One of my two groups is based out of the mighty elven empire, which until recently was isolated in the far northwest of the world.  A few years back, they created a magical Gate on an island just off a whopping trackless jungle – and, not remotely coincidentally, smack in the middle of the world’s chief shipping lane.  For a bunch of reasons, they’re colonizing that jungle, which is pierced by a honking big river and watershed.  That’s where the Imperial Marines come in.  The "Blue Legs" are a riverine force (the empire’s still new to the concept of a deep sea navy), and they’re the grunts on the ground patrolling the interior.  They’re also a very insular, tight-knit bunch, respecting pretty much no one other than themselves ... which, considering that they’re usually unsupported in the middle of nowhere, with no more gear than they can pack on their canoes, makes good sense.  Anyway, that’s where the group came in, in accompanying a squad of Marines into the heart of darkness.

The unit’s commander is Eve, who’s the equivalent of a first sergeant.  She’s a hardbitten, hardcore lifer who’s seen it all, done it all, and takes no guff from anyone who hasn’t.  Like any good lifer non-com, she prefers that the officers tell her what they want done and leave her to handle the details.  She will rap you upside the head if you make any reference to her being stone-gorgeous, and will do the same if you insist on calling her “Dame Anevea” – she couldn’t very well decline being knighted by the Emperor, but she hates the formality, and pretty much no one much lower in rank than the Admiral of the Navy can get away with it.  Like most people of elven blood, she is a latent wizard, but has only recently learned her first spell – Insect Repellent.  She’s extremely experienced, extremely senior, doesn’t want to be an officer ... but the time’s approaching when it’s up or out. 

Eve’s team is a deep penetration unit; they scout, they do their objective, they get out.  She’s positively chary of taking casualties, and won’t do forlorn hopes or suicide missions.  Her move would nominally be good, but the team carries everything on their backs, and that can slow them down.  She prefers hatchets in combat, carries a brace of javelins for throwing, and is quite fond in battle of faking injuries, "accidentally" stumbling, that sort of thing.  One of their quirks, widespread in the Blue Legs in general, is to use a lot of slang taken from the indigs' language.

ST: 12    DX: 13    IQ: 12    HT: 13    Per: 12      Speed: 6     Move: Likely to be 5 or less.  

Advantages:  Ally / Marines, Beautiful, Combat Reflexes, Damage Resistance/2, Fit, High Pain Threshold, Legal Enforcement Powers/1, Magery/0, Rank-2/Ord-Matoc, Social Regard: Respected, Status-2 / Knight of the Sapphire Rose

Perks:  Armor Familiarity/1, Riverine Training, Penetrating Voice, Teamwork

Disadvantages:  Code of Honor (Soldier); Compulsive Behavior/wanderlust; Extra hazardous Duty; Sense of Duty: Marines; Struggling, Workaholic

Skills: Administration-11; Axe/Mace-15; Boating-13; Brawling-15; Brawling-13; Camouflage-13; Carpentry-12; First Aid-12; Knife-13; Leadership-15; Navigation-13; Public Speaking-13; Savoir-Faire (military)-12; Shield-13; Soldier-13; Stealth-14; Survival-13; Swimming-13; Tactics-12; Tarocco-12; Thrown Weapon: Spear-15

Spells: Insect Repellent-11

Quirks:  "Never tell the brass anything;" Collects interesting rocks; Doesn't want to retire; Uses Altanian jargon

By way of explanation, the Legal Enforcement Powers means, in shorthand, that she can hassle civvies, the Altanian outback being a military zone.  "Ord-Matoc" is a first sergeant, more or less.  Riverine Training differs from the Naval Training perk in so far that Eve doesn't really know from the deck of a ship, but she's pretty good at staying stable on a keelboat or a canoe.  In GURPS terms, a Duty is what you *have* to do; a Sense of Duty is something you *want* to do.  Tarocco is a card game; feel free to substitute the gambling game of your choice.

For further explanation of system stats, check this link. 

11 September 2014

Mountain-combing 101: Stuff You Can Use

I'm minded, of a Wednesday, to provide people with some meat they can use in their campaigns, no matter the system.  My current party just got out of a jaunt into the mountains, deep in the backcountry ... a semi-lawless area much like Appalachia, with isolated hamlets, mountain men, beleaguered trading posts, offbeat folkways and haunted ruins.

I don't like "wandering encounters," per se.  What I'd much rather do is compile lists like this one, pick one that suits me to throw in for local color, and then cross it off.  Likely I'll get to the end of the list in a dozen years or so.

Obsidian: An outcropping peeking through a blanket of moss, there are several hundred pounds available, in both glossy black and charcoal grey, with the occasional paler striation.

Old hut: Nobody has lived here for a while, but it has been used as an emergency shelter recently; there are a few logs of firewood, a small cache of a few pounds of smoked meat (only mildly rat-chewed), a bundle of tattered blankets on a wood frame bed, and the place has been swept and tidied.  It’s solid enough for decent shelter in a heavy storm, with a bit of patching up.

Mountain Man: Old as the hills, and his language is riddled with pithy slang.  His weathered packbasket is full of herbal forage and interesting colored stones.  If treated with courtesy – and especially if gifted with wares or foods from the lowlands – he'll be inclined to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the area for miles in every direction, and knowledge of everyone there is to know.

Children: Here for the fun of it, collecting nuts or rocks, scavenging herbs, or just playing; their holding or hamlet is within a mile. Whatever they're doing, they'll be annoying to the PCs.  If they're molested outright, they'll scream, scatter ... and the PCs will find out that at least one of them has a sling that very much is NOT a toy.

Hawk: The hawk seems to follow the party, and occasionally makes diving runs at them, without quite striking home.

Campsite:  The area has a number of campfire beds and a lot of trash, as if a hundred people had camped here, and only a day or two ago; the ashes are still warm.  They seem lavishly equipped, from the debris around, and are very careless with fire setting, sanitation and the concept of living lightly on the land.  The trail they took is thataway ...

Bearhunter: A man snores inside a decrepit lean-to, not willing to be awoken.  If he is rousted -- which he'll do if anyone approaches too closely -- he’s irascible, unwilling to deal with the party, and a vicious, deadly, veteran fighter.

Amphorae:  Four large capacity (30+ gallon) stone jars are half-buried in a gully. They look old and worn, and weigh over 50 lbs apiece.

Waterlogged saddlebag: This heavy 60-lb saddlebag has broken (or severed!) straps.  It contains sodden tradegoods -- with current tax and tariff seals -- some waterlogged clothing, and water-damaged letters.

Odd dirt:  The soil along this stretch is colored differently, strikingly so, than the prevailing soil in the region.

Serpents: Three large snakes sun themselves on a large, flat rock that’s underneath a break in the canopy.  While they’re venomous, they’re not aggressive, and will flee into the underbrush if approached.

Pillar: On a rocky outcropping is a tall, weathered marble pillar, 30' tall and with a flaring pedestal at the pinnacle.  It is carved in runes from a dead language, in the style of a bygone age.  Just getting out to the base, on the outcropping, is a technical climb of moderate difficulty, and it’s exposed to the weather.

Statue:  A weathered stone statue is set in a dell on the hillside.  The statue is well preserved considering its antiquity, but is greenish from the moss and algae in the area.  Locals like to leave flowers and gifts of fruits and nuts on it, believe it to depict a regionally worshiped deity, and will freak out if it's molested or in any way disrespected.

Sorrow: The still figure of a beautiful, auburn-haired woman, freshly killed by a deadfall that broke her back, is fallen couple dozen yards upstream from which the party was drinking, bathing or fording, just moments before – the water pooling around her.

Skinning knife:
  An uncommon knife made by local hunters, sporting a twelve-inch blade (which seems to have been salvaged from long-ago blademasters’ work), of fine craftsmanship, the haft and sheath made of polished bear bone.  It can't have been lost long; the edge is keen enough for shaving.

Leviathan:  The skeleton of an unidentifiable creature of impressive size is calcifying, stretched across the mountainside.  Its fangs alone are the length of swordblades.

Bathers: Near a calm mountain pool, a group of naked bathers either wave, and invite the PCs to swim with them with suggestive comments ... or stare and cover themselves in embarrassment, whatever the opposite of the party’s prevailing mores suggest.  (The water, if PCs indulge, is icy cold; the locals are used to it.)

Forester: A woman appointed by the Crown to patrol for poachers and enforce the Game Laws; the territory is either beyond the scope of the local noble, or the noble is opposed to her actions, and eager for her to be taken down a peg.  She is an expert in the ways of the high reaches, and greatly knowledgeable – if not “book smart” – about natural philosophy.  That being said, the locals have no use for her, and will give the cold shoulder to PCs obviously friendly to her.

Black pool: A natural crude oil release leaves a sticky, warm, viscous residue.

Shield: This steel shield (fashioned in the style of a bygone age) is weathered, but the heraldry is still visible – though even a trained lowland herald couldn’t recognize it.  It's tarnished, but not rusty, which given the environment is flatly impossible.

Will O’The Wisp:  Just after sunset, the PCs see dancing lights on a misted ridgeline.

Cultists: A clutch of Shub-Niggurath cultists pray in the thicket. They do not take kindly to having their ritual interrupted.  Before turning irrevocably and implacably hostile, the cultists will demand (once only) that the party convert to their ways, and allow the Dark Deity’s holy soil to cover their bodies, in submission to the will of the earth.

Gravesite: A rotting plank, crudely carved, lists the names – so far as the locals knew – of a caravan slain to the last man near here.  It rests on a large barrow under which the victims were buried, and exhorts passersby to pray for their souls.  (PCs seen by the locals not to do so are treated as godless, and with suspicion.)

Look sharp!  A strong brisk wind coming in off the mountains. The clouds overhead are moving fast, but you can see bad weather on its way ... rolling in like an avalanche.

Fossils:  Fossilized stones and shells of common sea creatures, as well as ancient imprints of fabulous creatures long extinct.

Cache: A smuggler’s cache, marked by a strip of colored cloth (or a hatchet blaze) tied to a tree, allowing the smuggler to retrieve the goods at some later date.  These are either illicit, or subject to taxes the smuggler is dodging.

07 September 2014

Why Play Tabletop RPGs At All?

It's a valid question, and one I've fielded more than once.  Even discounting the teeth-grating bastardization of the honorable term "roleplaying game" by computer companies wanting to make their console shoot-em-ups sound cooler, I've played most of the variants: MMORPGs, LARPs, storygames, free form, what have you.  I've played them a LOT: I played the same MMORPG character through various iterations for twenty-one years (seriously) and the same LARP character for fourteen.

My take is that no one style is "better" than the others: they're just different.  But since this is a tabletop blog, I'll post the comparison I did on a board some years ago:

1) Tabletop is nimble: If I need to clarify a rule, I can do it. If I need to invent detail, I can invent it. If I need to change anything I please, I can do that too. And I do all of that in moments. I don't have to have a team of coders spend six months on it and have the proposed changes pass QC and a dozen sticky hands, and I don't have to pass the changes through a LARP organization's headquarters, annual rules review or a consensus of a half-dozen GMs.

2) Tabletop is responsive: The GM-to-player ratio is far higher in tabletop than with LARPs, and infinitely higher than it is with MMORPGs. I have just a few players in my group, and I not only can give a great deal of relative attention to individuals, I'm not restricted to doing so on game days. Want to work out some details or interactions in e-mail or in IMs? Sure. Want to have personalized items? Sheesh, then hit up your local craftsman and place the order ... you don't have to wait for three-times annual merchant festivals and hope against hope you get a place in line, or reach Xth level and get the predetermined Xth Level bennie.

3) Tabletop can be broad-based: In a MMORPG, and to a lesser extent in a LARP, the milieu is fixed in granite: you're playing in the Preset World, in the Preset Area, and it's damnably difficult to change any of that, if it can be done at all. In tabletop, if my players want to shake off the dust of Warwik City, buy a ship and take up privateering, they can do that. (In fact, a group did that.)

4) Tabletop can be more freeform: Most MMORPGs work on a D&D-ish system with a limited palette of character classes and races. While a lot of tabletop campaigns work the same way, point-buy systems are out there where you can pick what you want and negotiate options and exceptions, things that are impossible to do in MMORPGs and often provoke screams of "special treatment!" in LARPs.

5) Tabletop can be less competitive: This might seem counterintuitive, but LARPs and MMORPGs are generally free-for-all PvP environments where the principal threat comes from other players, bragging rights over level and Kewl Itemz is immense, character advancement is often a zero-sum business where another player's gain only establishes him as a greater potential threat to you, and the role of a GM is more traffic cop and enforcer than game-enabler. Tabletop parties are also usually much closer together in power level, so a latecomer isn't automatically the punching bag of any powerful oldbie who wants to slap him around.

6) Tabletop is richer: It's very difficult in LARPs, and impossible in MMORPGs, for detail to be created in the same ballpark as in tabletop. I can make my descriptions for sites, NPCs, objects and events as lavish as I please, and since I'm not working with a visual medium, I don't have to back those descriptions up with the art or prop departments.

7) Tabletop can be crunchier: Complex, intricate, detailed rules are the death of LARPs, which function best lean and mean (and which far more than with other RPGs depend on all of the players knowing all of the rules), and don't work well in MMORPGs, where they require exponentially more coding time. 

8) Tabletop is cheaper!  Almost any MMORPG worth playing is fee-based or requires a buy-in of software.  The LARPs I've been in had at-the-door fees to defray the costs of props and land rental.  You don't need to buy anything in order to play tabletop.

There are a few more, but that'll do for openers.