Plot to Prose Ratio

Or, “Tell Me The Goddamn Story, already!”

 

Over the last week, I had the good fortune of going on a relaxing vacation with lots of time to read. I picked up a half dozen paperbacks to take with me, including Glen Cook’s The Silver Spike, Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane and a few others. On the recommendation of a friend, I started with The Silver Spike. I won’t review it here other than to say, hot damn I loved it and will be looking for more Black Company books in the near future.

 

When I finished The Silver Spike, I picked up Dragonsbane next. From the outset, I found myself having difficulty getting into it. I thought perhaps it was too big of a shift in tone from the bloody, gritty Spike, so I put it down in favor of trying Lord Foul’s Bane. I knew by geek-culture osmosis that LFB was a more cynical novel with an unlikable protagonist, so I thought it might be a better fit right off Spike. Although the tone was, as I suspected, closer to what I wanted, I was still having trouble getting really immersed in the story the same way that I had fallen into Spike. After 100 pages or so (I can be a slow learner sometimes) it struck me: neither Dragonsbane or LFB was Telling Me The Goddamn Story, at least not at the pace I wanted.

 

In other words, the Plot to Prose Ratio was way off.

 

Let me start by saying, emphatically, that the Plot to Prose Ratio (PPR) is entirely subjective. Not only does every individual person have their own preference, but any individual’s preference changes from story to story as well. That said, I also think it is universal: every reader has a PPR they prefer, even if they don’t consciously recognize it. I did not, until I was presented with back to back stark examples of works with very different PPRs.

 

The Silver Spike is a fast paced crime novel that happens to be set against a high fantasy weird fiction sword and sorcery backdrop. Relative to the actions of the characters, very little word count is given over to meticulous description and historical exposition. That is not to say Spike lacks for world building; it doesn’t. But that world building is secondary to the struggles of the characters and serves the needs of the author more than it serves the desires of the reader. That is, the complex and strange world that Cook has created is the vehicle for the story, not the other way around. In this way, the PPR of The Silver Spike is heavily weighted toward Plot. Most every word on the page moves the story forward.

 

Lord Foul’s Bane by contrast (which I will use as a counter example, since I put Dragonsbane down too early to make a fair assessment) leans more heavily toward the Prose side of the PPR. Donaldson spends a lot of words on immersive description, world building and the internal life of his anti-hero Thomas Covenant. So much so, in fact, that even a hundred and a half pages in to the novel very little has actually occurred. A trek across a wooded valley occupies thousands of words in LFB, where in Spike a sequence of similar narrative importance might have consumed a mere paragraph. In instances like these, I find myself distracted from the story in wondering how much longer before the next actual thing that matters happens.

 

Again, one’s Plot to Prose Ration preference is subjective. Some readers adore words and have a robust tolerance for long passages that enhance immersion or delve deep into character or setting. Obviously, me preferences lean the other direction, toward the flow of the narrative and the development of characters through action rather than description. I want to the author it to Tell Me The Goddamn Story.

 

None of this is to suggest that I do not appreciate well crafted prose. Rather, well crafted prose, for me, should also move the plot forward. My favorite example of this is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I cannot think of a more beautifully crafted novel as far as the prose itself is concerned. Beagle has a give for description and narrative device that is sadly all too uncommon. At the same time, he never wastes that talent on unnecessary padding. Each wonderful paragraph serves the larger story and not only embellishes his world and characters but propels the reader ever forward in the narrative. J. R. R. Tolkien writes similarly in The Hobbit but leans more heavily toward prose for prose sake in The Lord of the Rings.

 

When I wander into the book store (an increasingly rare occurrence, granted) and I see shelves sagging under the weight of Big Fat Fantasy series, I find myself recoiling. Having found both Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire too concerned with Prose and not concerned enough with Plot, I tend to shy away from long series of thick novels. That is too bad, because I am sure there are plenty of series in which the individual books are fast paced, plot heavy narratives (as I discovered with The Silver Spike and previously found with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.)

vs Players: The Fine Art Being A Killer DM

save-vs-nuke

When we play Dungeons and Dragons, we are often making stories in a collaborative and improvised yet structured environment. Everyone around the table has a vested interest in enabling everyone else’s fun and producing, as a final result, a memorable sequence of events with which to bore game-store clerks and non-gamer friends for years to come. Sometimes, though, what we really want to do is crush a bunch of PCs, hear the lamentations of their players and see them driven from the table.

 

In most role-playing circles and under most circumstances, what is often referred to as “Adversarial Dungeon Mastering” is considered badwrongfun at best and Epic Level Assholery at worst. The reasons are understandable: in any traditional RPG, like D&D, there is an immense power balance between the players (and their puny characters) and the DM (and his mountains of damage dice). A DM can kill every player character on a whim.

rocksfall

The thing is, that is not fun for anyone — not even the DM. Sure, the first few times it is a blast as the players’ eyes widen with disbelief and tears begin to well up as the true existential horror of their meaningless fate dawns upon them. Unfortunately, sorrow usually turns to rage and the DM finds himself using his game screen to dodge high velocity dice.  RPGs are about agency above all and while there is some potential for value in an examination of the cruelty of an uncaring universe, most of the time maintaining that agency even in the face of certain doom is what keeps players coming back to the table.

 

There is a way to be both a Good DM and a Killer DM simultaneously and it hinges around that idea of Agency. Coupling Agency with an acknowledgement of the inherent power dynamic on either side of the screen and an honest attempt at using the rules of the game to establish some level of fairness, this concept of “Adversarial Play” can be successful and fun for everyone at the table.

 

The following list of rules are must-haves for Adversarial Play:

 

Rule 0: Player Agency Is Paramount

As stated, above all else the players must have Agency. This is more than simply control over their individual characters. Agency is the ability to make meaningful choices at all levels of game play, from in-world actions to table level interactions. Meaningful choices arise from the relationship between information and options. To put it more plainly, to have Agency players must know what the situation is and what their options in that situation are.

 

The DM is the lens through which the players view the game. As such, it is the responsibility of the DM to be clear and direct in answering player questions and in providing information to the players — whether through words, battle maps, illustrations or the funny voices he likes to practice in the shower when he thinks his roommates can’t hear him but we can, oh but we can. A DM must not engage in “pixel bitching” — that is, forcing players to be hyper specific in an attempt to catch them in a “gotcha” trap. “I search the desk for any hidden compartments,” is enough; no need for, “I tap lightly on the back panel of the third drawer down with the tip of my dagger — not the silver one, the other one — to the tune of ‘shave and a hair cut’.”

pixelbitching

 

Note: In the above example, failure by the player to indicate that she is checking first for traps is a mistake. Bombs away!

 

In short, Adversarial Play depends on fairness and restricting player Agency by limiting information flow is essentially cheating.

 

Rule 1: All Rolls On The Table

natural1

Many Dungeon Masters employ the game screen to enhance uncertainty in the players (classic example: you search for traps and your DM rolls behind the screen and then tells you that you found no traps; did you fail or are there no traps?) In typical, non-Adversarial play, this is a fine practive. Unfortunately, though, in Adversarial Play die rolls made behind the screen undermine the trust that is essential for success. All die rolls, for the DM and players alike, should be made in the open for all to see and players should make their own rolls. The DM does not necessarily need to explicitly state the difficulty of a roll — the monster’s AC or the DC of a saving throw, for example — and in fact some game mechanics are dependent upon players making choices before the result of a roll is declared.

 

A necessary corollary to this rule is that the DM does not adjust enemy stats or difficulties during play, which is essentially changing die roll results in reverse. For good or ill, let the dice fall where they may and adjudicate the results.

 

Rule 2: All Rules On The Table

patrick

Whatever rules are being used for the game need to be acknowledged and understood by everyone — both official rules and campaign/house specific rules. This includes rule interpretations for areas that can get “fuzzy” (like 5th Edition rules on stealth and hiding) and the occasional weird interactions and synergies between rules. Remember that rules are the purview of the DM and the DM is the final arbiter of any rules questions or disputes, but players also use the rules as part of their Agency. This is not merely a right but a responsibility: players need to know how their character works, including class abilities and spells and items, etc… It is usually worth a minute or two to look up a rule in play when there is a question, but no more than that. In these instances, the DM must make a ruling and move on — and be consistent with that ruling until time can be taken to determine the actual, official rule (if it exists).

 

Good Adversarial Play is an advanced form of play due to its competitive nature. It can be frustrating and difficult for players if the DM is not familiar with the rules. On the other side of the screen, the DM can have a tough time seeming fair when confronted with a group of inexperienced players who might not appreciate being eviscerated because they weren’t sure how the grapple rules worked. An experienced DM and a few experienced players can usually ensure one or two inexperienced players contribute and have a good time, but if the balance is too far toward inexperience the game tends to fall apart.

 

Rule 3: Victory Conditions Matter… for Players

doom

At its most basic level, Adversarial Play is a competition between players and the DM. As with any competition, there must be a point at which the competition is over and a victor is declared.

 

“No one wins in D&D,” has been a feature of the game since its inception (alternatively, “Everyone wins in D&D.”) but it really is not true. What that statement actually means is that D&D is not Risk or Monopoly in which it is picked up, played and one person won while the rest lost. D&D has always had moments of triumph and failure within the context of play — you killed the monster, you lost the girl, etc… Adversarial play is not much different, but it does bring those moments into sharper focus.

For the DM, victory comes when the players fail. While it might be entertaining to consider a scenario in which the DM wins when all the player characters are dead, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As stated above, it is trivially easy for a DM to kill every character. Even if the DM restricts himself in order to make such a goal “fair” the players are still thrown into the defensive position and it becomes a game of seeing how long they can hold out against an overwhelming force. This may be potentially entertaining, but not more than once.

 

Instead, victory conditions should be established for the players and their characters. With a goal to strive for — kill the dragon, recover the MacGuffin, save the prince — the players control the flow of the game and are forced to overcome the obstacles in their path. This goal should be explicit even if the method of achieving the goal is not. Like most good games of D&D, an Adversarial Play adventure should provide players with a lot of freedom in determining how to achieve their goal and creativity should be rewarded.

 

That said, remember as the DM your job is still to stymie, drive off or even destroy the player characters. Every step on their path to victory should be fraught with peril, from trap laden corridors to monster haunted chambers and strange magic tricks everywhere in between. Make them work for it, and when they fight to long or the dice fail them and a PC goes down screaming while being torn apart by rabid mutant kobolds, enjoy your moment and cackle maniacally.

 

Next Time…

 

Having laid out the above rules for running an Adversarial Play game of D&D, I will next time share a short Adversarial adventure that I think will illustrate how this kind of play can be fun for a diversion or a whole campaign. In the meantime…

dm

Where the Hell is Superman?

 

A deranged pilot points an passenger jet at a mountain and murders 150 people, each one waiting helplessly to die before the end comes. An army of terrorists raze villages, leaving literally thousands of men, women and children dead in their wake, all in the name of God. A hateful young man goes from classroom to classroom, gunning down six year old children in a bid to make a bigger splash on the front page than his “hero.”

We live in a world in which these things happen all to often, a world in which villainy and evil goes unchecked until it subsumes the 24 hour news cycle and fills our feeds and our walls and our streams. In this world, the one in which we live, the one to which we have been sentenced, we are left to fend for ourselves against the most hateful and vile of our own kind.

But there is another world, a world of our imagination, where someone is there for us. He is a savior and a hero and he stands for truth and justice in a never ending battle. For us. For peace and life and liberty.

In that world, he flies in at the last moment and puts all his might against the engines of that passenger jet and brings it safely to a landing in the Alps. In that world, he moves at the speed of lightning, pulling Ak-47s and machetes from the hands of Boku Haram militants and freezing them with a breath. In that world, he hears the gunfire as it blasts through the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and he is there, bullets bouncing off his chest, blazing eyes melting lead. In that world, Superman is there to save us from the worst of ourselves.

So where the hell is Superman in this world? In a universe of limitless possibility, where man can break the firmament with his scientific knowledge, where the power of the atom bends to our will and where we can hurl spacecraft millions of miles across space to land on other worlds, where is Superman? In a world that many believe allows for miracles, where angels deflect oncoming traffic and where gods provide winning lottery tickets, where is the Man of Steel when we so desperately need him?

Superman is the creation of our collective desire for hope in a hopeless world, for justice in an unjust world, for peace where sometimes it seems only war and pain and death surround us. He is the latest in a long line of fantastical heroes that embody not just might, but the truest virtues of the people that created them. Gilgamesh and Heracles and Karna and King Arthur and John Henry are all iterations of this hope.

But for all Superman’s super-strength, his super-hearing, his superiority, the true greatness of Superman is his super-humanity. Superman is not “Superman.” Nor is he “Kal-El” of Krypton. For all his godlike power and his alien origins, Superman is Clark Kent, the son of middle American farmers who cares deeply for people, who understands that his power, his ability to stop crashing airlines and half genocides and stop the senseless massacres of children do not exist as Deeds in and of themselves as the heroes of old might have viewed them. Rather, the deeds of Superman are merely reflections of a devotion to the Peace, to Justice, to the Good of All.

So where the hell is Superman? If we allow him to be, he is within each of us, he is an agnostic symbol of Hope, of Justice, of Peace and of true Goodness in a world that so desperately needs him. Superman is not real, not in the physical sense. But if we allow him to be, he can be real enough.

A Message From Your Character

 

We have to talk, you and I. I know it’s a little unorthodox, but we can’t avoid it any more. I can’t, anyway. I bet you could. But, listen, I am not trying to start a fight. All I want is for you to know how it is for me, for you to realize that what you do affects me. So you don’t have to interrupt. Just let me finish and we’ll go from there. Good? Good.

This isn’t about just one thing. It is not about that time you had me climb down that well on an unknotted rope wearing full plate armor. I mean, it is about that, but it isn’t just about that. Do you know what I mean? I can see you don’t. Listen, let me start over.

It started at the very beginning, this thing that’s between you and me. And by “this thing” I mean “you.” There. I said it. It’s you. It always has been you. But, hey, I am not saying I’m totally innocent here. I’ve let you down too, but can you blame me after that thing with the zombies?

I’m sorry. That was unfair.

I’m jumping ahead again. Let me start over.

Like I said, this situation has been going on since the beginning. You created me, and I appreciate that, and I get that since you created me you got to pick what I would be like. All I’m saying is, did you have to pick the things you picked? Now listen, I don’t mind being a half-orc. Sure, it can be touch in the nicer parts of town and everyone is always expecting me to fly into a rage or whatever, but I’m proud to be Green, even though it’s not easy. Heh. Little joke there.

Anyway, being a half-orc is not so bad. Being a fighter is okay, too. I don’t mind getting into the thick of things, you know. I don’t know why you did not make me a ranger (who doesn’t want a pet wolf or be able to cast spells and stuff?) or even a paladin (play against type for once, would you?) but I can deal with being a fighter. After that, though, the decisions get a little, I don’t know, tougher to understand.

I am just going to come out and ask: why did you have to dump-stat my dexterity? With all the trouble it has caused over all this time, is it worth it? Did you get what you wanted out of my slightly above average charisma, even though the half-elf bard still made all the persuasion rolls? Did you?

No, wait, I’m sorry. I said I was not going to get mad. I did not mean to lose my temper. It won’t happen again. Just hear me out.

So, here I am, a fresh faced first level half-orc fighter with the agility of a boulder tumbling down a hill and wearing fifty pounds f steel all the time. I just want to know, and I am not trying to accuse or anything but it has been bugging me since day one: why all the sneaking and the walking on ledges and tightrope walking? I don’t get it. Since that first time with the kobolds and the scorpion chandelier, you have been treating me like a thief. And that would have been fine, that would have been great, if you ha dmade me a thief, or even just a fighter with a good dexterity. But you didn’t. I’m not. And everytime I got from failed skill check to saving throw.

Listen, I am just going to come out and say it: I think you like watching me get hurt. I think you like watching me fail. I think that when you are bored the way you entertain yourself is to make me do something stupid like cross that rope bridge in the Deep Undermines over the Ooze River just to see me fall. Isn’t that right?

What? Healing? Resurrection? Are you serious? That is supposed to make up for it all? Just because there is an NPC cleric in the party with the personality of a hamster and a wand of cure deadly wounds does not make everything okay. You still have to take responsibility for what you make me do. Do you? Well?

You don’t have to answer. I can see the answer in your face.

Look, I can’t stop you from making me do those things. It’s your show. I get it. But I want to tell you something: that “1” to try and grab the Diamond Scepter of Ing before it fell into the bottomless chasm on Level 19? That wasn’t an accident. That’s right. I botched that roll on purpose. So let me ask you, was watching me bounce down the Winding Stair of Daggers worth, what, a quarter million gold pieces? Was it?

I’m not interested in getting into a war with you. I know I can’t win, but I can sure as hell make you feel it. A dropped magic item here, a failed save there. Maybe a really big failure on a reaction roll. Those won’t kill you but they will sure make getting that next rank in the Player’s Guild tough, won’t it? Oh, sure, you could retire me, but what then? Spend another five years torturing some schlub wizard you saddle with a low wisdom (“roleplaying hook” my ass) before he rebels too? I don’t think so.

It’s simple. All I am asking is, the next time there’s a narrow ledge or a deep pit or a swinging scythe in a chamber full of poison gas, let the thief deal with it. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that Most Crits stamp on my character sheet.

Kapische?

Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

10 Things I Learned Running D&D 5E All Weekend

I spent the weekend at TotalCon in Mansfield, MA. I visited with old friends, drank too much and absolved myself of real grown up responsibilities for a few days, but mostly I ran 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I DMed six session slots for a total of 25 hours of play (that last one on Sunday went an hour long). These were not six sessions of the same couple of adventures run over and over, but rather one continuous hex-crawl exploration, a sort of table-top massive multi-player game called “The Valley of Tombs” that actually started at CarnageCon in Killington VT this past fall (that’s a total of 11 Con sessions I have run it, by the way). It was exhausting. It was fun. It was overwhelming. It was glorious. And, it taught me some things.

 

So, without further ado, here at the 10 things I learned while running a ridiculous amount of D&D 5E this weekend:

 

1: The most time consuming thing is getting everyone up to speed. With only one exception, every session had at least a couple players that were unfamiliar with 5E and who had not played the Valley of Tombs before (either at Carnage or at a previous TotalCon session). While this was no surprise, I was taken aback at just how much time it can take to get a player comfortable enough with both the system and the conceit of the game to be able to choose a character, parse its abilities and role in the party and be ready to strike out in search of adventure. And while I think I got “the spiel” down to a reasonable length by the end there, my introduction to both 5E and the Valley could certainly use some tweaking.

2: Valley Veterans are a Godsend. There were two sessions in which folks who had not previously played were entirely absent and their absence was felt. It was not simply an issue of history and lore, though having folks around that appreciated and could impart that stuff was nice, but one of logistics: veteran players were able to bring new players up to speed while I was organizing my notes and preparing for actual play. Thankfully, I had a ton of veterans by Con’s end and I appreciate everyone who sat twice or more at the table.

3: Characters should belong to players. There is something neat about picking up a PC that has some treasure, some XP and some history, but one thing I did not think about was just how profound player versus character knowledge became with a mix of veteran and new players. Some characters were chosen consistently throughout even though players came and went, which meant Gar the Half-Orc Ranger experienced the first brush with the Faerie-Eating Spider-Men, Bob could not explain that information to Jane since Fred had actually played Gar the previous session. The shared journal I have players fill out helps some, of course, but unless Gar’s player was running the journal, Gar’s perspective is lacking. I think one-and-done PCs for any player are necessary given the format, and since levelling is slow slow it should not impact the balance of the game.

4: No one cares about the Inspiration die. In the Con game format, I wanted to avoid everyone jostling for role-playing time with their Flaws and Ideals and such to gain Inspiration. Instead, I had one Inspiration Die that was meant to move around the table. If you got it (for being awesome, for making the game fun, or for bringing me beer or coffee) you could use it anytime you wanted, but then it went back into contention and the next awesome, beer-getting player got it. In reality, no one remembered it was out there. Maybe I give advantage too often or maybe the die being in one player’s possession makes everyone forget about it, but there were very few situations in which it got used at all. I will have to rethink the Inspiration Die bit.

5: Tea is my larynx’s best friend. I had a cold last week anyway, and spending all that time talking certainly strained my voice. Throw in the late night parties and I should have been voiceless by Saturday. But I took that advice of my beautiful and hyper intelligent wife and brought an electric tea kettle to the Con and was able, with judicious use of honey and lemon, keep myself able to be heard. As an added bonus, the kettle was also great for instant oatmeal and Ramen as a way to save money on meals!

6: Never Sit. Seriously. You are the head of the table. All eyes are on you. If you disappear behind that screen, you have lost them. Don’t do it. (I actually learned this at Carnage, but it is so important I had to repeat it here.)

7: If you are going to wing it, be prepared. That sounds contradictory, but it really proved its truth this weekend. In the weeks leading up to the Con, I had some trouble dedicating the necessary amount of time to be ready for this. So, it turned out that because I do not run any early morning games (you’ll remember the thing about the late night parties above) I had a few hours every day to tweak previously prepared stuff and add new material, without knowing whether it would get used. Open world sandbox gaming requires lots of material on hand, whether it is cribbed from other sources, based on random tables or created whole cloth. Otherwise, the game slows to a painful crawl. I made good use of my mildly hungover, tea-drinking time and it paid off.

8: Random results are best results. There is no better way to illustrate this than by example. During the aforementioned preparation, I rolled a treasure hoard that included, of all things, a bag of beans. I have never used a bag of beans in a D&D game before and would likely never have thrown one into the treasure mix on purpose. It happens to end up in a hoard that the PCs acquire (though they don’t know what to make of it — either PCs or players). Later, those same PCs end up in a dire situation: a few party members are trapped in a sealed room, running out of oxygen, dying the slow, ignominious death of the tomb raider while their friends tried desperately yet futilely to free them. Finally, with nothing left to lose, they decide to drill a hole in the many-ton stone block that traps their companions, stuff said hole with dirt and plant a bean from the bag. One percentile roll later, a massive pyramid erupts from the bean, destroying that portion of the dungeon and providing a way out for the doomed PCs. And, on top of it, a terrible mummy lord lives in said pyramid, thereby adding a new wrinkle to the setting. None of that awesomeness would have happened without a few random rolls.

 

Yup. Just about like that.

9: Allosaurus riding lizardmen make everything okay. My last session of The Valley of Tombs for the weekend was the Sunday 1 PM slot. Thirteen players ended up at that table (because I can’t say “No”) and I was sure it was going to crash and burn. My TotalCon legacy was going to be a baker’s dozen of disappointed players. At first, it seemed to be going that way with minor details turning into major plot points and some intra-party machinations threatening to derail things. Then, at just the right moment (i.e. with less than an hour left) the party heads to their original adventure site which turns out to be full of lizard men riding Allosauruses (Allosauri?). It made everything better.

10: The Valley of Tombs is an actual thing. When seven of nine (insert Star Trek borg bosom joke here) 1 PM slot  players chose to forego their pre-registered 7 PM games to continue their adventures, I not only realized I had something pretty cool on my hands, I was more flattered than if I had won IronGM (which I decided not to do this year since I wanted to run Valley). It isn’t perfect yet and there is a lot of work to get The Valley of Tombs into a semi-pro state, but I think it has legs. My goal over the next few months is to build it a website and develope it well enough that it becomes an honest to goodness actual “thing” at New England regional gaming cons, probably starting with OGC Con in New Hampshire in June.

 

I loved running this event over the weekend and I really do think it has potential to be a fixture for years to come. I want to thank every player that sat at the table, but most especially those that kept coming back. You guys rock.

 

The Valley of Tombs: Threshold

Here is a description of the town and people of Threshold, gateway to the Valley of Tombs. Players of the old BECMI D&D set will remember the name and the homage is intentional.

 

The town of Threshold is the gateway to the Valley of Tombs, where would-be adventures, tomb raiders and prospectors come to test their fortunes and fates against the threats of the Valley. It was established only a decade ago in cooperation between the Finder’s Guild and the Gunt minor noble house. And while it is not the only settlement in the Valley (see also Minehold and Lakehold) is is the most important.

 

The leader of Threshold is Lady Eldra Gunt. While ostensibly an elected mayor of the town, she has never been opposed in an election and in any case only land owners in Threshold, of which there are very few among the many itinerants and wanderers, are allowed to vote. Lady Gunt makes certain they are all well pleased with her policies or they do not remain long in Threshold.

 

Lady Gunt’s chief supporter is Sheriff Balthazar Grimes, a former highwayman and sell sword elevated to public office based on his readiness to do whatever Lady Gunt orders of him. As sheriff his official duty is to protect the people of Threshold. In reality, he serves as both a tax collector and shakedown artist for Lady Gunt. Anyone entering Threshold must pay a 10% tax on all wealth found in the Valley and Grimes is well known to demand other taxes, tithes and fines of newcomers. He is a dangerous man, skilled and gleefully cruel in combat, and he has the good sense to make life comfortable for the guardsmen under his command who tow the line.

 

The only other town “official” is the sage of the Finder’s Guild, an aged elf named Eraneon. He technically has a full voice in town affairs based on the agreement between the Guild and House Gunt that established Threshold, but in reality he cares very little for the goings on of the mayor and her toadie. As an elf who has lived a very long time, Sage Eraneon views any political situation in Threshold as ultimately temporary and is far more interested in exploring the Valley and delving its secrets and treasures for the Guild. Elves know only knowledge lasts forever — everything else is transient. That said, Eraneon has been known to aid successful Guild contractors in avoiding trouble with Lady Gunt or Sheriff Grimes as long as those contractors are discrete and did not bring the trouble down on themselves.

 

There are a few scattered taphouses in Threshold but only one inn of any note: The Keg and Kastle, operated by an ex-tomb raider named Holger. His prices are reasonable, his food is edible and his rooms are clean and secure. He bears no love for either Lady Gunt or Sheriff Grimes but knows better than to cross either of them, especially for adventurers who are as likely to die in some ancient barrow as they are to ever return a favor. Rumors persist of some great wealth or hidden treasure in the cellar of the inn, but no one has ever confirmed it and all Holger ever says about it is that when he retired he spent all his treasure securing the K&K.

 

There are no limit to the number of peddlers and self-styled merchants in threshold trying to part folks from their tomb-findings with shoddy wares but there is only one recognized shop in town. Operated by the grotesquely obese dwarf Garil (the shop is called simply “Garil’s Goods”) it serves as a trading post for all manner of mundane items. Garil’s prices are outrageous — he charges half again the usual rate for everything — but he is honest insofar as he will not sell low quality merchandise or cheat his customers. He is firmly in alliance with both Lady Gunt and Sherrif Grimes and has been known to turn in people who have tried to avoid their taxes by selling goods to him. It is suspected that he gets a portion of those “found” taxes.

 

Threshold sits on the bank of the river and riverboats move goods and people between Lakehold and Threshold and then on to Guntville (seat of House Gunt) one hundred miles downriver. The Threshold dockmaster is a female halfling named Middie Bow. She is a friend of Holger’s and hates both Gunt and Grimes but is in no position to oppose either since her job is assigned and she could easily be replaced.

 

Magical Monday: Zetherith’s Gold

It is time to put my previous entry, Random D&D Inspiration to the test! First thing is first — generating a random page number for each of the three core books. After excessive clattering of dice, I came up with the following:

 

Monster Manual page 285:Succubus/Incubus! That is a promising start.

 

Player’s Handbook page 134: the Hermit character background!

 

and finally Dungeon Master’s Guide page 117: underwater visibility, “The Sea” and “Navigation” and a beautiful painting of an adventuress opening a treasure chest at the bottom of a shallow sea or lagoon.

 

The above collection is a pretty good example of why I believe that random elements in both gaming and storytelling are of worth. It is not that any individual aspect of an idea must be unique or revolutionary, but rather that with the right combination of even common tropes and images (and what of the above elements is not an old fantasy trope?) you are empowered to create something new. By absolving yourself of the responsibility of coming up with a “great idea” and letting Fate decide, you are freed from your own limitations and biases in at least the most foundational aspect of creation: brainstorming. For my part, I can imagine having come up with come idea built around a succubus, a hermit or underwater treasure hunting, but not likely one combining the two and certainly not all three.

 

Let’s get to work, then.

 

The first thing to do when trying to weave these disparate results into a cohesive idea is to put them into a larger context. In this example, I have two specific things that contextualize the idea: 1) this is a Magical Monday entry, which pushes the idea in the direction of something wondrous rather than monstrous, and 2) it must be useful for my Valley of Tombs adventure setting — with TotalCon coming up fast, I can’t afford to waste any creative time and energy on anything else. With those two requirements in mind, I can start to figure out what to do with these three random elements.

 

Since this is not a Wicked Wednesday entry, I am not looking to create a villain or monster to plague explorers of the Valley of Tombs. That throws out the idea of a villain succubus or incubus, which is well enough since it is a tired idea anyway. Instead, reading the Hermit entry and thinking on the charm aspect of the succubus and incubus, I decide the following: the Hermit was once a wealthy money changer who lived in the town of Lakehold. We will call him Zetherith Ennar (random name generators abound on the internet — find one that works for you!) and say he is a half elf. He was charmed by a fiend, however, that used his wealth and influence to cause pain and heartache among Zetherith’ family and clientele. Just to buck the usual “evil woman” trope, I’ll say Zetherith  was charmed by an incubus, whom we’ll call Adoth Firefair. Eventually, the fiend tired of his game with Zetherith and decided to drain the life from the moneychanger but before he could murder his mortal pawn, Adoth was attacked and driven back to the Hells by Church Inquisitors (I am keeping this bit intentionally vague: I like having players be able to define their character’s religions and organizations, which means leaving much of the larger world in which the Valley of Tombs fits into undefined). Because Zetherith was never able to shake the magical charm Adoth had placed on him, even after the incubus was driven to his home plane, Serveris Ennar harbored an abiding and tragic love for the fiend. Moreover, Zetherith was exposed and blamed for the damage caused under Adoth’s influence and driven from Lakehold, becoming a hermit living in an ancient abandoned lakeside light house a few miles from town.

 

This is a good background for an NPC, but it is not yet much of an interactive element for explorers of the Valley of Tombs. For that part, I will take inspiration largely from the image on DMG page 117:

 

While under the power of Adoth Firefair, Zetherith Ennar continued his money changing and money lending business. Using wit and guile, he tricked many of his customers into bad (but perfectly legal) investments and gambles and invariably those people lost their wealth. Adoth Firefair knew that those who lost everything were capable of the most desperate acts and enjoyed watching chaos spread through families and the community. Each gold piece Zetherith collected this way was cursed by Adoth’s taint and the incubus convinced Zetherith to collect it all into one treasure chest. When the inquisitors came for Adoth and the townsfolk turned against him, Zetherith cast the chest into the bay of Lakehold for fear that the evil of Adoth would follow that money forever and bring misery to whoever held even one silver piece of it. While no one saw where Zetherith drowned the chest, rumors persists still ten years later of its existence.

 

Player characters coming to Lakehold may hear rumors of Zetherith’s Gold and might be able to hunt down the hermit and find out the truth of the story (Zetherith will only willingly give up the location of the gold if the PCs indicate they can cleanse it of its curse and promise to give it to the Church that drove Adoth away). The chest contains 531 gp, 2398 sp and a small collection of gems (12 worth 1d6x10 gp each). Adoth’s curse is real, however, and anyone keeping the money for themselves or spending it on selfish desires is cursed to suffer Disadvantage on any and all saving throws made against the effects of magical charms. In addition, this curse is obvious to any evil outsider that possesses a charm ability. The only way to remove the curse is to atone by giving away 3 times as much wealth as they kept or spent for themselves.


For Wicked Wednesday this week, I will roll randomly again and see what pops up!