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!

Some thoughts on rejection.

First of all — sorry for the delay of the promised Magical Monday and Wicked Wednesday entries using the random method i outlines last time. I got hung up on the impending announcement of the 32 Round 1 winners of Paizo’s RPG Superstar 2015 contest. I decided to enter this year and was wringing my hands over it. When I did not pass the round, i got hit with the rejection blues, which prompted this post about rejection and my response to it.

 

I would like to say I am a thick skinned writer, happy to wallpaper my den with rejection letters until I finally sell that story. The truth is I am not. Every rejection letter hurts and takes an axe to my confidence. I have been writing stories  in one form or another literally since I learned to write, and before that I was telling those stories. It is something I feel I am good at. It comes naturally and I derive a kind of pleasure from it that is unlike any other I know. When i sit back after having immersed myself in a piece of prose for hours, I feel somehow elevated, exalted even. And because I am an extrovert and an exhibitionist, I want to not only share those things with other people, I want to receive praise for them. In other words, I want people to read what I write, love it and tell me so.

 

But because I place so high a premium on that approval I set myself up for disappointment and even pain when I present my work to be judged. I used to want to go the self publishing route (made easy these days with Kindles and the like) in order to bypass the “gatekeepers.” “Why should I get a form letter rejection,” i asked myself and anyone within earshot, “just because the slush reader had a fight with his wife that morning?” The reality is, though, that I toyed with self publishing as a way to avoid rejection at the hands of an editor. Rejection without any context or explanation, such as those form letters, is even worse because my imagination (the same thing that got me into this mess in the first place) runs wild with the worst possible explanations for my failure.

 

With the RPG Superstar contest, it was an especially difficult rejection because the one kind of writing I have done professionally is writing for role-playing games. I honestly expected to do well, if not take the whole thing, because I know games and gaming and gamers. Or, at least, I thought I did until about 5 PM EST last night when my name was not on the “winners” list. Rejection always undermines my confidence in my writing ability, but this struck even deeper into my identity. What if I was not just a bad writer, but a bad gamer as well?

 

Intellectually, I get it: even if what I wrote was my best work (and it really wasn’t; I threw it together relatively quickly close to deadline) there were hundreds if not thousands of entries. More to the point, rejection happens. My brain gets that. But my guts and my heart hate that fact and it makes me feel like deleting every manuscript I have and never stringing more than three words together on paper ever again. Usually, it is weeks or even months before I try again after I get two or three stories rejected. And, of course, it is exacerbated when I read some terribly written tripe that some editor bought and published or I see that Moan For Bigfoot made its author thousands of dollars.

 

Then I remember that the difference between those shit authors finding some success and me, well, not is not based on talent, it is based on perseverance. Bigfoot lady (or fellow) wrote that crap and stood behind it and put it out there. What’s more, she (or he) was not accepted by thousands but rejected by the millions that did not buy it — but found success anyway, despite all that rejection. Those other authors, those ones that could not build a plot with a set of Legos, they sold that story or novel because they stuck with it. Maybe they sent that story to one hundred editors until they caught one off guard and under deadline. Maybe they sent one hundred stories to that one editor who finally bought one out of compassion. In either case, perseverance sold that story.

 

So, catharsis complete, it is time to get back to work.

 

Oh, and here is my “losing” RPG Superstar 2015 entry in all its failure-y glory:

 

[b]Armor, Living Sand[/b]

 

Aura faint transmutation; CL 9th; Weight 40 lbs.; Price 20,000 gp

 

DESCRIPTION

When first encountered, this strange “armor” appears as nothing more than a ball of sparkling, wet sand the size of a child’s ball. When touched by a sentient creature it shudders as if alive and if one of its command words (see below) is uttered, it  stretches and flows to cover the creature’s torso and limbs.

 

The “sand” is actually a colony of infinitesimal animated objects. They move freely or lock into place, depending on their need, so that the whole mass or portions can be supple or rigid. In this way, the Living Sand Armor is able to emulate light, medium or heavy armor.

 

Each armor type of which the living sand can take form requires a separate command word. Speaking the command is a standard action and in no case can the armor change form more than one per round. In each of its forms, the armor has the following statistics:

 

Light Armor: Armor Bonus+5, Max Dex +4, Check Penalty -1

Medium Armor: Armor Bonus +7, Max Dex+3, Check Penalty -3

Heavy Armor: Armor Bonus+10, Max Dex +1, Check Penalty -5

The wearer’s speed is affected as normal for armor of the given type.

 

There is a mild psionic component to the living sand, causing the armor to take on a style and shape unique to the wearer. The material originated in Numeria but has long since spread throughout the Inner Sea.

 

Living Sand Armor is particularly sought after by barbarians and rangers.

 

CONSTRUCTION REQUIREMENTS

Craft Magic Arms and Armor, Craft Construct, animate object Cost 10,000 gp

 

Random Inspiration

I sometimes have trouble with the most basic step in the creative process: inspiration. Usually, if I can get an idea, or am given one, I can run with it and make it into something fun, interesting or novel. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed role-playing game writing so much: I was given an assignment and then let loose. Within the confines of that assignment, I was free to do whatever. I have found, though, that when I am writing for myself, or for a handful of imaginary blog readers, or even with hopes of sale and publication, I want for that initial inspiration. My “writer’s block” is usually less about being unable to form prose and more about being uninspired to start in the first place.

 

One thing I have always found helpful, especially in the context of gaming (whether in preparation or at the table itself), is the use of random tables. There are many great collections of random tables for everything under the sun — I have even created a few — but here, with the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons relatively fresh, there is an easier way to spur creativity without worrying too much about how to translate the results to the game’s systems. By simply using the three core D&D 5E books as the “random tables” themselves, we can create interesting mashups of ideas that are easy to include into our games.

 

While you could simply open to a “random” page of each book, that method has two problems: 1) it is not really random at all and your results, over time, will cluster toward the middle pages of the books, and 2) it does not involve the rolling of dice and that is inherently bad. Moreover, not all sections of the books are created equally and are not necessarily helpful in producing fun, playable content.

 

The basic idea works as such: for each book (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide) we will generate a random page (using DICE!) and draw something from each of those pages. Then, we will combine each of those things into a cohesive whole, hopefully one that is both interesting and fun. This kind of random generation helps spur creativity while at the same time avoid cliches.

 

The Monster Manual is the most straightforward of books to use, as it is almost completely filled with usable (read: inspirational) content. From page 12 to page 350 there is naught but monsters, beasts and NPCs. First, roll a d12. For any result other than a 1 or a 12, subtract one from the result and multiply by 30. Then , roll a 30 sided die and add the result for the final page number. (Example: roll a 9 on a d12, so 8×30=240; roll a 16 on a d30, for a final page number of 256 — Quaggoth!) If the initial d12 result was a 1, simply roll a d20+11 for the final page number. (Yes, this statistically makes Blights ever so slightly more likely a result than other creatures in the book. Sue me.) If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d20+330 for the final page number.

 

For both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there are sections of the books that are primarily rules oriented or otherwise unhelpful for generating ideas. As such, the method for generating page numbers is going to be a little convoluted.

 

For the Player’s Handbook, two sections stand out as providing potential inspiration results: the section in which options for characters are presented (pages 18-161; 144 total pages) and the portion dedicated to magic spells (pages 211-289; 78 total pages).First, we will roll a d6. If the result is 1-4 we will be generating a result from the character section; on a 5-6 we will be generating a result from the spell section. In the former case, to generate the final page number roll two d12 dice and multiply the results (generating 1-144) then add 17. For generating the final page number in the spells section, the easiest method (since the total number of pages is less than 100) is to roll d100, ignoring any results greater than 78 and adding 210 to the result.

 

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a treasure trove of inspiration in and of itself, mixing practical rules information with random charts and inspirational art. For our purposes, I want to avoid including the rules based discussions, so we will be limiting our potential results to pages 7 to 232 (227 total pages). Roll a d12. If the result is 2 to 11, subtract 1 and the multiply by 20 (generating a result between 20 and 200) and then roll a d20 and add the result. If the initial d12 result was a 1, roll a d20 (reroll any result greater than 15) and add 6. If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d12 and add 220.

 

Of course, you can always wimp out and head over to a website like www.random.org to generate your results without dice.

 

Remember, we are looking for inspiration on these pages, so read all of the text and look at the art! Sometimes all it takes is a throwaway phrase by the author or a tiny detail by the illustrator to inspire an entire adventure.

 

This week, for both Magical Monday and Wicked Wednesday, I will be using this method to generate the content for those columns, as well as tie them to The Valley of Tombs.

 

Wicked Wednesday: Lord Black

 

This week I present an established villain in the Valley of Tombs “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” convention game I run — coming soon to TotalCon! — which is illustrative, I think, of the kinds of bad guys I find interesting in RPGs. The stats are for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, but I think Lord Black can be easily converted to any version of D&D or related game.

 

Not all souls that haunt the Valley of Tombs were interred there. Long before the Valley was cut off from the wider world, some chose to rule there in life rather than rest there in death. Perhaps it was the promise of treasures both rich and powerful from ages past. Perhaps it was a kinship with the Other World that rests so close to This World in the Valley. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that few dared claim the Valley, making it appear at least as an easy mark for a would-be dominion lord.

 

The man that is now known as Lord Black was one such would-be ruler. The lesser son of a lesser house whose inheritance has been squandered by his elder brothers, he took what feeble bodyguard he could muster and led them to the Valley, which was even then so many centuries ago famed for its terrors and treasures. “If I die in my quest to be a king,” he said, “then at least I can be buried as one.” His last act as scion of his house was to slit the throats of each of his siblings as they slept.

 

The Valley is an unforgiving place even in the height of summer. In the depths of winter it is as brutal and cold as the frost trolls that come down from the mountains to hunt. The self styled Lord of the Valley lost half of his retinue in the first winter, and would have lost all had they not turned to the Wedigo’s Feast for sustenance. The hardest and cruelest survived, however, and with the spring thaw they sought their vengeance on the Valley and the few good people that inhabited its outskirts. They robbed graves and raided tombs, demanded tribute and captured slaves. By the waning of summer, the Lord Black To Be had erected a motte and bailey and called it a palace. This winter, he would not starve, even if he had to eat all his slaves.

 

It was at the autumn equinox that Madra Nocht came to see the young lord. The wicked, ageless night hag came to him in her true form, as twisted and black as his heart. She disparaged his “palace” and insulted his honor and when he tried to hew her down she cast him on his face and laughed. “You desire power,” she said, “and power I can give.” “What price?” “A small thing, just your heir.” “I have no wife, let alone an heir!” “You will one day,” she promised, “but he will be mine. You will never pass your lordship down. But if you agree, you will never need to.”

 

He agreed.

 

Who knows what twisted pleasure Madra Nocht gained from her bargain with him, who she now dubbed Lord Black. No mortal can fathom the madness of her race, ancient and vile as it is. No matter her reasons, she told the newly minted Lord Black where there were tribes to conquer and where he could find the tools to do so. She gave him keys to the richest tombs of kings long dead that she had also crowned. Over the course of years, Lord black plundered and conquered, destroyed and constructed. He slew giants and dragons and warred with centaurs and goblins. He raised towers and razed churches. Never did he take a wife, or even avail himself of any slave-girl, for he ever feared what might happen should he produce an heir. Not to the heir, mind you, for Lord Black cared nothing of any other, even a theoretical son and heir. No, he saw treachery in madra Nocht’s gifts and feared the completion of the contract would end his prosperity.

 

And so it would have remained had it not been for the Pilgrim Maid. Her name is long lost to history. Only Lord Black and Madra Nocht know it now, and neither will speak it — he because it pains him too much, and her likely because she does not care to remember such trifles. She came with a flock of pilgrims to visit the resting place of their living god. Lord Black’s knights took them as slaves and when they brought the most beautiful of them to him as his share — as they always did, and he always sent her to the dungeons — he was enchanted and sent her to his kitchen instead. In time, she went from his kitchen to his hall and eventually to his side and finally, married, to his bed.

 

Had Madra Nocht, tied of the wait, cast a spell on him or given the Pilgrim Maid a love potion? Who knows the truth besides Madra Nocht? The result was the same and within a year of the wedding the now Pilgrim Lady gave birth to a son. The child was not yet swaddled when Madra Nocht appeared to collect her due. Lord Black resisted her with the power he had gained but to no avail. Her might was greater. As Madra Nocht took the child, the Pilgrim Lady cursed him for his lies and treachery and, finding the chirurgeon’s blade attacked him. He stabbed her through the heart with his ancient sword in his rage.

 

Madra Nocht left with the child and Lord Black told all that both mother and babe had died in childbirth. Wracked with guilt, Lord Black raised a cathedral to his wife’s god and prayed for forgiveness. No answer came. On the babe’s would-be first birthday, Madra Nocht delivered to Lord Black the child’s bones, scraped as they were by her butcher’s knife. He fell into madness then, becoming a terror to his own people. Over many years, he drove them away, murdered them and tortured them. Only the hardest and most evil men stayed in his employ, making him even harder and more evil himself.

 

Finally, devoid of all holdings bust the cathedral and all followers but murderous cannibals, Lord Black died of wrath and grief in his befouled cathedral. His men dined on his flesh and then fell on their swords. Such was the end of Lord Black’s rule.

 

Or, it would have been if not for Madra Nocht. The night hag came to Lord Black’s tombs and breathed foul unlife into his butchered corpse. When he rose, he knew that he would forever haunt the Valley he had sought to rule and with an unhallowed gesture woke his servants, their dead bellies still full of his flesh.

 

Ever since, Lord Black the wight and his army of ghouls and ghasts have haunted the Valley of Tombs and sought to spread fear, death and grief to any who dare venture or settle there. He especially targets good clerics and other servants of light.

 

Game Rules:

 

Lord Black is a special wight (see Monster Manual page 300) with exceptional abilities. His statistics are per a regular wight except as follows:

 

AC 18 (Plate Armor of Radiant Resistance)

Hit Points 60 (8d6+24)

Speed 20

STR 18 (+4) DEX 14 (+2) CON 16 (+3) INT 14 (+2) WIS 16 (+3) CHA 15 (+2)

Skills History +5, Intimidation +5, Perception +6

All Attacks +6 to hit with a damage modifier of +4 instead of +2.

Modified CR 6

 

Lord Black wears a suit of Plate Armor of Resistance to Radiant Damage and a Ring of Invisibility, and his sword is a Sword of Life Stealing. In addition, mortal creatures killed by Lord Black rise as ghouls rather than zombies.

 

Lord Black is always accompanied by at least 4 ghouls and 1 ghast, and possibly more if he is expecting a large group or otherwise dangerous opponent(s).


Despite his hatred of living things and irredeemably corrupt nature, Lord Black can be reasoned with and may even ally with characters that can promise to destroy Madra Nocht permanently (a difficult task indeed). Her true destruction would destroy Lord Black as well, freeing his tormented soul.

New Year, New Focus

bring it

 

The tail end of 2014 was a thin one for this blog. Between end of semester class stress, the holidays and a little bout with writer’s block, I did not make many posts. As 2015 opens, I intend to get back in the groove and dedicate the time and energy necessary to keep things lively here in my tiny little corner of the internet.

 

First and foremost, I will be continuing to make 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons a major part of this blog. Both Magical Mondays and Wicked Wednesdays will continue. Much of the work I do on that front will be based on developing content for The Valley of Tombs, my “massive multiplayer table top RPG” that should see plenty of play in 2015. Most notably, I have  six four hour slots set up at TotalCon in Mansfield, MA this February 19-22. With 24 hours of play and potentially 48 unique players, I want to have lots of content on hand. In addition I am going to be occasionally be developing content for the Valley Obsidian Portal Page, which I hope to use to build interest for the game.

 

While D&D is certainly a passion of mine and a big part of this blog, I will continue to provide the occasional unsolicited rant, non-review or opinionated screed of any geeky thing that strikes my fancy. Sometimes I will even make a cogent point or two. We live in a time when geeky subjects have gone mainstream and larger cultural issues collide with niche interests, whether it is the intersection of feminism and video games or questions regarding the less palatable views of genre titans like Lovecraft. As nerds, geeks and dweebs, we are all affected by these issues in some way or another, and they are worth talking about.

 

Finally, 2015 will be a year of refocusing on my own fiction writing. I don’t know how much of that will show up here. I don’t intend to make this blog a showcase of my fiction like I had in the past, but I will certainly be talking about it and whatever process in which I engage. I plan on writing one novel this year, but I have a lot of world building ahead of me before I can even hope to start writing. I may give self publishing short stories a try, and if I do I’ll surely be fretting about that process here.

 

Happy New Year and thanks, as usual, for reading.

Interactivity and Entertainment:Thoughts on Telltale’s Game of Thrones

I’ll open with Full Disclosure: I have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. At least, I have not ead all of it. I did read A Game of Thrones and get halfway through its sequel, A Clash of Kings, before my interest in Martin’s characters and world building was overcome by my impatience to see the story told. Therefore, my familiarity with the series is primarily rooted in the HBO television series — which is good, because Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones adventure game exists in the television universe, rather than the literary one.

 

The first episode (we’ll get to that in a moment) is titled Iron from Ice. My intent is not to review it — there is a good one here at GameSpot for those who are interested — but suffice it to say I very much enjoyed it and found it compelling enough to write this post based on my experiences with it. I played it while on a four hour flight home from San Juan, entirely in one two and a half hour or so sitting, which makes it about as long as one might expect a film to be but it felt just about the same length as an episode of the television show.  Just a note: I played it on an iPad 2, which meant it did not look great and the frame rate was a little choppy, but I do not think it impacted the experience too negatively. I plan on purchasing the complete series for either my PS3 or my gaming PC, so neither of those issues should be a concern for future episodes.

 

Before I continue, I encourage you, if you have not played the game itself or read a thorough review, to go to the GameSpot review linked above and give it a read before continuing — or, better yet, head over to Steam, the App Store or other game retailer of your choice and pick it up and play through it once. First of all, I do not intend to recap the story in detail (though there may be more than a few SPOILERS for the game in the rest of this post) and second, I am responding to the nature of adventure games in general, Telltale games in specific and this one in particular when I am discussing “Interactivity and Entertainment.”

 

That all said, let’s get right to the core of the matter: Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 1 – Iron from Ice is  a story which the audience experiences both passively (just like the television show, for example) and interactively (like a more traditional video game). I know that is a little controversial to say, but allow me to explain : Iron from Ice is a story because it has all the qualities of a story (a plot, character, setting, themes, mood, and so on) and while the interactive elements are compelling, they ultimately only have a superficial impact on how the story plays out. The story elements, while mutable to an extent, still exist as prescribed by the creators, so the “game” aspect of it is mostly an illusion. This is true of most adventure games, though most adventure games rely less on story on more on discrete puzzles to engage the player. This is also true of many games that do not even fall within the genre of “adventure game.” A game like the original God of War, for example, is mostly a linear series of set pieces that must be solved in a specific manner (aka puzzles) and a specific order, with frenetic combat thrown in to make it seem more like what we usually think of as a “game.” By contrast, something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more game than story. There is a main quest line, of course, and a number of subplots all prescribed and populated, but all of those can be ignored in favor of looting dungeons, hunting dragons, collecting books or a million other things. While the game-story dividing line is broad and blurry (with even Skyrim only just on the “game” side compared to something like Pong) but Iron from Ice very clearly rests comfortably on the “story” side of the line. If you disagree, I encourage you to let me know in the comments or on the facebook page where we can discuss it further, but for now I am going to move forward with this definition in mind.

 

An interesting aspect of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is that these properties are highly successful television shows (of course spawned from comic books and novels, respectively) with well established and consistent tones, atmospheres and styles. Both shows leverage not only the source material but deviating from the source material, and each uses surprise and even shock to enhance its storytelling (rather than to replace the need for good storytelling, as a lot of lesser shows and films will do).

Exhibit A — Reactions to the “Red Wedding” on the  Game of Thrones television show:

 

You do not get this sort of visceral response unless the audience is fully invested in the story, which in itself is a sort of interactivity in the fiction. It seems inevitable, then, that the next logical step is the more properly interactive, immersive and invested world of electronic games for these properties: it is no longer enough to gasp at the knife as it is drawn across the throat, but also to be responsible for it by choosing the words and actions of the character whose life now flows freely onto the cold stone floor.

 

In both Game of Thrones and Walking dead, the story that telltale creates centers not around the protagonists of the existing properties (though many of those characters weave in an out of the stories) and instead star new characters. These characters are carefully integrated into their respective worlds and, especially in Game of Throne, echo archetypes from the source material, but new characters provides both a sense of ownership for the player as they make choices for those characters, but also a sense of uncertainty important to their properties.  Both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead have made it clear that no one is safe. A new character otherwise unconnected from the source narrative means an unknown fate and, by that, potential doom at any point. After all, the game presents enough other characters — you control four in Iron from Ice and a fifth is strongly hinted at — that sudden death does not necessarily mean rebooting to the last save. All of this combined for a more immersive experience.

 

The interactivity fuels that immersion and is fueled by it. Often, when the player chooses dialog or an action for the character they currently control a little note appears in the corner, telling the player that this character or that noticed it or will remember it. It says to the player, “Your choices matter,” even if they really do not. And, ultimately, that the player thinks the choices matter is far more important to their enjoyment than that those choices do matter. The stories are so well crafted that the apparent choices seem to lead naturally to the outcomes presented, even if those outcomes are prescribed anyway. Therefore, the interactivity of it, the choosing it and being immersed by it and feeling connected to the characters and the world, is both the goal and the means to the goal. Yes, Telltale has a story to relate, but you are responsible for getting there and along the way you find yourself deeply connected to the events of that narrative.

 

I think there will always be a place for passive entertainment — reading a great book, watching a great movie or listening to a great album. But technology has finally gotten to a place where a whole new world of truly interactive, immersive entertainment — going for beyond simple stories and games, I think — sits before us. Telltale has managed to dare us to dip out toe into that future.

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 2

 

Last time, I discussed my take on the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules themselves. What follows is a more specific discussion of running The Valley Of Tombs at CarnageCon as a persistent open world exploration adventure, a “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” if you will.

 

The Valley of Tombs

 

Figuring out what to run at a convention can be very difficult. I know that I much prefer run games than to play them: for every good game I play, there are two that are boring or uncomfortable or just plain bad. Ultimately, I want to be that game that is good for other players, and in any case I love running RPGs. It’s too bad there is not career in it.

 

Last year at Carnage I ran a two part Mutant Future adventure (“Out of the Freezer/Into the Fridge”) and I found that I really liked running multipart games. At the same time, that I was trying to decide what to run this year, I was playing a lot of Skyrim and the open world, exploration based adventure design that is so fundamental to that game really inspired me to try and recreate the experience on tabletop. The result, it would turn out, was The Valley of Tombs.

 

From a player’s perspective, the Valley setup is simple: an ancient region used over eons as a resting place for the mighty has been rediscovered, setting off a “gold rush” like race for not only riches but forgotten knowledge and ancient power. Player characters are contractors with the Finder’s Guild, which serves the dual purpose of giving them a place to fence their recovered loot (*for a 10% fee, of course) and a way to connect with like minded fellow explorers. They also pay for the simple act of discovery, using a magical journal and map. The players, of course, fill in the map and write in the journal, with the goal of creating a base from which future groups of players at different events where I run the Valley can start their own adventures.

 

I was very lucky at Carnage in that I had a very enthusiastic journal keeper who also happened to be present (with her husband) for each of the five slots I ran. That they were great role players who brought a lot to the table as well was gravy.

 

Prior to the convention, I had planned on creating the entire Valley, stocked top to bottom with interesting locations and encounters. That proved to be far too ambitious a goal, however — especially with taking classes for the first time in 10 years (not to mention the usual family and professional responsibilities). Instead, I sketched out the immutable features of the Valley (terrain and settlement locations that would not be changing) and created a few dozen encounters, both location based and “wandering” encounters. In the end, I think it worked out for the best.

 

Had I assigned every interesting location a hex in advance, the possibility that the players might accidentally sidestep the “fun stuff” was there. In addition, it would deprive me of my favorite thing about being a Dungeon Master: playing to your small, captive audience of players and giving them a tailored experience. Like many of the open world video RPGs that inspire it, the Valley is chock full of things to see and do (and kill!) but those things are not necessarily nailed down to a single location. That said, the experience at Carnage has helped me devise a balanced approach to exploration and storytelling that should make the experience even more fun for future groups.

 

I am not a fan of the “adventure path” style of play that currently pervades the RPG hobby. I much prefer stories to emerge out of events that occur at the table. Certainly, prep work is necessary and story seeds need to be spread liberally over the fertile soil of player imagination (to take a metaphor way too far) but too much predetermination is counterproductive. In my experience players have more fun if they feel like they are driving the narrative with their choices and actions. These two elements — the things in the world and how the players choose to interact with them — combine with the game system itself (not least of which is the randomness inherent in the dice) to result in “story.” Sometimes a character’s story ends with her at the bottom of a pit, pierced by goblin punji sticks, and sometime it ends with her slaying the dragon and saving the prince. In an adventure like Valley of the Tombs, either story is as likely as the other.

 

Some numbers from Carnage: I ran 5 slots of the Valley, for a total of 20 hours of play. I had 12 or 13 players total. Two players played every slot and 6 players played at least 2 slots. Only one PC died (dammitall). A total of 12 adventuring days occurred, during which about 20 hexes were explored. One “dungeon” was explored, consuming an entire slot, and another (the apparent prison of “The Lord of the Pit”) was found and the key to opening it unlocked, but the players chose not to open it. Player characters present for every session earned 3000 XP.

The Valley of Tombs was a joy to run and the slots at Carnage taught me a lot about how to make it even better. I will run it a few times between now and February, when I bring the Valley to TotalCon for 6 slots — 24 hours of hexploration and adventure!