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!

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 1

At CarnageCon in Killington VT a few weeks ago, I was finally able to run my Valley of Tombs game. This is a 5th Edition D&D game designed to feel like playing an open world CRPG (like Skyrim) with an ongoing continuity and ever-expanding setting. I refer to it as my Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG (MMTTRPG). AT Carnage, I ran a grand total of five slots (20 hours) and I just submitted the same event for TotalCon in Mansfield, MA in February (this time, 6 slots or 24 hours of table time).

 

I thought I would talk about my experiences at Carnage, both with the 5th Edition D&D rules and with the MMTTRPG format, as well as my hopes for TotalCon and the time between now and then. This post focuses on my experiences with the 5E game itself, while the next will go into how The Valley of Tombs ran.

 

5th Edition

 

Finally having run the game for more than a single session (plus one floundering fight versus a Tarrasque very early on), I can say that D&D 5E is probably my second favorite edition of the game, after BECM (you never forget your first) and just ahead of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It is unsurprising, then, that 5E feels very much like a blend between those two (seasoned to taste by various rules and systems found in every other edition of the game a few besides). It is possible that given enough time with the game, it will in fact become my favorite version of the game, but only time will tell. In the meantime, it is enough to say that I would rather run 5E than either AD&D or Pathfinder.

 

The primary reason is that 5E feels clean. Its systems are easy to grasp and run relatively quickly and smoothly. The core mechanics are intuitive and well integrated (with the very strange exception of the cover rules, which don’t seem to jive with the overall design goals) and it is a game that not only enables Dungeon Master input and interpretation, but demands it. There are of course some fiddly rules that take some effort to remember, it being a new edition and all, and it is easy sometimes to revert to some previous edition or Pathfinder rule. Part of the beauty, though, is that doing so will not very likely break the game and there are even a few rules from those games (gold = XP perhaps, or Pathfinder’s disease mechanics) that would enhance 5E play.

 

Character creation is easy. I found a nice little online character generator to help speed the process, but I had previously created some characters by hand with the PHB and it took about an hour to create a 20th level character: 30 minutes to create the base 1st level character and another 30 to level the character all the way up to 20. The choices after 1st level are limited, usually one or two things per level (perhaps more for spell casters), so it is a quick process to create a high level PC. That said, at least so far the game is missing a few things usually associated with creating high level PCs, like a suggestion as to how much and what sort of equipment a higher level character might have, but this is not insurmountable. The apparent default assumption of the game is that characters are not expected to possess dozens of magic items and weapons, and the math in the game is designed to flatten the power curve and reduce the importance of items on character capability. Much of this is dependent on information probably found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (coming soon!) and that book will likely answer some questions as well as inspire a few.

 

We played without a battle mat or a grid (though we did occasionally use a little sketch on paper to illustrate relative positioning). Because the game is more strategic than tactical, it worked well. Simply asking players what their intent was and being accommodating but tough made combat move quickly and with no want for tension. Rather than counting squares, players were trying to figure out ways to gain Advantage, which suited me just fine.

 

Advantage and Disadvantage are, to me, the single most inspired aspects of the 5th Edition rules. Simply put, Advantage provides a bonus on an attack roll, skill check or saving throw in the form of rolling two d20 dice and taking the better result. Likewise, disadvantage affects the same kinds of rolls in the same way except that the the lower result is taken. Some character abilities, such as the rogue’s sneak attack, interact with Advantage or Disadvantage in specific ways, but otherwise the system is unencumbered by a large number of associated rules. One official rule I did immediately dispense with was the idea that one Advantage or Disadvantage inducing circumstance would negate any number of the opposite, and instead I went with a broader view: i.e. do all the circumstances of the moment suggest Advantage, Disadvantage, or an essentially balanced circumstance. It worked well and while players would sometimes try to negotiate for Advantage or against Disadvantage, I considered this a good thing that increased their engagement and added to everyone’s fun.

 

Related to advantage is a system called Inspiration, which basically provides a “free” Advantage based on things related to character goals, flaws and so on. Because we were using pregenerated PCs, I decided to dispense with giving Inspiration based on play acting and instead gave it for being generally awesome and increasing everyone else’s fun (whether through melodrama or humor or heroics or whatever) or for bring me, the DM, coffee or beer. Shamed as I am to admit it, I am bribable. I also use a special d30 for Inspiration and the rule is only one person can be in possession of that d30 at a time (meaning no one else can acquire Inspiration until the holder of the d30 uses it) but you can always use the d30 for another player’s roll. It worked well, except in a few instances players sat on their Inspiration for most of a session and so it did not see a lot of use in some sessions.
Overall, D&D 5E is a well designed, fun game that speaks to my style of play. It probably is not for everyone, especially since it is moderately dependent upon DM calls and it does not have the deep well of player character options that some people really like, but it is a good game. I look forward to mastering the system a little more every time I run it and finding places where rules from other games or editions enhance play.

Wicked Wednesday: Madra Nocht

Madra Nocht is a night hag who dwells in the Valley of Tombs, between the growing frontier towns of Threshold and Minehold. She is a creature of pure evil and she is as cunning as she is wicked. She is also immortal, endless and ageless. Her schemes touch nearly everything in the Valley, either as her handiwork or her allies, or something to be discarded or destroyed.

 

Her cabin is located aside a gently flowing stream. It is a small simple structure with an herb garden and a porch on which a dog sleeps. Only upon closer inspection can visitors see that only poisonous plants grow in the garden and the dog is in fact a three-headed Death Hound gnawing on too-small bones. By then it is too late, for Madra Nocht emerges from her dwelling, soul sack hanging at her side and wickedness glinting in her eyes. She may not attack the trespassers immediately — she is very likely not to, in fact — but she is a predator to be sure and is sizing up her prey. No mad beast, Madra Nocht needs pawns and servants, sport and playthings and she will take pains to determine which her visitors may be. Unlike some of her kind, she never hides her gruesome visage behind an illusion of beauty. She revels in the terror she creates and loves nothing more than the moment of horror when her victims first see her — except perhaps their last, terrified gasps for breath.

 

Madra Nocht needs not eat or sleep. She never does the latter, and is always up late into the night ranging from dream to dream in search of nightmares to empower and innocents to torture. She sees and manipulates them through her cauldron. The former, she does indulge on occasion. Usually, she limits her indulgence to children (which she has the local goblin tribes snatch from their beds for her) but she may make an exception for particularly troublesome guests. If she or her Death Dog subdues a would be hero, she devours them slowly over days, keeping them alive to watch her cook their flesh and feed their bones to her pet until the last thing they see is a fork coming into their eye. But that is a rare fate, reserved for the most egregiously uncouth Madra Nocht is an immortal and a power and she demands respect.

 

As stated, she needs servants to carry out her will in Valley, willing and otherwise. She threatens, promises and cajoles, lies and manipulates and entices. She has much to offer, from wealth for the greedy to hope for the forlorn to simple desire for survival. When that does not work, she shreds off pieces of a victim’s soul and holds it as ransom until some particular deed she might need done is complete. Attacking her is both futile and suicidal: if threatened, she simply escapes into the Ethereal Plane where dreams and nightmares live. If one can manage to kill her before she can escape, she is not destroyed: her body turns to smoke and she is trapped in the Ethereal until the next new moon. In either case, she follows such a defeat immediately with revenge. She hunts through the land of dreams until she finds her attackers and slowly, with horrifying pleasure, turns all their hopes to ash and eats away at their souls until they are but husks of themselves, at which point she commands these empty vessels to do such horrid and vile things that whatever is left of the victim goes mad with guilt and terror.

 

Game Rules: Madra Nocht is a fairly typical Night Hag as presented in the Monster Manual (page 178) with a few minor but significant tweaks. In addition to the usual night hag innate spellcasting abilities, Madra Nocht is an accomplished ritualist and brewer. She can cast nearly any spell that is available as a ritual and can brew any potion. She never uses potions herself and rarely uses ritual spells for her own benefit; rather, these are tools she uses to bribe would be servants and punish those who defy her. Also, Madra Nocht may plane shift at will between the Prime Material and the Ethereal only. She may do so as a bonus action if she is wounded and automatically does so if she is reduced to 0 hit points.

 

In addition to the normal effect of her Nightmare power, anyone affected by it becomes a sort of thrall to her. She cannot control their actions but gains the ability to read their minds, scan their memories and use their senses from afar. A victim who takes psychic damage from the ability gains a level of exhaustion is addition to the other effects and anyone reduced to 0 hit points by the power becomes a wight under Madra Nocht’s control.

 

Madra Nocht is considered CR 7 for defeating her in a single encounter or adventure, but given that she is immortal and driven by revenge, characters may gain XP for defeating her more than once (DM’s discretion) on a separate occasion.

 

Her pet is a Death Dog (page 321) with three heads (and therefore three bite attacks) rather than two. The save DC on it’s disease is 14 Constitution and it causes 2d6 permanent damage rather than 1d10. It has a CR of 2.

 

At Carnage Con, Madra Nocht used her nightmare power and threats to consume the soul of a part member in order to cajole them into attacking a group of harpies who were preying on Madra Nocht’s goblin servants. This is an example of the kinds of thing she might require PCs to do for her, rather than just try and kill them outright.

Magical Monday: Treasures of the Timeless Tower

My 5th Edition open world “massive multiplayer table top RPG” The Valley of the Tombs (VotT) finally saw actual play this weekend at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. While I will have a full write up based on the event in the near future, I thought I would use an element from VotT for this week’;s Magical Monday.

 

Among the location discovered by the adventurers during the 20 hours of VotT I ran this weekend was the Timeless Tower. Located atop a large hill that may or may not be a giant king’s barrow mound, out from which metallic smelling springs flow here and there, the Timeless Tower is a quat structure, just 50 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter at the base. From a distance it seems mundane, if in exceedingly good shape for being located in the ancient, lost region known as the Valley of the Tombs. Upon closer inspection (after dealing with the flock of Perytons living atop the tower) it becomes obvious that although vegetation has grown up on the stones, they are as perfect as the day they were hewn. In fact, the entire tower is unperturbed by the elements or the passage of time (hence the nom de guerre). In fact, the windows allow both light a wind through but no precipitation may pass into the tower through them — and adventurers, they too may pass with ease.

 

Haunted by the unquiet spirit of an abused servant and her daughter and full of tricks and traps laid by the vicious former owner, the Timeless Tower is a brief but engaging adventure locale in the Valley. It’s real worth is in its treasures, I think, so I present them here:

 

The Bookstand is exactly as it sounds: an ornate wooden device intended to be placed on a desk and table and upon which a book is supposed to be put for easier reading. The bookstand has a powerful enchantment upon it, however. Anyone who places a book on the stand gains a magical psychic link to the contents of the book. Whatever language the book is written in, the user of the stand may understand its contents (note that it does not actually translate the book so onlookers gain no special insight). Moreover, the user may magically turn to any page or even find any subject within the book with but a thought. Finally and most impressively, the user may consume the entire contents of the volume. It is a temporary effect, lasting only one minute, but in that time the user may call upon the knowledge and make a related skill roll (usually Aracan, Religion, or Nature but technically any knowledge based skill check is possible) with advantage. As soon as the knowledge is used, the information leaves the user’s mind. While the book stand may be used any number of times per day, the process of consuming an entire volume of information is mentally exhausting and any character who does so suffers a level of exhaustion for any such uses after the first. Note that the stand can be used to comprehend any written work that can fit on it, from tomes to maps to scrawled notes.

 

The Wine Chiller is a curious magical construct. A beautifully crafted silver wine bucket on a three legged stand, the wine chiller is magically enchanted in two ways. First, the interior of the bucket is always frosty cool and any bottle or other vessel placed inside is instantly chilled to the perfect temperature for consumption (it will not heat liquids, however, nor will it freeze them solid). In addition, the chiller walks around on its three legs attempting to service anyone within 30 feet. It is a stupid construct and does not know whether there is a bottle in its bucket, let alone if the subject of its attention possesses a wine glass. It merely stands by a subject for a minute or so, then moves on to another subject, visiting everyone within range and then starting the process over again. There are command words to make it be still or to come immediately, but they are long forgotten. The wine chiller seems ties to the parlor in which it was found and ceases to move of its own accord if removed, though the bucket remains chilled. It is likely it merely needs to be attuned to a location with another lost command word. It would fetch a pretty platinum to the right noble buyer should one discover the command words.

 

The Imperial Suite is a whole room that is a magical creation. Located on the second floor of the tower in a space no larger than a linen closet, the Imperial suite is actually a vast apartment in an extradimensional space. Through the open door a viewer can see the opulent room, with is huge bed and massive hearth, multiple soft couches and exquisite marble bath. Upon passing over the threshold, they find themselves teleported to the center of the room, at least 50 feet from the door. The room is warm but never uncomfortable and smells of perfume and pleasure. It is large enough to comfortably sleep six on the various couches and bed, but a small army could camp within if they rested on the floor. In either case, anyone who takes a short rest within the room recovers as if from a long rest, and anyone who takes a long rest within the room loses two levels of exhaustion and regains all used hit dice. No one can gain the magical benefit of any rest, short or long, more than once in 24 hours (although one could take a short rest to gain the benefits of a long rest and then later come back and take an actual, unmodified long rest later in the same 24 hour period). The suite is, sadly, immobile, and not apparently accessible from any location on any plane other than through the doorway to the room.

 

The Timeless Tower was full of other magical object, most enhanced versions of mundane items. The owner of the tower, whoever he was (it is known to be a he based on the depredations he performed against the servant and their daughter) left with most items of real power or value, apparently a very long time ago and with careful intention. Perhaps he will one day return and be miffed that some of his favorite baubles are missing.

 

Please come back on Wednesday when I give an overview of Madra Nocht, a night hag who haunts the Valley and has a penchant for manipulation and intra-monster politics.

 

The Flash: Doing Super Heroics Right on TV

 

Full Disclosure: The Flash is my second favorite super-hero (Superman being my favorite) as well as the one that got me into reading comics. Way back in 1990, I was in love with the John Wesley Shipp Flash television show. During its run, I found a copy of Flash #50 on news stand of my local general store.

As you can see, that is quite the cover. Inside, I was not only introduced to the wonderful world of comic books (sure, I had read a few here and there, but I was a scie-fi, fantasy and gaming geek, dammit, not one of those comic book nerds) but given my first lesson in the rules of adaptation: that is, nothing is sacred. On television, the Flash was Barry Allen; in the comic, the Flash was Wally West. There was a relationship between the two, something familial, even fatherly, but I could not parse it from the limited information provided. Some support characters were the same, or at least had the same names, and the TV Barry had some things in common with the comic book Wally (needing lots of food for energy, for example) but it would be months before I figured out which were chickens and which were eggs. In the end, though, none of those details mattered: a comic book reading, super-hero loving geek was born! It was as if I looked at my D&D books and fantasy novels and thought, “Nope, not enough, there is still a chance I might accidentally get laid.”

 

Flash forward (I am SO sorry) 25 years and The Flash is once again on television and is once again fueling my comic book super-hero nerdity. I never stopped reading comics and I have maintained a pull list at the same awesome Cave Comics for well over a decade now. That said, for the last few years I have been estranged from the majority of super hero comics, including my beloved Superman and Flash (among many, many others). Long story short: the Event Treadmill that consumed DC Comics for years starting with Identity Crisis, moving through Final Crisis and finally rebooting the Dc multiverse entirely with Flashpoint wore me out. I just wanted good stories starring the heroes I loved, not universe shaking event and universe shaking event. After all those, I dropped DC Comics entirely, never moving on to the New 52. Marvel, which I had read only intermittently anyway, was in the throws of its own Event Treadmill, from Civil War to the Secret Invasion and beyond, so I decided to take a year hiatus from both companies. When I did return, I followed creators instead of companies, picking up Mark Waid‘s Daredevil and Indestructible Hulk as they debuted with new Marvel Now #1 issues, as well as the return of the amazing Astro City by Kurt Busiek.

 

But I am nothing if not a fickle nerd and first my pull box and then my “to-read” shelf started to fill up with unread comics. It is something of a pattern with me. I will cycle between geek preferences, from video games to table-top games to comics to prose sci-fi and fantasy and back again. This time, though, my time away from comics was longer than it had been for any number of these “cycles.” Judging by the number of Astro City books on my shlef, unread, it had been at least a year since I had read any of the books I bought (and probably longer if the number of Waid’s Daredevil issues were any indication). That is a long time and a lot of comics.

 

In the last two weeks I have cleared out my to-read shelf and even started looking for new and interesting super-hero titles to start following. Why? The title of this post may be a hint: The Flash on the CW.

 

The Flash is not the first comic book super hero TV show to recently attract first my attention and then my slavish dedication. I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it is called, and therefore started watching Agents of SHIELD with great expectations when it premiered last fall. Also last year  I started watching Arrow, which I had avoided in its first season because it was a CW show (I watched Smallville for 6 seasons before the pretty people soap opera was too much to bear). I started watching Arrow exactly because it promised to introduce Barry Allen early in its second season, so I figured I could give it a few episodes just to see. Very soon, I was hooked, in no small part due to the depiction of Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator. Rarely has a comic book adaptation nailed a character so perfectly. Also, I just liked Arrow. It was the best Batman show we could hope for. (Come on, the main villain organization is Ra’s al Ghul‘s League of Assassins and it is about a revenge driven billionaire with mommy and daddy issues.)

 

All that said, neither SHIELD nor Arrow, or even The Walking Dead, reinvigorated that comics love. The back issues continued to pile up. (I did, however, seek out Walt Simonson’s Thor run after seeing Thor: The Dark World. Weird, that.) No, it was not until Flash premiered a few weeks ago that I got the super-hero big again and started burning through my unread comics, but also firing up my Marvel Unlimited subscription, which had sat largely unused for the better part of a year, to dabble in various series. (As an aside, if DC Comics would create a similar service, I would be an instant lifetime subscriber. There are so many great DC Comics not collected in trades from the 70s, 80s and 90s that it would take a lifetime to read through them all.) The strength of the show is its unabashed love of the genre. Where Arrow tries to bring super heroics down to the ground and revels in its gritty (dare I say, “Batman-esque?”) tone, The Flash on the CW is openly and proudly a comic book super hero television show, bright red costumes and villains with goofy code names included. But it is not a joke or a parody or even particularly self referential. It knows what it is, knows that its audience appreciates what it is, and treats both with both a wink and respect. By contrast, the other new DC comics inspired show, Gotham, is confused in its tone, part noirish Nolan-Batman and part weirdo Burton-Batman. (I love Gotham, too, but despite its tone, not because of it.) None of which would matter if star Grant Gustin did not infuse his Barry Allen with such charm and depth.

 

If you have not given The Flash a try and you love super hero comics and television, I implore you to do so. It really is a great achievement in the genre and for me at least, the shot in the arm an old comics fan needed to remember how grerat comics can be when they are about great characters in great stories, not just big events.