Bow Before The PANTHEON

Turns on lights. Taps mic. “Hello? Is anyone still here?”

The end of 2018 was one bitch of a ride. I finished my schooling, changed jobs and started writing RPG material again. In all that mess, this blog got lost — but never forgotten! Now that I have settled into work, school is over (FOREVER!) and I have found a groove with game writing, I hope to get back to this. It’s been too long since I have yelled into the void just to hear my own echo.

 

The first new business of 2019 is The Savage Sign. It is a quarterly publication for Sigil Entertainment  full of all kinds of wonderful goodies for the Savage Worlds RPG system. The Savage Sign is in the middle of a Kickstarter right now to fund its first issue. Go have a look! Among other things, and with plenty of help from some very talented designers, editors, writers and artists, I have been creating the super hero setting Pantheon. The setting is inspired by the work of my favorite comic book creators, including Warren Ellis, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison and Kurt Busiek. It is four color heroics in a world full of secrets. And like any good comic book story, it won’t be done in one. We plan to support and expand PANTHEON all through the year, leading to something big in 2020.

 

Expect to hear more about this project as time goes on, as well as some other cool super hero stuff I have in the works.

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The High Guard

A decade ago, the dragon Zaskettr returned from the grave and in a rain of fire and death killed the High King, destroyed the capital and thrust the island nation of Maroester into chaos and ruin. There were those sword to defend the king and the realm, but they had grown aloof and self interested. Their great battles were won, they thought, and they retired to their villas and their self interests. They were not there that day when the dragon returned. they were not there for their king.

Maroester was discovered 250 years ago by the Vastlund Empire. The local inhabitants — called the paku, or halfling in the Vastlund tongue — were quickly pacified and assimilated while Vastlund’s slave race — the uyghur, or “orc” — was imported to build the Empire’s newest colony. This island held secrets, however, and in the wild forests and deep mountains and jagged dells there lived other beings. These were the races of the fae, the Fair Folk — haughty and wicked elves, crafty and suspicious dwarves, wild and mischievous gnomes, dark and murderous goblins and many more besides.

But neither the paku nor the fae races were the first to settle Maroester. Something older lived there, something woven into the land and tied to the fabric of magic itself. Ruins cover the island and deep within them lie secrets far older than either mortal or fae, and far more dangerous than either.

Nearly a century years ago, the Empire retreated from Maroester. Some calamity befell the Empire at home and the fleet and the legions left. Only the Margraves — something like barons — and there sworn retainers were left to maintain order. It was not enough. The island quickly devolved into civil war as the Margraves fought one another for control, the orc slaves rebelled and the fae worked their dark tricks on men.

Margrave Emrys Wellard became High King of Maroester when he killed the dragon Zaskettr and used its hoard to consolidate power: some Margraves he bought off and others he raised armies to defeat. He freed the orc slaves and gave them there own lands in the rugged center of the island and he brokered peace with those elves and dwarves who might treat with him. After a seven year campaign, he forged a prosperous nation that could survive the abandonment of the Vastlund Empire. Among his most trusted allies and favored servants were the High Guard — heroes of their own lands and regions and people that gathered under his banner to bring peace to Maroester. they were diverse in kind and objective, but all chose willingly to serve the High King for the sake of Maroester.

For forty years the High king ruled and peace reigned. The High Guard subdued rivals and defeated monsters from the wilds, tamed wild fae and delved secrets in the ancient ruins. But eventually peace got the better of them all and they parted ways and retired. That was when Zaskettr struck. No one knows how the wyrm returned from the dead , but it came back more powerful than it had ever been. It destroyed the capital of Bishop’s Gate and killed the High King and his court. The smoldering ruins of the king’s castle are its lair and the Molten Throne is its most prized treasure. And with the death of the High King, the unified land of Maroester crumbles. The Margraves fight amongst themselves while the old animosities between men, halflings, orcs and fae reignite. Dark monstrosities in the wilderness walk freely and the dragon’s presence sends magical energies and ley lines into choas.

 

Now more than ever, Maroester needs the High Guard.

 

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right

About a year ago, I wrote a little post about Superman versus Cthulhu.  It was not merely an idle musing on how to marry the bright four color world of superheroics and the hopeless ennui of eldritch horror — it was the thesis for my work on the Strange Arcana universe from Sigil Entertainment and Aaron Acevedo. At the time, I was seriously considering doing some RPG self publishing and knew I would need some art for any such project. I tossed out a call on Facebook to get recommendations for royalty free art. Aaron, with whom I had worked in writing a story for his Maelstrom fiction anthology, suggested we team up and the rest is history. Strange History, in fact.

 

I did my first professional RPG writing for White Wolf Publishing (who didn’t, right?) on the kitchen sink, dialed-up-to-eleven epic fantasy RPG Exalted. Later I did some work for the d20 reboot of the famous post apocalyptic science fantasy game Gamma World. Unfortunately, real life got in the way when my kids arrived and I could not sustain a freelance RPG career. I always missed it, though, and when Aaron proposed an opportunity to get back into that world, I was ecstatic. And terrified.

 

It wasn’t easy. Writing for games is entirely different than writing fiction, and I had spend the intervening years focusing on fiction in hopes of one day Making It Big. (Spoiler alert: I am still hoping.) What was originally supposed to be a short turn around job has become a year long odyssey through this world of super heroes and malevolent forces. While the idea and the world belong entirely to Aaron, I feel a sense of kinship with the world we have developed. Both super heroes and Lovecraftian monsters are easily misused — both are subject to tired tropes and cliched stories. But I think our little team, which has grown well beyond Aaron and I, has found a way to make both new and fresh while simultaneously creating a world that blends the two and is more than the sum of its parts.

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right is only the first piece of that world we want to share with you. It is a fiction anthology, culminating in a beautifully illustrated comic book, that introduces the weird world and strange heroes. It will be followed in early 2017 with the Strange Arcana RPG for Savage Worlds (and, if we hit our goals, hopefully Mutants and Masterminds and FATE as well!) and, we hope anyway, a long line of support.

I love fantasy and I love post apocalypse and I love cosmic horror, but no genre hits all the cylinders for me like comic book super heroes. It draws on all the genres we love and at the same time remakes them. And more than any other genre, it demands complex characters — those secret identities, love interests and recurring villains are there for a reason, after all. With the infusion of its own take on eldritch horror (far more than a simple Lovecraft retread) Strange Arcana promises to reinvent the super hero genre for years to come.

 

Get in on the ground floor. Back Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right Kickstarter. I guarantee that by the time you finish the anthology you will be clamoring for more.

Summon Boredom Elemental

Long story short: I have an introductory AutoCAD class that is required for the degree I am pursuing. I also use AutoCAD most every day, all day, and have for close to 20 years now. Thus was born:

 

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Cute, ain’t he? It’s like the smoke monster from Lost and Krumm from Ahh! Real Monsters got it on and had themselves an abominable baby boy. Since I went to all the trouble of trying not to fall asleep, I figured I might as well stat the little darling up for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

 

Ravenous Cloud

Huge Elemental, neutral

Armor Class 15

Hit Points 130 (20d8+40)

Speed 40 ft., Fly 40 ft. (hover)

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Str 20 (+4) Dex 14 (+2) Con 14 (+2) Int 8 (-1) Wis 16 (+3) Cha 11 (+0)

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Skills Perception +9, Stealth +8
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities poison
Condition Immunities exhaustion, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained, unconscious
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 18
Languages Auran, understands Common but doesn’t speak it
Challenge 6 (2,300 XP)

Special Traits:

Cloud Form The ravenous cloud can pass through spaces occupied by other creatures and stop there. Any creature within the cloud’s space has disadvantage on any ability checks and attacks that rely on normal sight. It can also pass through openings as small as 1 inch in diameter.

Actions:

Multiattack The ravenous cloud can make 2 slam attacks and one bite attack on its turn.

Slam: Melee weapon attack, +8 to hit, reach 10 ft, 1 target. Hit: 16 (3d6+6) bludgeoning damage

Bite: Melee weapon attack, +6 to hit, reach 5 ft, 1 target. Hit:  26 (4d8+8) piercing damage

Scan: In place of its slam attacks, the ravenous cloud may scan its surrounding for invisible foes. This acts like see invisibility with a range of 120 feet but only lasts for one round. (Recharge 4-6 on 1d6)

Hailing from the elemental plane of air, ravenous clouds are alpha predators from that windswept realm. On their home plane, their primary prey are invisible stalkers and even when found on the Prime Material they prefer that above other meals. As their name implies, though, ravenous clouds are constantly hungry and will stalk and devour whatever they can.

 

Unlike invisible stalkers, ravenous clouds are not easily summoned and bound by spellcasters. Sometimes an attempt to summon an air elemental goes awry and a ravenous cloud appears, usually attacking and devouring the summoner. More often these monsters slip through places where the veil is thin between the plane of Elemental Air and the Prime. They are dumb, hungry brutes with whom negotiation in impossible. They can be distracted with prey of their favored sort, however, and are capable of enough low reasoning to be intentionally redirected in that way.

 

Ravenous clouds are not tactically savvy, choosing enemies seemingly at random but with a strong preference for those that use stealth or invisibility. If there is an invisible stalker within sight of the ravenous cloud’s scan ability, it will attack that enemy regardless of what other threats are present.

The 5E OGL Is Here!

Yes, those are orcs dancing the dance of joy. Just like me!

 

Had you asked me two days ago, i would have said that Wizards of the Coast would never repeat the “mistake” of 3rd Edition and create and Open Gaming License and a System Reference Document for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons — no matter how much I wanted one.

 

It has never felt so right to be so wrong.

 

As explained in this ENWorld thread, WotC has not only opened up 5E to the Open Gaming community, but has created a marketplace for commercial, fan generated adventures and other materials in D&D’s own Forgotten Realms called the Dungeon Master’s Guild. It is going to take some time before we know whether this produces a glut of terrible products like the d20 Boom of 2001, or if it will provide a steady stream of quality material. Expect the former, hope for the latter, and you can’t be disappointed, I say!

 

What I will say is this: a strong OGL for 5th Edition is not merely a good thing but, I think, is fundamental to a long life for the edition. 5E is a great version of the game, no question about it, and is a market leader. But it is a leader in a progressively more niche market. A lot of people are “in the know” regarding D&D due to the rise of geek chic over the last decade or so, but if you ask most of those people what edition it’s on you would get blank stares in return. Even the savviest nerd among them is as likely to tell you, “Uh, Baldur’s Gate just got an enhanced edition,” as answer correctly. Tabletop role-playing is a niche hobby. It always has been and always will be. Rightly so, Wizards of the Coast has trimmed the staff, outsourced material and focused on media tie ins and digital games in order to remain profitable. That has left some folks, especially those that remember the broad support of 3rd edition by outside publishers or are current Pathfinder RPG fans, a little underwhelmed by the output of D&D 5E game materials. Offloading that work to the fans, both in the no-holds-barred world of the OGL and the more restricted but presumably stamped-with-approval arena of the Dungeon Master’s Guild, means 5E gets the support it deserves.

 

Hardcore players and Dungeon Masters, the kind of fans that clamor for new character classes and monster manuals, are the people that bring new blood into the hobby. I think that for some years now a lot of that introduction to the hobby has happened through Pathfinder rather than D&D. I myself gave two sets of young kids a Pathfinder Beginner Box because there was not an equivalent D&D product until The Lost Mines of Phandelver came out (which i immediately bought for one of those kids). Exciting existing players about D&D will generate new players as they share that excitement. New products are one way to keep excitement running high.

 

As 2016 progresses and details become clear regarding the DMGuild (not to mention me finishing projects I am already working on) I will be looking to publish for 5E under the OGL and possibly even the DMGuild. I don’t expect to make much if any money doing it. D&D is one of my great passions, a fundamental aspect of my inner geek older than comic books and only slightly newer than writing fantastical stories. Being able to put my thumbprint on even the smallest corner of the game, in however unofficial a capacity, is way too awesome an opportunity for this old geek to pass up.

 

An Aside: If you are interested in my Return to the Isle of Dread and don’t follow me on Twitter, fix that! I am currently creating a d100 random encounter chart for the Isle in the lead up to TotalCon 2016 and want to share it with you — yes, even you, over there, in your underwear eating a bowl of Ramen while you read this. Find me @IanAsItWere

The Dreams of Ruin: The Review

Truthfully, this will be more of an “overview” of The Dreams of Ruin by Geoff Grabowski than a review. Being friends with Geoof and having written for him, plus being a huge fan of the out there weird fiction science fantasy that populates the spaces in Geoff’s head between gardening and economics (no, really) I am not really qualified to give you an unbiased review of the book. That said, my goal isn’t to simply sell you the book either, except by telling you what it is, for real, and if that’s a thing you want to experience (and it should be) then go out there and get it. Or, well, click here.

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 The Dreams of Ruin (DoR) is a 261 page supplement for Labyrinth Lord and Mutant future, so called Old School Renaissance games published via the Open Games License by Goblinoid Games. As such, the book is compatible with most other old school rules systems, from Swords and Wizardry to OSRIC and, with a little more work, the likes of  Basic Fantasy and Castles and Crusades. It is not a complete game, but is also more than simply a setting book or an adventure. Aimed at high level (15th or higher) play it is designed to give epic heroes a run for their money.

 

Setting and Tone

The title refers to a setting element that can best be described as an inter-dimensional infestation or infection — a world ending seepage across realities that takes the form of a terrible, primeval dark forest haunted by corrupted beats, faceless puppets and hate filled unseelie Fair Folk. It is at once the villain of the piece as well as the location in which adventures take place, and due to its pan-dimensional existence it can contain elements from worlds of fantasy, science fiction and every permutation of the two together. this is the key component of the DoR from a genre standpoint: it hearkens back to the weird fiction roots of D&D, where elephant headed alien gods entertained Cimmerian barbarians and fantastic city states of the dead sat on the ruins of a billion year old Earth. In an era of fantasy dominated by Lord of the Rings and The Song of Ice and Fire on botht eh page and the screen, it can be easily forgotten that what we call the fantasy genre started out much more diverse and stranger than it appears today.

 

If you are familiar with Geoff Grabowski’s work as line devloper of White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted RPG the fusion of epic struggle and science-fantastical elements that dominated that game are here as well, though in a much more focused manner.

 

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The art of DoR is evocative of that same weird fantasy vibe. It ranges in both polish and quality but never wavers in tone. Whether it is a horned devil encased in power armor or a Puppet of Ruin (seen in the image above) massacre, the art remind the reader that this fantasy is different than the endless stream of heroic quests that have come before it.

 

In tone, the writing of DoR is generally conversational. The author addresses readers’ (presumably Game Masters) concerns directly, anticipating questions and alternating between readable prose and bullet points. He wants you to be able to understand this stuff so that you can use it in your game, which is often forgotten by game designers and authors. This book is full of strange ideas and non-standard fantastic elements and the author endeavors to get you to understand and accept those elements before moving on to the next bit. That said, it is not “simplistic” and the book does not appear to be written for the Game Master new to the craft or new to Old School games. it is safe to say that the author expects that your campaign reached the suggested high levels through actual play and therefore the GM knows how to run the game and incorporate new ideas.

 

Nuts and Bolts

The Dreams of Ruin is more than a descriptive book. The author develops a numbner of subsystems that provide concrete guidelines on how to implement the DoR into a campaign. The two most important are the rules governing how the “dark forest” manifestation of the Dreams works in play, and the rules for actually overcoming the threat of the dreams.

 

As stated above, the DoR are an infection in the world. Not surprisingly, that means it starts out small and grows in both size and virulence. In the parlance of DoR, the Dreams go through a series of Blossomings before they consume the whole world. The author lays out in meticulous detail how each blossing occurs, including tables for the size of the Dreams as they spread. In addition, each stage of the Dreams is given its own encounter tables and associated rules. It is possible using these rules to divorce the Dreams from its world ending aspects and simply use it as a very dangerous zone in the campaign world.

 

In addition to encounter tables, there are rules for the effects the Dreams have on those that travel through the forest (hint: it isn’t good) and the various sorts of entities and hazards that fill the Dreams. These are more than quick stat blocks. there is an ecosystem of terror here, with warring factions and dangerous interlopers — because of the inter-dimensional nature of the DoR, almost any sort of terror or treasure can be found within. Make no mistake, this is a truly high level threat zone and low level characters attempting to pass through, even briefly, will very likely meet a grotesquely cruel end.

 

The other major rules component covers how the player characters can actually cleanse their world of the infection that are the DoR. This is not simple task of killing a boss monster or casting a high level spell. Instead, a detailed process of research and experimentation is laid out. There are the usual assortment of new spells and magic items, but in order to “win” the player characters will have to understand the threat their world faces and then develop a method by which to counter it. It is a long process that engages players as well as their characters and gives the GM a built in system for motivating investigation and adventure. Most of all, the process is as spectacular as one would expect to be undertaken by PCs that amount to godlings themselves.  For example, one of the prescribed methods to stem the tide of the Dreams is referred to in the book as “Massive Geomancy.”

 

Final Word

The Dreams of Ruin is unlike anything currently on the market for Old School Renaissance games. It considerably expands the horizon of that particular subgenre of adventure game fantasy, inviting the audience into a world where slaying the dragon and saving the princess are barely more  interesting than doing the dishes. It embraces the weird fiction influence of the past while being wholly original. And while I will not give it a grade due to my personal relationship with its creator, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who enjoys OSR gaming and wants to try something out of this world.

 

For a few more days as of this writing you can back the Dreams of Ruin Kickstarter here. You can even get a copy of the game here beforehand and then decide that Geoff deserves your support. If you want more information, read my interview with Geoff here.

 

Happy gaming.

The Dreams of Ruin: The Interview

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As the official release date (May 15th) of The Dreams of Ruin approaches, friend and colleague Geoff Grabowski agreed to sit down and answer a few questions. He is an interesting guy and this is some interesting stuff.

Q: For folks that might not be familiar with you, please give us a bit of background on your work in the field of role-playing games?

A: I did a bunch of work with White Wolf back in the late 90s and early 00s. Most notably, I developed the entire first edition of Exalted, was first developer for the Exalted 2nd edition core book, and wrote a bunch of other material for Wraith and Kindred of the East. I also worked on projects for the Scarred Lands setting, for Everway and Kult, and for a few other things I forget at this point.

Q: Give us the “elevator pitch” for Dreams of Ruin.

A: No-spoiler version: It’s a high-level event book or adventure setting that details a VERY dangerous threat that can seriously challenge OSR parties up to the high teens. It’s not a Sauron ripoff, nor is it a big stack of hitpoints shaped like a dragon and immune to all status effects.

Q: With so many role-playing games out there, many of which are supported by open or third part licenses of one form or another, what made you decide to craft Dreams of Ruin for so-called Old School Renaissance (OSR) games instead of, say, d20/Pathfinder or something like FATE?

A: I love the openness of the Goblinoid Games license for Labyrinth Lord. No censorship, no fees, and I can include the rules with the distributable.

I think OSR is like the “common tongue” of gaming and even if a lot of people don’t love it, most people can understand it very easily.

I don’t like 3.x series rules very much.

Finally I like the system, and the implicit setting. I ran a multi-year high level old school game and I wanted to build on my experience with that and my love for the Moldvay rules.

Q: Dreams of Ruin is neither a complete adventure campaign (“AP” in the modern parlance) nor a setting unto itself. Why did you decide to design it in this way, and what advantages do you think the format you chose has over other formats, such as the AP format?

A: In a lot of ways it /is/ a setting. It’s a mobile setting, an *all-too-mobile* setting, that will come to your regular setting and hybridize it. I let the function of the material dictate its form.

From a development perspective, one of the things that my situation as an independent author permits me is the ability to create works without worrying about contextualizing them in a product line or worrying about their effects on the storyline of some specific setting. I built the supplement I felt the project needed without particular regard for following anybody’s prior approaches.

Game adventures are often seen as unfortunate necessities of development, they tend to sell poorly (1 per group rather than 1 per player, at best) and by making it more engaging — about a topic rather than detailing a specifically constructed series of adventures — I hope that it can find a more general audience than it would if it was a more conventional setting or adventure.

I made it as specific an adventure as I thought you reasonably could, given that it’s written for characters of the 14th to 16th levels, who come from any arbitrary setting. No material you write is going to be suitable for *any* group of that size. You just can’t know what near-artifact items they’re going to have, who’s got which evil god chasing them, and what all the dynamics of the setting are. Some characters will rule kingdoms, some will live in townhouses is high-rent magical locales, some will be doing who knows what.

In terms of making it more narrowly constructed, like starting with some adventures in the youths of the characters that introduce key concepts and then developing them more as time goes by — I find that stuff utterly dismal to write. When you are outlining a property, you often put in big adventures to “show people how to use the setting” and as a place to trial young writers. Also, I feel like it’s making the decision of what kind of characters you are and what kind of setting you’re in for you, in order to make the design challenge easier.

I’m this one guy writing this one book that’s not attached to a particular setting or promoted property. I can’t expect anybody to take dictation from me about what kind of game they need to run to use my material. At the same time, I can write without talking down to the notional “average reader,” trying to accommodate someone who is a newbie gamer, or worrying about if it’ll whip sales for tie-in supplements.

Q: The art is unique and evocative. Tell us about the artists and the art direction.

A: I have the fortune to have some good artists as my friends, and they took the time to understood exactly what I wanted and needed. They worked directly with me. I had a limited budget but I knew exactly what I wanted / needed, and I feel I got a good result from our efforts. Part of the advantage was that most of the special encounters and the basic beasties were written very early in the project, so I had the artists working almost the entire time I was writing on the book. It gave me and the artists a lot of slack time.

Q: What aspect of Dreams of Ruin are you happiest with, or are most excited for customers to see?

A: The sculpture aspect of it where many terms of its license and packaging closely resemble the material it describes. For various reasons — commercial sanity, lack of concept and product line continuity foremost — you generally don’t get to be that artful with product design. This project’s license structure and all-in packaging concepts went hand-in-hand with the product content from the very beginning of the project. Again, the benefits of being an independent author working on a freestanding project.

Q: Is there going to be a “Dreams of Ruin tour”? Are you planning on hitting the summer convention circuit in order to support the product, or maybe even run a few sessions?

A: Doubtful? I’m preparing to sit for my CPA right now. I’m hoping to take it in the Autumn or Winter test windows. Hopefully the product will support *me* this summer so I can take time off to study.

I might make it to Origins to hang out with people, or *possibly* GenCon if it makes a tremendous splash and someone wants the prestige of having me in their booth as a conversation piece.

Q: You funding model is different than we usually see owing RPG products on Kickstarter. Can you explain how it works and why you chose to do it this way?

A: Well, I had the luxury of having the cash in hand sufficient to fund the project in advance. We don’t have some minimum capitalization written into the business plan to fulfill before we’re viable —  so one big difference is that our KS funded at 1 unit. It actually funded before it was announced as open. It’s all just a question of return on investment. That was fun, no antsy GIVE, GIVE TIL IT HURTS pleadings with the family and friends networks in store.

The other part is that we’re not really trying to make a business out of selling reproductions of the work. I mean, we do that, but we also give the archive away. When we accrue enough income from the sale of the product, we’re going to set the rights to CC-BY, and then people will be able to reproduce it commercially or make commercial derivative products based on it. What I am doing is selling the entire product to its nascent fanbase. Not just off-prints of the material, but the material itself. As the KS does better and better, we’re going to include the art and edited raw manuscript and the layout files and so forth in the archive, so people can more easily make new stuff out of it.

The license also has a time component, so no matter how well it does financially eventually people just get the stuff to play with.

This is a modification of the Street Performer Protocol that Einsturzende Neubauten used to fund their albums _Supporter Album No. 1_ and _Airplane Miniatures_. However, rather than a pledge/escrow system where the patrons hold out payment for completion of the product (Patreon is SPP implemented serially) we use a pledge system that starts with a complete product that is free (gratis) and turns it into one that is free (libre). The purchase of the archives is purely symbolic, a co-optation of consumer capitalist value transfer networks to allow patronage of free culture. The artist is never kept under compulsion for promise of reward, the consumer is never subject to false scarcity or artificial status anxiety from lack of constructed wants, and the proceeds of the work are shared by all. I believe this is an efficient value transfer model and did the project in part to promote the model.

 

Thanks again to Geoff for the interview. Next up, The Dreams of Ruin reviewed!

vs Players: The Fine Art Being A Killer DM

save-vs-nuke

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

 

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

rocksfall

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rule 0: Player Agency Is Paramount

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Rule 1: All Rolls On The Table

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

 

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

 

Rule 2: All Rules On The Table

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

 

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

 

Rule 3: Victory Conditions Matter… for Players

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Next Time…

 

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

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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!