Saturday, February 28, 2015

I Like My Dwarves Like I Like My Women

That is, not inspired by Tolkien or Peter Jackson.

Because, let's be honest, they have no personalities or characteristics of their own.

There are only three women with actual dialogue in the four main books about Middle Earth, and two of them fall in love with the same guy (barf, have some individual development please). And the third (Galadriel) is so powerful and otherworldly as to be beyond gender entirely. If Tolkien didn't want the leader of the Elves to be indescribably beautiful, he would have made her a man.

This is the problem with Dwarves, as well as countless other races in your standard fantasy games: they could easily be supplanted. In this case, by eccentric humans. If that is true, I say make them humans, or make them more interesting.

Dwarves are just short humans with Scottish accents that like gold. Hell, even living underground is not enough to make them interesting. Think about it: a culture of humans that live underground would interest your players a LOT more than the standard Dwarf civilization. And of course they would value gold and rare earths a lot, that is one of the only natural resources available underground.

Here's how I would do Dwarves:

-Dwarves are deathly afraid of the surface world. Dwarves that go above ground are their race's equivalent to cosmonauts, and have to physiologically adjust over time, too.

-Dwarves cannot swim. They sink like rocks. They can't even be trained to swim. It's just physics.

-Dwarves will go to war with almost anyone to acquire rich mineral veins. Usually, they try to sneak underground and mine the jewels and metals without being noticed, but if they have to fight, or if the city/town above collapses, they usually don't give a fart. (P.S. Some dwarven activists protest this theft of minerals). (P.P.S I'm pretty sure I got this from another blog, but I can't find the link for the life of me.)

-Dwarves are agnostic. No sky = no great and mysterious lights = no creation myths. HOWEVER, the dwarven cosmonauts do worship a long-dead mortal being who trained their first group in the ways of surface living.

-Dwarves eat root vegetables, fungi, and insects only. Not a lot of deer to hunt underground. Not many apple trees either. Dwarven alcohol is made from fermenting these three food groups. No grain-alcohols.

-Dwarves don't smith. [GASP!] Because they don't like digging vents to the surface world, and lighting fires/forges underground is a sure-fire (pun intended) way to die of smoke inhalation. Instead, dwarves have developed a magic system based off of magnetism that allows them to very effectively bind cold-smithed metals together. They make mostly art, architecture, and digging/smithing tools with this magic.

-Native dwarven weapons are stone: they wouldn't dare waste their metals on things made to smash and break. They also wear no armor, because they lack the resources to make suitable light protection (primarily leather).

-Dwarves don't bathe while underground. For them, the feeling of a light layer of dust and dirt on their skin is ideal. The cosmonauts do bathe, but they sand/dirt bathe. Mostly to get the weird green plant matter and occasional moisture off their skin. Gross.

-I see no reason why dwarves should live for many hundreds of years. I'd stick their expected age range between 175 and 200 years.

That's it for today, I'll do Eladrin/High Elves and Wood Elves tomorrow.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Help! My Players Don't Know What To Do

So your players aren't biting at those hooks you set.

Or perhaps they are biting...just too easily. They don't bother to do any oblique thinking. They willingly railroad themselves into a plot. They wait for you (the DM) to hand deliver them a quest, but you want them to explore with some self-direction.

Your problem is that your world has no detail.

Dedicated players cannot help but be intrigued by world details. But the details that DMs usually put in don't spark action, or generate questions.

For example: "You walk into the next room in the dungeon, a forty foot by thirty foot by ten foot chamber with more dark stone walls and carved floors. It isn't as musty as the previous rooms. There is a wooden table with matching chair in the center of the room, a goblin body is sprawled across the table with a roughly crafted dagger sticking out of its back. There are six silver pieces in the goblin's pockets. On the other side of the room is another wooden door."

You can probably pictures that room well, and you would be confidently interacting with it if you were a player. But you wouldn't get anything from it except "you should probably continue into the next room, and there are other things alive down here, if you didn't already know that."

But that isn't enough. Where are the things that the players will hold onto when they leave the dungeon? Where are the tiny hooks into future adventure?

The answer is: on a half dozen random tables that you need to generate now. Like, right now. d100s.

Table 1: Random names. Each entry should have one humanoid name and one monstrous one.
Table 2: Motives. A big list of things this creature or NPC could be doing/involved with.
Table 3: LOOT. A list of stuff that enemy or NPC might have on them.
Table 4: Details. Roll with the LOOT table to get unique treasure every time. Ex: "Has an elvish rune on it."
Table 5: Dungeon Motifs. Yeah, it's dwarvish. But maybe it was built by dwarves that had giants as slaves...
Table 6: PLOT TWIST. A list of random things that an NPC or monster could do to mix things up.

The point of these tables is that, without them, the DM rarely fills in these blanks, even though they would always be filled in if this were real. That dagger in the goblin's back will just be a shitty dagger if not for these tables. But a shitty dagger with an elvish inscriptions? (Hell, make a random inscription table...) Now that's interesting and worth questing about.

Every time you, as the DM, put a goblin in the dungeon that doesn't have any reason to be there other than as an encounter for the PCs, you've wasted time and energy. But giving each goblin a story while you prep for the session would be ridiculous. That's what the tables are for. If the PCs are in too much of a rush to loot and examine that dead goblin, then that's that. Other things are more interesting right now, and you can leave that goblin as "just a goblin." But start encouraging your PCs to explore the details.

You'd be surprised at the level of storytelling that emerges from stupid details.

Think about it. Those six silver pieces in the goblins pocket? Why are they there? Money doesn't just appear in people's pockets (unfortunately). That goblin did something to earn those silver pieces. Maybe he found them on the ground while heading back to the dungeon after being kicked out of his goblin group. Maybe he killed someone for pay. Maybe he cheated in a card game, and his opponents let him keep the silver, but put a blade between his shoulder blades as a parting gift. That could be another table: How did this guy get this money, d100. You get the drift.

Just be ready to fill in the details when the PCs want you to, but don't do random details off the top of your head. Put them together earlier, and craft them to be sure every single detail is a stepping stone for more adventure.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

2 Things to Use in your Campaign

1: Sea Monsters

For the love of gods, why aren't sea serpents used more in games like D&D? I don't own the 5e Monster Manual, but I am pretty sure there is roughly one kind of giant sea monster: the kraken.

Don't get me wrong, I love me some krakens. I've used them. I've had them attack ships. I've had them attack subterranean Aboleth cadres in Pacific Rim-type cave-lake encounters. Super fun.

But there is SO MUCH MORE sea monster mythology out there to be used. Hell, you can throw anything underwater and make it cooler.

How about aquatic hobgoblins? No, not sahuagin (or whatever they are called). As soon as you put a fish face on something, it looks stupid. Big dumb eyes and wide toothless mouths. That is not scary. Why not more aquatic mammals or reptiles that need to breath air, but not very often.

Like a crocodile. Sweet mother of Thor crocodiles are scary. Stealth killers that get you at the watering hole?


Also: water. No need to add all those ridiculous terrain changes and traps and whatnot. Deep water is scary enough as is.

2: Battle Formations

Smart enemies fight in formation. Maybe not a straight line, or a tortuga, or whatever that roman thing was with all the shields and spears and such, but they know where they are supposed to be to make things as bad as possible for the PCs.

This means you can't just sprinkle the hobgoblins on the random forest map and expect it to end up like a real fight. And I don't mean "real" as in "like the real world," I mean real as in "dramatic and requiring strategy."

Let's see some regrouping and battle chants and (for the bigger battles) war drums and horns and such. Opportunity attacks make this needlessly difficult, which is why I hate them.

But at least consider allowing the monsters or PCs to pull back and reestablish positions on higher ground or better terms.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Relative Level Instead of Objective Level

I have been drowning myself in design theory of late, and I think I came across a diamond in the rough. I guess you will have to be the judge of that.

Fact: Many many P&P RPG players enjoy character advancement. "Leveling up," if you will. Being better at challenges previously encountered, after enough training/time/exposure/experience points. They want to feel the progression. It allows them to speak confidently about what their character can do when roleplaying.

Fact: Leveling up is the #1 cause of very annoying number inflation in P&P RPGs. Dragons need high attack bonuses and armor class rating because they are fighting high level PCs, whereas goblins can have nice, small, understandable numbers because they fight low level PCs who also have nice, small, understandable stats and bonuses. If this were not the case, fighting a goblin and fighting a dragon would be equally challenging. That doesn't make sense.

(Potentially new and valuable) Fact: The objective stats of the dragons and goblins don't matter. What matters is only the relative stats of the goblins and the PCs, or the dragons and the PCs. Is the dragon a higher level than the PCs? Are the goblins a higher level than the PCs? Lower?

How to apply the fact:
  • Player characters record their level simply as a number from 1 to (whatever you want as a cap). Leveling up can work however you want it to.
  • When the PCs get in a fight with a monster, the higher level combatant(s) get a bonus to their rolls, and the lower level combatant(s) get a penalty to their rolls. This can be a static and constant +/- 1, or it could scale with the difference in level. Your choice.
  • Equal levels across the board means no adjustments.
  • You don't have to adjust most other stats for level. Ever. 

So when the level 1 PCs first meet the goblins, who are also level 1, there isn't any extra math to do.

Then, after the goblins, the level 1 PCs run into an owlbear, level 3. Uh oh, the owlbear gets a +1 to its attack rolls, saves, etc. etc. AND, the PCs get -1 to attack rolls, saves, etc. etc. It proves too hard and the PCs flee successfully.

A few sessions later, the same group of PCs, now level 4, go find this owlbear to get revenge. Well, now the PCs benefit from a +1 to rolls, and the owlbear suffers the -1.

That net change of +/- 2 could mean the difference between expecting success and being doomed to defeat, depending on your system's math. If it doesn't, make the swing big enough to cause the difference...or make the math of your system more bounded.

So player characters do get better, but not because of a big number on their sheet. They get better because they keep adding more and more monsters to the category that grants them bonuses while fighting.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

He had a Gaping Vortex in his Chest

Enter O'Malley. An undead dwarven justicar with an eldritch vortex of infinite pain taking up most of his torso.

He was an NPC that I'll never forget. And he is the result of an encounter that was too high level for the PCs.

This reaches back to the infamous Nick's Campaign (3.5 D&D) that I mentioned in my introduction page. I was a player, and I was a monk, and I hated it. But Nick was such a fantastic DM, and my friends were so swept up in the awesomeness of the sessions, that I couldn't help but get swept up too. Ah, nostalgia.

See, Nick had done something that many, many DMs refuse to do: he posed us, a group of rather inexperienced players, with an encounter that was way, WAY out of our league. He let us prepare for it. He let us think that, with the (then living and quite friendly) Justicar and some townsfolk with pitchforks, we could handle it (what the actual encounter was I no longer remember).

We could not handle it. Not at all. We had to flee. And the worst part, we had to leave the Justicar behind.

To die.

To be raised from death.

And to be controlled by a terrible, horrible, evil wizard from Ravenloft named Ian Mcalister.

O'Malley returned a few sessions later, looking bad, but not so bad that we saw his as a threat. He walked right up to our wizard in a tavern an double crit on a surprise attack.

Bye-bye wizard head.

Ian Mcalister had sent O'Malley after us, to hunt us down and kill us with the very man who embodied our failures as a party. O'Malley was our past sins pulling the strings of our future fate.

We fought against O'Malley, his wizard overlord, and countless other abominations in a final-stand fort-defense battle. Our wizard (resurrected, though painfully), used some dark magic tome to cast Finger of Death on Ian Mcalister and save us all.

But O'Malley got away. No longer was he a puppet, but he still harbored a hate for us that could not be satisfied.

And we had sinned again. Our wizard had given in to the dark side to defeat evil, and this set in motion an entirely new course of events.

We were not heroes. We were survivors. We had abandoned people when it put us in too much danger. We had used arcane horrors to fight back the darkness. We had delayed and allowed the forces of evil to muster this far.

But such is war. Lord of the Rings may feature shining heroes without a bit of red in their ledgers, but we've all heard Lord of the Rings. It's over now. Good vs. Evil is no longer an interesting story when the lines are drawn so clearly.

Fantasy books and Fantasy RPGs have gone beyond fairytales and bedtime stories and become literature. They have become about people and their faults.

So give your players something to fail at. Give them situations with no easy answer. Give them hard choices. It shouldn't be a cheap shot, or contrived. It should be organic, and the guilt and regret should come from the players recognizing that their character took on a responsibility, and failed to live up to it.

We tried to save O'Malley's town. But we couldn't. We wanted to. We really did. But we misjudged our enemy. And Nick, the DM, let us do that. He let us walk into a death trap.

Sure, in the long run, fleeing meant losing a battle to win the war. It was for the greater good.

But the greater good should always have consequences in the now. That's why it is the greater good. Because it takes honest roleplaying and hard decisions to achieve it. If it were easy every time, or if the encounter was always winnable, then it wouldn't be a story about the greater good.

It would just be a story about regular ol' good. We have real life for that.

Monday, February 2, 2015


My ideal way to do HP is the old school way. Start with a good amount (two or three direct goblin attacks worth), then gain a d6 each level, but only up until a point. After that, it is a constant, small bonus for each level thereafter. It creates a diminishing returns effect (see Goblin Punch's System page for more on that), which looks a little like this:
(HP is the y-axis, Level is the x-axis)
That way the players feel like they are going somewhere early on, but they don't go so far that early threats become completely non-threatening. Also, this prevents later threats (i.e. monsters) from needing stats in the low quintillions to be a challenge for high level PCs.

Some people think you need a morale/energy/wind/fatigue AND guts/wounds/blood/constitution system to distinguish a character's actual wounds from mere shake-off-able battle wear.


Low HP totals plus mild healing mechanics do that for you. You have 25 HP? You lose 15 HP in a fight? That's blood and guts, er, fatigue and wounds, er, whatever. You regain 4 HP after the fight with some small once-a-day self heal? Well, that 4 HP was the shake-off-able battle wear. No need to distinguish it when it happens.

But then the Paladin uses Lay on Hands? And you gained another 5 HP back? Great! That was guts. Or maybe wounds and morale, er, whatever. Doesn't matter.

The whole problem these dual-HP pool systems are trying to solve is that a barbarian with 289 HP doesn't feel half as ready to fight as one with 578 HP...because...well...he just doesn't. So they say, "Well, now the barbarian has 136 blood and 28 guts, so he's not tired, but he is pretty injured."

Personally, I think this is a terrible solution.

Our piddly human brains can't attach significance to numbers that high when it comes to bodily harm and battle fatigue. How many arrows have to be impaled in my fighter's back before he loses 100 Blood? 100 Guts? Hell if I know! How about if I had just 17 HP maximum? Well, now, probably three or four arrows would do ya (hey! just like Boromir!). Simple. Intuitive. Doesn't scare away the History majors at the table.

I don't care what your game's power-level is. I don't care if you are all playing superheroes who actively pick up entire city blocks and throw them at their enemies. The math behind a game does not, I repeat, DOES NOT have to scale with the strength of the characters and monsters if they were real.

The math of a game only ever has to scale with player understanding.