There is a reason people love playing role-playing games - we get to be the heroes in the story! The woman who saves the kingdom, the man who finds the answers he is looking for, the dragon who eats that nasty little Duke that has been polluting the river and killing the fish - these people make a difference in the game world the way most of us are incapable of in the real world.
That being said, infallible heroes are not good characters *coughSupermancough*. In the writing world, there’s a nasty term for them: Mary Sue’s/Marty Stu’s. In addition, characters that are mere accretions of statistics are not memorable characters either - usually quite the opposite.
“Hey, remember that human paladin with like +5 to his STR and -2 to his WIS?” doesn’t sound as appealing as “Remember that meathead priest-in-a-can who tried to solve a sphinx’s riddle by punching it in the snoot?”
In a similar vein to my previous article about good villains, I now present a short list of characteristics crucial to well-built and memorable heroic characters.
Coherent of and to Concept - Is This Feasible?
I don’t mean can he/she/it speak, I mean that the concept itself needs to stick together, and it needs to function well in the setting - or it needs to be so clean and so slick that it can fit into a not-quite-right setting fairly seamlessly.
In a “modern” setting, you can certainly allow for magic users, but an undead lich who literally looks like an animated rotting corpse isn’t really coherent to the concept of a game in a modern setting. An undead lich who can rock some Armani, though... that’s doable. Just like a mad chemist concept (like Walter White) can easily be turned into a mad alchemist in a fantasy setting. Protip: oil of vitriol is the ancient name for sulfuric acid.
Don’t try to put a Jedi on Arrakis - it doesn’t end well. A Sith in Vegas, though? That could be a lot of fun.
Capability - Can You Pull It Off?
This point is something that a GM/DM needs to consider when approving a concept: can the character requesting the concept pull it off, or is she going to fall back to reciting blank numbers when put in a position that challenges her character? When a player is designing a tough character, they need to keep their own capabilities in mind.
The worlds of Exalted and Iron Kingdoms RPGs specifically encourage “stunting,” or being very descriptive when describing a character’s actions, and I don’t know a single DM worth their caffeine who doesn’t enjoy enthusiastic players. A good “stunt” can add extra dice to a tough roll and increases the incentive for players to think more about their characters rather than just statistics on a page.
Nothing hamstrings a game more than someone leading up to something truly epic, and them saying “I rolled a 19” without explaining what in the nine hells they actually did - and I don’t mean that they rolled their subterfuge plus “use the force” stats. It is the responsibility of everyone at the table, both players and the DM, to encourage reticent players to try to level up their roleplay experience by contributing to the tapestry of descriptive narrative. People will surprise you, given the opportunity, and those surprises are what memories are made of.
Compelling - Do You Live, Or Do You Exist?
Do you care about your character? Why should I care about your character? Make me want to know what they are doing. Maybe your character saves my character’s life, or buys her a meal, or otherwise interacts in a way that brings them to life - and this doesn’t always have to be in a positive light!
I once played in a Star Wars game where another character was such a uniformly unpleasant creature that the entire group banded together to deal with him. It took a bunch of scruffy mercs and united us in our hatred for one nasty little furball that didn’t respect physics or privacy. It made the character compelling. We showed up every week wondering how he was going to mess with our plans.
This is the little snot. Kushibah Sith Alchemist. We LOVED to hate him. I don’t remember his actual name, but we called him Darth Foamy. Ask me about the hamster ball sometime.
Caring - The Ultimate Motive Force
Does your character care about anything? Does she lose her mind when animals are mistreated? Does he fly off the handle if he sees injustice? Can she stand seeing people impugn her deity of choice? What is his reaction to seeing party members in peril?
If your character doesn’t care about anything, they are incomplete. Why did they join the party if all they are going to do is sit around and say “nah, pass” to everything? Even if their motive behind joining is to “get out of this podunk town before my brain leaks out of my ears,” that’s still caring about something.
It is okay, and even encouraged, for what they care about to evolve over the course of the story. Maybe our teenage rogue who was dying of boredom decides that that dwarven blacksmith is a pretty chill chick, and he’d like to get to know her better because she can drink anyone under the table and still split a bullseye with her axes. Or the paladin realizes that the druid might be a heretic under her order’s rules, but damn it, he’s *her* heretic and she will protect him, because he’s proven to her that not all heretics are immediately and inherently damned.
Caring about something...anything...is the most important facet of a character, and determines what they can bring to a campaign. That caring can be the nexus of so much growth - it is impossible to overstate the importance of your character giving a damn about something.
And now for the tough part: the P.
Plausible - Does Your Character Make Sense?
I know, I know, I’m the one forever beating the drum of story-over-mechanics, but follow with me here.
Say someone chooses a race for a Star Wars Saga Edition game (for the sake of example: a Wookiee), and that race has a large and deep body of details and lore about the cultures of those beings.
Now let’s say that a player decides they want to play a Wookiee, but they want to play a Force-sensitive one. Leaving edition and canon wars out of this, there’s nowhere in Saga Edition that says there cannot be Force-sensitive Wookiees, but in the canon of the universe there is no record of them being Sith or Jedi. That’s okay, there’s Force Adepts in the book, and it’s made for situations like this. DM approves the Force-sensitive Wookiee, and there’s little to no fuss.
But then the Force-sensitive Wookiee decides that he also wants to wear power armor (something completely against the Wookiee lore) and takes levels in Soldier to be able to wear it. There’s nothing in the book that says they can’t do this - because game designers, out of an abundance of enthusiasm, are loath to say “no” to something unless there’s a damn good reason - but it really doesn’t make sense.
So now our power-armor-wearing Force Adept Wookiee decides that he wants to take a further departure from reason, and adds a lightsaber to his arsenal including a special type of lightsaber crystal that is only mentioned in one place that adds splash damage, and has the lightsaber mastercrafted to where it can be used two-handed as a great weapon. Again, all technically possible, but entirely not plausible.
The DM approves this because the player invokes the logical argument that “there’s nowhere that says I can’t do this.” This kind of build skews the entire game, as the other players scramble to maintain the power curve; narrative and story get lost in the internal arms race.
On the other extreme, let’s say someone is playing a human soldier. He has absolutely average stats, absolutely average skills, and absolutely average pretty much everything, even after several game sessions and XP expenditures. This is approaching implausible from the other end of the spectrum, although again, entirely within the realm of possibility. Everyone has something that they are good at, even if only marginally better than average.
A completely out-of-whack character like the Wookiee is bad for the game, but an entirely average character is bad for the player, because they have no direction to progress. I recommend that each time a player comes up with a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea, they run it past their DM and the other players. A DM shouldn’t be pressured to approve something that is technically possible if it doesn’t fit with their story - but they should always be open to ideas.
You can always ask the Universe anything. Sometimes the answer is no. Everyone has something that they are good at, and you don’t get to have ALL the things just for the asking.
Come to think of it, that’s a solid lesson that all of us - gamers and not - could stand to
remember from time to time.
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as a courier and personal cook while her plans for world domination slowly come together. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
Hello. My name is Landrew, and I’m a role-playing game junkie…
Hello fellow junkies! In an earlier article, I talked about some rewards that games give players to keep them hooked. After listening to the feedback I got on the article and giving it some more thought, I decided it might be nice to hook my readers up with some solid tips on where to get the rewards they want. In this article, I point out some games (we’ll call them ‘dealers’) that do a great job of providing players with the rewards they want (e.g. a ‘fix’).
These recommendations are limited by word count (all hail the corporate leaders) and by my own experience - which is heavily based on Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, the original Rifts, Marvel Superheroes, Fate, and Shadowrun. If you have your own recommendations for reward mechanics, please post them in the comments!
1. “Uppers:” Levelling Up/Character Advancement
There’s nothing like good old Dungeons and Dragons for enjoyable character advancement. Although there are definitely some cool things about 5th edition, I’ll take 3.5 any day to get a good high. Feats, skills, and base attack bonuses... the rules are crunchy, maybe, but that’s part of the fun! It’s like a tinker gnome assembling nifty trinkets into a deadly whole. While I prefer simplicity during gameplay, complexity during character creation and advancement is a heck of a lot of fun.
Pass that rare, dangerous, and somewhat broken source book, please!
Honourable mentions go out to cool combat tricks and spells that can be earned in Kevin Siembada’s Rifts, and the power stunts mechanic in Marvel Superheroes.
2. “Bling & Benjamins:” Gear and Money
The nominees for the ‘best gear’ award are tied, in my mind. If you want cool gear with its own stats, you can’t get much better than the gear lists from Rifts and Shadowrun. The detailed weapon descriptions add an irreplaceable layer of realism to the game world in both settings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the gear lists from Dungeons and Dragons, as well. Again, recent game design theory is often critical of gear lists, saying that gameplay gets bogged down in the details.
“Do you have a ten-foot pole on your inventory list? Doesn’t that make you encumbered?”
However, removing gear lists also removes the fun of neat equipment-specific tricks and having exactly the right piece of gear at the right time. There’s got to be a happy medium out there somewhere...
3. “Hallucinogens & Immersion:” Exploring Game World Settings
Which games have the best settings to discover? With all due respect to the many worlds based on Dungeons and Dragons (or were they called realms? I’ve forgotten), this award goes to Shadowrun first, with Rifts as a close runner-up. In the funny world of game publishing, game mechanics are not considered intellectual property - check out the first two paragraphs of this handy pdf from the US Copyright Office. Given this, a lot of the effort that goes into game design is poured into things that can be copyrighted, like setting, supporting characters, and game history.
Hands down, nobody does this better than Shadowrun. It is based on an alternate timeline beginning in the 1980s and winding up in a dystopian cyberpunk future where magic and dragons have returned. The history of this alternate timeline is compelling, detailed, and strangely realistic. It features complex interactions on both the geopolitical and local level. For example, the last will and testament of the great dragon Dunkelzahn, late president of the United Canadian and American States, features enough loose ends and just enough interesting detail to provide plenty of role-playing hooks, while also just being a great piece of fiction in its own right.
Also, Rifts. Thank you Kevin, for successfully describing a world in which literally anything can happen. Because, magic.
4. “The Mind Job:” Problem Solving
Again, not to play favourites, but Shadowrun is my favourite for built-in problem-solving opportunities. The many heist-style modules lend themselves well to sitting down with your buddies trying to figure out a way to beat the odds. I like it because, though it is frankly combat-heavy, there are still a very large number of non-linear possibilities. Oh, that powerful security team can outgun us? How about when the commander is persuaded to give just one poor order to his team because his cousin’s buddy has the BTL he wants? Now the security goons are in the wrong place at the right time for them to notice our distraction, while the mage hacker ghosts in undetected. There’s nothing like the satisfying click of an opening safe in a heist gone right.
5. “The Happy Ending:” Resolving Story Arcs
Jumping off the Shadowrun train for a bit, the best story-based mechanic that I’ve encountered so far is Evil Hat’s Fate system. I say ‘so far’ because I know there’s a ton of games emerging that have built-in story mechanics… I just haven’t tried them yet. Fate has a lot of cool points. The use of descriptors, called aspects, as part of the mechanic means that conflict has a built-in narrative quality to it. More importantly, however, is that character advancement is tied to story development rather than arbitrary monster XP values. Gameplay is divided into chunks like a TV show: scenes, scenarios (think episodes), arcs (seasons), and campaigns. The characters advance by reaching different ‘milestones,’ which are reached at the end of each chunk of the story. Advancement happens because of the characters’ experiences, which makes a ton of sense and is super satisfying as a player. With this structure, it becomes very easy to enjoy the feeling of closure you get from finishing the latest season of your favourite show.
As you can see, no single game has everything. There are enough great games out there, however, that it’s not too difficult to find the reward you’re looking for. I hope this article helps you put a handle on what you want out of your games as a player; or maybe it will help a gamemaster find out what to give his/her players to keep stringing them along. No matter what, post your ideas in the comments, and let’s take our games to the next level.
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
There’s no element in RPG’s more difficult to describe to Muggles (non-RPG players) than the GM. Where to start? The person that organizes the game? Well, yeah, sure, but it does reduce things a bit. The person that knows the rules? I’ve GM’d with Silverback players that knew the rule system by heart. The person that does the voices? I’ve allowed players to play NPC’s. So how do we define their job?
The following are the aspects I find the most important to being a GM. It is by no means an exhaustive list and I’m sure I’ve forgotten many points, please let me know in the comments!
1) Has A Story She Wants To Share:
Now, this doesn’t mean that she has seven annotated and cross linked volumes loosely titled ‘The Dark Dungeon of Darkness Vol 1-7’ where every slab stone and every rusting chain have been meticulously detailed. Heck no. A post-it or two will be enough for some. Back of a postage stamp, if need be. Or simply nothing at all, and it’s all coming organically, mid-game. It doesn’t matter. All she has to do is have the loose trappings of a story that she wants to share with the others.
2) Has The Plot, The Fights And The NPC:
Of course, the GM is that great conductor of the plot. A good GM directs the plot subtly, taking it to realms wanted (or perhaps less wanted) by the players. Tricky job, this. No battle plan survives contact with the battlefield, as they say. Like being made of rubber, a good GM needs to bend and adjust, balancing her expectations, and those of the party. With more or less preparation, the GM needs to have the story in their head. Plot, fights, NPC’s. To do it well takes time and effort (I don’t presume to do it well at all).[*Editor’s Note: He does it well]
This is an enormous responsibility,
3) Is Inclusive:
It pains me to write this entry during the second decade of the 21st century. We have a nuclear power rover with very basic AI, rolling around Mars. I’ll repeat that: We have the technology to have a nuclear reactor the size of a water bottle, inside a robot with wheels, with enough AI to stop or turn if there’s a conflict between sensors and an order, on another planet. And with all that said, the most cursory review of certain gaming websites will show page of page of people that have had bad experiences with RP groups, involving everything from insults to outright discrimination. Everyone around your table is your responsibility, either as player, GM, heck, even as someone’s better half, just chilling at the back. Man, woman, otherwise-identified, young ‘un, it doesn’t matter. They’re all there for YOUR game. Break the rules, make someone feel uncomfortable, there will be consequences.
4) Is Patient:
The hardest one, in my opinion. You need to let it flow. The game won’t go as you plan, why should it? Dance with it. What was a joke, is now your main plot point. Someone cracked a joke at the worst possible time? Give them a stern look and move on. Or tell them off, briefly. Have an issue? We can talk about it….. After the next scene. Why am I flipping through the pages of the Monster Manual, you ask? No reason. Nope.
5) Is Kind And Fair:
Here I combine two aspects. I don’t like to kill characters. I have, in the past, as punishment for sheer idiocy. Maiming, that I’m cool with. Avoid killing characters as a normal tactic. Wound them badly. Make them carry the scars of their silliness. Punish their jokes, really. Also, don’t have favourites, either players or characters. You can’t kill one character and give another a bad bruise, when exposed to the same stimulus (unless one was a small goblin and the other a hill giant, but you get what I mean). If the players feel that they can and will be treated unfairly, they will lose interest, as they’ll feel their input is irrelevant.
6) Is The Focus Of All The Fun:
Unless I’m running a game about an incestuous vampire family addicted to zombified orc blood in Ravenloft, I try to keep my games light. One, I love the funniness that comes with it, and two, I love the sense of dread the players feel when the drek hits the fan and things get serious. An RPG game is supposed to be fun. I’m not backing down from this one. I don’t care if you’re playing scavengers inside the gut of a world-sized worm, if people are not enjoying themselves, you might as well be RP housework or admin. This entry collates everything that has come before. The conductor, the integrator, the rule-giver, it all boils down to this. Everyone needs to be enjoying themselves. It is a balancing act, the players need to be flexible, but so does the GM. The players need to follow the rules, but the GM needs to be fair.
Do you agree with these? What other aspects did I miss? Let us know!
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, two years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
With the rise of geek-chic comes a new responsibility for us hipster role players; you know, those of us who were slaying dragons before slaying dragons was cool. That responsibility is to introduce people who have never tried gaming to a new and fantastic hobby. Over the years I’ve found that finding interested parties has become more and more easy, as long as you're willing to talk openly about it, but as any fisherman knows, you can reel as many fish in as you want, if they don’t stay in the boat, they don’t count. If you want to keep a gamer initiate coming back for more, their first exposure to a game session is pivotal and done right can turn them into a lifetime gamer who will inevitably recruit even more players. So here are a few lessons I have learned the hard way to help you set up a memorable and engaging first session.
1 Set Expectations
Make sure that they know exactly what they are getting into. Particularly, if they’re thinking about joining your regular group. Most first sessions are about testing the water but it can be frustrating for someone to test the water, find out they like to swim, and then learn that the pool is only open on days when they have other obligations. I like to set the tone by being upfront with the following items: timing and length of sessions, regularity, punctuality, estimated effort between games (leveling characters, etc.), snacks and meals, things to bring (pencils and such), group dynamics, and the learning curve.
2 Find out what interests them
I find it useful to take some time before a game starts to get to know the initiate. What I’m looking for is what interests them in a role-playing game. The problem here is that they usually don’t know, having never played before. I often find myself asking them questions like:
By using their answers to mould your first session, you will not only play to their interests, but also to their strengths. Someone who's read and re-read the LoTR books has a level of comfort talking about orcs and elves and the traditional fantasy story arc. By putting them in a familiar setting with a familiar pace and story line, they will be more engaged and entertained.
3 Set a Comfortable Atmosphere
So, I had just moved to a new city and was having trouble finding gamers. I took the bold step of posting on Meetup, searching for 5e D&D players looking for a DM. It didn’t take long before I had three interested people and was arranging for us all to meet IRL. What I failed to consider was the concept of a “safe space”. It wasn’t until the 3rd session that the only woman in the group admitted to me that during the first session she had asked her boyfriend to wait outside until she texted him, and that’s when I realized how uncomfortable it must have been for some strange man to lead her down into his basement with two other strange men. Don’t do what I did; consider that the atmosphere is just as important, if not more, than the contents of the first session. If you're comfortable with it, you could even consider hosting your first session in a neutral/public space; many game stores offer space.
4 Use a small Group
It can be intimidating to be introduced to a group of grognards; joining any new group of strangers is scary and you want to minimize the pressure and stress. If the initiate knows other members of your gaming group, great, use them. If not, then handpick a small group, one or two of your regulars for a short introductory session. When you make your selection you're looking for those who are the most team oriented, patient, and welcoming. Skill in the game and the ability to rules lawyer shouldn’t even be on the radar. In fact, choosing your most inexperienced players can be helpful, as long as one of them can act as peer-coach, because their inexperience will even the playing field and set the initiate at ease. Further, newer players often have an infectious excitement about the game.
5 Go Slow and be Flexible
Plan out your one-shot quest to have a slow pace. The new player is bound to have lots of questions and role-playing games are already packed with ambiguity. I like to start with something pretty linear with easy options for role-playing. The trick for this is to remain flexible. I don’t write out first sessions, but keep a rough sketch in my head and prepare a number of NPCs, skill challenges, traps, and monsters while giving lots of opportunity for the players to go where they want and do what they want. Most of the time an initiate will follow the predictable course, but a few will surprise you and instead of storming the keep to rescue the princess, they will recruit a band of mercenaries to do it for them. One other quick note, most new players can be pretty nervous about “conversational” role-playing, they don’t know what they can and should say so be sure to avoid uncomfortable silences with all eyes on the initiate and allow them an “out” (i.e., skill checks).
6 Rule Book Schmool Book.
I have never given a Player’s Handbook to a new player and told them to read it. In fact, I have never made it a requirement to read a rule book in any of my campaigns. I find that, except for a very small demographic, the rulebooks scare most people and for those people experiential learning is much easier and more exciting. If they ask, I will certainly lend them my copy; but I will never put a player in a position where they are forced to buy a book. Gaming needs to be accessible to everyone.
Bryan lives off the land in the frozen tundra of Edmonton, AB Canada; by “frozen tundra” I mean he works in a comfortable office and plays D&D in his living room on weekends. By “lives off the land” I mean he shops at Superstore and occasionally at the local Dutch Deli in between trips to his favorite Pho restaurant.
With a title like that, I have to spill the beans. I’m only 22 years old, which apparently make me pretty young in the gaming community. This fact makes me proud to be a part of the hobby’s growth and development but makes me the butt-end of many jokes. Considering my upbringing, it just kind of rolls off, my family was awful like that. Two out of my three groups are with “older” gamers. To most people my age, it seems rather weird that I game with people ten or twenty years older than me. The way I see it; people are people and if you can look past that, there’s a lot to gain, learn and enjoy. More than most would think, there’s plenty of good stuff you can get from gamers outside of your age bracket.
Most obvious of all, gamers who have been in the hobby for a while have a good grip on what’s going on. The internet is spattered with GM advice, player advice, homebrew rules/settings etc. etc. What’s great about being involved with a game group of folks older than you: they did all that before the internet existed. This means that everything they’re hashing out has been honed by many nights spent in a terrible setting run in a terrible way that ultimately lead to a polished mindset of game design and development. Moreover, things tend to be less stereotypical with experienced gamers. People who have been around the block more than a few times tend to be bored with the slaughtering of kobolds for their gold and tend to think outside the box. For me, it often delivers a more intriguing, deep and unique story that makes you think and question the world.
Perhaps stating it that way makes it seem a little more dramatic than it actually is, but the gaming experience does tend to be more rich. Experience doesn’t only shine in a well thought out world, though. Techniques for foreshadowing, table management, characterization, plot building and every other aspect of the game simply tends to be better. If the other players are of the same ilk, I find that things also can run very smoothly. It’s really taught me how to be a good contributor on both sides of the screen.
2). Rigid schedules
My Saturday group struggles to get together regularly as opposed to my Tuesday one. This could be for a multitude of reasons, but the one that’s most obvious to me is the difference in personal lives. The Tuesday crew is my elderly group (not really, oh, are they going to love reading that!) and tends to meet far more regularly. That group also has a lot more people, which likely has a huge amount of relevance. However, upon pondering the subject, it makes sense. People with families and full time jobs tend to have a lot more predictable lives in regards to scheduling.
Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s easier to set aside one day for something a week when every other day is spoken for already by a family or job. Maybe being younger and having a lot more free time makes people prone to doing other stuff or getting distracted. Who knows? The point stands. On the other hand, those with kids can be absent for a long time due to extracurricular activities. I would assume that’s why my Tuesday group has seven players with a minimum of four to play a game.
But wait… I have a predictable schedule and a full time career. What does that make me?
3). No longer embarrassed
Role-playing games are a bunch of people sitting around a table playing pretend. It sounds foolish in that light, but honestly, what would you call it? When I describe it to people outside of the hobby I call it “collective storytelling,” but that’s just because I don’t want to sound strange. Hundreds of times over, I’ve brought somebody into this hobby and they can’t get into the game because they’re embarrassed about playing pretend. To be fair, it does take some time getting used to, but it can get a little frustrating, too. Playing with the Grognards is amazing because nobody cares. Everybody just says/does whatever they think would be relevant for the character, without a care in the world.
It’s such a liberating feeling to be sitting around a table with that kind of atmosphere. When everybody has that level of investment in what they’re doing, it helps make the game immersive and rich with imagery. Even better, when things are less serious, the comedic element is all that more potent.
4). Amazing stories
Our hobby is almost infamous for creating memorable moments. Even if you’re new to gaming, there’s bound to be some sort of memorable story for you to talk about in the future. As with most things, more time invested means more conversation points. Playing with Grognards really accentuates that fact. My favorite role-playing story actually comes from my Tuesday group in the Eberron campaign setting. It pretty much hashed out the way that the classic Gazeebo story does, but instead we faced a stone elephant statue. The main difference was, instead of actually dying, they had to fight it and be shamed into running away.
Don’t you love it when inanimate objects turn into monsters? But anyhow, before the game, sometimes the group gets wrapped into a reminiscing session about epic moments in previous games. It’s a total blast to listen to, kind of like listening to a war veteran talk about their experiences. Okay, that comparison might be a bit of a stretch, but the sense of wonder and amazement can be similar.
On the short hand, for you tl;dr type people; go find yourself a group outside of your age bracket. It’ll probably be the best thing you ever do and help improve your understanding of role playing.
Sean is a BMW technician by day, the Heavy Metal GM by night, and loves everything about 13th Age. If the game interests you and you want to learn more, check out his 13th Age blog here.
Reading Monster Manuals and supplemental materials has always been a favorite extension of this hobby for me, as it helps flesh out my campaign setting, and give me a greater sense of things outside of the party and their internal affairs. While meandering through the manuals, I always end up stumbling upon a creature or two that become a favorite, such as the Pseudodragon. I also find others which pique my curiosity, and urge me to read more about them and their world. Here’s a collection of some of my favorite ‘cute’ monsters. Our opinions may differ, and I hope my explanations bring levity and illumination beyond the stat block.
1. Kobolds: Noble In Their Own Minds -
I’ve always had a hard time imagining Kobolds as anything more than low-level player fodder, until I finally took the time to read their myriad of Monster Manual entries throughout 3.5 and 5e. The iconic imagery of a Kobold, sniveling, cowering before a party of players and begging for its life is the standard tactic of a DM, and while tropes exist and persist, I wanted to read more on them, for my own curiosity. Religious, clever, and organized into formal societies, their physical weakness is usually the first trait most adventurers notice; I encourage DMs to look at their fondness for traps, their allies with their ‘ancestors’, dragons, and help flesh out their ‘small but mighty’ mental image each Kobold clings to, before encountering a group of armored pulverizing machines (your PCs). While not physically cute (unless the artist has a soft spot for them), I find their ideals endearing, and their traits charming.
2. Firenewts: Religious Militants With Slappy Feet -
Imagine for a moment, the adorable type of newt or salamander you might find hiding under a rock in the forest. Make him 4 feet tall, bright orange, and religious. Now, keep in mind, those floppy hands and feet are proportionate to its now bipedal form, and try to envision those wibbly hands grasping a sword, defending their honor, or those floppy feet slapping down stone hallways, marching towards freedom. Are you giggling yet? Can you hear the “fwap fwap fwap” their little footsies make in a dungeon? Can you understand how much I giggle every time I hear them mentioned? Not yet? I’ll keep trying. They ride Giant Striders, which are basically chickens with no wings, or domesticated velociraptors. Now imagine our newt friend riding one in glorious battle, holding a banner for the Elemental Prince, Imix, in his webbed hands.
3. Grungs: Poison Dart Frog Warriors -
Yet another incongruous mental image of a little tree frog, brightly colored, and poised to kill your party. Volo’s Entry on this particular creature: “Sentient, poisonous frogs that live in trees. Truly, the gods hate us.” Also, they’re slavers. Can you imagine a little three-foot-nothing bright green frog, cracking a whip and carrying you off in chains? Once again, the writers went above and beyond to try and divert away from that fact that these little ribbit rabble rousers with beefy forearms are hard to take seriously.
4. Korred: Magic Hair Fey -
Stone shaping, cloven hoofed, gem sniffing, magical hair-possessing fey. A re-hash of the 2nd Edition creature, Volo’s strikes again by satisfying two distinct desires: more fey-based creatures, and magic hair. Okay, maybe not everyone wants to ally themselves with a creature that possesses magic hair, but I’m sure someone has an idea for a Samson-esque quest, and boy do I have the monster for you! Or, if you’d prefer, you could find a female Korred with snazzy glasses whose hair can whip you in combat. Korred’s hair can take on the physical properties of whatever kind of material was used to cut it. So, if you use steel (or gold) scissors to cut their hair, then the now dislodged strands become steel (or GOLD). They can also conjure elementals, and don’t really fancy people mining away at their homes, but if you can make a friend with a Korred, you can find new tunnels for adventure.
5. Vegepygmies: Fun Guy Fungi -
I don’t know if it’s the woobly arms, the tribal nature, the lush jungle backdrop, or the nickname “Moldie”, but something tickles me about Vegepygmies. They’re plant people, with a basic intelligence, a Chieftain, and weird puppies called Thornies. I wholeheartedly recognize I might be alone in finding them cute, let alone endearing (especially if the Russet Mold tactic gives you flashbacks of Mia and a particular family of mold-infested Hillbillies), but I’d love to see a party encounter some Moldies and befriend them. Though, knowing the standard rule of “Kill first, ask questions later” that can surpass any curiosity players may hold towards these Fun Guys. ...I’m sorry, I used that joke twice. I’ll see myself out now.
6. Xvarts: Tiny Blue Thugs -
Xvarts are the degenerate offspring of the demigod Raxivort, who was betrayed by Graz’zt the Dark Prince. ...What? Let me start again. Xvarts are tiny blue thugs that steal crops, domesticate bats and rats, and generally live in hills and caves, fearful of Humans, Elves, and Dwarves. The Xvart leader, known as a Speaker, can be found wearing stilts and long robes (to hide said stilts), in an effort to ‘elevate’ themselves within their society. Cowardly thugs, begotten by a cowardly demigod, all Xvarts look like their creator, replete with receding hairline, and orange eyes. I feel bad for Xvarts more than I find them cute, as their Volo’s entry goes out of it’s way to mention they cannot reproduce (I assume all Xvarts are male, as Raxivort was), and their demigod patron is known to appear before them and take all of their gold and treasure, and leaving nothing for the tribe. They definitely got the short end of the cosmic stick.
No matter, the size, shape, floppy quality of their hands, or alignment, I hope the selection of creatures before you have piqued your own curiosity to read further into the fluff, and form the vast landscape that is your own campaign setting.
Angela Daurio is now engaged to her favorite monster hunter, and has recently returned to the other side of the table as a player. She lives in New Jersey with her two cats, parental units, and four fish.
Nothing helps create flourish in a homebrew campaign setting like unique experiences. Everyone in my group is familiar with my campaign settings. When I throw them "Warpling" demons and Shadow Sorcerers, they are reminded who's universe they are in. Those creatures are to my campaign what the Uruk-Hai are to Lord of the Rings, White Walkers are to Game of Thrones, or what Dementors are to Harry Potter.
It's that extra bit of flavour that instantly reminds your players where they are adventuring. Sometimes this can be as simple as reskinning a monster. Many game masters find it fun to create a new monster from scratch (whether it's a completely new monster, or even a modification to an existing monster). Maybe you want to revamp your Orc faction by creating an Orc who wields two maces, called an Orc Juggernaut. Or maybe you want to create a whole new monster to assist your kobold dungeon defenders by creating a hydrake (a drake with five heads).
It may also be useful to note that customising (or even re-skinning monsters) can help with both conscious and subconscious metagaming. It's always handy to keep the players on their toes. Even if they are not trying to metagame, somewhere in the back of their minds they'll have preconceived ideas about how to position/attack certain types of monsters like Grells or Mind Flayers. But if you put in little twists or custom monsters, you could even catch them off guard!
I have a few tips to help you when you are creating some dangerous monsters. I hope these will help you on your way to adding many memorable moments to your homebrew campaign, or even a surprise twist as part of a published adventure!
1. Who Are The Monsters With?
Think about where your monster fits into the world. Think about what faction they will be with. Would they be raiding alongside demons, or guarding an undead tomb? Think about what kind of monster they are. Think about who they would be working with. You can look at the factions that are in your campaign and the monsters and build them together logically.
I like to do lists, per faction, of the different monsters that are in that faction. So my undead faction, The Legion, has skeletons, zombies, ghouls and vampires. I’d list all these enemies, for all my factions. This allows me to look at each list and see which faction needs some more units in its arsenal. Let’s say my demon faction only has three monsters on its list - it’s a bit empty, so I would think about another demon-themed monster or demon ally.
An ice golem wouldn't hang around a group of fire demons in a volcano; they'd melt! Similarly a monster working alongside Medusa would either be blind or have something that makes them immune to petrification. So make sure that you use this line of thinking when considering adding monsters to a faction. By adding with theme in mind, you can further immerse your players.
2. Where Does The Monster Fit in Their Faction Hierarchy?
Think about why the monster is part of the faction. What role do they fill? If an Orc tribe uses dire wolves and giant bats for reconnaissance, tracking, flanking, and otherwise quick-reacting support, then they probably wouldn't also use Displacer Beasts, giant spiders, and Stirges too, as they perform the same roles.
When creating a new monster, make sure that it has a reason for existing. It has to bring something to the table, the goblins don't train wolves for fun, they train them to use as fast, mobile units. Ensure that your custom monster which serves as a bodyguard for a dragon, doesn't step on its master's toes by solely using a breath weapon and claw/bite attack.
Look at the list of monsters in that faction. What is it lacking? A powerful goblin clan might lack big tanky enemies - in which case you could throw in bugbears, trolls, etc. Or maybe if they are industrial goblins, they could create automatons as custom monsters that fulfill the same role!
3. What Makes Your Monster Cool?
What makes your monster memorable? Giving an Orc two maces instead of an axe isn't enough. They need something on top of it. Give them cool abilities, unique traits, something that the PCs will remember, both during and after subsequent sessions. ("Oh crap, not the crazed blue-orcs with the double maces!" your PCs might say.)
Maybe the orcs with blue blood are far more brutish and barbarian-like than their green-skinned brethren. It's very easy to portray this with a few little unique traits. "Whenever the blueskin scores a critical hit with a weapon attack, the PC must pass a strength save or be stunned." Then "every time the blueskin takes an instance of damage, increase his own weapon damage rolls by +1." You could even provide him an ability from the Barbarian class to make them more memorable.
You can really go to town with giving creatures abilities or traits to really define them, and make them cool and memorable. Maybe pyro goblins are infused with the power of a fire elemental, giving them fire resistance, and a 1/day use of a fire breath attack (which uses a level 1 burning hands spell effect). Perhaps the Orc chieftain can use his reaction to attack a PC that hits him in melee. Don't be afraid of adding things that give monsters a unique or cool factor to them.
4. Is Your Monster Fun to Fight?
Some monsters are cool, yes, but are they fun for the PCs to fight? Think about ways to change that. Ensure that you are aware of abilities and traits that take away player agency and abilities, and make sure that you use these in moderation. Having an enemy wizard with shield and counterspell isn't too bad as an infrequent boss, but having 4 straight encounters with counterspell-wielding enemies will frustrate your spellcasters immensely.
Another thing to look at when deciding whether something is fun to fight is the amount of time a combat with this monster would take. For example, a monster that forces saving throws constantly will slow down the game. Too much of this can make encounters less fun. Be careful with monsters that can force multiple saves, have multiple complex legendary actions, or other abilities that can slow down the game too much.
When making monsters, put yourself in a PC's pair of shoes. Is this monster fun to fight? If it's too boring, too disruptive (disruption is fine in moderation), or too controlling, or too time demanding, then you should take note of this and make adjustments accordingly. These adjustments can either be made to nerf or rework some of the abilities, or you can simply use these monsters more infrequently, or in specially designed encounters to balance out the encounter a little.
5. Expect the Need For Modifications
Nobody can expect every custom monster they create to be perfect from the moment they hit the battle grid (or the mind theatre, depending on how you play your D&D). Expect that your monster may be more or less powerful than they look on paper. Ensure that you make adjustments either after the encounter or during, to nerf or buff as needed. Perhaps their abilities aren't working the way you wanted, in which case you may need to rework them for future battles. Or you can just drop it completely and modify it for use in the next campaign in a few months/years time for a good re-release of the monster.
Either way, never feel disappointed if a monster isn't quite as powerful as what you wanted, or if it is too powerful when you first release it on your PCs. Fine tuning is a very common thing here. While experience definitely helps, the bottom line is having the stats on paper is only the start. You will need to see it in action before you can really judge how it goes.
I hope that this guide is useful in giving you tips that help you start, or improve, your custom monster creations. The only true way to improve is practice, but sometimes all you need is a little bit of motivation and inspiration to start creating some little critters.
Peter is an avid dungeon master, role-player, and story teller. When he's not running homebrew campaigns, he is creating new worlds, or he is reading and writing fantasy stories, forever immersing himself in the gaping black-hole known as the fantasy genre.
Be honest, role-playing used to be this thing that “other people” did. It was okay for “those people,” but you wouldn’t be caught wasting time on nerdy make-believe games. Then a friend asked you, “Hey what are you doing Saturday?” Now you’re trying to juggle your career and family while desperately hunting for your next chance to wield a greataxe, stick-n-shock pistol, or grimoire to face whatever the gamemaster throws at you.
What happened to you, man?
The rewards built into role-playing games are (for many) what make role-playing fun. They give a sense of accomplishment or closure, and make games more satisfying. It’s worth it to consider how to provide rewards, because correctly managing them is the key to making your role-playing sessions enjoyable.
There’s a wealth of great articles about role-playing games which discuss different role-playing personalities. Many of them are based on Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, by Robin D. Laws, and others (including these one, two, and three from the HLG archives) play around with applying psychological theories to gaming. While these articles talk about motivations behind these personalities, little time is spent talking about the rewards role-playing games actually give players to keep them coming back like Candy Crush junkies.
Here are five things that I’ve noticed people want from role-playing games. This is not an exhaustive list, and if you can think of any other rewards built into game mechanics, please mention them in the comments!
1. Levelling Up/Character Advancement
I can’t wait to get to level 12!! With another feat and the ability score increase I’ll be shooting so many arrows into so many knees that they’ll start offering arrow-to-the-knee insurance along with accidental death and dismemberment.
Some games have specific rules governing how a particular character class advances, while others leave the assignment of character points to the individual player. However it’s done, this classic feature of role-playing games has something for everyone. The power-gamer gets to do more damage. The specialist gets a cool new trick or ability. A new spell learned can either mean more damage, a new trick, or both. In class-based systems, there usually an aspect of world-building, where characters can uncover different aspects of a race/species, or class as they gain experience. Any game worth its salt must have a means for character advancement if they want to foster a sense of accomplishment.
2. Gear and Money
Aanoor spread the coins on the table. The merchant’s eyes bulged.
“I want the sword. Please,” Aanoor asked quietly.
The merchant hesitated, about to ask something, but closed his mouth. He turned and reached for the masterfully-wrought sword and scabbard mounted behind the counter.
“This sword has been waiting a long time for the right person,” the merchant said,
“I’m glad it finally found you.”
Gear lists are often criticized as rules-heavy or interfering with role-playing. However, for many players, the thrill of locating and obtaining gear makes the game. For some, locating an artifact or ancient tome can be an important part of worldbuilding. Big guns and axes are fun for everyone, not just the power gamer. Gadgets and tools can enhance a character’s capabilities, and new spells (yes, I mentioned them already) are often things that need to be tracked down and learned. Don’t underestimate the attraction of equipment lists for your strategists and gear-heads.
Graft stood, his head bowed, for what seemed like an eternity. The dragon finally spoke in his mind.
<You have done well.>
“Thank you, Ghostwalker.”
<I grant you part of the history of what you seek. Sit on the divan.>
Graft sat. The dragon paused, then looked directly into Graft’s soul.
<Tell me,> he asked. <What do you know about Dunkelzahn's Will?>
For some players, especially storytellers and actors, nothing is better than the thrill of piecing together the fabric of the larger world that serves as a background to the characters’ story. This can mean unravelling the plot behind international intrigue or influencing world-shattering events. It can mean co-creating new realms that have not yet been defined. It can also be as simple as discovering what force is behind certain strange happenings. Regardless, developing a sense of mystery about the fictional world builds another reward that characters are able to uncover and enjoy.
4. Problem Solving
Everything worked like a charm.
The explosives detonated just as the column was fully in the ravine. Surgical strikes from the commandos eliminated the officers, while the infantry concentrated fire on the gun turret of the tank, immobilizing, if not completely destroying, it. Lazlo and his team secured the armoured van and the area around it, while the rest of the group accepted the surrender of the remaining hopelessly disorganized troops. Mission accomplished.
It all took about six seconds.
Another overlooked hook for gamers is the emergence of problems to be solved. Good tacticians can make short work of combat encounters far beyond the group’s skill level. Social intrigue and mysteries provide opportunities for a character’s non-combat skills to shine. Finally, good old-fashioned puzzles and riddles provide challenge and foster a sense of fairy-tale fantasy. A game of Munchkin-like door-kicking and monster-slaying is fun for a while, but if there aren’t any non-linear problems to solve, the players will likely get bored.
5. Resolving Story Arcs
“Where you gonna go, Doc?”
Silas clicked his suitcase shut. “Out east. I’ll see if Sherry will take me back. I’m getting out of this life, for sure. I think I’ve redeemed myself.”
He thought of the prisoners they’d released, and the PR mess they’d made for Biomart by leaking information to the media. It felt good.
Silas turned, said goodbye to his old friend, then left without looking back.
Story is kind of a big deal. As I mentioned in a previous article, there are some role-playing and storytelling pitfalls to avoid - but in the end, role-playing games are really about telling a story with a group of friends. Most games approach this differently, from leaving story entirely in the player's’ hands, to creating defined story arcs through published modules and campaigns. What is most important (and most satisfying), though, is when the characters have the opportunity to resolve player defined plot points. The feeling of closure when your Inigo Montoya finally kills the six-fingered man is something that can’t be traded for gold.
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Links to other articles, in the order they appear in the text (just in case they don’t transfer to the blog).
There comes a moment in a role-player's life when we think we've seen and played through enough that we can come up with our own take on things. This comes in a couple different categories: settings, and dice-chucking systems.
This is the first of a two-part mini-series, dealing with system creation, to begin with.
Beware. Here be personal DOs & DON'Ts, your mileage may vary greatly.
Especially since I drive a Diesel.
1. Do Your Homework.
Nobody walks into this hobby knowing everything.
Time, precious commodity as it is, is even more important for understanding what makes you tick as a role-player and what makes a system run smoothly. Spending copious amounts of time playing through or running various systems is a necessity when you’re developing your own.
This isn't to say that some people aren’t just born with it, and may manage to come up with a solid system with no prior experience. Some join pen and paper role-playing from video or board gaming, some may just have that math-inclined mind I'm desperately wanting to rent, or even a knack for putting two and two together.
That being said, often, practice makes perfect.
So make sure you perfect your practice before you practice perfecting your pen and papering product. I... think that makes sense.
2. Do... IT!
No amount of reading, gaming, more reading, or thinking about putting something together will ever replace actually doing it. Once you think your homework's done, and you know what you want to get out of your system, grab your pen, pencil, tablet, keyboard, blood of your enemies or Ouija board of choice and start creating!
Start small, don't think about too many special rules/skills – main character attributes, dice, mechanisms that players use to influence the story, etc. – JUST START!
Try not to overdo the research part, find your niche and stick with it – you're realistically never going to be able to know everything that has come out over the years, experience every take on the genre that's out there, or even know about most systems on the market.
Which is why you should pop by the Role-Playing Gems article series, and give those a look sometime... #shamelessplug
3. Do not be afraid to retcon.
Alright, so now you know what you're aiming for, and have actually started work on it, you come across something that helps you see things in such a light that you want to either fix, erase, or simply exchange some aspects of your system.
You've been working on this for what... A few weeks, give or take?
Pretty sure Rome wasn't built in a few weeks either.
If you end up flailing and failing you can always roll everything back. You don't have a budget you're supposed to justify to anyone. You'll gradually see your system heading into new territory as you get more acquainted with what you can do as a world-builder, and what your finished build can actually achieve. Early stages are always filled with variant rules, different dice sizes, character points, plot twists, explosions, and most likely your brain imploding.
If your system's first version is what you end up calling final, you're either a genius or doing it wrong. Always be prepared to put new things in or take stuff out when it seems like it's not working. Hitpoints to combat, fantasy to sci-fi to horror, and back into fantasy - these can all be changes you make over time.
Experimenting is the mother of all ulterior cock-up preventions. That being said...
4. Do Not Be Afrad To Fail.
We fall, we curse the jackass who tripped us up, we get up, we start over.
Failing will definitely be a part of the process. Big, small, it all hinges on your own abilities, workrate, and set goals. You'll either realise your dice sizes don't convey the experience, limiting your skill spread. Maybe that character sheet layout you've been working on doesn't fit with anything anymore, or maybe the main rolling formulae you've based your work on doesn’t scale well to higher levels.
This falls into the previous point a bit, but hammers home the point that you will end up making the wrong choices. It's your duty to yourself, and the experience as a whole, to not let those moments bring you down. Learn from them, and – as much as possible – try not to make the same mistakes again.
How do you avoid those mistakes I hear you ask? Why, I'm happy to tell you...
5. Do A Lot Of Testing. Fast.
We've got information, we've started work, we're not afraid to move things around, and we're definitely not afraid of failing. It's time to crunch some numbers, make sure we fail as little as possible, and deal with it as early as we're able to. It doesn't matter which numbers get crunchy, doesn't matter how well it goes, it's always a good idea from the get-go to see if everything will really work when and how it’s intended.
Grab a bunch of dice, splatter some attributes around, see if that David vs. Goliath thing works.
Testing early and often saves you time through identifying bugs, and other aspects that only actual playtest can uncover. Just look at what Wizards of the Coast did with D&D 5e – going through each playtest pack and seeing the game evolving was a real treat to early playtesters, let me tell you!
All you need for this are a few pregens, a simple adventure taking you through some main aspects of the game, a couple of willing friends, and some Sprite (or other beverage of your choice).
6. Do Not Keep It To Yourself.
This one's a no-brainer for any and all creative projects you develop: get people involved!
Nobody's telling you to go to Kickstarter within the month. Start small, with the aforementioned friends, spouse, whatever. Maybe you're lucky enough to have geeky parents that can give you some pointers? Just make sure you don't keep this close to your chest and only come out with it when you think it's perfect.
Newsflash – it ain't!
As someone who's done work on three different iterations of a ground-up system, I'm pretty sure the design I'm using right now is not the one I'm going to end up calling finished.
Feedback is the key here.
You shouldn't bend your knee to any and all voices out there, but having a chorus of opinions to sift through will greatly improve your chances of ironing out the kinks in the system.
7. Do Not Go Tt Alone (?)
This one's always largely a matter of personal taste, but most of us in these hobbies are not lone wolves. You've certainly got at least one or two other likeminded individuals who you regularly play games with, thus people who (hopefully) have the same tastes in games as you.
One of the biggest hurdles you'll come across when going into creative mode is the motivation to keep going until the end, especially once you realise any creative endeavour is... well... a pretty big endeavour. Having a Samwise to share the load with may end up being the difference between getting something done or finding your notes in a dusty drawer twenty years from now.
Just make sure you don't end up fighting, going your separate ways, and then taking your systems to crowdfunding at the same time.
I'm guessing that doesn't make for fun conventions.
I think I've covered most of the issues I've faced. One more thing to add: have fun!
It doesn’t matter if you're doing this to have a system you know inside and out or you actually want to make a living of it, the end product is going to suffer if you're going through everything with stormclouds above your head, and a frown.
So clear those skies, pop some music of your choice on, and give things a go. Worst case scenario, you'll get depressed at not getting anything done, try to sell off a half-finished system to various companies, end up trying to self-publish, pawn off your assets, left kidney, your dog, mortgage your house thrice over and live the rest of your days in an asylum with your imaginary friend, Binky von Grim.
But don't let my fears put a damper on your hopes and dreams...
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the Oh Be Wandering hangout page on Facebook - https://goo.gl/4be3Bj
Like it or not, a large part of being a fan of Ravenloft seems to be apologetics for parts of canon that you find...awkward. While some folks just toss the stuff they don't like, a lot of us like the challenge of re-envisioning cringe-y canon by applying one or more coats of interpretive "fanon."
The Grim Harvest series got mixed reviews from fans, what with parts of it ignoring previous established material (Falkovnia awash with wizards and magic? A male Vistani reading the Tarokka?) and adding more stuff that some found cringe-worthy (Azalin's clones? The Eternal Order call to prayer?). While subsequent material has made this all a little more palatable, the part that many DM's and players have struggled with the most is the end result of the Requiem: a massive Shroud of negative energy over the entire city of Il Aluk, now known as Necropolis for the simple fact that anyone who crosses the border dies and reanimates as some kind of undead monster.
Seriously, it's not hard to understand the frustration DM's face at incorporating Necropolis into any campaign that does not have an all-undead party. If the Shroud has sucked all the positive energy out of your storytelling, here are some suggestions on how to use it in a game which doesn’t start with a TPK. Note: These are in order by approximate power level of the party, and can build on each other, but these suggestions are not intended to build a campaign around the Shroud, only to make Necropolis more accessible in an existing campaign.
1. "Near at Hand" -
If you have a low level party and want to do some foreshadowing for later expeditions to Il Aluk, consider this encounter from the Forgotten Children netbook (available for free at http://www.kargatane.com/). The crawling claw monster is appropriate for a low-level party, and hearing about how Dunkel Kralle lost his hand to the Shroud will do wonders for setting the mood for the future. That expository conversation is not written in the adventure, but it's easy to add regardless of how it ends, as long as at least one of the original witnesses survives to tell the tale. Best of all, you can relocate this mini-adventure almost anywhere with just a little adaptation, because it doesn't require the PC's to go near Necropolis at all. If you think a particular location is too far away to place the adventure, just imagine how far Dunkel might go to get away from what is chasing him....
2. Racing the Dead -
Once it's time for PC's to see the Shroud on the horizon, consider pitting them against a monster that would take refuge from them in the Necropolis. Make sure the stakes are high enough that the PC's must give chase: a fledgling vampire or golem kidnapping a beloved NPC should do the trick. The PC's know that once the creature reaches Il Aluk, the prisoner will perish and the creature will be forever beyond their reach. If the chase has the right amount of stop-and-go action, it should end with the creature duking it out with the PC's a few yards from the Shroud, with dark shapes watching from the shadows on the other side. Regardless of the result, the Shroud will live on forever in thoughts of what "might have happened."
3. Scrying -
Various divination spells can be useful for probing the other side of the Shroud safely. Some spells cannot reach across domain borders (Find the Path, Locate Object), so those won't help unless you can find a place where the Shroud does not extend as far as the Darkonese border. Others (Clairaudience/Clairvoyance and Scrying), work within any Mist-bound region--which in this case means the entire Core. These spells usually create a visible sensor that resembles a ghostly eye or ear, and opens the caster up to attacks, such as the domination gaze of a vampire. While it's true that Necropolis has more than its share of vampires, it also probably has more than its share of disembodied ghostly bits floating around, such that the vampires might not even bother investigating. For the rest of the party, a 3D map of the target areas can be made using simple illusion magic. Between this and maps of Pre-Requiem Il Aluk, a party could plan a daring coup as the target of their scrying comes near the edge of the Shroud. This is also an excellent way to learn about the different means of circumventing the Shroud, such as Necropolitan Amaranth (see below).
4. Eyes of the Undead -
This spell from Gazetteer 2 deserves special attention because it allows someone to see through the eyes of an undead creature. The caster gets a few hours of spying around the interior of the city while safely outside the Shroud, up to a distance of one mile. As a Necromancy spell, it cannot be cast without a powers check unless the DM waives or reduces this when cast with good intentions. Nor does it allow the caster to control the undead, but a neutral or evil caster may have other means to do this. A good caster, on the other hand, would want to take full advantage of the fact that the spell can be cast from medium range at an unwilling creature who gets a single save to resist. With luck and planning, an unwitting enemy can become an excellent guide to the City of the Dead.
5. Milk Run -
The undead of Necropolis are generally listless… but there are exceptions. Vampires, in particular, hunger for blood, and the blood of corpses will not sustain them for long, even among those who would deign to drink it. While this might drive many bloodsuckers to seek better feeding grounds, others might try to make the best of it, "dining out" at feeding houses just outside the border, "ordering in" through lackeys who deliver living victims protected by amaranth (see below), or coming up with other ways to satisfy their needs. This blackest of black markets could lead to some very creative solutions by those with the means to deliver the goods, many of which could be exploited by PC's. Cities far removed from Il Aluk, even other domains, might receive a traveler who lures the gullible into private settings, then pulls out a Ring Gate, through which billows a strange white vapor....
6. Necropolitan Amaranth -
Once the situation calls for PC's to actually enter, this simple grain from Gazetteer 2 is the obvious choice to protect them. As the only plant that grows in Necropolis, it ought to stand out when PC's notice it while spying and scrying, although it may take them a while to understand its significance. PC's should have developed a healthy respect for the Shroud by now, and might be reluctant to trust a few curious seeds with keeping them from death and undying damnation. If that's the case, allow them to discover that they are not the only ones investigating amaranth. Rival adventurer groups, unsavory mercenaries, or vampires seeking to keep their food "fresh" might demonstrate to fearful PC's the power within amaranth: it’s ability to protect mortals--and that the PC's need to use that power if they seek to stay in the game.
7. Strange Bedfellows -
Not all the creatures who pass the Shroud are evil, and even among the evil there are those who can be...enterprising. If the PC's need help while in Necropolis, they might find themselves rescued by undead heroes such as Jander Sunstar or Andres Duvall. If they are less lucky, their saviors might be more along the lines of Kazandra or Ratik Ubel. Other creatures of the night might approach them with an offer to penetrate deeper than PC's can safely go using amaranth alone. Merilee Markuza, Lucre the Goin Colem, former Kargat leader Kristobal del Diego, or many other mercenary-minded monsters could easily make such a deal. While the PC's may not take the offer, or may come to regret it if they do, the treasures and secrets behind the Shroud will linger in their minds long after the individual offering them has departed.
8. Tempting Transformation -
Once something within the City of the Dead has hold on a PC's heart, that character gets a delivery of two boxes and a set of detailed instructions on how to lock themselves in a sealed room, drink the sleeping draught in the smaller box, then open the other box to reveal a little puppet holding a half-dozen silver needles.... As constructs, carrionettes can enter the Shroud unharmed, and their ability to switch bodies with a PC grants a rare opportunity to explore Necropolis with impunity. Of course, staying in the form of a carrionette for too long has its own dangers, and they ought to wonder which of their grim sponsors (see #7) sent them the little horror in the first place.
9. Alchemical Allies -
A PC with access to the alchemical feats of Van Richen’s Arsenal can make various forms of alchemical life that could penetrate the Shroud. Alchemical homunculi could be achieved at low-to-mid levels, creating a kind of “familiar” that would make an excellent companion to any carrionette PC’s (see above). At slightly higher levels, the PC could create alchemical duplicates of the entire party, albeit with none of their class levels. It might even be possible to transfer the psychic link from the creator to the original donor, allowing the entire party to direct their duplicates into Necropolis via active psychic link, leave them there wandering about in passive mode for days, then resuming active psychic link when needed. Of course, constructs fueled by positive “quintessence” might not be as immune to the Shroud as ordinary golems, but that’s up to the DM.
10. Shadow, Spirit and Shroud -
It's unclear in canon whether or not the Shroud extends very far underground, into the Ether, or into the Plane of Shadow. The first option is available for low-level parties seeking to infiltrate the city from underneath, but higher level magic allows access to the other two. With so much death in the wake of the Requiem, it's expected that these border planes will be awash with powerful resonance--possibly distorted by the waves of positive and negative energy that created the Shroud--and disembodied spirits of all kinds may take refuge in them. Traveling through either of these border planes will allow PC's to penetrate deep within Necropolis and even engage with some of the inhabitants who walk in two worlds, such as Jadis Ranhertd, the former heir apparent to the baron, now an ambitious undead shadow....
11. 'Mostly' Dead -
The carrionette trick from #8 is hardly the only way to transform a PC into a monster. It's a time-honored tradition in Ravenloft to temporarily turn PC's into headless automatons (Roots of Evil), flesh golems (Adam's Wrath), ancient dead (Neither Man Nor Beast) or other things that might pass into Necropolis. For an especially reversible option, the Revenant spell from Dragon Magazine #252 can temporarily turn a living person into a powerful undead revenant. Obviously the spell and/or some of its required actions (cutting a person's beating heart out and replacing it with a lump of clay, squeezing it to cause the revenant pain) may require a powers check, but if the PC's are desperate enough, or are at the mercy of some awful mastermind, they just might make take that leap.
12. Wrinkles in the Land -
Some reality wrinkles might actually subvert the constants of a domain, at the DM's discretion. A truly epic adventure might allow the PC's to enter Necropolis while the Shroud is compromised by the arrival of a powerful fiend. The basic rule for size is 2000' per hit die, which is enough space for a 10HD fiend to compromise the entire Shroud if it reaches the center of the city. The mysterious Carnival travels under the protection of such a reality wrinkle, and the serendipity that directs its movements has taken the Carnival into dangerous places before. Isolde of the Carnival stalks the mysterious Gentleman Caller, another fiend of truly epic scale, and don't forget that the darklord of Necropolis would certainly be roused to investigate any such disruption to his unholy order. Of course, a party capable of engaging with such titans might have a member with a small reality wrinkle--monks of 20th level or higher, or other classes who transform into some other kind of native outsider at high levels.
13. A Rift in the Shroud -
Finally, special mention has to be given to one such outsider: Styrix the Night Hag, whose Rift Spanner is the one thing stated in Ravenloft canon that could undo the Shroud. Styrix has sworn that Azalin will witness her escape using the Rift Spanner, an oath which might make her reckless enough to avoid using the fully-charged device until she can get close enough to Avernus, which is is only a short distance due south of Necropolis. In a strange juxtaposition of suggestion #2, an enterprising group of powerful adventurers might seize the device and race to get to the City of the Dead, a frantic Night Hag on their heels. The PC's ambitions pit them against not only Styrix, but also Death and his Unholy Order, while the lich lord of Darkon could easily end up an ally, if only to spite Styrix and Death. Styrix's reality wrinkle may or may not be large enough to cover the entire domain of Necropolis, but it could easily extend a few miles ahead of her as she pursued them, causing her to unwittingly ease their passage into the heart of the City to detonate her device and destroy the Shroud forever.
Matthew Barrett has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, starting with the Kargatane's Book of S series (as Leyshon Campbell). He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement.
Well, I’ve done it: I’ve made it through 2016. Hoofta, am I glad that’s over with. With a new year comes a world full of new possibilities and promise. To motivate myself to achieve all that bright, glowy potential, I’ve got to make some New Year’s resolutions to get the year started off right. While I have many things I need to achieve in real life (e.g. getting in shape, spending more time with family, etc.), they are way too hard right now, so I’m going to focus instead on how I can improve my fictional life (I’ll get to my actual New Year’s resolutions later). I’ve created a list of things I’d like to accomplish to improve myself as a role-player in 2017 and they are as follows:
1. Create a Character in a Class I’ve Never Played Before-
I’m not a decades-long veteran of RPGs, so I have yet to play all the classes, even in my most frequented gaming systems (i.e. DnD, at least on tabletop. I’ve played all the classes many times over during my time in Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights). If given the opportunity to start a DnD campaign this year, a distinct possibility, I will be creating either a barbarian, bard, or monk. If my group ends up playing in a different system, I’ll have to make sure I’ve never played the character class I end up making (though that would be the cheap way of achieving this resolution, like resolving to go to the gym every week but just stopping to raid the vending machine).
2. GM My First Campaign-
I have yet to be the master of my own campaign. I’ve always used the excuse of being too new to table-top gaming, but I’ve been role-playing for almost five years now, so that excuse is wearing thin. The truth is that such a task is daunting for one who has never sat behind the screen. I will conquer that fear this year and run my own game. Now, on to planning and making sure the experience isn’t crap for my players (there’s a few handy references for new GMs here on High Level Games I will be checking out, that’s for sure).
3. Play a Campaign in a Novel System-
I have only played in about half a dozen different tabletop RPG systems since starting to role-play (Marvel, D&D 3.5, Rifts, Shadowrun, DnD 5e, and 13th Age, to be precise). This year I resolve to play in a campaign set in a new rules system (note: this will not happen at the same time as my second resolution). There’s talk of Star Wars 3rd Edition for the next campaign with my group, which would definitely fulfill this resolution, but I’m hoping for something a little less familiar, perhaps Numenera or Baker Street: Roleplaying in the World of Sherlock Holmes. We’ll see what the year brings, and what I can afford.
4. Lose a Character in a Memorable Way-
Death isn’t something I usually include on my list of New Year’s Resolutions, but 2016 wasn’t exactly the greatest of years, so I’ll make an exception. This year I resolve to kill off one of my characters in a manner so epic, it will be sung about by the bards for ages to come. Maybe I can combine this with my first resolution and make a bard to sing my own praises. I’ve had many characters die in my time, but none of them have been that truly awe-inspiring, self-sacrificial, heroic demonstration of badass-ery that is really memorable. 2017’s going to be my year (to die), I can just feel it.
5. Play a Character Who Pushes me Outside of My Comfort Zone-
This one will be the biggest challenge for me. This year I resolve to create a character who has a personality, flaw, proclivity, addiction, etc. which forces me to embody an individual with whom I would otherwise have little or no exposure. Being a sheltered, middle class, shy, white American male, my comfort zone isn’t exactly the most expansive of regions, so finding something that falls outside of it shouldn’t prove too challenging. Perhaps I’ll create someone who is the life of the party, a social butterfly. Maybe someone struggling with addiction and depression. Possibly a cold-hearted and abusive womanizer. Whoever this character turns out to be, I want them to challenge me to see the world from a different perspective.
Well, there you have it folks, my list of goals for 2017. I’ve no clue how I’m going to accomplish all these things, but I’ll give it the old college try. I think it just means I’ve got to role-play more. Maybe I’ll add that to my list of real life New Year’s resolutions…
- Jake is High Level Games most handsome contributor and has probably given up on at least half of his real life New Year’s resolutions by now (they were dumb anyways).
I have to admit, sometimes I am a lazy role-player, and more recently I am the laziest role-player. I expect to turn up at the latest session -ready for fun- with little-to-no time in preparation.
I haven’t always been this way. I have done the GMing stuff where there is more work involved, but at this point in my life I want a gaming experience that takes me away into the mythical world and away from the drudgery of laundry and lesson planning. However, my foray back into regular gaming was not my easy, comfortable sweater that I expected and wanted to slip on. No, it was shiny new settings and games, and I had a lot to learn. As lazy as I am, I am glad for it.
1 . New games make you read
I know it sounds like a boring reading comprehension test, but with new systems and settings comes new ideas and ways of looking at role-playing. And every rule/adventure book has its own feel that you become immersed in. Now, I’m not talking about just skimming the pages until you see numbers underneath the class/race/occupation/skills that make your eyes light up (but you do need to do that as well). I am talking about reading about the world that has been lovingly crafted for you to explore or being consumed into a new culture through someone’s words. These can be the clearest depiction that gives each person the same sense of what is going on or they can be an outline that make you develop those places and people together. Often a completely new setting will spark your imagination and energise your play.
Furthest to the south is the sandy and inhospitable lands of the Owl Clan, who share strange and arcane secrets with the emptiness of the desert. They are known for consorting with spirits that often spell ill to their "mistresses."
From a stone-age fantasy D&D 5E setting created by VP Quinn
2 . New games make you think and role-play differently
We all fall into a bit of a routine with role-playing. Even those with a streak of interesting, dynamic characters often use similar techniques to get information, to engage in combat, or even to interact with NPCs and PCs. There are vastly different games each with their own idea of these interactions. They force you to think differently. As an investigator in the Cthulhu world, I started by looking into one thing at a time at one place… like some sort of linear path. What I learned was that sometimes a scattershot of searching sometimes works best. It is a small thing, but it is a skill I will use in other games.
Also, with my first jump into the Cthulhu world being just a few months ago, the simple words from the first handout are a callback to an unending exploration of how I role-play and how fear can motivate action.
A landlord, Mr. Knott, asks you to examine an
old house in central Boston, known as the Corbitt
House. The former tenants, the Macario family,
were involved in a tragedy and the owner wishes
to understand the mysterious happenings at the
house and set matters straight. Mr. Knott been
unable to rent the house out since the tragedy
and hopes that you can clear things up and restore
its good name. He offers to reimburse you
for your time and trouble. The landlord gives you
the keys, the address and $25 cash in advance.
Call of Cthulhu, The Haunting
What could go wrong?
3 . New games remind you of some of the awesome things you used to do
Remember that one time, you put that clever twist on your gaming experience. No, not that one, the other one. Nope, not that either. I think you did it around 2005…. What do you mean you don’t remember that far back?
Often, we remember the epic battles and the clever encounters from years back. We have told and retold them with great fervor. But sometimes it was the little things that added more interest to the group and kept things going. Often a new game will remind you of such experiences and rekindle the love of the minute details.
Though my jump into 13th Age was only one session, I was enamored with their idea of the “One Unique Thing.” Often, I had characters with that extra trait that set them apart, but often as time went on those clever ideas were left behind in the process. This forced me to look at that critically at the beginning of character creation. It is now in the forefront of my mind as I am in the midst of making a new character right now.
4 . You have a chance to use different dice
Seriously, I have some under utilized dice in my pack. I look forward to dusting off some d6s for this wade into the Star Wars 3E universe.(Editor’s note, Star Wars’ games seem to like using odd or specific dice. The fantasy flight version of SW has its own dice which are cool, but it also requires you buy their specific dice. It’s a marketing ploy only a big game can get away with.)
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches middle school science, math, art, and other random subjects. She loves new teenagers in action. They make her laugh and shake her head and her world is much better with laughter. She thinks everyone should be roleplaying. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa
With 2016 now firmly lodged in the past, we turn our attention to a new year, full of new hopes and new joys to discover. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of a few games that I’m looking forward to, so that I may share some of that excitement with you. These games are in no particular order, and I cannot guarantee that the final products will be any good. Nevertheless, these games and new editions of old games are certainly worth a look and perhaps a bit of your attention as we move into 2017.
1 . Pugmire
This one’s going to be a blast. We’ve all been waiting for a great game about anthropomorphic dogs defending king and country in a fantasy setting, even if we didn’t know it. Luckily, the wait is nearly over. The good folks at Onyx Path Publishing (creators of the newest Exalted edition, Chronicles of Darkness etc.) bring to us a world after humanity, wherein the noble dogs of Pugmire follow the Code of Man, striving to “Be a Good Dog” and “Fetch What Has Been Left Behind,” among other tenants. I’m particularly excited to see how the enemies of Pugmire, the Cats of the Monarchies of Mau, are fleshed out, especially considering my propensity for GMing conniving villains (and my love of cats, of course). What’s more, Onyx Path is using a variant on the open d20 system and is striving to get the game onto store shelves. The game will therefore be extremely accessible, in both senses of the word, to new and veteran gamers.
2 . Monsterhearts 2
A new edition of a lesser-known RPG about teen monsters, Monsterhearts 2 stands to improve upon a game that breaks the mold for traditional games in both tone and mechanics. Here, players will put on different “skins” of creepy horror tropes, each trying to make it in high school without being slain by the popular kids. The new edition promises revisions to some of the skins, new skins co-developed by particularly affluent Kickstarter backers, and a bevy of art and writing updates. If you think like I do, and you wish to relive your “gory days” in high school (commence the eye rolling), or get back at the cool kids who spurned you, then you owe it to yourself to check out this interesting and now updated table-top experience.
3 . Cthulhutech V2
Anyone who’s familiar with the original version of this Anime/Cthulhu mishmash may be surprised to see it on this list. The original game is somewhat renowned for its mishandling of certain sensitive subjects, its clunky dice system, and its bizarrely strict canon. However, many also know it to be a game with wonderful artwork, fun and detailed combat, and intriguing character designs. With the development of a second edition, gamers such as myself are hopeful that the previously mentioned issues will be fixed, while retaining the spirit and art that in which we saw so much potential. An open beta exists on DriveThruRPG, so if you’d like to see a better Cthulhutech this year, check it out and leave them your thoughts!
4 . Mekton Zero
Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mekton but you’re a big fan of Cyberpunk 2020. Maybe you just like giant robots beating the crap out of each other. Or, just maybe, you’re a big fan and veteran of Mekton or its descendant, Mekton Zeta, like I am. Whatever the case, the newest version of Mekton is worth a look. It’s been in development for years, and the creators at R. Talsorian games have been working hard, whilst co-developing Cyberpunk 2077, to deliver a giant anime robot table-top game for the ages. The Mekton series is known for its customizability. You want to build your favorite Gundam, or something you saw in Pacific Rim? Maybe you’ve got your own awesome design you want to try out. Mekton has a comprehensive mech-building system that allows you to create any robot you can imagine. The newest version promises a revamped setting and polished rules, and should be a breakout hit as soon as it releases. Keep your eye on this one.
5 . Blades in the Dark
Set in a dark, mysterious city of old industry, this title has players create characters that work together as a crew, with the GM fleshing out the group with other gang members. Your crew will thieve, assassinate, and discover hidden truths on the shadowy streets of Duskwall. The creator, John Harper, describes the game as a mix of games like Dishonored and Thief, along with novels such as Lies of Locke Lamora. It therefore promises to be a fast paced, industrial-steampunk game of dirty deeds and dark revelation. As a counterpoint to the first game in this list, this seems like it will be a far grittier experience, yet one worth digging your fingernails into.
These are only a few examples of the new and revised titles that we can expect to see in the coming year, and there are many I didn’t list that I’m certain you’re excited about. Share them with us! Leave a comment or contact me at my website listed below. Let’s have a great year in 2017, and happy gaming to you and your merry band of players.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact . He’s looking forward to GMing Pugmire and bringing the might of the Cats of Mau down upon the party of unsuspecting do-gooding doggos.
When Exalted was first released, it was outright designed to be a precursor universe to the Classic World of Darkness. On the back of the 1st edition books you can see the slogan, “Before there was a World of Darkness, there was something else.” Now, as Exalted moved into its 2nd and now 3rd editions it slowly edged away from being an obvious background to the WoD, but that doesn’t mean we can’t latch onto that idea to help create plot hooks and meta-plot for WoD games that tie into that pre-history. What follows are a few ideas you can steal from me. Really, I grant you permission!
1) Lunars Survive: In Exalted, Lunars are the stand-in for Garou and other Fera in the World of Darkness. Lunars can shift into various animal forms (if they’ve devoured the heart’s blood of that animal or person), and they are the progenitors of beastmen, who can only shift into one animal form. Now, the Garou myth is that Gaia made them and Luna blessed them, and that they are servants of the Wyld in the fight against the Wyrm and the Weaver. In Exalted, the Lunars hid in the dangerous Wyld, but they are the Exalted of Luna who are supposed to protect Creation. They also can live for millennia. So, here is what I suggest. Create a single Lunar who survives whatever destroys Creation and brings about the World of Darkness. This Lunar is one of the progenitors of the Garou, or perhaps the Ratkin. Have a pack discover them on a quest deep into the Amazon, or into Antarctica. They are dying, after millennia lived, and they pass on some small wisdom to the pack. “They Wyld is more dangerous than anything else. You think you serve it? No… children, you were designed to serve the Weaver.”
2) Sidereal Avatars: Now, the Sidereal Exalted are not exactly Mages as we know them in the World of Darkness. Probably the closest beings by the book are Lunars/Werecreatures and the Fair Folk/Changelings. That being said, the Sidereal have the ability to manipulate the Loom of Fate, they manage the Celestial Bureaucracy and they have access to Exalted Sorcery. As beings of the 5 Sisters, the close planets to Earth, they act as controlling agents to Creation. In the Cataclysm that destroys Creation, the Sidereal are broken alongside the Loom of Fate. Each Sidereal Exalted’s soul is shattered into pieces and cast into the universe. These shards occasionally fuse themselves with human beings in the new world. Those humans then gain a small portion of the ability to manipulate, shape, and alter the World. Heylel was the first full reborn Sidereal, but when they remembered their past lives, and saw what Creation had become, they set out to destroy this mockery. In the 21st century, more and more Mages are being born almost whole, and soon… more fully reborn Sidereals will awaken.
3) Arcadia Doesn’t Exist: In Exalted, the Fair Folk or Rakshas live within the Wyld, and they hate everything that is Creation. They are ruled by unformed beings, barely capable of being conceptualized by human thought. Yet, some of the Fair Folk are enamored with the idea of Form and the benefit it can bestow upon them. Eventually, these Raksha are cut off from the Wyld and become the Fae, and eventually Changelings. However, they are sad reflections of the beings they once were. These memories of Arcadia, a land of Fae power, are myth. A motley is sent on a quest into the Deep Dreaming because there is a rumor of a great Chimera wreaking havoc, slowing making its way toward Earth. When the motley arrives, the being stops, inspects them, and laughs. He smells a small amount of true Wyld essence upon them, and offers them a choice. “Join with me, or die, so says… Arcadia.”
There are probably thousands of plots you could pull out of Exalted to work into your World of Darkness games; these are three small suggestions and you can do with them what you will. Please comment with your own Exalted into WoD plotlines, because I’d love to hear them.
With 17 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He recently launched,www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a player in Underground Theatre’s and One World By Nights Vampire LARPs and is running both a Mage game and a Dark Ages: Vampire game. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a recent graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
Hello again, dear traveller.
While I normally don't goad you (or the other travelers who humor me by corresponding with an old man), I think you may wish to return to Carinford-Halldon with all due haste. An item has come into my possession that I think may be of interest to you.
Last year, we encountered some small difficulty with an Outlander. He was a magic user with a flair for the dramatic. This flashy hothead caused a few stirs locally, with a tendency to use numerous magical spells which used children's toys as a unifying thematic element. What alerted us to the danger he represented was the disappearance of three children while he was in town. He disappeared before we could find him, but my father-in-law reliably tracked him to Odiare. Unfortunately, his trail seems to grow cold, but as Nathan was able to recover the young man's effects, I believe he may have met his end in that domain.
What made this man particularly noteworthy was a number of unique spells at his command, all bearing his curious signature. I'd like you to return to peruse his spellbook. With any luck this grimoire can benefit you. I would endeavor to hurry, however, as my father-in-law is likely to believe the book is his by right, and may make a deal to barter it away within the near future.
Here are descriptions of a few of the more curious spells, should you be interested.
1 - Trusted Companion
3rd Level Transmutation (Wiz, Sor, War, Bard)
Casting Time: 1 action
Components: V, S, M
Duration: 1 round per caster level
(5e) This spell targets a single child's toy, transforming it into a protector capable of fighting on its creator's behalf. It is capable of transforming a toy into any appropriate monster of CR 2 or less. (Transforming a stuffed lizard into a wyrmling dragon is appropriate, transforming a stuffed bear into a bulette is not.) The toy fights loyally for its creator until it is destroyed or the duration expires, at which point it transforms back into a toy.
(3e) This spell transforms a single toy into an appropriate monster to fight on the creator's behalf. It can create any monster that could normally be summoned by Summon Monster III or Summon Nature's Ally III, but cannot create more than one creature per casting.
In either version, the creature created is considered a construct. As such, it is not subject to critical hits or magical control that doesn't affect constructs. (A toy wolf animated by this spell could not be controlled by a Dark Lord that can control wolves.)
Material Components: the toy to be transmuted.
2 - Lava Floor
2nd Level Conjuration (Sor, Wiz, Drd, Clr)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 20 ft emanation
Components: V, S, M
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
(5e) This spell causes the ground to generate an intense heat (which only affects creatures, not objects). At the end of every round the spell is in effect, any creature in contact with the ground takes 1d8 fire damage. This damage increases by 1d8 per round, to a maximum of one half the caster's level.
(3e) As above, but the damage is 1d6, and increases by 1d6 per round, to a maximum of one-half the caster's level.
Material Components: A pinch of red sand.
3- The Quiet Game
4th Level Enchantment (Wiz, Brd, Clr)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 25 ft + 5 ft/lvl
Targets: Up to 1 creature/level
Duration: 1 round/level (3e) or Concentration (5e)
(5e) Each affected creature is silenced, unable to make any sort of vocalization (including spellcasting). Each round, an affected creature may make a single Wisdom saving throw (at any time, not just their action) to break the effect. A creature who successfully vocalizes takes 1d8 psychic damage for each creature still affected by the spell.
(3e) As above, but the damage is 1d6 per affected creature and is psionic damage.
In either version, the caster may choose to be affected by the spell, in which case they may break their own silence without suffering damage.
Material Components: A bell without a clapper.
4- Porcelain Doll
5th Level Enchantment (Sor, Wiz)
Casting Time: 1 round
Range: 50 ft
Target: 1 living creature
Duration: 1 minute/caster level
Save: Will negates (3e) or Wisdom negates (5e)
(5e) This horrific curse strikes the target with the visage of a delicate porcelain doll. Their skin takes on a glossy white sheen and is as brittle as delicate ceramic. While affected, the target is immune to acid and resistant to fire damage, but vulnerable to bludgeoning damage.
(3e) As above. The target gains immunity to acid damage, fire resistance 10, and takes double damage from bludgeoning weapons.
In either version, suffering any physical damage will cause the target to suffer hideous cracks across their body, which linger after the spell's duration. These unsightly scars will permanently lower the victim's Charisma by 1. (This loss can be restored by magical means.)
Material Components: A scrap of silk and a pinch of porcelain dust.
5 - Time Out
2nd Level Transmutation (Sor, Wiz, War, Brd, Clr, Drd)
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 5 ft/caster level
Target: 1 living creature
Duration: 5 rounds
Save: Will negates (3e) or Charisma negates (5e)
(5e) The affected character is shunted into a pocket dimension for a brief time out. During this time they are unable to act or sense anything. After the duration expires, they appear in the space they left (or the nearest space if occupied). They are treated as if they've just completed a short rest (including any healing or regaining of any abilities), and any magical effects influencing their minds or emotions are dispelled.
(3e) During the time out, any mind influencing effects on the character are dispelled. They also regain 1d6 hit points for each round spent in the time out.
Material Components: A flag or whistle.
Although part of me hopes he's dead, another part of me hopes that showy bastard is still being kept alive somewhere in Maligno's realm, subjected to all manner of dark torments.
No matter his eventual fate, the fact remains that the fruits of his arcane knowledge are ours (and yours) to plunder should you so desire. If you will be returning, please messenger me with all due haste. Gwendolyn so looks forward to seeing you again, as do the children.
As always, wishing you safe travels and happy hunting,
Frankie "Farshot" Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Keep on the Heathlands. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
During the last Leveling Up Podcast I talked about some of the surveys I use for my games. I send these surveys to my players using Survey Monkey. Now, I play with all of my players in person, and you might wonder why I use surveys instead of just asking them in person. I do this for two reasons. The first is that I like to give my players a chance to think about answers to some questions. Asking at the table may get a quick response, but it might not be a very considered response and that may not be how they actually feel about something in the long-run. The second is my issue, I don’t always remember the details of my player’s sheets or elements of their character. I remember bits and pieces, but sometimes they have things that I forget about that are drastically important, but don’t come up in play frequently.
I use these surveys to check-in with my players too. If a session was rough, deep, or really awesome I want to hear about it. The table feedback is great, but using these tools helps me to be holistic. A player might think of something awesome to include in the game while they are sitting at work and want to pop that information into the survey. What follows are two survey examples I’ve used recently.
Q1: Where is your character from?
Q2: How does your character dress?
Q3: What goals does your character have that you would like me to take into account?
Q4: Are there aspects of Vampire that you would like to have addressed in our game? (example, descent into the Beast, feeding on other Vampires, Golconda)
Q5: How much combat do you want?
Q6: Is there anything you absolutely do not want to deal with in game?
Q1: Character Name
Q2: Where was your character born?
Q3: What Flaws do they have?
Q4: What are some of your character's goals?
Q5: What goals do you have as a player?
Q6: The World of Darkness can be dark, are there any elements you'd like to avoid in our game?
Q7: What is your highest level skill and why?
These surveys act as a second and third order way of communicating with my players. I want to run the games they want to play. I also want to run games that I find interesting. So these surveys act as another layer of making sure we are both having our interests met by the game. I also do regular conversation check-ins with my people, but those have their limits in social environments if people were to become uncomfortable with answering any of the various questions I have for them. That’s not common, but it has happened before and this is another way of avoiding those situations for the social conflict averse person. You can also check-out a much more in-depth survey here, which I found to be a great resource.
With 17 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He recently launched,www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a player in Underground Theatre’s and One World By Nights Vampire LARPs and is running both a Mage game and a Dark Ages: Vampire game. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a recent graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
I’ve been keeping tabs on the state of our peculiar little hobby for over three decades, and I have to say that I’ve never seen anything like the explosion of the last three years. Groups on various social media outlets are forming right and left, full of new and returning table-top gamers, ready to roll dice and make history… but a few of the gaming concepts many of us take for granted seem to be a little hard for new players to wrap their heads around.
One common thread I’ve noticed among the new generation concerns the classical two-axis alignment system: Lawful versus Chaotic and Good versus Evil. It seems to be a hang-up for a lot of new players who are trying to juggle a ton of new concepts in character creation. Maybe they like the idea of the Drow, but don’t want the evil baggage that comes with playing them, or they want to play a character with an edgy, possible treacherous back-story. An assassin, but with a heart of gold. Perhaps most common is the idea that they can play Chaotic Neutral, and just do whatever the hell they want.
Us old timers groan a little at some of these questions on the forums and group posts, but a little history would serve us well. Before we were know-it-alls, we had the same questions, but we played enough to get a practical feel for alignment and how it plays out in-game. We read enough R.A. Salvatore books to comfortably play good-hearted Drow without breaking immersion. But is all this hand-wringing and hand-waving really necessary? Is alignment better consigned to the past, along with THAC0 and Elf-as-a-class? As with anything else, alignment, in a strict ‘as-written’ sense, is a mixed bag.
1 - Do You Really Want to Torture That Kobold?
At its most basic, alignment is a guide to roleplaying your character. In that sense, alignment serves an important purpose for the player and GM in keeping a character’s actions consistent. It can be easy to half-ass roleplay a character, especially coming from a video-game
background where your character is the classic murder-hobo / loot-machine: if it’s in front of me, it’s bad, it needs to die, and it probably has loot commensurate with how hard it is to kill. In this case, a strict adherence to alignment can nudge players and GM’s into a more nuanced story, forcing them to find options other than violence and mayhem. Nobody is going to remember another night of kicking in doors and killing everything inside. But kicking in the door and finding the kobold nursery, with hatchlings playing who start screaming at the sight of the players, possible alerting the guards next door... that’s a wicket that gets really sticky when you’re trying to play something other than pure evil, and alignment can keep players on the right track. You don’t have to be a paladin to object to killing adorable little lizard-babies.
Of course, the flip-side to this problem is the player who wants a Chaotic Neutral character, and then uses their alignment as an excuse to wreak havoc on the game. When a player is standing over another player’s character, bloody knife in hand, and says, “I’m just playing my alignment”, well, that’s a problem with the player, not their alignment. ‘Chaotic Neutral’ doesn’t mean ‘Pure Psycho’, no matter how you parse it out, and alignment is never an excuse to make the game miserable for other players (including the GM).
2 - Uh, Yeah...Maybe I Do
But eventually you might hit a situation where alignment can be a constraint. It’s easy to look at alignment as a rigid code of conduct, and, for new players, maybe that’s a good thing. But as players get a feel for what’s possible in a table-top game, they might want to push some boundaries. In that case, sometimes it’s better to let strict alignment fall by the wayside. Sometimes good people have to do bad things. Sometimes, good people want to do bad things.
These are the cases that really define a character as more than a set of stats and loot, where cardboard cut-outs become fleshed out characters. In situations where a character’s stated morals are put to the test, it would be a shame if the player or GM put a hard limit on the story based on what’s on a character record sheet. What does a Lawful character do when they come up against unjust laws? Whether they obey or disobey and, more importantly, how they justify their actions, should transcend words on a character sheet.
3- Straight Talk
At its most basic level, alignment is a label. It makes everybody aware of how your character is going to fit in. And if you walk in with any alignment with the word evil in it, you are making a character decision that dramatically affects everyone else at the table.
Honestly, we can talk all day about what works for a specific group or player and how there are no bad ideas in tabletop RPG’s. But, generally speaking, running a standard game with an evil-aligned player character is a recipe for disaster. Can it be done? Absolutely. Is it really hard work? Absolutely. Is it worth all that hard work? Eh, maybe. But that’s where the nuanced approach to alignment works best. Your character can have some maladaptive tendencies without resorting to the ‘back-stabbing bastard’ extreme. Maybe they struggle to fit in. Maybe they find redemption in fellowship. That’s your story to tell. But don’t use alignment as an excuse to be an ass.
So, like every other aspect of gaming, alignment really comes down to what works best at your table, with your group. However you implement it, remember one last nugget of Straight Talk that you won’t find on Facebook:
Most every RPG adventuring party ends up, for all intents and purposes, Neutral Good.
One player might stick hard along one axis or another, but, in aggregate, you’re generally heroes. You might not be avatars of righteousness, but you’re mostly trying to right wrongs, punish evil, and help people. You might stray between lawful and chaotic means to get there, but, in the end, you’re the Good Guys. As long as everybody’s on board with that basic fact, maybe ‘alignment as written’ should stay more a suggestion than a commandment.
Jack Benner is the head bottle-washer and sole roustabout at Stick in the Mud Press http://stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games