Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Where the Fey Come From

So tomorrow (or later tonight) I wills start in earnest in my explanation of how I transformed Celtic, Slavic, and even Filipino myth into 4e monsters and story devices.  But for today I will just show you where I started . . . where all good research does . . .wikipedia!
 Below is a list of some of the monsters included and links to their Wikipedia origin. For those of you who have purchased the Fey Folio (thanks!) you’ll note some deviations from the standard mythology in the included monsters . . . there are good reasons for that, one’s I’ll touch on tomorrow.
For now expand your knowledge of folklore and faeries . . .

OH - also a really kicking review of the Fey Folio can be found here. If you're still hesitant to indulge in sweet fey goodness maybe this can help assuage your fears.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fey Pimp

What is the point of having a blog if you can’t indulge in a little shameless self-promotion from time to time?
I authored a product for Alluria Publishing; it is a self-contained Monster Manual, Fey Folio I: Unseelie Court (and the first review)In addition to describing all types of cruel and mischievous fey humanoids, it also has a sample campaign, skill challenges, an interwoven story to keep the entries somewhat cohesive, and a few magic items your PCs may want.
I am proud of the product, in part because I think the writing is solid. In part because I really pushed the boundaries with some of the stat blocks regarding creative use of actions. And in part because the ART FUCKING ROCKS! (Done by Vasilis Zikos)
Anywho, I hope you check it out, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

And while this supplement is for 4e fans . . . I’ve got something cooking for Pathfinder fans on the horizon.
One last note – this week will be full of self-promotion, no small amount of self-aggrandizement, and surely shitloads of hyperbole. J 
In truth, the next few blog posts will give some behind the scenes info on the creation of the fey folio . . . what myths didn’t make it in, how D&Dized certain legendary races, etc. 

Until then.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fluffing That Pillow

Running a published adventure should be like fluffing a pillow.

The pillow is already made. You could lie right down and rest your sweet little face on it, no real problem. But for maximum comfort, you need to position that downy sack of feathers just so.
When running a published adventure, you could just dive in, run it as written and stick to the script. But players are not privy to the script. They have goals, aspirations, and machinations all their own that may (see also: likely) not exist within the confines of your purchased module.
I really like Paizo modules. They seem to take this well-known fact into account with most of their published adventures. NPCs, plot hooks, bestiaries, and the like litter their pages as ancillary material to the main thrust of the adventure plot. This gives GMs fertile ground in which to, as Fleetwood Mac says, go their own way.
Now what the GM does with this material is obviously up to them.
I’m running Curse of the Crimson Throne, a gritty, urban adventure, and I am using the loose ends to offer a counterpoint to the darker tone of the published adventure.
My group is relatively beer & pretzels. They like the dark mystery that is building up, but they also want to let loose a bit of steam. Thus when the first big loose end came up (a mob beating up a noble that the group dispersed), I turned that into a light-hearted sidetrek. The mob became a group of drunken louts that nearly fouled up a later mission by the PCs (but ultimately got slaughtered by the PCs – seeds for future sidetreks) and the saved noble is fulfilling the overly thankful, sniveling, comic relief. This saved noble has also asked the group if they’d be interested in helping a noble friend of his, one that some research has shown comes from a fallen family that is rumored to dabble in dark sorcery.
None of this is actually included in the adventure module, but it has provided some of the best and funniest moments of the campaign so far.
How do you guys change written adventures to better suit your PCs? Any particular examples? I’d like to hear . . . that way I can steal those ideas. I’m a rogue, after all.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Interconnectivity (or, Yeah, I know him too!)

I am a bit geeked. Yes, I’m also a bit of a geek . . . but if you are reading this blog, so are you. 
My RPG ‘freelancing career’ definitely deserves those sarcastic quotes. I’ve been fortunate to do a bit of work with Nevermet Press. I have one published article in Kobold Quarterly and a few on the website. I finished in the top ten of an adventure writing contest at Paizo once . . .
Not too much to write home about. However, this weekend, if all continues apace, I will have my first solo authored PDF product out for D&D (4e in this case). The product is a variant monster manual, thus full of cool art and useful to anyone who games (monster manuals are in every gamer’s wheelhouse).
I’m proud of the work I did for this PDF. I feel like the writing is fairly solid and if you read through the PDF (as opposed to simply cherrypicking the included creatures) you’ll notice a subtle story woven through. The creatures included in this product interact with each other, their stories intertwine. My hope was that this level of interconnectivity would help spur a GM’s mind; failing that, I hope the writing is simply up to snuff and that the reader enjoys it.
Interconnectivity . . . the refusal to leave loose ends, and, even more pointedly, the conscious decision to connect the loose dots into a cohesive picture.
In gamemastering, I think focusing on this level of connection is a way to reward players, ease the burden of GMing, and create a tighter setting.
REWARD PLAYERS – Most DMGs, blogs, and veteran players can speak to the importance of drawing inspiration for your game from the player-character’s backgrounds. Did the player of a wizard have a rival for his mentor’s tutelage? The thief was betrayed by his father you say? The paladin’s women has decided to devote her life to her god and taken a vow of chastity . . .
Players love being rewarded for taking the time to develop a character. Players are smart and hopeful; they know these loose ends are there to make the game more fun, and to, hopefully, put some emphasis on their character’s own story. Picking up on these cues and making them occasional points of emphasis in a campaign is just smart gamemastering.
But what if, using the examples above, the thief’s father was also the father of the paladin’s wife? Suddenly everything becomes more murky, more difficult to navigate, and, thus, more rewarding to deal with. The thief may very well want blood, but the Paladin cannot allow that to happen regardless of past ills if he hopes to return to his love at some point. How do the player’s navigate this? To make matters worse, the roguish father may be running a con on the group, one his son can immediately sniff out, but one that plays to the paladin’s sense of honor . . .
Making NPCs from a PC’s past interact in different ways with the group rewards the player because it encourages more vivid roleplaying sessions, more character immersion, and a challenge outside of combat or skills that must be navigated.
EASE THE GM BURDEN – This one is simple. If you GM like me, you keep that notebook full of NPC’s met, threads of each character’s personal ‘story’, etc. BUT, instead of having unique individuals populating each character’s own arc, being interconnective (not an actual word, but bear with me) asks you to have serious overlap amongst those characters. Overlap means less NPCs to track, less NPCs to track means less work AND, the hidden bonus, less background NPCs often means the NPCs who do get on stage are often more unique or interesting.
A TIGHTER SETTING – By now you may guess where I am going here. Interconnected PC backgrounds allow for more richly detailed  world settings/NPCs. Instead of splitting your creative juices amongst 5 different NPCs, cities, cultures, or what-have-you’s, you instead are splitting your mana only 3 ways.
This means a few things:
1) It is a lot easier to work in 3 things than 5, thus character background elements will reoccur more often, and give a bit more payoff.
2) I’ve always believed in a minimalist approach to creating a believable setting. By hitting the shared background elements (or NPCs) of a characters’ lives, the GM can bring forth descriptions/emotions/reactions that effect more than one PC. Instead of the thief listening to his father tell the tales of his city, he can instead listen to how he tells them to the paladin, and how they are completely false.
When the things a PC ‘knows’ are challenged or shared, they become more than description. The world becomes a living, breathing thing – and actions are sought from the player’s.
Does the thief let his dad tell these lies? Does he interject? Does the paladin even care?
Perhaps, that paladin is too worried about the sudden appearance of his church’s new inquisitor . . . who just happens to be his wizard friend’s old rival . . .
Interconnectivity baby.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Classes of Monsters

They hide under the bed. They lurk in the shadows of your closet. They’ve fangs, claws, and muscles. They are quicker, stronger, more savage than anything you know.
In short, monsters ROCK.
But when I cast my mind about monsters I see very few actual groups:
SEXY UNDEAD – Vampires and ghosts. Possessing spirits, too.
HORRIFYING UNDEAD – Mummies and Zombies and Skeletons
CREATURES OF MYTH – Dragons, Giants, Golems, a few odds and ends (look in your Monster Manual).
FEY – Mean leprechauns, sprites, brownies . . . other malicious tricksters.
DEMONS/DEVILS – Hellraiser to succubus.
CTHULU  - Alien beings.
ALIENS – Beings that are aliens.
FROM THE DEEP – Nessie and her ilk.
What am I missing? I feel like I am there is some category I am overlooking.

Hmm. While you are pondering monsters you should check out Nevermet Press. They are running a contest with a lot of freebies you can win. All you have to do is describe a monster . . . can you break from these categories?

Monday, April 19, 2010

GM versus Players, Round 3

Rolling along  . . .
Let’s finish this mini-series, shall we?
Last time we discussed ‘coolness’ – now let’s focus on the concept of power.

D&D, and its clones, really hammer home the concept of power and acquisition. Levels are gained and their accumulation determines the power a character is capable of. Running parallel to level advancement is the attainment of magical items.
Again, these things are inherent to D&D and I imagine a lot of people, including myself, would argue these basic concepts, along with killing monsters, make D&D the great game it is.
Vampire operates differently.
Experience is gained, but its value is not seen through level advancement. The acquisition of power comes much slower instead. Points are spent to advance traits, skills, attributes, disciplines, etc.
Items are different too. Not many +2 Longswords floating around in the World of Darkness – guns, cars, businesses, other items, sure.
My player’s are the classic D&D ‘type;’ they love gaining levels and items. These benchmarks provide a feeling of accomplishment and success. When a player goes up a level and finds that ring of invisibility in the dragon’s loot, he knows he’s done well. He has achieved something for the way he has played his character.
The key, then, is to port this sense of accomplishment over to Vampire.
Power – Vampires are physical specimens, can take a bullet or two, and possess unique super powers (Disciplines). So . . . technically they are powerful. However, the World of Darkness is full of creatures as powerful and many that are more so. Whereas D&D is setup for the players to fight foes they can constantly conquer, Vampire is an open sandbox in which the PCs are thrown to the sharks. There are no kobolds walking around, no clear delineations as to which beings are weaker than the PCs.
Except for the common mortal. One way to give my players a sense of strength is to really play up the hunts and their interactions with mortals. In other words, mortals are a great place to blow off some steam. Let them crush weak human wills with dominate and majesty. Let them savage gangs, cops, whomever with celerity and vigor. Against most mortals, vampires are unstoppable monsters. This is the ONE PLACE your vampire players can really cut loose . . . let them. (Though it doesn’t hurt to occasionally throw in a lupine or hunter . . .)
The other key is making other power feel like D&D power. Political power, financial power, allies, wits, make all of these things contribute visibly to a player’s success. Train your players to understand that these fields of the game are in many ways like magical power, to hit bonus, and AC in D&D. They are fundamental to cementing your character as a powerhouse.
This last thought ties into the whole need to conquer concept from our graphic two posts ago. While the PCs will feel like they are gaining things from XP, the amount is going to pale in comparison to the average D&D game. Knowing this, I intend to play up things like haven, status, and contacts – more ethereal concepts, but conquered bits in their own right.
I feel the key here will be making sure my players are overcoming something to gain something. The Ventrue dominates the human – the human owns a clothing store – the Ventrue now has access to the cutting edge of men’s fashion . . . the Nosferatu gets his hands on the Primogen’s business ledger, he blackmails the Primogen to blood bind his rival, etc and so on.
Boiling all this down – Just make sure player’s feel like they are accomplishing something and being rewarded. Yes, the rewards are more esoteric, but if you give them value, a fundamental, positive effect on the game world (just like that +2 longsword does) I think the player will grok the sense of accomplishment and realize what established the reward.
I want to get into the details of my WoD campaign and talk about some other RPG things I’ve got going on. I hope this series made a little bit of sense or helped someone a bit . . . either way it was useful for me to write this all down.

Friday, April 16, 2010

GM versus Players, Round 2

Last post, I used some really sweet graphics (see also: a table) to show you how this GM’s mind was taking into consideration both what I wanted from a game and what I imagined my player’s wanted . . . I then proceeded to spend roughly 1,000 words detailing how to achieve everything within the “Want Box” except for three things.
From my last post . . .
The chore, loved as it is, is to blend this above paragraph with all the things the players want. How do I keep my cherished grit and tight grasp on power but still make the PCs cool as the Jonas Brothers at a 6th grade dance? How do I make them feel ‘powerful?’ I do I fulfill their need to conquer, to gain importance and stature?

Another hidden benefit of playing Vampire is that being a bloodsucking prince of the night comes pretty stuffed-to-the-fucking-gills with cool. The player is undead. He hunts mortals. He can instill fear in most mortals with but a smile.
Vampires are also stylish, sexy, suave  . . . they prowl the cities by night, they are like sharks . . . and sharks are cool (why else so many Jaws movies?)
Let this information wash over you, let it sit like Head & Shoulders in atop your head . . . rinse, repeat  … and here we go “Then why the fuck are you sweating making the PCs feel cool, Rogue?”
Because 85% of the people they deal with are cool-ass vampires. Being cool is standing out . . . c’mon you remember high school, right? Being cool is half mysterious, half different. Just ask the kid who wears his ballcap sideways and walks like he has Slinky legs.
The coolness factor can be achieved in two ways:
                1. Before Story – I need to make sure the character has chosen a concept, a clan, and a character that is going to fulfill the actions the player is going to want to achieve. Vampire, again, does a good job with this . . . the prelude allows for some serious GM probing into a player’s character creation and really enforces a collaborative environment that I feel helps iron these kinks out early.
                2. During Play – Got to, got to, got to make sure the player’s feel like their characters are respected. Amongst other vamps, they are the unknown, the center of attention – some want to manipulate them, some want to see them removed, some want to make sure they join the ‘right’ team, etc. Despite the preponderance of more powerful supernatural entities than the PCs, the story must be about them.
They must be the heroes  . . . or anti-heroes . . . or villains.
Combat effectiveness can help increase coolness, but it is far from the end all be all. Let the player’s engage in witty repartee with the Prince of the city. Let some rabblerousing vamps be impressed with a PC and woo them to their side.
A setting should be living, breathing, and full of motion. NPCs are constantly doing things . . . but the key to making your player’s feel cool, is the knowledge that all of this comes back to them.
a. Just like describing an epic combat, make sure characters are also achieving similarly impressive things elsewhere. If your Mehket vampire is chasing down a hunter on motorcycle, describe the burst of celerity rushing through his undead body and make snatching the mortal a vivid moment.
b. Play to the player. If you Player A is going out of his way to look for guns, keep a gun cabinet, dominate a gun shop owner . . . take fucking notice. Have a mortal challenge him to a duel or contest, have that gun shop get investigated for selling illegally. Have an old, classic, antique pistol show up . . . with silver bullets (Cue spooky music).
c. Be prepared to cut slack. World of Darkness is not forgiving, but a good GM should be at times. If you are going to take the time to fudge the die in your player’s favor every now and then anyways, why not allow for the occasional spectacular success too? Player’s enjoy doing something well more than skating by on GM’s good graces.
Instead, take a player who’s had a rough night of dice-tossing and find excuses to make them succeed . . . bonus die, story reasons, etc. Being a GM is unique, on some level you have 3+ of your friends vying for your attention . . . if you can keep your output level and fair, not just in terms of attention, but in terms of communication and realization of what each player/character wants, and helping them obtain that want, they’re going to feel attended to, their ideas validated, their character . . . cool!

Ok, I will deal with the other two issues Monday.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

GM versus Players, Round 1

My mind is awhirl lately with RPG possibilities . . . recently a Pathfinder query of mine got picked up b a 3rd party publisher (they are reviewing the piece now)  and I just submitted two other Pathfinder pieces for another company – bottom line Pathfinder’s been on my mind a lot again. But, I also have Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd edition sitting on my shelf like some enormous monument of gaming – the box is big, people. And for anyone whose read this blog lately, I’ve been immersing myself in the ‘new’ World of Darkness stuff.
This progress is coming along nicely. I had some issues with the covenants and political factions in Vampire: The Requiem but have decided to really use their open backstory and sandbox approach to minimize the importance of those factions and to sneak a little bit of Vampire: The Masquerade into the game. More on this later.
However, as I plan the game I realize that what fuels my desire to play V: tR or any RPG game is likely different than what fuels my players’ enjoyment of a game.  Now, this realization is not as novel as theorizing the existence of Obama clones or discovering the cure for gonorrhea. Robin D. Laws has long talked of certain player types . . . and we are all familiar with players who prefer powergaming or being dramatic or what-have-you.
But putting that idea to use is important. I’ve played with relatively the same group of players and I know what they enjoy out of a game. Hell, I enjoy some of the same things; still, without a doubt, I’ m the avant-garde one. I push for games besides D&D, I push for one-shots, I write house rules, deal with the online community of gaming more often, and I’m the one who actively amasses a library of RPGs, many of which will likely not be played.
Ultimately, what I want out of a campaign can often be different than what the players want. On some level the very fact of playing a GM or a CHARACTER is going to dictate that the person accepting that role is going to be getting/seeking a different reward from the game than the other.
But let’s chart it, eh? Note that something one side of the chart is not diametrically opposed to something on the other . . .
Gritty, story-driven campaign
Coolness factor
A sense of threat & constant challenge to the PCs
Things that make them ‘powerful’
A consistent world that holds to some kind of ‘reality’
Some form of leveling up. They want to feel they’ve gained something.

Now may my players want other things? Of course. This list is composed from experience, from noting the things that I see my friends really dig into. I won’t know everything unless I ask them what they want; and I will.
But let’s start crossing off some of these points.
Gritty, story-driven campaign
Coolness factor
A sense of threat & constant challenge to the PCs
Things that make them ‘powerful’
A consistent world that holds to some kind of ‘reality’
Some form of leveling up. They want to feel they’ve gained something.

Gaming has always been a social function for us. Snacks, beer, chatter . . . these things will be at our table. This is a mutual want, and easy to cross off.
So is my desire for a Sandbox environment. I’ve been running D&D lately (4e & PF). In both cases the games become a bit linear. I take fault for a percentage of this. I over-prep stuff to the point of practically writing an adventure. As many of us know the majority of D&D adventures have railroad-y elements in them. But D&D is a game that thrives on the structure of adventure group gets mission, completes mission, which A. means they get new mission or B. leads them to a new mission. Sometimes there are even myriad missions, but ultimately they complete them and in that manner the story progresses.
Nonetheless, as I am crafting my World of Darkness Vampire game, I am keeping freedom in mind. The game kind of begs it to be honest. Vampire games seem to operate more on the personal desires of the PCs and the reactions to the world than on a completion of tasks engine. I feel comfortable that this issue is thus taken care of.
Gritty, story-driven campaign
Coolness factor
A sense of threat & constant challenge to the PCs
Things that make them ‘powerful’
A consistent world that holds to some kind of ‘reality’
Some form of leveling up. They want to feel they’ve gained something.

My wants are easy to eliminate. I am playing Vampire: The Requiem. It is gritty. It runs on the Storyteller system. The players are vampires cast into the hard-edged world of the undead where trust is more precious than gold and horrors and humans alike may seek their death. The system is balanced, in that the acquisition of power is more of a story thing than the earning of experience. It takes a lot of time to become the most ‘physically’ powerful vampire . . . thus the world confirms to a sense of inherent reality. There are no farm boys who attain 10th level in 8 months, who go from chasing their family dog to cleaving an axe forged by dwarven gods through the adamantine scales of a demon-possessed dragon. The power creep, the power curve is a much more subtle thing in Vampire . . . the focus gets shifted away from the mechanics due to this . . .
See it is easy to reach my desires! The chore, loved as it is, is to blend this above paragraph with all the things the players want. How do I keep my cherished grit and tight grasp on power but still make the PCs cool as the Jonas Brothers at a 6th grade dance? How do I make them feel ‘powerful?’ I do I fulfill their need to conquer to gain importance and stature?
Well, I’ve the answers, but since I am already over 1,000 words let’s put it off until tomorrow.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Loving the Part that Bothers Me

I am currently ripping through Vampire: The Requiem and the World of Darkness rulebook.  I’m finding a fairly even mix of things I really enjoy and things that give me pause.

In all fairness, Vampire: The Masquerade was the 2nd or 3rd rpg I got into (D&D was the first – surprise!) and many of hesitations about giving myself fully to the new Vampire stem from this past love of the Masquerade. The story in Masquerade was solid, haunting, and fresh – it humanized vampires in a way, I’d argue, most vampire fiction fails to, it had interesting clan structures, an interesting genesis story, and enough intrigue to make the Cold War look like neighborhood kids calling each other ‘boogerbutt.’
V:tR loses a lot of the setting material that really pulled me in back in the late 90’s. Gone are the Tremere upstarts, gone is the Caine mythos, gone is the concept of generation.  However, it is not just what V:tR loses but some of the concepts it gains leave me lukewarm – some covenants (political factions) seem to smallish or ill-defined as to why a vampire would care to join them, too many bloodlines for too many niches . . . when you have a bloodline of vampires exclusively to deal with vampires who are institutionalized that may be a sign to reconsider how you are using bloodlines.

But still, this is the game I will be running next. The rework of the rules, the alterations to the disciplines, the streamlining of the clans, the concept of blood potency, these are excellent additions to the game. Also the writing in the book feels like White Wolf – it inspires gameplay and sets the atmosphere well.
Oddly enough the greatest compliment I can pay the book is the reason it ditched my beloved Masquerade storyline – it is a toolkit, a sandbox. There is no overarching backstory, that is for the GM. And all those bloodlines . . . pick and choose which, if any, fit your campaign. Oh . . . do you need new bloodlines? Powers? Etc. WW has done prepared you for that too.
I am eager to jump in and see how the game plays compared to the Masquerade version. Detroit (by night, of course) is already forming in my mind . . . from an Invictus prince to a Circle of the Crone firebrand, I’ve no doubt that I can tell intriguing games, cinematic, gothic games, games that my players want . . . and speaking of player’s wants, more on that next time.