Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Three Wells I Drink From to Bring Them Pain and Torment

A lot gets written about RPGs. A lot of it is forgettable. (I know because I write a lot about RPGs and then immediately forget about it.) Here are three articles/essays/whatever that I keep coming back to, and what I've learned from them:

Yes I Sank Your Barge, by James Wallis
Lesson learned - If you want your game to be dramatic and fun, you can't allow the characters or their players to become complacent. You have to keep their lives "interesting," by which I mean "terrible."

A 16 HP Dragon, written by Stras, archived at Sage LaTorra's page
Lesson learned - It isn't the numbers that players should fear in your game, it's how you use words to make the opposition worthy of fear.

Grand Experiments: West Marches, by Ben Robbins
Lesson learned - How you set up the social aspect of the game changes how the game is played. It's worthwhile to think about how you can arrive at the kind of game-play you want through altering the relationship of the players to the game.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Darkness is Eternal, Unfettered, and Hungry.

Campaign: Krevborna (5th edition D&D)

  • Kylic, fey-blooded half-elf cleric who feels an evil at work in the bones of the world
  • Luka, self-sacrificing human ranger who has lately converted to religious service
  • Tristan, human paladin who has sworn an oath of vengeance against the undead
Objectives: To kill the Master!

  • The party convened at the behest of Kylic, who used his network of urchins to pickpocket both Luka and Tristan and lead them into a dead-end alley where he could dramatically tell them that he felt the eyes of the Master elsewhere for the moment. With the Master distracted, his mind on other matters, Kylic felt that this was the time to strike and rid the land of his vampiric menace!
  • Two days later, the party took to the road. The weather had turned unseasonably cold, and what remained of the harvest still lay in the fields--but it was now blanketed by snow.
  • As the party traveled southeast toward the coast, they encountered a vagabond woman named Annoushka and her child making camp for the evening. Tristan approached the woman and discovered that she is a tinker. As she posed no danger, the group joined her camp for the evening and partook of her lentil stew. 
  • When asked if she knew anything about the Master's castle, Annoushka informed that she had passed it but had given it a wide berth. She said that a forest of impaled bodies stood before the castle now, and that it was a place "where hope goes to die," which proved to be oddly prophetic. Much of the conversation proved to be unplanned foreshadowing; when Tristan expressed his burning need for vengeance against the undead, Annoushka warned him that this was something that could consume him. Similarly, much was made throughout the session of the notion of Luka as a self-sacrificing man whose fate tended toward doom.
  • The party arrived at the black castle of the Master after a few days of additional travel. The iron gate was wide open, which marked a change since the last time Kylic had ventured inside. Annoushka had informed them truly of the forest of the impaled; Luka would diligently to behead each corpse in fear that they might rise up against them if they had to make a sudden retreat from the castle. Sadly, there would be no retreat for most of the party.
  • The heavy, iron-studded doors of the castle swung open easily; either the party was expected or the residents generally had no fear of intrusion. Inside, the group began to explore. Kylic, in particular, was driven to reach the highest points of the castle. 
  • The dining room in which hung the painting featuring the now-deceased Anton Sellvek was rediscovered. A bell tower was ascended as well, but so far there was no sign of the castle's inhabitants.
  • The music room, however, did prove to be occupied by a woman in a white lace dress seated at a harpsichord. Since her back was turned to the party, Luka decided that the best course of action was to sneak up behind her and attempt to end her life abruptly. Although he did get the drop on her and managed to inflict grievous wounds that turned her white lace to a crimson field of gore, she managed to find her feet and transfixed Luka in place--his lungs felt like they were filling with water and he found that he could not move from the spot.
  • Tristan and Kylic moved to Luka's aid. A door in the music room flew open and a thin, young butler with slicked-back black hair entered the room. The wounded woman was easily dispatched, but a wave of hatred and anger emanated from the servant that inflicted horrid pain on the party. The butler did not attack them directly, but whenever his stare fell upon one of our heroes it brought horrible thoughts and images to their mind's eye. 
  • This was to be the first to two battles that went back and forth; characters repeatedly went down under the barrage of negative emotions and psychic attacks rippling from the butler, bringing them to death's door, only to be revived by healing magic so the fray could continue as things spiraled dangerously out of the party's control. Ultimately, they were victorious and the butler fell has Tristan split his head with a deft halberd attack. The party barred the doors and recuperated as best they could.
  • Further exploration revealed an iron spiral staircase leading up into a clock tower. Amidst the machinery, Kylic sensed their quarry looming in the shadows. After a very short burst of banter that confirmed to Kylic that the slender, bearded "man" was indeed the Master, Kylic attempted to take him by surprise with a blast of holy power, but unfortunately his spell missed and the time for talk was now over. 
  • Much like their previous battle, this one was back-and-forth. Tristan, Kylic, and Luka all went down at some point only to be brought back to fight again until...a stalemate, of sorts. Tristan had previously abjured the Master with powerful magic that had made the vampire feel fear, but the Master had felled Luka with a vicious claw attack and now held him on the point of death as a hostage. 
  • Tristan attempted to barter for Luka's life, but all the Master wanted was for Tristan to break his oaths as a paladin and devotee of St. Othric--which Tristan could not bring himself to do. Seeing the catastrophe unfolding before his eyes, Kylic fled back down the stairs, out of the castle, and ran toward the party's carriage. Tristan considered running as well, leaving Luka to his fate, but ultimately it was in his nature to stand against the darkness even at the cost of his own life. Tristan made one last valiant attempt at slaying the master, but he too fell before the count's rending claws. 
  • Both Luka and Tristan had moments of lucidity as the horror that is the Master remade them in his own image. Through a blood-red haze they saw the Master bending toward them, they could feel a rush of anguish and pleasure as the vampire feasted upon their blood. When they regained consciousness they were no longer men of valor and conviction; they were now accursed creatures of the midnight hour bent to the will of a greater evil.
The Spoils:
  • XP - Kylic receives 1000 XP

* * *

  • This turned out to be an action-packed session that was a roller coaster of hit points lost and gained, more death saves than any one session has ever called for, and the tragic death of Krevborna's two longest-lived and much-beloved player characters. As much as I'll miss having Luka and Tristan in the game, that's where the choices led and where the dice fell. 
  • For much of the session it felt like the players were doing a "speed run" to the final boss; they pushed hard and fast in their exploration, focusing on finding and fighting the Master. Unfortunately, that had repercussions. Luka's attack on the woman in white did a good job of taking her out quickly--but ambushing her actually removed a potential ally for the party who knew the ins and outs of the castle and the Master's various weaknesses. 
  • Similarly, the rush to the clock tower left much of the castle unexplored; there were a number of things to be discovered that hinted at better tactics or points of leverage, but they went unseen. At one point Kylic had the idea that the clock tower's mechanisms were connected to the Master's invasion of Krevborna from the nightmarish realm of his origin--this wasn't correct, but he was on the right track that the clock tower did have a purpose that the party could use to their favor. 
  • Of course, in any game with dice it's also going to come down to where the bones fall. The Master was tough opposition, but not insurmountable. What did tip the scales in his favor was that I rolled two critical hits against Luka and one against Tristan, which turned the tide greatly in his favor since the party was running low on healing resources. Conversely, some of the characters were faced with bad luck on their rolls--such as Kylic's spell attacks.
  • I was on the edge of my seat during the battle against the Master, that roiling feeling present in the belly as everything fell apart for the characters, and the next day I was fairly bummed out about their dooms. All this means, of course, that the players were doing their jobs and created characters worthy of emotional investment.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Pyrads, the Keepers of the Flame

Pyrads are fey maidens who tend the sacred bonfires that are said to be the fey's source of endless rebirth and immortality. As long as such bonfires remain lit, the fey host will always return to soulless life after death. It is the duty of the pyrads to feed, nurture, and protect the bonfires to which they are bound. 

A pyrad's demeanor changes with the season. In the spring and summer, they are wild and frivolous, dancing and frolicking amidst the flames of their bonfires. In the autumn and winter they grow solemn and vicious as the flames of their fires gutter and weaken.

Medium fey, chaotic neutral
Armor Class 13; Hit Points 22 (5d8); Speed 30ft.
STR 10 (+0) DEX 16 (+3) CON 11 (+0) 
INT 14 (+2WIS 15 (+2) CHA 18 (+4)
Skills Perception +4, Stealth +5; Senses darkvision 60ft
Perception 14; languages Ignan, Sylvan; Challenge 2 (450 XP)
Innate Spellcasting. The pyrad's innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 14). The pyrad can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:
At will: produce flame
3/day each: faerie fire, thunderwave
1/day each: resistance, heat metal, flame blade
Magic Resistance. The pyrad has advantage on saving throws
against spells and other magical effects.
Speak with Beasts and Plants. The pyrad can communicate
with beasts and plants as if they shared a language.
Leaping Ember. Once on her turn, the pyrad can use 10 feet of her
movement to step magically into one bonfire within her
reach and emerge from a second bonfire within 60 feet of
the first fire, appearing in an unoccupied space within 5 feet of '
the second fire. Both bonfires must be large or bigger.
Flame Blade. Melee Spell Attack: +6 to hit reach 5 ft., one target. Hit
10 fire damage
Fey Charm. The pyrad targets one humanoid or beast that she
can see within 30 feet of her. If the target can see the pyrad, it
must succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or be magically
charmed. The charmed creature regards the pyrad as a trusted
friend to be heeded and protected. Although the target isn't
under the pyrad's control, it takes the pyrad's requests or
actions in the most favorable way it can.

Each time the pyrad or its allies do anything harmful to the target, it can repeat the saving throw, ending the effect on itself on a success. Otherwise, the effect lasts 24 hours or until the pyrad dies, is on a different plane of existence from the target, or ends the effect as a bonus action. If a target 's saving throw is successful, the target is immune to the pyrad's Fey Charm for the next 24 hours.

The pyrad can have no more than one humanoid and up to three beasts charmed at a time.

* * *

Based on the dryad, obviously.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ascend in Winter, Descend as Fire

† Isa - The Tree 
† Katatonia - Tomb of Insomnia 
† Imperium Dekadenz - An Autumn Serenade 
† Opeth - The Grand Conjuration 
† Ahab - The Sun Below 
† Evoken - The Mournful Refusal 
† Neurosis - Fire is the End Lesson 
† Der Weg Einer Freiheit - Requiem

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Momentous Events: A Replacement for Inspiration in 5e D&D

Generally, the way you get Inspiration in 5e is by roleplaying in accordance with your character's Personality Traits, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw. This means that the ways in which your character gets Inspiration are largely determined at character creation; a good DM would likely give you the option of changing Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws as you play, but whether you roll on the random tables provided for your character's background or invent your own you've got them set up before play even starts.

But what about tying the Inspiration mechanic to the events of the game as it is played instead? Below is a hack I wrote inspired by an idea that Erik of Wampus Country floated on G+:

  • Get rid of Personality Traits, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw on the character sheets for your game. Have a blank space titled Momentous Events or Legendarium or Tall Tales or whatever best fits the aesthetics of your game.
  • After each session of play, ask each player what the most memorable moment (a "Momentous Event") for their character was in the session. Have them write that event down in a single line in that blank space you've made on the character sheet.
  • Some examples of appropriate Momentous Events: "Punched Tiamat and lived to tell the tale," "Convinced the Frost Giant Jarl to end the War of the Nine Planes," "Lone survivor of the Bullywug Marches expedition," "Contracted the plague," etc.
  • Each event that a character accumulates after sessions of play can be invoked once per session to grant the character advantage if they can relate how their past experience is helping them out in the current situation. Essentially, calling on that event grants them immediate Inspiration--as long as the DM or maybe maybe group consensus agrees that the event if applicable.
  • A character can only have three Momentous Events from past sessions on their character sheet at a time. After accumulating three events they can choose to swap an old one for a new event they've just experienced after a session concludes--basically, they get to choose which events are shaping their character's personality, outlook, or legend. Or maybe traumas endured, depending on your game.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Green Inferno

Spoilers ahead, I guess, but if anything I'm doing you a favor by spoiling this film.

tl;dr summary: The Green Inferno is like when a particularly exploitative issue of National Geographic has a baby with a gag-laden issue of Fangoria.

It turns out that building a movie from lazy, stupid stereotypes makes for a lazy, stupid film. College kids are ~ignorant and ~arrogant, activists are ~the real problem, brown people are ~savages, women are ~catty, etc. Oddly , the film feels like it was made by someone with very little life experience who is relying on the echo chamber of narrow minds for ideas. Things it appears Eli Roth does not understand: how undergrads talk, how marijuana works, what an interesting film might be like.

Eli Roth's usual mixture of gore and slapstick humor is especially cack-handed here; at every turn it works against the premise of a horror film. I think we're supposed to feel traumatized when the plane goes down in the rain forest, but that's undercut by one character puking on himself during the descend and another RUNNING INTO A PROPELLER like a Looney Tunes character once they're on the ground. I think we're supposed to feel dread when these dopey undergrads are taken captive to be cannibalized, but that's undercut by weed humor, one character beating off in front of the others so he can "clear his head," and another experiencing some very explosive diarrhea. Anything that could add terror or horror or abjection to this tired pile of cliches is undercut almost immediately.