Category Archives: RPG Thoughts

A Truly Magic Item

Today’s post is part of the May RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Keith Davies — In My Campaign. The theme is “Fantastic Creations” and there was one part of his blog post that really hit me:

Too often it seems special items are seen as simple tools.  Magic weapons give an enhancement bonus to attack and damage rolls, magic wands are basically spell batteries, and so on.  Technological oddities tend to be much the same, if not more so.

I’d like to see this change.  Magic items, technological marvels, mechanical servants, magical constructs, mental structures, they all can be fantastic.  In fact, I think they should be.

This pretty much describes how I think that magical creations should work. They should not be obligatory components purchased at MagicMart as part of the character Christmas tree, but should be special, revered, and fantastic. (And as a corollary, I don’t think that magic items should make those without them obsolete, as described here).

I could go in a lot of directions with this blog post, including talking about magic items in my Elder Scrolls conversion for Savage Worlds (shameless plug!). But instead, I’m going to show an example of a truly magic item by taking a detour from tabletop gaming to talk about one of the best adventure games of all time: King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow by Sierra Entertainment (and in case you were wondering, all the King’s Quest games had puns in their titles). There are several magic items in the game, most notably a magic map that lets Prince Alexander teleport between islands. But the one I hold as the gold standard is the “Mirror of Truth.”

There are two special uses for the Mirror of Truth depending on which ending path you choose. In one, you arrive at the wedding of your true love, Princess Cassima, only to find that not only is she going marry the evil Grand Vizier, but that she’ll happily give him your head as a wedding present! Just as the guards are about to kill you, you can pull out that Mirror of Truth:

“Look into this mirror, *my love*, and let’s see where your heart truly lies.”

It’s not Princess Cassima, it’s the Grand Vizier’s genie in disguise! The illusion immediately breaks and the guards are ready to arrest the Grand Vizier for treason (of course, he runs away and you’ll have to chase after him to save the real Cassima).

Now maybe you’re thinking that the outcome was fairly predictable. It was a mirror that showed who a person truly was, even if they had a powerful magic illusion to disguise themselves. But the thing is, the mirror is not limited to just breaking illusions (or in D&D terms, being a Wondrous Item that grants True Sight on self). And that’s where the beauty of it lies.

In another possible ending path, Prince Alexander goes into the underworld to rescue Princess Cassima’s parents, who were murdered by the Grand Vizier. In order to win back their souls, Death gives Prince Alexander a challenge: Although he has heard every sad tale uttered by human lips and seen every atrocity the world has ever known, he has never once shed a tear. Alexander will win back their souls only if he can make Death cry.

Although the nearby spirits lament that it would be easier to turn fire into ice, you can have Prince Alexander choose the right weapon. Pulling out the Mirror of Truth, he exclaims “If your existence has been all you say it has, then Truth alone shall be my sword!”

“…but the Lord of the Dead is transfixed to the mirror, to the streaming of his life. Things long forgotten are once more uncovered. His enslavement to this throne while still a man. The years of watching misery and war, and growing ever more numb to it. The seep of his own humanity, the slow growth of a new thing all together: that which he is now. His is an existence that has no possibility of redemption, no end… And Death sheds a single gray tear.”

That is what makes this a truly magic item. Not fancy stats or cool special abilities for your character, but a sense of mystery and the ability to aid the heroes in truly epic tales.

I can imagine many other possible uses for a Mirror of Truth. Perhaps it shows abstract representations of oneself, or who one will become. Perhaps it shows the chains of damnation (like Jacob Marley had) that they unknowingly carry. Maybe it shows the truth about how one is destined to be king. Or perhaps it shows the inevitable death of the hero who wants to be immortal. The key is that it’s not completely understood. You can’t read the item’s statblock and know everything that it is capable of doing. It’s not that it’s undefined, it’s that it can’t be completely known. That’s what makes a magical item a truly fantastic creation.

Deadlands Developments

Today I’m dutifully doing a discourse describing Deadlands developments. Yep.

Independence Day Dime Novel Cover

They didn’t stop The Butcher, but at least the scenario finally felt right.

First, I would like to say that I have finally run a successful session of Independence Day, one of the Deadlands Dime Novel adventures. I ran it almost a year ago but the scenario really suffered because of issues with the The Butcher’s invulnerability. When I ran it last month, it fell flat because I kept trying to bail the players out of failure. But the third time’s a charm and I finally got the scenario right.

With my brother and his friend having to cancel their D&D game, they asked me if I had an adventure to run. We wound up deciding on doing Deadlands and I had Independence Day already prepped since I ran it last month. The duo wound up excelling in the investigation and were able to figure out The Butcher’s identity even before the last few clues came out. Unfortunately, they were not able to discover The Butcher’s weakness and died trying to fight him. This time, I didn’t bail the characters out of their failure. Ultimately, the game wound up being better because of that and, although they were a bit disappointed to have not stopped The Butcher, the players were happy with the scenario in the end.

Turns out that while I’ve been running some Classic adventures, Pinnacle has been hard at work with all sorts of new Deadlands stuff. The fan-maintained Big List of Pinnacle Products shows that there are a whopping 14 supplements/adventures in the pipeline! And that’s not counting Deadlands: Hell on Earth Reloaded coming out this summer.

But the big news this week was Pinnacle’s new setting: Deadlands Noir. Instead of being set in the Weird West, Deadlands:Noir is set in 1930s New Orleans. The description says that typical player concepts include “steely-eyed private dicks, fast-talking grifters, wild-eyed inventors, and shadowy houngans” and you can bet there’ll be mafia too. Oh, and lots and lots of obligatory New Orleans Hucksters (and I thought they were surprisingly many of them floating around the Weird West as it is!). As a fan of the general Deadlands metaplot, I have to say that I’m wondering how this will all fit in (and why Stone is going to be around, as has been hinted at). At this point though, it’s all speculation, so we’ll find out.

Unlike most Pinnacle products, this one is an experiment in crowd-funding using Kickstarter with individuals pledging money ahead of time so that the product can be created. Each project has incentives that backers receive for pledging more, like signed copies of the books. Turns out that their $8,000 goal was raised in less than 24 hours! As of this writing, they are 345% funded and are planning on releasing their “stretch goals” to give extra benefits to backers if they raise enough money. Pinnacle hasn’t announced them yet, but my guess is that it will be more adventures and cut-out “figure flats” like they have with their other products.

Now that the description is out of the way, it’s time for my take on the whole thing. Kickstarter seems to be an increasingly popular means of generating funds, especially from game companies, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before Pinnacle gave it a shot. And it’s clearly worked for them with support shattering their expectations with hundreds of backers willing to invest in their product, sight unseen (certainly the Deadlands reputation helped, but they don’t know what the product will actually be like yet). It was a pretty good business move I think. Overall, I think that Kickstarter is starting to become a bit too saturated and that eventually there is going to be some backer fatigue, but for the time being, Pinnacle took advantage of the situation.

The setting itself is interesting, but I can’t say the hardboiled genre it seeks to emulate is entirely my cup of tea. Maybe it’s the fact that’s it’s more gritty and less optimistic than I like my settings to be. Or the meandering monologues become a bit too much after a while. I went ahead and backed the project because it’s Deadlands, but I don’t think it will wind up on my must-play list (although for what it’s worth, it took me a long time to warm up to the idea of a post-apocalyptic Deadlands (that would be Deadlands: Hell on Earth), so maybe I will warm up to this as well).

I’m also a little concerned because the hardboiled genre involves a lot of investigation, which is often a difficult thing for GMs to run properly in a role-playing game. My guess is that there will be some new mechanics to keep things fast, furious, and fun (probably spend a Fate Chip to automatically get a clue or something). I also anticipate a modified version of the Social Conflict rules in Savage Worlds Deluxe to better handle interrogations.

At the end of the day though, I have to admit that playing a private eye huckster does sound really sweet!

What Encourages or Discourages Avoiding Combat?

Due to changes in my schedule, I’ve decided to move my “new post day” from Saturday to Wednesday. This should result in a much more reliable weekly posting schedule from now on.

The RPG Blog Carnival topic for the month of April was “Combat Avoidance” and was hosted by Exchange of Realities. Yeah, I know it’s May now, but it is a topic that I really want to talk about.

Combat has always been the heart of role-playing games. After all, Dungeons & Dragons evolved from miniatures wargaming where there is nothing but combat! I’d estimate that 95% of the role-playing games out there have some sort of rules about how to handle fighting and combat (with the remaining 5% being either aimed at kids or deliberately made so as to avoid combat). Although the GM has a lot of say into how much combat there is in a game, I think that there are definitely some external factors that encourage or discourage avoiding combat during gameplay. I would say that the big ones are the expectations of the setting, the expectations of the system, and the danger level to characters.

Expectations of the Setting

Here are the first lines in the “Makin’ Heroes” chapter of Deadlands Reloaded:

Strap on your six-guns and saddle up, amigo. It’s time to make your salty gunslinger, mysterious huckster, or savage brave.

And here is an excerpt from the “Characters” chapter of The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild:

Whatever their motivation or purpose, most characters created for The One Ring are individuals who have chosen to abandon their day-to-day activities and become adventurers. They are not soldiers or captains following the commands of a lord, nor are they subtle wizards trying to weave the threads spun by fate: they are bold souls putting themselves in peril by their own free will, sometimes simply for the love of adventure itself.

Notice something? They each describe the characters in their games very differently. The quote from Deadlands provides three archetypical characters, all of which are typically combat-oriented (even though you can play one that is not). The preceding sentence even makes pretty broad statement about Deadlands characters having six-guns. The One Ring however describes characters in terms of their love of adventure and specifically says that they are not soldiers (even though there is a “soldier” career). It’s quite conceivable that characters in this system would not be combat oriented, and indeed many of the characters in the source material, like Bilbo and Frodo, are not.

So which is more likely to avoid a typical combat, the “salty gunslinger” or the “adventurer.” Probably the adventurer. Why? Because that’s what the setting expects them to do. The setting also creates an expectation for what the characters’ default behavior will be when coming up against something hostile. In Dungeons & Dragons, the default behavior when confronted with a dragon is probably to fight it, not talk to it, and to only run if the fight is unwinnable. But in The One Ring, the default behavior would probably be to riddle with the dragon or run, but to fight it as a last resort (like if it’s burning Lake Town to the ground).

Expectations of the System

There’s a pretty easy litmus test for how much combat is expected in the system: how much of a character sheet is devoted to combat? Here’s a Dungeons & Dragons 4e 5th Level Dragonborn Rogue I found online using the standard D&D 4e character sheet. Aside from the sections on skills, senses, character info, gear, and arguably ability scores, the entire character sheet is devoted to combat (including 2 out of 4 pages devoted specifically to cards describing combat maneuvers). I estimate that about 85% of the character sheet is for describing stuff about combat. You might extrapolate then that 85% of D&D 4e is about combat, which in my experience (especially considering the official Wizards of the Coast convention games) is about right.

In fact, one of the big criticisms from D&D 3.x fans when D&D 4e first came out was that it was too focused on combat and not enough on role-playing. Often times they cited the fact that there weren’t profession skills or other non-combat character options. I won’t take either side on this, but I do wonder if part of the reason was that the D&D 3.5 character sheet from the PHB had about 60% of it devoted to combat, implying that combat only featured in 60% of the time.

So what does that mean for combat avoidance? With more space on the character sheet for non-combat related items, it would make sense that characters have more things to do to avoid combat. In D&D 3.x, you might have the means to avoid 40% of combats whereas in D&D 4e, you only have the means to avoid 15% of them. Now I’ll be the first to say that this is not a definitive measure and there are no doubt many factors, like GM play-style, that have a greater influence. But the fact remains that in a system where the important parts of your character are what they can do in combat, then it is less likely that it will be avoided.

Danger Level

On a more practical level, combat is typically avoided if there is a lot of danger of a character suffering ill consequences because of it. In Call of Cthulhu, investigators almost always avoid combat because there is a very good chance that they will die if they fight (or they will go insane, or both). Contrast that with a system like Hollow Earth Expedition where there is little danger of getting into a fight with Nazis, even if they have guns and you are using your fists. If combat is the most direct means of achieving your goals (as it would be if there are Nazis in the way of claiming the lost treasure) and there is little danger, then combat avoidance is very unlikely. The risk is small compared to the reward. But if there is a lot of risk, you might try some safer alternatives to avoid combat altogether.

I’ll reiterate once again that at the end of the day, the GM probably has more influence than these factors in determining how much combat there is. For instance, I’ve seen sessions of D&D 4e run without combat. But you might want to think about these external factors if you are wanting to encourage or discourage combat in your game session.

I Hate to See the Players Lose…

I’ve discovered something about how I GM: I hate to see the players lose. I love throwing enormous challenges in front of them, having characters make a noble sacrifice for the greater good, and beating the odds to pull out a tremendous victory (the Death Star trench run is one of my all time favorite movie sequences, largely for this reason). When all goes the way I’d like it to, it creates the sort of story I love to see: a story where a small group of individuals defy the odds and come out heroes.

Unfortunately, role-playing games don’t always go that way.

My long-running Necessary Evil campaign finally came to a close the weekend before last with the villains earning a hard-fought victory agains their greatest enemies with the odds stacked against them. And then in a final showdown with the Overmind, they had several very lucky rolls and pulled out a surprise victory, saving the world and saving the galaxy from the evil threat of the V’Sori. I loved it!

Since we had one more good weekend of gaming, I decided to run a Deadlands one-shot for the group. Originally they wanted me to run Night Train, which is so deadly that rumor has it the author gets royalties for every character killed in it (not really, but it definitely is a character killer). I had my misgivings about this scenario and with a few players saying they couldn’t make it, I ultimately decided to run Independence Day, in which they investigate several mysterious murders in Dodge City by The Butcher.

Independence Day Dime Novel CoverLast time I ran that scenario, it went well overall, but I had some issues with it that I planned to resolve the next time I ran it. I didn’t use the Adventure Deck and attempted to have a fight earlier in the scenario. (But the characters just wound up talking themselves out of it, which was good I guess. Note to self: next time start the game in media res with a small fight that gets them noticed by Earp and then starts the scenario.)

The biggest problem I had with the scenario last time was with the way The Butcher had invulnerability. I wound up just changing it this time to “he regenerates one wound each round” unless his weakness is exploited. I decided not to have him have a free soak roll because I had so few players. So far so good.

But this time when I ran it, the players were having a lot of trouble. After they had gathered all of the clues (knowingly or not), I told them that they needed to piece together the mystery and figure out who the culprit was. After about a minute of thinking, one of the players proudly declared “it must be the undertaker!” I nearly face-palmed myself right there. I had just offhand mentioned the undertaker picking up one of the bodies and apparently they thought that made him a suspect.

Had I been an evil GM, I might have let them arrest the undertaker and have them enjoy the night, only to have The Butcher strike again and get the heck out of Dodge (literally). Instead, I had the undertaker help them make some connections between clues, thanks to his love of mystery novels. It got them back on track at least.

They split up in search of The Butcher and unfortunately, one of the characters got a critical failure while trying to make a Notice check to find him. The Butcher got the drop on her and sliced off her arm to add to his collection (yup, really). With one arm severed, she tried to shoot with her off hand, but missed. The Butcher sliced her other arm and let her bleed out on the dirt. The other Huckster made it to the scene then, but in the first round suffered an ignoble death when The Butcher made a called shot to the head, and dealt 5 wounds, none of which got soaked. The Butcher had murdered two more people and could have walked away into the night, ready to continue his reign of terror in the next town.

The players were about to pack up, having failed to stop The Butcher, but I hated to leave them on such a tragic note. At first, I contemplated making both of their characters Harrowed until I decided having a Harrowed Huckster with only a head was just a bad idea. So I offered them my other pregenerated characters to come in as reinforcements. The Blessed was just lucky enough to stay alive, but the Mad Scientist wasn’t. Yet another replacement character came who I said had some ideas about The Butcher’s weakness. With a lucky shot, they exploited it and defeated The Butcher once and for all.

Unfortunately, this victory seemed hollow to me. They didn’t identify the culprit without help and went through three replacement characters before I more or less told them what The Butcher’s weakness was. I did it because I really hated to see the players lose. But in making sure that they didn’t lose, I made it so that they didn’t really win. Or at least it wasn’t the same.

It’s a lesson I had to learn: that even if you really want to see the players succeed, sometimes the stars aren’t right and they will fail. It makes the true victories more meaningful, I think, even if we hate to see the failures when they happen. And it’s almost just as bad to blatantly tilt the odds to prevent the players from losing.

What about you all? Have you had similar thoughts or do you have a different mindset when it comes to players failing?

Playing a Game You’ve Always GMed

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and SpaceI’m a big Doctor Who fan and picked up Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space from Cubicle 7 about as soon as it came out. Since then, I’ve GMed the game many times, including at Origins 2011 and at GenCon 2011. But this is one system that I had never got a chance to play because I could never find a GM. Consequently, I think that I kind of got burned out with Doctor Who because I ran it too much (I also retired my scenario involving Blackbeard the Pirate after having run it 8 times).

Fortunately for me, The Wittenberg Role-playing Guild had their weekly “Friday Night One-shot” and this week’s game was Doctor Who, run by Amber. Finally, a chance to play a game I’ve only ever GMed! Although she was borrowing my set of the books, Amber chose one of the sample adventures (Arrowdown) which I fortunately had not read. So I sat down and got a chance to play the Tenth Doctor alongside Martha Jones, Jack Harkness, and K-9.

And you know what? I absolutely loved every moment of it!

Even though I consider myself to be a fairly skilled GM, I think there’s something to be said for playing in the games that you love the most. I love Doctor Who and have really enjoyed presenting some great stories to the players, but I think I found out last night that I kind of missed being one of the people on the other end not knowing the answers and trying to figure out the mystery. I think it also reignited my excitement in the game after having been burnt out by it. (And I’ll be running “A Timelord in King Arthur’s Court” at Origins this year).

It made me think again about if a requirement of being a good GM is to be a player every once in a while. Not only do you have someone to compare your own GMing style to, but I imagine it also helps a GM stay in touch with what a player is actually experiencing. It also seems to help you get passionate about your own setting. I suppose if you have a good experience playing in a game, it helps you want to give that same experience to other players.

So I’ll pose two questions to my readers: Are there any settings that you’ve always wanted to play in, but have only gotten the chance to GM (or vice versa?). And does a good GM need to be a player every once in a while to improve?

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