Category Archives: DESIGN OF THINGS TO COME

ESSAYS IN GAME DESIGN – Essay Three: Where Has All The Magic Gone?

ESSAYS IN GAME DESIGN

Essay Three: Where Has All The Magic Gone?

Why don’t they make Magic Items like they used to?

I was looking through my AD&D books tonight and noticed how versatile and multi-functional so many of the magic items were.

They were powerful, and they were odd, and fascinating, and most important of all a lot of them could do all kinds of things.

By comparison so many of the magic items of more recent editions are bland, plain, uninspired, and uninspiring. It’s like using a piece of technology from the eighties or something. The items are overly specialized, technical, usually limited to one specific function, top-heavy in design and capabilities. A drag to own and use and usually good only for specific encounter types.

Older magic items were magical. They had so many functions they seemed like a modern mini-computer/cell phone/PDA/wristwatch/GPS/tricorder all in one. Impressive and extremely useful. Versatile. Fluid. A joy to own and use, employable in a wide range of circumstances. They were the Renaissance Men of Miracles, the Polymaths of Magic. And in addition most were mysterious. You had to figure them out as you went along. They could always have extra, hidden potential that you’d never know about til you screwed around with just the right thing and accidentally tripped some concealed latch. And you had Artifacts, and Incredible Devices, and Relics, with strange legends and ancient lore surrounding them. They weren’t just treasure types, they were items of real magic.

(In a purely imaginative sense, of course, but then again freeing the imagination, and being able to free the imagination, is a type of magic. Being enslaved to limited, prescribed, and proscribed function, technique, or technology is not magic. It is in many ways the very opposite of magic.)

We need to get back to that in modern fantasy games.

It made fantasy gaming fun instead of a technical exercise in weaponry calibres and target types.

Magic should have some, “Boy, now you’re really gonna see something!” to it, instead of “how many rounds ya got in that wand and what is the total count of damage points inflicted by it? I’m trying to calculate exactly how long this combat will last.”

Also,  magic used to be truly weird and fantastically dangerous.  To everyone including the Wizard employing it. Nowadays, and far too often it is merely a form of binary technology, on/off. And very rare is it for it to ever even fail.

So, where has all the magic gone?

It’s basically gone to hell with the idea that magic is about power shots and ammo counts rather than about mystery and wonder.

Somebody needs to dig some real magic up out of the grave and see if they can put a resurrection spell on it…

Endnote: I actually tend to think, that as far as game design goes, and even as regards gameplay to a certain extent, that the situation of “magicless magic” has actually improved considerably. Especially as regards Dungeons and Dragons and many of the related fantasy type games and role playing games. However, and against this general state of “magical improvement” has come the counter-tendency to reduce magic to a mere secondary or substitute form of technology as is far too often the case in literature, films, and video games. So I posted this essay anyway to remind game designers (even video game designers), DMs and GMS, and even players that they can be pursuing, even demanding real magic in their games, and by that I mean weird, strange, truly dangerous, multi-functional, and unpredictable magic that is anything but yet another substitute, secondary, or typical human technology. 

 

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ESSAYS ON GAME DESIGN: To Hell With Balance

ESSAYS ON GAME DESIGN

Essay Two: To Hell With Balance

I’m gonna say something that might shock some of you guys. Then again, maybe not.

Balance, go to the Devil, and burn in hell. And while there sip septic tea with him til you’re really needed again. And chances are it won’t be often. But whatever the case, don’t call me, I’ll call you.

I’m working on a fantasy Role Playing Game, I’m not designing an algorithm, doing covalence equations, or writing a computer program to calculate a moonshot at apogee.

So sometimes in-game my players get their noses busted and spleens ruptured by a dragon that in real life they couldn’t ever easily kill. Not with bow-sticks and knives and harsh words anyways. Good, it’ll teach em a lesson about danger and risk and what it actually costs people.

And sometimes they’ll whip out their Horn of Resounding and bring down the walls of Jericho, or slay a few giants with the Jawbone of an ass. Good, sometimes you catch a miracle in midair, deserved or undeserved. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes he gets you. That’s life.

But in any case, as far as the game goes, the player is fascinated, interested, intrigued, involved, worried, anxious, and maybe even occasionally excited again. Perhaps shocked and ecstatic from time to time too, just to boot.

Balance, he ain’t my god. I don’t owe him any real sacrifices. He’s more like the grey-skinned Graeæ sisters than bright Apollo. Only one eye to see with, a lot of double talk, the bite of a one-toothed wonder – and in the end, disaster, not glory. You can’t trust Balance to point the way to the future, cause he’s more consumed with his own reflection in the mirror than with anything remotely heroic happening. Static, stale, sterile, sluggish, and simple-minded. A dotard of dullness. No poetry of soul, just an arrested arithmetic of tedium. More Echo and Narcissus, more Sound and Fury, than Thunder and Lightning.

I liked the original version of D&D. I like the 4th Edition, at least many things about it. But I see now that this pernicious idea of “balance” that crept in like the Serpent at Eve in Paradise, balance as an end in itself, especially in a fantasy game of all things, is more assassins’ poison than golden Ambrosia. If I have to kill wonder and potential just to achieve balance, then I have to kill fantasy just to achieve boredom. Thank you modern RPG Fantasy Game Theory of Balance, but I think you’d be happier working as a stock-boy in the warehouse of modern mediocrity, than a gate-keeper to the temples at Mount Olympus.

So Balance, my fine feathered fowl of gutless acquittal, go to hell and burn awhile. Maybe you’ll cook into a decent potpie.

Invention is as invention does. So, I’m gonna start designing fantasy games and adventures again, even D&D ones, where magic happens, miracles save the day, monsters are dangerous and feral, the voice of God rumbles across the sky, kingdoms topple, heroes struggle, players say, “Now that’s what I’m talking ‘bout!” and imaginations catch fire.

Balance can burn in his own oven… and stew in his own juices.

 

TODAY I LEVELED UP

LEVELING UP

Today I leveled Up. Several years ago I began directly applying the various gaming and wargaming techniques I have practiced most of my life directly to my “Real Life,” – to improve my character, nature, abilities, and to help me with my overall human accomplishments.

Part of my TSS (Transferable Skill Systems) and GPAD  (Games of Personal advancement and Development) Program.

Lately I have improved that system.

Today I made another Rise in my Accomplishments. Or, put in simplistic gaming terms I leveled up in Real Life.

This is basically my System and how I use it to advance myself (and those around me, like my wife and children).

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: (Rising or Leveling Up)

PROGRESSION – a minor accomplishment such as; making a ten pound increase in weight lifting routine, cutting time off of a sprint, climbing higher, faster, and farther, winning a sparring match (boxing, sword fighting, staff fighting, etc.), winning a game, minor increase in income, starting small business, play with children, make sketch or drawing or map, exploration and travel, attending a concert, play, or film, spending more time with family and friends, adding to my personal library, completing and submitting more work, writing more poems, songs, articles, and short stories, completing a chapter in a novel, designing a robot or artefact or machine, Vadding a new complex, local and state travel, clear land and do landscaping, do maintenance, buy new equipment and gear, undertaking important research, pleasant talk with a stranger successful training completed, learn new skill or technique helping someone, giving first aid, breeding spiders or small creatures of improvements, saving a wild animal’s life, etc.

ADVANCEMENT – a substantial accomplishment such as; doubling capacity or productivity, meeting a moderate income advancement goal, successful new investment, making business profitable, securing capital or funding or investors, finishing a book, epic poem, or song album, building a working invention prototype, painting, play by myself, assisting a charity project or making a generous donation to charity, having a nice and productive vacation, learning to read and/or write a new language, writing a major paper or developing a promising theory, making an important discovery, developing new fans and followers, finding clues to help resolve a case, a successful interview or interrogation, reading a book in a foreign/new language, regional or national travel, developing a new code or cryptological method, successful testing completed, master new skill or technique, renovate current home and estate, buy new properties, major or new purchase, successful infiltration, make new friend, treating an injury or disease, breeding a better, more intelligent, more capable, healthier animal, improving my own health (sthenicism), saving an pet’s life, etc.

ACHIEVEMENT – completing or resolving an important, major, or vital accomplishment or set of accomplishments such as; establishing my start-up(s) as a successful and profitable enterprise, taking company or corporation public, establishing or building a new church, writing a major work in a foreign or new language, selling a novel or major work, establishing a new industry based on my inventions, a successful archaeological expedition, discovering new artefacts and relics and ruins, helping to break an Organized Criminal Gang, resolving a major crime or violent crime, thwarting a terrorist attack, publishing a book or selling a major invention, album, musical composition, script, or piece of artwork, proving one of my theories, forming and funding a private army to fight terrorism, conducting a successful and crucial scientific experiment, major expedition, expanding PIIN network and making new Allies, create new system or technique successful counter-espionage, travel and exploration by sea or air, international travel, build new estate, a major philanthropic endeavor, becoming a billionaire, increasing my own longevity, adopting a child, curing a disease, saving a person or persons live(s),etc.

I have two systems I use for advancement. One is a sort of experience scorning system for each kind of activity. The other is a time completion system in which I can earn more or different kinds of experience for doing things within a certain critical timeframe.

Minor Accomplishments, such as Progressions score far less than Major Accomplishments such as Achievements. Of course.

I Rise, Advance, or “Level-Up” by meeting my “Accomplishment Goals” or by accumulating enough experience to Rise to the next “Level” (though I don’t really think of it in those terms, I think of it more in terms of level of expertise or objectives completed).

My goal at this point in my life is to make at least four or more Progressions every week, two or more Advancements every one month to three months, and at complete at least one major Achievement every three months to six months (depending upon the nature of the intended Accomplishment and how difficult it is).

So far I’m doing pretty good and I now tend to rise an a fairly regular and consistent basis.

Have a good day folks.

RAINBOW CONNECTION

CAMPAIGN AND WORLD BUILDER

D&D INSTANT CAMPAIGN BUILDER

 

 

ARCHIVES AND HELP


Writing Your First Adventure
Part 1 of 6



If you are ready to design your first RPG adventure, or learn how to improve the adventures you’ve already got, you’ve come to the right place. The “Adventure Builder” will cover all the bases, from hooks to background to traps and treasures.

This time out, we’ll cover the foundation you need to build a great adventure. It’s not the background, the stat blocks, or even the main villain. It’s monster selection, and figuring out the size and style of the adventure.

How Big is Your Design?

A common rule of thumb among the Wizards of the Coast design staff is that a typical group of adventurers will level up after about 13 successful encounters of the party’s encounter level (EL). That’s a great number to work from, especially if you want to design a large adventure that spans multiple levels.

In an adventure with dozens of encounters, the party will level up half-way through. Since the party will be tougher and more capable from that point on, the adventure you’ve planned for them needs too scale up as well. It’s better to scale up the second half of the adventure appropriately, but if you don’t want the PCs to level up midway through your epic you can prevent it by keeping your number of encounters small or by lowering their EL (to reduce the XP per encounter).

At the same time, just because you map an encounter doesn’t mean that it will be played. Some areas are never explored, after all, and not every encounter leads to combat (some are resolved or defeated through stealth, magic, bribery, or roleplaying). So if you do want the PCs to level up after your adventure then you’ll need more than 13 party-level encounters to provide enough options and fallbacks if the party doesn’t follow the expected path.

So, not too many encounters and not too few. As a general idea, you want to prepare about 20 to 25 encounters for your party per level of advancement. If you prefer mostly lower EL encounters, perhaps closer to 25 to 30. If you run marathon play sessions every weekend, you might want to prepare 40 to 50 encounters ahead of time, and assume the second half will be at a higher level. If you run short game sessions, you’ll want to make sure that the adventure breaks into small sections of 3 or 4 encounters with a satisfying conclusion to each.

Now you know how many encounters you should prepare. What should be in those encounters? And what mistakes should you watch out for?

Common design mistakes

There are four fairly common errors in beginning adventure design. When I worked on Dungeon magazine I saw them constantly, and the errors haven’t changed.

1) too much useless backstory
2) slow starts
3) random encounters
4) too many encounters

Each of these is easy to fix. Here’s how you do it.

Simple Backstory: Most DMs and designers hate to hear it, but much of the time lavished on history and background is wasted energy. Players never find out who dug the tomb, how the wizard was betrayed by her apprentice, or why the assassin guild changed sides and disappeared. Working on backstory doesn’t improve the gameplay experience for anyone but the bards and scholars obsessed with legends or lore. Unless it connects directly to action in the current timeframe (and the PCs have a way of learning it), skip the involved history. Save that for sourcebooks.

This is not to say cut it all. Details of which faction can be turned against another, which guard might take a bribe, or what the villain ultimately plans to do if the party doesn’t stop him are all appropriate. Make sure your backstory is recent and relevant; avoid anything that starts “Thousands of years ago…”

Start the Action Quickly: When players arrive at the game, they are looking to roll some dice. You can start the action immediately and draw the players away from pizza and other distractions by giving them what they want: a short, simple combat encounter to start off the game. Ideally, the encounter is pitched at an encounter level (EL) no more than one level above or below the party’s level.

The best of the “start in midstream” kick-offs are aimed at all the PCs when they are together, and raise questions that lead the party to the adventure hook. For instance, the party might see raiders attacking an inn where they had planned to spend the night — survivors of the attack tell the party about the black knight who leads them. Or a teleporting extraplanar threat might appear during broad daylight and accuse a cleric of breaking his vows — and threaten to sacrifice his corrupt church elders to a greater power. Where these encounters go ultimately isn’t the most important thing: they can be a little tangential to the plot, as long as they get the party thinking of the right sort of threat.

I’ll discuss this in more detail next time in “Adventure Hooks.”.

Don’t Be Random: Time is precious, so be careful how many tangents and red herrings you include in your design. In particular, random encounters might be fun, or can be useful to get a dawdling party going, or to work off that frustration players sometimes get where they just need to have their characters kill something, but they don’t usually make your adventure any better. If they are tied into the core adventure, then they shouldn’t be random at all; those clues should be built in to the design. If they aren’t tied in to the adventure core, then you are just wasting game time on an encounter that doesn’t advance the mission or the story goals for you or your players.

Trim Excess Encounters: If you create too many encounters and you don’t play every day, players forget what their mission was, or start to lose hope of making progress. They wind up grinding through so many nuisance encounters that they lose sight of the important clues, or they don’t talk to the important NPC, or they don’t search the critical room for documents — because they are too busy grinding through combats. If the encounters are just there to fill up space on a map, they might as well be random. Leave some rooms empty to speed up play.

Encounter Selection: Fitting Together a Cast

The real challenge is balancing encounters to present a variety of challenges for every member of the party. The adventure, after all, is a chance for the heroes to triumph over opposition (or fail miserably and go home).

Selecting for a Coherent Look and Feel

Story, setting, and immersion are all easier to pull off if your monsters fit a theme. That theme might be “united tribes of humanoids” or it might be “desert raiders”, but either way it cuts out many choices. Avoid the kitchen sink approach of just taking creatures that match the party level. Instead, make good use of the EL chart in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 49) to create encounters of small groups, pairs of monsters, and single creatures.

In particular, consider linked encounters for your cast. A guard dog or a sentry might be a much lower EL encounter from a combat perspective — but if the party fails to use a silence spell or a sneak attack to take it out quickly then it could make later encounters more difficult.

Balancing by EL and by Class

The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers direct advice on how many easy, challenging, very difficult, and overwhelming encounters a typical adventure should contain (see page 49). Hint: not many overwhelming encounters.

While this breakdown is good advice, it’s not complete. You’ll want to be sure that your 20 or 25 encounters include encounter variety by class as well as by EL. That is, make sure to include each of the following types of encounters, to give every class and every player a chance to shine.

1) Two Skill Encounters: These are creatures or obstacles that can be defeated by stealth or skill, such as guards, castle walls, cliffs, informants, or low-hp creatures that can fall to a single sneak attack.

2) Four Pure Combats: You need some no-negotiation, straight-up combats that play to the fighter classes. Think orcs, wolves, ogres, giants — or dragons. Consider tactics first here: ambushes, charge, bull-rush, something to make it more than just attack rolls and damage rolls.

3) Two Magical Challenges: Include two magical challenges that require a knock, a fireball, or whatever other strengths your arcane spellcasters have. They might be lore-based challenges, such as knowing the weaknesses of an extraplanar creature, or they might require the use of Concentration or Spellcraft to manipulate a magical object or unravel a mysterious warding.

4) One Divine Challenge: The divine caster in the party is more than just a medic, so give him or her something to do with at least one undead turning, Knowledge (Religion), or nature-knowledge encounter (if your divine caster is a druid).

5) One Puzzle or Trap: This could be as simple as finding the key to a tough lock, deciphering an ancient script, or finding a secret door with Search, but you should include traps and puzzles for your party to solve. If the party doesn’t have a rogue in it, use Knowledge skill checks as a substitute.

6) Two Roleplaying Encounters: Social skills play an important part of the game too, and bards don’t like to just sit and do their stuff in the background. Provide at least two roleplaying encounters that can be defeated by the right social skills, bribes, exchange of services, or clever conversation. Examples include a scholar with a clue that the party needs to bypass some defenses or wardings, or a devil who will ally with them against a common foe.

7) One Mook Encounter: This should be against foes of at least 2 CR less than the party, and ideally 3 or 4 less. Think kobolds, bandits, skeletons, wild animals, or any other group of many foes that play to Cleave and area-effect spells. It’s fun to see heroes cutting a swath through hordes of foes.

8) One Polder: “Polder” is a Dutch word describing land reclaimed from the sea, but here it’s a more general term. As described in detail in Dungeon 135, polders are safe havens for adventurers, places where the party can regain strength. Think Rivendell in Lord of the Rings. Your polder could be a xenophobic elven tree city, a magical rope that generates rope trick spells as a charged item, a bound archon who wards a treasure, or a dwarven merchant caravan. If the party wishes, they can heal up to full strength and level up.

9) One Bigger Fish: To keep the blood flowing, you should have one overwhelming encounter that the party can’t handle without serious risk of a total party kill. This could turn into a roleplaying bit of Diplomacy, a chase, or a stealth challenge, depending on how the party handles it — but they should see that not every encounter in every adventure should be fought.

10) Big Finish: A grand finale encounter with all the trimmings: villain, minions, and a room or terrain that provides interesting combat options.

That list of recommended encounter types covers 17 encounters out of the 20 to 25 in your adventure, but you could easily double up on any of those categories. For example, if you know that the players like intense combat you could set up the remaining encounters as pure combats. If you know that your arcane caster is itching for a magical duel — or that the rogue will always try reconnaissance first — prepare those kinds of encounters.

Tailoring an adventure to show the heroes in the best light means more fun for everyone. Making an adventure that plays to the party’s weakness might be fun for you, but will only frustrate your players. Don’t take away their spells, sneak attacks, or combat items very often — those are the tools of heroism and the key to fun. Instead, give those strong points a challenge and a chance to shine.

To further tailor an adventure, consider some special encounter types if you have, say, a mounted knight, an archer, a monk, or a paladin in the group.

1) A mounted encounter
2) A ranged attack encounter
3) A chase (see Dungeon Master’s Guide II page 57 for chase rules), either hunting or being pursued.
4) A single-combat encounter or challenge from an honorable foe
5) Another class-specific encounter, such as one that requires bardic song, barbarian tracking, or fighting a ranger’s favored enemy.

Conclusion

Adventures work if they are fun and easy to play, and give every kind of hero a chance to shine in different encounter styles. The most important part of design isn’t the details of a stat block, but the type and variety of opponents and encounters.

About the Author

Wolfgang Baur is the author of dozens of adventures, from the “Kingdom of the Ghouls” and “Gathering of Winds” in Dungeon magazine to upcoming releases from Wizards of the Coast. He offers custom-tailored adventures and professional advice to patrons of the Open Design blog.

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THE COMMONER’S VIGIL, AND A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON POP CULTURE

I don’t watch TV during the week unless there is some kind of emergency, like a terrorist attack.

But I do watch on the weekends sometimes. To me TV was an utter wasteland for many decades. But in the past few years, maybe even for a decade or so now, it has undergone a real Renaissance.

That being said here are some of my favorite new shows. (I won’t mention shows I have watched awhile over time.) Yes, I know these might not be new shows to you, but they are all new to me as I don’t watch TV a lot (too busy) and so I might just now be seeing them for the first time.

I recommend them all.

FORGED IN FIRE – really, really appeals to the blacksmith and tool maker in me which I get form my old man. I love this show. I love the blades and weapons they create. And observing the techniques they employ.

THE SELECTION – really, really love this show and it gave me several very good ideas for the physical training program I was already developing called The Roman Way, which you can read more about on my other blogs. I am writing a book and training manual for the Roman Way. I liked the psychological aspects of the selection best however, even moreso than the training methods employed. A couple of the instructors I really like too and tow of them reminded me of buddies of mine.

EMERALD CITY – beautiful, without a doubt. The story meanders however and it is kind of more of a chick show to me. But I really like the Wizard of Oz and the displays of “magic.”

SIX – a little overemotional and overwrought to me, as far as the character depictions of the operators. Too much of an intent to hyper-dramatize for modern audiences. But the stories are awful good and the missions often solid. But still the emotionalism too often fucks up the outcomes. Which, personally, I would not allow. But it’s only TV.

TABOO – the best damned man show I’ve seen, maybe, ever… As in ever. In my whole freaking life. I can’t recommended it enough. This is a real work of art. High Art.

and, one of the shows I’ve watched before but which I am really, really looking forward to returning soon, THE EXPANSE.

Aside from the original STAR TREK it is, without a doubt, the best science-fiction television show I’ve ever seen in my life. Extremely good and incredibly solid.

INSPIRATION

MIND AND MAGIC

As a gamer what do you think are the salient similarities and differences both in how psionic (psychic abilities) capabilities and magic works, or ought to work?

I mean in every respect (how they operate, how they function, what each should be able to do or not do, what is the goal of each, etc.)?

What is your opinion?

 

 

CANDLE COVE – I’LL MISS YOU

I thoroughly enjoyed the final episode of Candle Cove tonight.

Probably the creepiest TV show I’ve ever seen in my life…

 

THE ARRIVAL

THE ARRIVAL

(with one spoiler)

The wife and I went to see The Arrival today for our date. Although I have never read the short story within the first five minutes or so I had already figured out what the Arrival was, who it involved, and how it would likely occur. The clues were evidently abundant in the opening scenes. So I leaned over and whispered to my wife what would happen to whom and why.

I just couldn’t figure out the exact mechanism until I had more data and information. So I didn’t deduce  the mechanism involved until about half way through the film. Then I told her that.

Nevertheless the film was excellent in most every way. It was certainly one of the best hard sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long time. And the use of language was rather brilliant indeed. Actually, as far as language goes, it probably the very best sci-fi film I’ve ever seen (I say that as both an amateur philologist and an amateur cryptologist – so I greatly appreciated the peculiar and particular use of language indeed – plus the “scripted symbology” was especially beautiful in and of itself) and perhaps one of the best uses of language in any other kind of film I’ve ever seen. On that basis alone I highly recommend the film.

Actually the film itself came off like an old-school science fiction story/film, like a piece of work I would have expected by Arthur C. Clarke perhaps. It really was that good.

I suggest you go see it for yourself and enjoy it immensely.

I give it a 9 out of 10.

I think I will also now read the short story…

 

Spoiler: As I have been saying for a very, very long time now, if time is non-linear then nothing else really matters. Everything is immortal, and always has been.

Only the destruction of time and space itself could change that.

 

 

GOOD ONES

My two new favorite TV shows are Channel Zero: Candle Cove and Dirk Gently Holistic Detective.

Superb efforts.

Candle Cove may be the spookiest TV show I’ve ever seen in my life. Spooky and actually scary at times (I don’t spook or scare easy but last night two scene son that show actually made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end) not morbid or just a stupid hack and slash violent juvenile show.

I really, really like the fact that most of the show takes place in broad daylight and seems utterly mundane in background and atmosphere yet still there hangs a foreboding sense of darkness and dread over most everything. The dichotomy is fantastic.

Plus I have enjoyed researching the background internet and YouTube history of the show. Actually, before this show I had never heard of a Creepy Pasta.

As for Dirk Gently I find it to be one of the most original shows I’ve seen in a long, long time (admittedly I watch little TV, but this is one of the shows I do watch). Plus I really like the way he works as a Dick. Dirk. whatever…

And it greatly amuses me.

 

IN EVERY “FIRST ENCOUNTER” UNCERTAINTY IS ALWAYS THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF TRUE DANGER

What I like best about what is implied in this book (hinted at but not much developed in the article) is the idea that you may have competing descriptions of various monsters. Which might very well mean that you have various (interpretive) versions of the same monster, which of course, in and of itself, implies that a monster might be this or might be that, or might even be neither or both in any given milieu or setting.

Which would be a very Game of Thrones, Martinesque version of a monster, sure enough, though if you’ve ever read the Silmarillion (or even just the Hobbit) you know that Tolkien really invented the technique of presenting competing and unclear/unreliable versions of history and myth, at least as far as modern fantasy is concerned. The larger idea, of course, stretches all the way back to the Greeks ( and beyond into prehistory and oral cultures) who had several very different and even competing versions of various prodigies and monsters depending upon the author, the source, the time period, the regional geography/telling, and the nature of the myth itself.

As a matter of fact this is something I have often done in my own game designs and in my own fictional writings going back to when I was a kid, but it is extremely gratifying to hear that the idea is possibly being explored in core material books of D&D and possibly for other RPGs as well.

Because what this means, if taken to its logical conclusion, is that even if players have access to the Monster Manual then that does not mean that they are in possession of concrete and reliable information regarding what any given monster’s true nature, behavior, or even physiology and capabilities might be.

Since I have designed and redesigned famous/standardized D&D monsters in this way since I first became a Dungeon Master back in my teens I know precisely how effective this technique can be (as well as how valuable it makes rumor and field investigation and intel-gathering as a capability of classes like Rangers, Rogues, Bards, and Wizards) in designing and developing a truly exciting game and a truly disturbing method of “encountering monsters.” (Potentially, in some ways at least, every single encounter of a monster can b a “first encounter,” even if you have already encountered the same species dozens of times before.)

When every encounter (or at least a large number of them) are built upon rumor, possibility, and analytical interpretation of conflicting reports rather than upon reliable information and hard, verifiable data then Monsters become far, far more dangerous than they ever were before.

So I am very glad to see Core-Designers possibly adopting the same position.

As a matter of fact I’ve written several essays on that very subject.

Such as these as just two examples:

Crawling Into Oblivion

The Blood of Uncanny Monsters

 

_________________________

Dungeons & Dragons is changing how it makes books

“We live in a post Game of Thrones world.”

The venerable Dungeons & Dragons franchise, the granddaddy of the modern role-playing game, is now in its 5th edition. And, to hear publisher Wizards of the Coast tell it, the sourcebooks are selling like hot cakes. More people than ever before are discovering the magic of rolling dice and telling stories with their friends, and lapsed fans are returning in droves.

For lead designer Mike Mearls, that’s created a bit of a problem. How do you keep the source material fresh for a 42-year old franchise? And, when you’re in the business of selling books, how do you make the next one more interesting than the last?

Consider a pillar of the franchise, the sourcebook known as the Monster Manual. The first, titled simply Monster Manual, was published in 1977. Since then there have been 18 iterations, some for different editions of the game with different rulesets, others with slightly different snippets of lore. But, through the decades, it’s always been roughly the same thing: An alphabetical list of monsters.

“I have this kind of personal philosophy for managing the product line,” Mearls said last month in Renton, Washington. “I don’t want to duplicate any product that’s come before. I think that if people have seen it, then it’s not really new and it’s not really exciting.”

The first Monster Manual, circa 1977.

This time around, he and his team have decided to do something a little bit different. Their next take on the Monster Manual will be called Volo’s Guide to Monsters and, for the first time, it will have a lot more character to it.

“It’s risky,” Mearls said. “In the end, it’s still a giant book full of monsters. No one would argue with that. But I just think that if that’s all the Monster Manual is, then we’re selling ourselves short. So the idea was, the kind of genesis of it, was that want to do something that’s more story oriented.”

Volo’s Guide will have a narrator — two actually. One will be Volothamp Geddarm, an over-the-top, braggadocious explorer. The other will be Elminster, the wise Sage of Shadowdale. And the two will often be at odds with one another. Their differing accounts will be scattered throughout the book, and take the shape of comments scribbled in the margin.

WIZARDS OF THE COAST WANTS THEIR SOURCEBOOKS TO BE FUN TO READ.

Put simply, the goal is to create a book that high-level players and dungeon masters will enjoy reading. The goal, in the end, is to inspire new stories at the table, not simply reinforce the lore of the Forgotten Realms and ram storylines down player’s throats.

“I have this pet phrase I use,” Mearls said. “I like to say that we’re living in a post Game of Thrones world. Fantasy has changed.

“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”

Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.

“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”

THE FANTASY GENRE IS GROWING UP.

Mearls sees Game of Thrones as evidence of the same kind of evolution in the fantasy genre, and it’s his hope that Volo’s Guide can become a new kind of sourcebook to help bring about new kinds of stories.

So what’s inside? I’ve had an advanced digital copy for a few weeks now and I’m pretty impressed at what I’ve found.

The first third of the book is a series of deep dives on specific species of monsters. How specific? Mearls and his team lavish nearly 14 full two-column pages on beholders alone, exploring every aspect of their nature both in and out of combat.

Most of the information is great fodder for dungeon masters. How do you roleplay a beholder? How do you speak like a giant? What does their four-tier caste system contribute to goblin society? What does a gnoll chant to keep his spirits up while on the hunt? What is the lifecycle of a mind flayer?

Well, actually, I’ll let Volo himself handle that last one.

Ever wondered what a hag is most likely to drive off the used car lot, or fancied a careful examination of the kobold pantheon? It’s all in there, and something is going to light a fire in your mind and bring a richer, more memorable experience to the table.

The second third of the book might be my favorite. I’m not able to share much, but suffice it to say that with Volo’s Guide both dungeon masters and players will be able to bring new races to the table, both as player and non-player characters. That includes rules for goblins, orcs and even something called a “firbolg.”

The final third contains rules for 96 monsters that are new to fifth edition, including the Gauth and the Mindwitness.

All told, Wizards of the Coast sent over six pages to share with our readers. We’ll include the final three below.

The very last section of the book features a great add-on. It’s a nice little appendix that includes a handful of fully detailed stock NPCs. It makes the entire package a fantastic resource for dungeon masters, turning a pretty standard sourcebook into a self-contained toolkit capable of spawning dozens of different dungeons — or sparking entire campaigns — without very much prep work at all.

To create it, Mearls says his team has had to take a long hard look at Dungeons & Dragons’ oldest and most iconic creatures. Their goal was to explain them to a degree that’s never been canonically attempted before in one place.

“If you take a look at something like a mind flayer,” Mearls said, “it has that sort of ‘50s science fiction feel. It’s the creepy monster that lives under the bed and eats your brain by the end of story. But I think with a 21st century approach, you can say, ‘Well, who is the mind flayer.’ And it sounds funny, but then you start getting into it. What’s with this guy eating brains?

“Dungeons & Dragons was very much developed with this almost scientific mindset,” Mearls said. “What’s the biology of the mind flayer? But no one asked about its feelings. But when you think about, it the game tells me that mind flayer has an 18 intelligence. The highest intelligence a human can achieve, that’s their average. Literally, they walk in the room and they are the smartest being there. They are smarter than every human they’ve ever ate. So talking to us is like meeting dogs, for them. What’s that got to be like?”

Mearls says that, if the book is successful, he intends for his team to handle more of their upcoming sourcebooks in a similar way.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters will be available at your friendly local game store on Nov. 15. You can also find it on Amazon. It’s also the first Dungeons & Dragons product to have a collectible, alternate cover which you can see here Babykayak.

 

DRAGON AND THIEF

The Dragon and the Thief

Do your PCs spend a lot of time in taverns drinking and gambling? Do you want to role-play the games perhaps as a change of pace or as a prelude to a cracking barroom brawl?

 

The dragon and the Thief is a perfect game for PCs to play when relaxing in their favourite tavern. They can play it among themselves or try to win coins from the locals. Unlike some gambling games, a single round of Dragon and the Thief can go on for some time, but large amounts of money are rarely won or lost as each player usually only puts down or picks up one coin at a time.

A game of Dragon and the Thief is a great way to introduce new NPCs – either normal locals, rival adventurers, thieves, rivals or even potential employers. A game of Dragon and the Thief is also the perfect backdrop for some impromptu information gathering.

How to Play

To play, Dragon and the Thief, each player needs two six‐sided dice and a game board. The game is best played with three or more players.

Game Board by Matt Morrow

Game Board by Matt Morrow

Start: Before play begins, the players must decide what denomination of coin (copper, silver, gold or platinum) to wager. All players start by placing a coin of the relevant value on the number 7.

Who Goes First: The players all roll their dice. The player with the lowest score goes first. Thereafter, play passes to the left.

Playing: Each player rolls his dice. The result determines the player’s action:

  • 2 (The Thief): The player takes all the coins except those on number seven (The Hoard).
  • 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 or 11: The player checks the number for a coin. If a coin is there, the player takes it. If there is no coin the player puts one down on that number.
  • 4: The player does nothing.
  • 7 (The Hoard): The player puts a new coin on that number.
  • 12 (The Dragon): The player takes all the coins on the board.

Play continues as long as the participants want to play; players can join or drop out at any time.

Get it Free

This is an extract from a Raging Swan Press product released as a special Christmas gift. It’s still available as a free download and contains several different printable game boards along with lists of players and in-game events designed to spice up the PCs’ gambling session. You can grab a copy at RPGNow or DriveThruRPG. Get your copy today!

 

THE BOARDS

Here are some of my Pinterest Boards that you might find useful:

Pinterest Account

They include boards on subject matter ranging from Archeology, Business, Gaming, and History, to Science, Mathematics, and Writing, Literature, and Poetry.

THE MAKERS

The Makers 

STC7 – EMBRACE THE WINDS

ROGUE ONE TOO

STC – FAIREST OF THEM ALL

 

http://www.startrekcontinues.com

THE WYRDROAD

THE WYRDROAD

By the way, I’ve mentioned this before but I have a new Facebook Gaming page up. It reflects the interests of this blog and you are welcome to go there and join and then participate and make your own posts.

Here is the Address: Wyrdroad

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