Saturday, December 31, 2016

On Beast Races

Lizard-people. Bird-people. Rat-people.

Y'know, "beast races."

Obviously they are well-attested in many modern fantasy games (and other media, too), but they have a LONG history. We have wolf-people ("werewolf" is just Old English for "wolfman") from medieval Europe, horse-people (centaurs) from ancient Greece, and scorpion-people from janking Akkad (like, y'know, around the time and place of THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION ITSELF). And I'm not even GETTING into Celtic or Norse or Egyptian or Indian or Native American or Mesoamerican or Central Asian or Sinic mythologies (mostly because I don't know as much as I'd like, haha). Suffice it to say that beast races have been an important presence in storytelling in most times and places.

Perhaps this points to something really compelling about the concept. Are there echoes of humankind grappling with its origins, or with its worst ("bestial") tendencies, or instead showing a sort of appreciation for nature (and oneness with it)? I dunno, ask a mythologist. There sure are some gameable concepts here, though, whether they are true in our reality or not. In your campaign:
1) Are humans (or humanoids at large) in danger of partially reverting to animalistic ways (and, indeed, animalistic bodies!)
2) Are certain groups of human(oid)s somehow enriched or elevated by gaining some semblance of animal shape?
3) Are the "beast races" reminders of the uncomfortable past of the human(oid)s?

Given these thoughts, it may surprise the reader that I've NEVER used a member of a beast race in one of my campaigns. No werewolves, satyrs, gnolls, centaurs, lizard-men, kenku, yuan-ti. Worse, I couldn't give you a solid reason WHY. Maybe I just don't want to embark on a path to which I see no end - ferret people, antelope people, centipede people, penguin people? The dizzying array of possibilities - many of them ridiculous, some of them great - is simply too deep to plumb. Maybe a drive toward a "naturalistic" aesthetic keeps me from exploring ridiculous hybrids - but what place does "naturalism" have in fantasy settings fraught with magic and the supernatural?

I guess the takeaway from this is that if you're going to make beast races a part of your game world, play it to the hilt. Think of how the physical (and perhaps psychological) differences of these peoples would affect their society and culture. Explore existing mythologies and the beast races present in them. Use beast races as indirect commentary about our own origins, or our deeper tendencies. (And, I'd be tickled pink to see penguin people or antelope people crop up in a reader's campaign. I dare you to do use one! Tell me how it goes. Also, Reader, tell me your favorite gaming encounter with beast races, if you've had one!)
Antelope people?

ADDENDUM: as best as I can foresee, I won't ever make beast races an integral part of my own campaigns. BUT, I could foresee them used in a specific adventure or two - perhaps as the consequence of animistic shamanism in some especially magical wilderland, or of ever-popular mad wizard experimentation. I will let you know if I ever try this.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Aethra's Cairn

Sometimes, to add a bit of flavor to my campaigns, I slip in the lyrics from any of many deserving death metal bands. Below is a song by Be'lakor, "Outlive the Hand" - it recently featured as an inscription on a lonely cairn on a barren hill, the burial place of one Aethra.

In death she spoke of waiting;
Her final days were long.
These fields have changed since last she wept
Before the silent throng.

She sits where childhood memories lie:
Above, beside, within them.
These carvings have outlived the hand
Which bled to first begin them.

As features of the landscape merge,
The oldest trees are falling.
Awareness sweeps the view aside;
She stares as if recalling.

Seen first beyond the canopy,
They soon had reached the borders.
The clouds, infused with burning breath,
Arrived from coldest corners.

The windswept valley hastens now
As dying words are uttered
From lips of earth and sapling’s strain,
Like leaves, her last thoughts fluttered.

Again it darkens overhead;
The knowledge of it stills me.
And, when the water starts to fall,
Preserve the drop that kills me.

Player reaction was favorable. This will not be the last (nor is it the first) such experiment.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bandit Ecology

They want your money, and they are everywhere. The hills are full of them, leering brutes and sneering cougars, with almost as much body hair as body odor. The forests are full of them, caves and shacks (and treehouses?) teeming with stupid but aggressive thieves. The highways are full of them, men and women brandishing stolen weapons and shouting to "stand and deliver!"

Scum and Villainy
How did the gameworld become so infested with these lazy louts?

One quickly gets the sense that there are more outlaws than law-abiding citizens, sometimes FAR more. A province may have one major town, surrounded by scattered villages and fields, but bandit hideouts dot every crag and thicket. That the sparse fields would support even the town alone is doubtful, but the entire province, bandits and all? No way. The brigands of the wilds must subsist as hunter-gatherers, as there is neither trade nor agriculture enough for all of them to prey upon.

And, who do they prey upon? Citizens and travelers like yourself, yes, but there are few enough of those compared to the swarming plague of banditry. Mostly, a bandit robs from other bandits, and a bandit gang robs from other bandit gangs. With all this internecine strife and violence, the death rate of a garden-variety bandit must be grim. How do they maintain their overwhelming numbers? If you're ambushed by a bandit gang, you may see women, more often than not, but never are they pregnant. (Strange, given bandits' well-known proclivity to lewdness.) Raid a bandit den, and you never find children - at least, not BANDIT children. Maybe some captive town children, if the raiders have been particularly bold. Bandits are not born, they are joined. 

And so, we have a picture of a prolific socio-economic group (or even separate culture), outnumbering the other major demographics, but maintaining this numerical superiority only by having an influx of poor, desperate, thuggish outcasts that rivals the prodigious outflux of dead bandits (victims of all causes from homicide to disease to wandering adventurers). Imagine what life must be like in the towns and villages that the nasty, brutish, and short life of a bandit is a preferable alternative.

The alternative to banditry?
(This post inspired by some nostalgic replaying of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But, as we gamers know, this post could be speaking about any number of other games, D&D included!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Black Ships

They come in the night, once or twice a year, often when the ripening corn begins to wave slow and sluggish in the winds from the sea. Black ships with black sails - so say those alert enough to awake at their coming, craven enough to attempt flight, and spry enough to succeed. Black ships and black figures, dragging loved ones and friends through the whispering surf and into the ocean's night. Those who are taken never return. Only the black ships ever return, year upon year.

They come to coastal villages, where fishers and farmers toil on land and sea to make it through another winter, where petty lords and struggling guilds lack the power and funds to raise a standing army or shelter their populace behind high curtain walls. Even in territories of greater standing and cohesion, there are always those too poor or rooted to move into the walled towns, and always those fog-shrouded autumn nights where sea and sky meld into swirling darkness broken suddenly and quietly by black ships and black sails.

The slave markets of Syr-Marad and of the Inner Six continue their grinding trade in dispossessed and broken persons, but those taken by the black ships do not pass through those marts. It is as if they were taken not by ships and men in black, but by the brooding sea itself, never to wash ashore from its hungry depths.

[For these adventure hook / lore posts, I have two questions for the reader:
1) how, as a player, would you react to the above adventure hook?
2) how, as a GM, would you incorporate the above lore into your gameworld?
I'd love to see your answers to one or both questions.]

Monday, December 26, 2016

Spellcaster: Fantasy Retro Heavy Metal

Spellcaster, out of Oregon, isn't normally the kind of music I'm into; but, listening through their latest album (Night Hides the World), something about their effortless fusion of the classic heavy metal aesthetic with modern production value and variety really grabbed me.

Would recommend for: a journey through dark woods far from home, quiet moments spent reading of long-forgotten heroes, or a noble quest to defeat a malevolent sorcerer.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

What does it mean to DM?

In my first post, I referred to the concept of "running games" as GMing, but referred to what I do as specifically DMing. I consider myself to be a GM, but more specifically, a DM.

So, here's where I explain what I mean by that. Why I call myself a DM, even when I'm not specifically running Dungeons & Dragons.

1) It's a gesture toward the founding (and continuing) importance D&D has for tabletop RPGs. D&D started it all, and the fact that I consider myself a DM is a mark of respect for this, and a statement that I intend to carry on D&D's tradition.

2) In a certain sense, the games that I run ARE dungeons. See, the word "dungeon" is now used to refer to a prison, but that's obviously more specific than its use in tabletop gaming. "Donjon" referred to a keep or fortified place, but again, that doesn't quite line up with the way we use "dungeon," either. It's common in tabletop gaming to think of a dungeon as a subterranean location with several rooms, at least some of which are infested with monsters to defeat and which contain treasure to collect. And this comes close. But, I find the most helpful way to think of what a dungeon IS is provided by The Angry GM here.

So, when I say I'm a DM, it means my job is to present a party of players with a set of meaningful choices, fraught with both challenges to overcome and rewards to achieve.

(Plus, Dungeon Master just SOUNDS cooler than Game Master, haha.)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Best of 2015 in "My" Music

Yes, you read that right. 2015. (It takes over a year to digest a good album. And 2016 isn't even over yet!)

Top 10 Albums (2015)

10. Dark Before Dawn - Breaking Benjamin
Not the most "metal" release to kick off this list, for sure. But Breaking Benjamin and I have a long history - they were actually the first music I ever got into; the long road of my ever-expanding music tastes begins with them. "Dark Before Dawn" was released after a long hiatus, during which the band effectively broke up and reformed with a new lineup, and forms a worthy comeback. They haven't strayed much from their old formula, save that the album seems a bit more thoughtful and positive than much of their previous work (like "Phobia," still my favorite Breaking Benjamin release).
So, no, nothing world-shattering or genre-defining here; just dang good hard rock that deserves a place on this list.

9. Exercises in Futility - Mgła
Ah, here's some danker stuff. Mgła (a Polish word, meaning "mist") bill themselves as "nihilistic black metal," and are actually some of the only black metal I listen to. They're great at what they do, though: varied drum work, harsh but melodic guitars, and audible bass (rare in black metal!) combine to make a dark but dramatic slab of seven songs. That grim and frostbitten atmosphere, combined with its incredibly relevant title, make it my favorite soundtrack for midwinter snow shoveling.

8. Node - Northlane
Northlane have had to prove themselves since their old vocalist Adrian left, and, armed with their new guy Marcus, have not disappointed. Node is full of groove and atmosphere, the best kind of djenty metalcore. "Leech" (below) is a good track to typify the album, but honestly my favorite is "Weightless." Check out these Aussies from the Land Down Under.

7. The Departure - Atmospheres
Blissful djent-meets-post-rock, and I think the only musical group from Belgium that I listen to regularly. FFO radio static, sunlight, space.

6. Wake - For Today
My relationship with For Today has been a complicated one, and now that they've announced that Wake will be their last album, I have very mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, they've never been much more than a particularly hardworking, earnest metalcore band; on the other hand, it's clear that their members DO have real ambition and talent. Wake is a good place for them to end; their previous album was perhaps their catchiest but also their most generic, while Wake presents itself as more introspective and genuine (for the genre, at least). Having seen them on their farewell tour this fall (and gotten the mic literally five times throughout the show!), I can truthfully say that I'll miss them a lot. Here's to you, For Today.

5. Till the End - Phinehas
Oh man, the shreds! The SHREDS! And such beautiful breakdowns. Phinehas take all of the best elements from melodic death metal and metalcore to make a wonderfully energetic album. "Seven," below, is one of the more pensive (and dramatic) tracks on the album, and is by far my favorite. (Check out, also, their acoustic EP they released this month, featuring several reinterpretations from this album!)

4. Anecdotes of Science & Soul - Ghost Iris
These Danish djentlemen have done very well for themselves, considering that this is their first album! They've got a great mix of Periphery and Monuments going, but it doesn't feel stale or unoriginal. Their exposition of "Euphoric State," below, is exactly what a music video should be.

3. The Unconquerable Dark - Black Tongue
This... is some of the heaviest music I listen to, and certainly the heaviest stuff on the list. Black Tongue have a way of combining the best elements of deathcore, doom metal, and even black and progressive metal to create an absolutely evil sound full of atmosphere and brutality. Even the album artwork is top-notch! (Below, the dankest breakup song I'VE ever heard.)

2. Deliverance - Heart of a Coward
Will these guys ever stop getting better? I sure hope not, and they sure haven't yet. Deliverance dials back some of the insane heavy groove of Severance, but replaces it with a much stronger sense of pathos and atmosphere. The UK sure has been putting out some good metal in the past decade, and Heart of a Coward has been at the forefront. Below, I offer TWO tracks for your listening pleasure, not to be greedy, but because they actually go together and should be listened to back-to-back. It's a slow burner, but man, is it good. (Personally, I've edited them together into one track for my iTunes library, haha.)

1. Of Beauty and Rage - Red
I surprised myself by giving Red the top spot from 2015. Of Beauty and Rage was a wonderful comeback after the failure of their previous album; it's full of atmosphere and pathos, and is easily the best fusion of hard rock and metal I've ever heard. Give it a shot, eh?
(For those on this blog for the gaming rather than the music, but who have somehow gotten this far in the list, these guys on the album cover constituted the primary antagonists in one of my 2015 campaigns!)

Bonus Feature: Top 3 EPs (2015)

3. World Architects - Assemble the Chariots
I'm honestly slightly ashamed to call this section a "bonus" feature, since these EPs are SO DANG GOOD. Like, seriously, the compete with the top 5 albums above.
Anyway, Assemble the Chariots are "blackened djent," I suppose. (From Finland, of course.) Listen and love!

2. The Ocean Atlas - Modern Day Babylon
Hailing from the Czech Republic, Modern Day Babylon is one of my favorite instrumental groups out there. They just play such PRETTY djent, while still maintaining a definite metal edge.

1. Home - All I Lost
Finally some melodic death metal on here (my favorite genre!), and finally something from Sweden. I feel like I've listened to at least one song by these guys every day for the past month (they're a recent discovery), and I look forward to the next work they create!

Bonus Bonus Feature: Top Albums from a Decade Ago (2006)

3. Phobia - Breaking Benjamin
It feels unfair to feature Breaking Benjamin twice, but of all the music I listen to, they've been with me the longest. Phobia is a real nostalgia trip for me, and still their best album (that all-pervading ATMOSPHERE, man). Enjoy.

2. Above the Weeping World - Insomnium
Ah, their breakout album! Insomnium has been my favorite band for years, and this album was their first one to get "big." Deservedly so; it's still in my music rotation to this day. Happy 10th!

1. With Oden On Our Side - Amon Amarth
Vikings, Norse gods, melodic death metal? 'Nuff said!
(Seriously, though, Amon Amarth is such a staple for me, and they SLAY live. Enjoy, below, one of their more narrative, historical tracks!)

It feels good to look back on this stuff. Here's to many more.
(Comment your favorite release from 2015! Or 2016, for that matter.)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Why do I DM?

It's  a simple question, and one that I'm sure many game masters have considered. I often hear answers like: "I love telling stories," "worldbuilding is just sooo fun," "I want to be a player but no one else ever volunteers to DM," or "the tears of players are my drink, and loathing my bread." (Okay, not ALL of those answers.)

This being my first post all up in this blog, I figured that answering this question is a good way to "introduce myself."

I've run games for almost three years (I know, what a young'un), mostly D&D, but also some homebrew systems and dabbling in stuff like Runequest, Talislanta, or ACKS. (I also slogged most of the way through The Burning Wheel before deciding the system was borderline-unplayable, haha.) Unfortunately, I haven't had much of a chance to actually PLAY these games - y'know, as a PLAYER. Sure, a couple of my friends that I DM'd for have tried running games, and continue to do so (though distance usually prevents me from participating). This means that, not only am I basically a self-taught DM, I've also taught others. (This lack of outside influence, of DMs that I haven't taught how to DM in the first place, is a large part of why I'm on here keeping up with some of the work and ideas that GM bloggers come up with - it's hard to be a creative individual without being somehow part of a community!)

So, why go through all the time and effort of learning how to DM? Why run games for most of the past three years?

1) Tabletop RPGs are simply the type of game that I've found most enjoyable. Even while DMing. The dynamic of these games is one of immense creative potential, with multiple players making decisions and shaping the story in their own way, guided and arbitrated by another real, flesh-and-blood human, whose ability to make intuitive snap decisions (ideally) far outpaces that of a machine or hard-and-fast ruleset. As much as I enjoy my single-player videogames, they are stale and clumsy compared to a game run by a good GM. So, that's the kind of game I try to provide.

2) Tabletop RPGs have a special social dynamic. This is actually a big one for me: the experience of sitting around a common table with a group of friends and just experiencing a story together is hard to rival. (Which is what makes the choice of players/gaming groups so important - but that's a post for another day.) The ability to engage in shared decision-making on decisions that don't "matter," to pursue common (or diverse!) goals, to create those fun anecdotes that bear retelling time and again, is simply not an experience I've had elsewhere. (Plus, being an introvert, it's handy to commit myself to something that provides regular and positive human contact, something that I easily forget that I need, haha.)

3)Tabletop RPGs are a great sink for time and brainpower. Personally, I get bored easily if I give myself free time. A good solution to this problem is to cultivate a hobby that can absorb as much time and attention as you give. The reason why I chose a hobby, and not "real" responsibilities, is that the repercussions of coming short on time and effort are trivial; you run the game as scheduled, improvise a bit more than you would've liked, and everyone still has a good time. GMing: a good way for a busy mind to stay sane!

Feel free, Reader, to comment as to why you GM. Or play tabletop RPGs. Or how you ended up at this blog if you don't. :p