Friday, January 13, 2017

"d100 Dungeon Master Tips" Critiqued - Volume 1: #s 18, 27, 37

In a moment of profound boredom, I was exploring Dragon+, WotC's digital "magazine" (which is mostly them pimping their latest adventure or tie-in product, but hey). One of their more recent issues (the one with an Acquisitions Incorporated cartoon on the cover) contained an article called "d100 Dungeon Master Tips" (tabletop gamers and their d100 tables!) by one Mike Shea. I skimmed through a fair chunk of the tips: a few were helpful, some were drop-dead obvious, and many were off-base.

But, what matters for our purposes is not whether they're "good" or not, but that they give me a springboard to talk about a fair spread of concepts that matter in a concise format!

So, we're gonna try rolling up three of these "tips" every Friday at 5 and see what there is to be said. Here goes!

#18: "Before you begin adding or modifying your own rules, try running the rules as written to get a strong feel for them. Ask yourself if a particular house rule would really make the game more fun."

This is actually fairly solid advice. Bolting on half-baked house rules to a system that you don't understand is a good way to wreck yourself. (Not that I haven't tried - and sometimes succeeded!) It is also worth emphasizing that house rules shouldn't  be added just for increased realism or broadened options UNLESS this causes increased fun.

#27: "Even for combat-heavy game sessions, insert interesting pieces of history, rumors, or secrets that the characters can learn."

Understand your game world, O GM. If you have a good handle on what's going on beyond the scope of the players' narrow spotlight, it makes it easy to introduce broader bits of lore to your players and enrich their understanding of the setting. If your group gets off to that sort of thing. (I know not all do.)

#37: "Even something as simple as a quick sketch can help players understand the nuances of a combat encounter."

Ehh, not WRONG, but not a HELPFUL tip, either. Honestly, if you're running the kind of game where a player has to have a firm grasp of the relative positions of each and every combatant, you might be spending more time counting squares and gnawing nails over opportunity attacks than you need to. Combat should be as fast and fluid as you can manage, with considerations like terrain and positioning being simple and clear-cut enough to enrich the experience without needing much of a cognitive load. I usually find visual portrayals of an encounter to be extraneous, but mileage may vary for you and your group.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Atheist Cultists

Many of you have at least HEARD of the Church of Satan, or of the Satanic Temple. (Different organizations, by the way. The Satanic Temple, in particular, has been making waves in America in the past few years in its challenges to a perceived governmental bias toward Christianity, but that is neither here nor there for our purposes.)

What makes them interesting for OUR purposes is that they are both metaphysically atheist. That is, neither believes in an actual Satan, or in any other supernatural deity. Any worship or veneration is properly directed toward oneself, with belief in a traditional divinity being passed off as mere "projection."

Atheist cultists, eh? Who woulda thunk.

Cultist!, Kvltist, rather.
Lemme tell you, in tabletop RPGs like D&D, the gameworld is absolutely RIFE with evil cults and their followers. It's ridiculous - there almost seem to be more cultists than worshipers of "accepted" religion (much like bandits compared to law-abiding citizens). Not really sure how a fiend-worshiping cultist expects to come out ahead, anyway - damnation doesn't seem like a very attractive price to pay no matter how much power you get out of the bargain.

But, what if at least some of these cultists aren't what we normally think of as cultists - what if some are ATHEIST, worshiping demons or devils not as objectively real persons, but as symbols? We already know that even in RPGs, not all magical power derived from belief requires the belief to be well-founded - "monks" often eschew personal deities, embracing philosophies or esoterics instead, and paladins often gain their powers from the strength of their oath itself - not necessarily from any deity named as witness thereof. Atheist cultists could maintain all of their magical powers, simply through the strength of the SYMBOLS they embrace. And the gameworld would be more interesting, and perhaps even more understandable, if there are cultists whose fate ISN'T eternal damnation in their patron's specific hellhole, haha.

(What do the figures below SYMBOLIZE? Who would claim such symbols as central to an atheistic cult? What would be their goals, and their methods in pursuing them?)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 1

Starting a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

Some brief background: I have actually run an entire 8-week campaign based entirely around this. Pop an album cover up on a screen, "this is what you see," give some details on the action and atmosphere of the scene, see what the players do. Probably my most successful (and dark!) campaigns yet, and something I'll definitely do again sometime (with a different group of players - it's probably a trick best pulled once!).

Anyway, what you've all been waiting for (click to enlarge!):

First of all, dat's menacing.
Now, let's break it down: what's going on here?
First, this guy (yes, GUY, look at his, er, crotch) has a BELLY MOUTH. Extra bite attack? "Ingest" ability?
Second, look at his left arm - that's clearly made for grappling. He's got a strong grapple attack, probably for pulling you into his belly mouth, haha.
Third, look at all those exposed veins - is he weak to slashing damage? Does he take increased bleed damage?
 Fourth, his drool is a weird color - the same color as the liquid flowing into this lair. Is it acid? Poison? Magical? Can he spit it as an attack? (YOU BET HE CAN!)
Alright, and what's going on with that giant eye up top? Is it this dude's master? Will he do anything to protect it? What magical powers does IT have? (It probably enslaves creatures as protectors, and, whether due to its malign influence or the toxic cave environment, these protectors eventually mutate into gross beasts like this guy.)
Finally, look at the tactical challenges and opportunities that the environment provides! Can you hide behind stalagmites? You bet! Can you knock stalactites down onto this guy? You bet! Should you DEFINITELY avoid stepping in the red-orange slime flowing from the walls? You bet!

Can you say "adventure location?"
First of all, what's this place made of? Basalt? Enchanted black ice? Layer upon layer of cobweb? Then, WHO MADE IT like that? Who crafts structures from BLACK ICE or SPIDERWEBS?
What was it made for? Temple? Fortress? Cathedral? Mansion?  Palace?
Where's the door, anyway? Do you need a key, a password, or a very hefty warhammer to get in?
(Also, note the graveyard edging into the foreground. Definitely some sort of dank encounter is gonna pop up from beneath those tombstones the moment the party starts tromping through them.)

Right, so, obviously some dank wizards of some type here. Very magical, and very grim.
But, what's the dude on the left holding? A spellcasting orb? An egg? (Of what creature?) A large snowball? You decide!
Are those masks, or faces? If masks, what kind of face do they hide?
And look at what the stars are doing! They're spiraling before your eyes! Obviously these dudes are TIME WIZARDS or something. Imagine the party's surprise to head home after this encounter, only to find that WEEKS have passed in their absence! How do they wield their unearthly powers, should this encounter come to blows? What do they even want (which is, by the way, the first thing you should ask when the party encounters ANY creature)?

You could opt to just have the being on the right be the encounter, but personally, I'd have the players walk up to the scene exactly as pictured, including the two figures on the left.
First, what's with Big Bird? Spirit of the Wilds? A dwindling Old God? Is it hungry? Lonely? Loving? Bitter?
Second, what are the two on the left doing? They look like just children to me. Do they come here often? Are they friends with Big Bird? How has that affected them?
(This is a great candidate for an encounter that doesn't end up with combat. Wannabe-thespians, rejoice!)

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:
So, obviously this massive tentacled heart lures and feeds upon unfortunates that come across it (perhaps including the party!) Like, it's literally devouring souls. Bad news. (Is this what they players came to destroy, given the recent disappearances in the next town over?) Watch out for magic soul-eating attacks, grabby spiky tentacles, and raging enslaved half-undead servitors!
How did this heart get here? Does it normally exist in a form like this? Or, perhaps it is trying to amass enough soul-nourishment to become something... bigger. (Or, perhaps this heart is all that REMAINS of something bigger! What creature would leave behind such a large, malevolent heart?)

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)