Posted by: akalsaris | May 12, 2010

Ten Useful Spells that should have been “Core”

Spendelarde’s Chaser

Level: Sor/Wiz 4

Source: “The Seven Rings of the Zhentarim.” Originally a 2E spell – google it.

What’s it do: To quote the spell itself: “This spell was created originally in order to facilitate mental recovery from brewery research expeditions (in other words, as a hangover cure).” It cures hangovers and removes or prevents most poisons.

Amanuensis

Level: Sor/Wiz 0

Source: Spell Compendium

What’s it do: Perfectly replicate the text of a non-magical book. Even at CL 1 it will replicate 2,500 pages worth of text. How handy is that for a cantrip?

Servant Horde

Level: Sor/Wiz 3

Source: Spell Compendium

What’s it do: Summons up to 2d6+15 Unseen Servants. “Be our guest, put our service to the test!” God help you if you can’t find a use for a score of invisible butlers.

Skull Watch

Level: Sor/Wiz 3

Source: Spell Compendium

What’s it do: Permanently enchants a humanoid skull as an improved Alarm system. The skull floats and shrieks if it sees a creature approaching, possibly deafening everyone within 60ft. No matter where you are, you know it’s been set off. Permanent spell, free, you can use it in combat by pulling the bag off it’s head, and it resets itself in 1d4 rounds. Plus, who’s going to walk into a room full of floating skulls?

Snowshoes, Mass

Level: Cleric, Druid, Ranger 3

Source: Spell Compendium

What’s it do: Everyone (CL=People) gets +10ft to speed, and can walk easily on snow and ice without making balance checks or anything, plus it’s difficult to track them. Remember how much fun Legolas was having on that snowy mountain? Yeah. I thought so.

Stone Shape, Greater

Level: Cleric 5, Druid 5, Sor/Wiz 7

Source: Spell Compendium

What’s it do: It’s like Stone Shape, but instead of 10 cubic feet +1/level, it’s 10 cubic feet +10/level. So for a wizard 14 who took this, instead of 24 feet of stone, it’s 150 feet. You could make your own dungeon in a week with just this spell!  Or maybe instead rearrange the DM’s dungeon to suit your taste.

Submerge Ship

Level: Sor/Wiz 7

Source: Spell Compendium

What’s it do: You touch the ship and give it a swim speed of 60 feet. It’s dry inside the ship, and people can act normally. That’s right: this spell gives you a fantasy submarine. Cast Mordenkainen’s Capable Caravel (Sor/Wiz 8, Stormwrack) and you can make your own magical ship to ride.

Detect Ship

Level: Bard 3, Sor/Wiz 3

Source: Storm Wrack

What’s it do: For 24 hours, you passively detect ships within 1 mile/CL, even if you can’t see them. With a simple DC 15 Profession (Sailor), you know the direction to the ships and the range. If you can see the ship, you can make another Profession (Sailor) check to learn more than you ever wanted to know about the ship: the type, course, speed, time to interception, its weaponry, its name, any signs of allegiance (pirate’s flag, symbols of nation of origin on board), and its port of call.

Water to Acid

Level: Sor/Wiz 3

Source: Stormwrack

What’s it do: Permanently transforms 1 cu. ft/level of water into alchemical acid. Prepare to ruin the alchemical economy of the nearby large city, or devise clever traps galore, or slowly burn through every door and lock that you ever face.

Smell of Fear

Level: Ranger 1

Source: Magic of Faerun

What’s it do: It triples the chance of the target encountering wandering monsters in the area. That’s right: this spell is an experience lever. And what’s more useful than free experience??

Posted by: Opinicus | May 9, 2010

Protean World Setting


Opinicus here with an idea to tickle you brain with. This is linked to the comment I left on AHT’s post about player built world settings.

So, imagine a game like this:

The players start out in what is essentially a dry, barren place, it has pretty much nothing. Perhaps it is some underground room with no exits. Perhaps it is an abandoned tower out in an endless saharan desert. Or let’s say it is like the Myst game, and you wash up onto a strange island, filled with strange curios and structures.  Either way, there’s not much going on for them there. I’ll now refer to this place as homeland.

Now on Homeland, there is an intricately made map with the homeland carved in miniature likeness on it. Next to it is another bit of land, perhaps a forrest, or some ancient ruins, or even a town. When the PC’s touch this part of the map, they are transported there, and it is a separate world, or perhaps it is part of the same world, but either way it is very different from their homeland.  On this new place they will find adventures and challenges.  Now among the rewards for finishing the quest, the will find two, items.  One item will teleport them back to the homeland, and the other one can be used to add a new land to the map. This can be a completely separate world or be connected to the other places.

Now is where the fun comes in, and a bit of hassle. The way I would do this is, I would get out a large sheet of paper, the sturdier the better as it may undergo lots of wear and tear.  Then you give the PC’s a smaller piece of paper and ask them to draw a map of the new land they wish to make and give some notes on it as to what they want in that land.  Now, remember, this is being done in character, which means that the characters are the real ones making the world, their goals and wants are what designs the new land. Keep in mind that they are not making a link to a preexisting place, but are forming something entirely new from nothing, and of course, the PCs don’t fully know how to use this powerful magic, so it is up to the GM to decide how true to their plans the actual world will really be.  If they decide to fill a word with stunningly beautiful disease free hookers, throw in something bad into it, perhaps all is fine and good, but the next time they show up, they find that a society of hookers can’t support itself and has collapsed into anarchy and despair.

Now, I’m not saying always make something bad happen, just warn the PC that if they try to make a paradise that will fulfill their every need, you will throw a wrench into the works to keep the game running as an adventure game.

Now comes the part that I like. You’ve given the PCs plenty of places to make, and perhaps they all think that the places are separate worlds. That’s when they find out that if you put two places next to each other on the map, they’ll influence each other.  The desert full of raiders? Well, that tropical rain forest next to it has started dumping lots of water into the dessert and it’s not so much a desert anymore, oh, and the raiders found the forest and have raided the villages in it.

This is where you can start having fun with the politics of this land the players have devised.  The kingdom of good finds out about the blasted land of the undead and are going to prepare for war, but to do so they’ll have to march through the centaur forest, and the centaurs don’t like intruders, so they have to fight.  Or what happens if you ended up landlocking the costal port area? All sorts of fun at your fingertips.

Another fun plot hook, is after the party is a bit higher level, they come to their homeland to find that someone has been using the map, there are new lands on it that they didn’t put there.

If you want moral dilemmas, perhaps, later on, they find an artifact that is in essence a map eraser, and they can erase parts of the map, but doing so would pretty much mean sending all the inhabitants of that land into oblivion.

This game will probably require a lot of time out-of-game on the PC’s part. You can give each one a sheet of paper and they can each come up with world ideas on their own, and then they take turns exploring each one. Or perhaps they all can corroborate on one world at a time. Either way, I hope that this game will be an extremely memorable game for anyone that enjoys world building, like I do. I am also a big fan of maps, and since this game is all about the maps, having a big map that is the brain child of the whole group would be awesome in my book.  This game also will probably require a lot of cooperation between the players. All it takes is one asshole player to make a world that is there just to piss off every other player.

I’ve had this game in my head for over a year now, but I’ve never had the right opportunity to run it, so I have no idea how well this game will actually work, so here I am, throwing it out to the swirling mass of chaos and ideas that is the internet, perhaps someone will read this and get the inspiration to run a game based off my words, and hopefully this awesome person will post back and tell me how it went. Either way, I felt that I should try to give this idea a bit more life before I lose all hope and enthusiasm for it.

Opinicus out.

Posted by: allhailthoon | May 9, 2010

A Synthesized Game World: Give the People What they Want

In the years I’ve spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve played in a pretty large number of different settings, many of which were home-brewed. During this time, I’ve noticed two problems that frequently arise with GM designed worlds.

The first of these problems is that very often the GM doesn’t completely know their own world.  They may have a nice map, some place names, and ideas for stories, but they don’t always have all the specifics down. While a good GM can improvise NPCs and adventures, not knowing the world, or at least specific parts of it, can make it difficult to build a fully realized character with a proper history and link to their world.

The second problem is that the PCs are forced to assume that their characters just happen to know much more about the world than they do. While this usually true to some degree or other, it can often make it more difficult for players to take initiative. On too many occasions, I’ve been in situations where the party is between adventures and the GM asks us what we want to do next. More often than not, we all reply with puzzled looks, shrugs, or some generic answer like shopping or visiting the temple of our god. There may very well be a lovely park where the nobility go for their morning rides and to share the latest gossip or a bordello full of geisha succubae  who will make all your dreams come true in exchange for your soul, but how are we supposed to enjoy them if we have no idea they’re around? (Sure, the GM can mention them, but then they just scream PLOT HOOK! and players may feel obliged rather than curious.)

With those two issues in mind, I had an idea: let the PCs create the world. Or at lease sections of it.

Give the PCs fair warning before the game starts and beyond just having them roll up characters, have them write a detailed description of the country their character is from. Have them include some geography, locations, notes on culture, and important NPCs that may or may not have anything to do with their characters directly. Let them make up some taverns, devise some local legends, and just generally go crazy with it. Of course, the PCs shouldn’t necessarily be the ones statting everything and or already knowing all the secrets, but they should have full reign to come up with anything their character might know or have heard of that could be significant to the game.

Once all the players have done their jobs, the GM just has to stitch the world together and fill in the gaps. Of course the GM should be clear in advance about a few things, like what general level of fantasy and time period the game will be set in, but beyond that, the more freedom the better. The entire campaign doesn’t have to be based around what the PCs made, but a healthy dose now and then is a good way to make each player feel like they’re doing something important and the pre-existing hooks and character tie ins are a great way to fill in time between planned adventures or to add layers of complexity to a campaign.

In my experience, I’ve noticed that games in which the PCs are encouraged to put in their two cents on the world and create a history with significant events and people that can be used in game later, people tend to get more into their characters and excited about playing.

Of course it’s all just an idea, so it might just as easily crash and burn.

Posted by: allhailthoon | May 5, 2010

Stuck in Neutral

We’ve done good. We’ve done evil (twice). Now it only seems right to round out the collection with a healthy dose of neutrality.

In a largely unrelated response to my post on good-aligned characters, Opinicus mentioned that he finds neutral characters to be the hardest to play because he tends to make them either essentially good or extremely evil. After re-reading his comment, one thing I noticed was that he said that he played neutral characters in order to be able to do whatever he wanted. I think it’s really that approach that is the source of his problem.

Before going into what makes a character neutral and what makes a neutral character interesting, I want to say something about playing alignments in general: I can see neutral or evil characters performing good acts much more easily than I can see good or neutral characters committing outright evil acts. It’s not hard to imagine an honorable villain saving a child or refusing to desecrate hallowed ground, but it’s nearly impossible to picture a paladin executing prisoners just to shut them up or burning down a village because they wouldn’t give him a place to stable his horse.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the meat of the matter.

Lawful neutral characters are supposed to put the law, or at least some strict code of conduct, above all else. Personally, I like to picture them as gritty cop drama type characters. I like to think that they started off good but years on the force left the disillusioned and bitter. Overall, they do more good than evil, but they also believe that the end justifies the means and are willing to beat, interrogate, and execute if it leads to getting the job done. There are plenty of other ways to do it to, like the bonded knight or the aging banker that values accounts more than kindness, but when in doubt, I like to look to Law and Order.

Unless you want to pursue the whole balance thing described in the rule book definition of neutral, which I personally don’t, true neutrality works well as either a sort of limited good or self-serving non-evil. A limited good character will probably come across as a great guy once you get to know him, but usually won’t go out of his way to help people outside of the inner circle. The self-serving non-evil character is even more limited  in what he will do to help others. He probably adventures for personal gain and will always save his own neck first. Both are capable of the occasional evil-ish or questionable act, but neither is likely to commit one without a good reason.

Chaotic neutral is definitely the most challenging to play without slipping into evil. By their nature, chaotic neutral characters do whatever they want, regardless of what law and society dictate. Again, I think it comes down to goals and personal limits. A chaotic neutral character might steal (I need this hat more than he does), lie (No, sir, I did not see where that man’s head went), and flout society’s strictures (Pay for twin hookers and they throw in the triplet for free! Who can pass up a bargain!), but they probably won’t kill without cause or steal from the needy.

Someone who isn’t evil isn’t going to go out of his way to cause harm. While people may be hurt by the chaotic neutral character’s actions, it isn’t likely that that was the original intention.

Posted by: Opinicus | May 3, 2010

Horror Games: Atmosphere

The tomb was deathly quiet, the cobwebs grew thick with the ever present mist and felt like curtains as you went onward through the corridor. Through the ceiling, roots poked through and reached out like grasping claws.  Occasionally a few bricks were missing and the light of the moon shone into the dank ruin.  Always just out of sight, you swear something moved, a patch of darker shadow that did not want to be seen quite yet.  At the end of the hall, a large set of double doors stands before you, heavily rotted with mildew and mold. Despite this you can tell that in the past something had tried to get in by the nail marks clawed into it’s surface. whatever had barred the door had long ago rotted away and you enter with the groaning creak of crumbling oak.  Inside is a circular chamber, the walls covered in handprints done in ancient dried blood. In the middle is a pedestal made from a mummified man. Upon his withered back back is a leather and steel bound tome, titled “The Words of Opinicus.”

To be honest, this was originally going to be a response to AHT’s earlier post on the Horror movie incorporated into D&D (or Roleplaying in general). But I soon realized that my response was going to be way too long, so I decided to embellish it and make it into it’s own post. Not trying to steal your thunder AHT, but you know my love of running horror.

I feel that the key to a horror game is about the atmosphere.  Without the mood, and detail in the setting, you’re just fighting zombies, wraiths, howlers, a berserk golem, what-have-you.  But throw in the right descriptions and setting, suddenly the players are getting antsy.  It’s not, “You see four zombies, they groan, get up, and lurch towards you.” it’s “When you open the door, the foul stench of rotting corpses assails you.  As your eyes adjust to the darkness, you hear a shuffling noise, and what sounds like wheezing.  Then, on the ground, you see a woman, her cloths in tatters.  She appears to be hurt and is slowly pulling herself towards you.  Before you can get closer, you see it, her abdomen is gone.  She looks up at you, her eyes missing from their sockets, her mouth a rictus grin of blood stained teeth. As she pulls herself to her feet, three more  groaning forms lurch forth from the shadows, all equally dead, all equally hungry.”

You can even take monsters that typically you won’t find in a horror game and still get a desired effect. Obviously some monsters just don’t fit by their very nature, but if you try, that list is VERY small, usually the monsters that are actually benevolent, like angels, too common in modern society (we’ve all seen videos of rhinos to not be that scared of them, in the horror sense, they are scary in the “I’m going to get gored!” sense), or are harmless, like flumphs.  Play up certain aspects of them, either make them more human, or (if they are already human-ish) much less “human.”  Let’s try goblins.  They’re hard, as you usually kill them round lvs 1-2, and they have that almost comically cowardly feel. But what would you think if you came across this: “As you get deeper and deeper into the overgrown forrest, the canopy starts blocking more and more of the light.  Soon, it almost feels like night.  Your feet sinking into soggy moss and lichen. Eventually you then spot signs of habitation, crude markers, broken bits of tools.  Eventually the signs start becoming more and more grisly.  Shrunken skulls hanging from branches, macabre totems, made from human ribcages, fetishes made from fingers. Suddenly you hear the sound of a man screaming in pain and fear. Hurrying closer, you see three small figures around a fourth that is tied to a stake.  You realize that the one tied to the stake is a man covered in blood, clothed only in anguish.  The three others carry jagged stone knives. You gag as you see them hop about, cutting quivering bits of flesh from the man and stuff them into their eager, over-large maws. Suddenly they turn to you, their grotesque faces filled with rotted teeth underneath large bloodshot eyes.  They let out a gleeful screech and disappear into the underbrush.  Then you hear, in a childlike voice, “Hee hee hee… more meats! More toys!”  I tried (as tired as I am right now) to first play up how inhuman they were, eating the flesh of a man while still alive, then instead of screeching like little devils, throw the players for a twist, make them speak in unnervingly cute voices.

That’s another thing, children in the roles of the horror monster, HOLY CANNIBALISTIC HALFLINGS BATMAN! THAT’S TERRIFYING! (At least for me)

Now, notice how much longer each of these scenes were. Horror games are not conductive to hack and slash, high combat games. They’re thinking games, you might get only one combat per session if any, where as in a regular game you could get 2-3, and a combat oriented game 3-4.  If you throw in that much detail into a setting, the players will forget most of it by the time combat’s done. Secondly, if it is a hack and slash dungeon crawl, if you go that in depth with everything, the players will start to get impatient. Plan your horror sections accordingly.

Another important factor is the unknown. You don’t know what’s out there. It could be a goblin, it could be a demon, hell! It could be just a chicken!  All you need to do is give a sense of danger, but without letting the players know what it is exactly, and let their imaginations build it up for them.  If you watch horror movies, rarely do you actually see what is killing all the sorority chicks until later in the movie.  You know something nasty is going around, but what or where? You have no clue! The nameless horror is always scarier than the named one.  As soon as you’ve given it a name, especially if the name is a type of monster, you lose at least half, if not more, of the fear. Look at a Call of Cthulhu adventure, the unnamed monster that is killing random people that enter a certain stretch of the subway is suddenly a lot less scary as soon as you find out it’s a Shoggoth.  As soon as you identify it, you now have a point of reference to it. You know where you stand with it. It may still be able to end you with a flick of a greasy tendril and the mere sight of it can shatter your sanity, but you can now say “Oh, it’s a shoggoth! Okay.”  The only exception to this are names that don’t really explain the horror. Instead of shoggoth, if you called it “The Writhing Darkness that Hungers” you’ve given it a name, but it is still unknown to you, still scary,  especially if you learned the name from a bunch of superstitious hobos that had to move out of that part of the underground, who where almost too scared to even whisper the name they gave it while out under the sun.

One example is from an experimental game I was running for AHT and a few others. Nightmares has bled into reality and nightmare beasts roamed the now warped streets of New York. The party had to enter a hospital, to gather some medical supplies. While in there, they kept seeing signs of something that had gone through there, slaughtering the patients and staff.  Every so often, they would hear something moving in the hospital with them. They would hear the garbled gibbering of what sounded like people driven mad, but then find no one in the room it was coming from.  I built up the horror so well that near the end of the adventure, where they could finally see it and fight it, and probably kill it, the party just ended up saying, “Screw that!  I think we have enough medical supplies, let’s go.” They then hot-wired an ambulance and drove away as fast as they could.

I often find that running a horror game for new players is easier than with experienced ones. New players don’t know what the hell any of the monsters are , save a few well known ones like werewolves, vampires, maybe orcs.  Experienced players can guess what you’re throwing at them just with a brief description. Recently I tried a horror bit, and AHT spent the whole time trying to guess what monster it was (It wasn’t in the books, I just made it up, but the party still named some monster that actually resembled what I had described, and I didn’t even know what it was)  So yeah, if you know your players have read every entry in the monster manual(s), don’t throw a pre-generated monster, make one up. Oh, there was the other time when they ran into a cult of Thoon, and AHT (she got her pen name from this adventure) immediately called out mindflayers before any evidence of them came up other than a cultist calling out “My life for Thoon!” as he charged. I scrapped all aspects of horror from that session. I was going to slowly build up tension, then finally the awful revelation, but no, spoiled, wasted. On a note to players, if you’ve guessed what the monster is, and the GM is obviously trying to keep it hidden or is building up the tension, don’t yell it out. I was ready to double the number of illithids they had to fight, right then and there, and watch the party die, that’s how pissed I was.

Of course, the best way to scare your PC’s is to scare your players. If your descriptions are dry, the won’t be into it. If you don’t give enough descriptions, they’ll picture themselves in a normal setting. Give too many, and you’ve slowed the game down. It is a balancing act, and don’t think the players can just sit back and cruse through. They have to participate in it as well.  Humans are social animals, if just one player acts scared, all the others will start getting scared too. Of course, the opposite is true as well, if one player isn’t scared, or plays his character as if he’s completely calm, it’ll ruin the mood.  I had a player in my games, who I will refer to as J, who would do this, and I could never get a horror setting off, even when I was running CoC. Everyone’s a little creeped out, they’re a little antsy, “I kick down the next door, anything for me to loot?” Me:”Huh?”

Speaking of J, one time he ran a game and tried to make it horror.  We ran from the monster, but it was faster than us, so we fought it, and it was much, much stronger than us, no way in hell to kill it. We lost the sense of fear when it could out run us, and lost the sense of enjoyment in the game when we couldn’t kill it.  Turns out it was a dream… Lame sauce. If you want the monster to chase the party, make it move slower than the party, but for inexplicable reasons always be just a corner away, or still in earshot. If you throw an unkillable monster at the party, at least let them run from it.

Ultimately though, a horror game is about hope. If you rob the party of all hope, it’s not fear the PCs feel, it’s despondency and resignation, or even anger.  You need to make it seem like there is nothing they can do, save for that pinpoint of light. They will strive for it, if they reach it, they live, if no, they get added to the growing casualty list.  Give them a sense that if they could fight the monster head on, they will win… if only they could fight it head on. Or while it is invincible now, if you find and break this heirloom, it will die.  Or, by all respects they should be dead, but if they survive till sunrise, they win, etc… Always give the PC’s a chance, but obscure it form them just enough so they don’t immediately know how to seize that chance. Give them uncertainty.

The last thing that Pandora pulled out of her box was Hope.  Some say that it is the shining ray of light amid all the evils trapped away. Others say that since each subsequent thing that was pulled out got worse and worse, Hope was the worst of the lot, giving us a reason to endure all the other evils. All I say is, is that it’s great for getting a party motivated to go through a horror game.

I’m Opinicus, and you stay classy San Diego!

Posted by: allhailthoon | May 3, 2010

Killer Game: Horror Movie Murderers in D&D

Inspiration for D&D can come from any number of places. Today, in honor of the surprisingly good Nightmare on Elm Street remake, I’m going to focus on one that is very near and dear to my heart: the horror movie.

Horror movies can provide an abundance of great ideas for games, but the key is to rework them in a way where they are still fun to play. For this reason, some types of horror work better than others.

The Conditional Killers (Hellraiser, Candyman) –

Whether it’s opening the box or saying the monster’s name in the mirror, a specific event needs to occur in order for the killer to be any threat. These actions can occur either with or without the PCs having some idea of what the consequences might be. This can work very well for a party that is known to be curious or trusting. The rogue who likes to make Use Magic Device checks to activate items blindly or the fighter who will take the advice of seemingly harmless strangers without trying to Sense Motive are excellent candidates for moving a plot like this forward.

The problem with this type of plot arises from the fact that what makes killers like Candyman and the Cenobites scary is the sense that they are all powerful and inevitable. Frankly, it’s not going to be a fun game if it’s guaranteed that anyone who takes the bait on a major plot hook is going to end up dying horribly.

One way to avoid this problem is to make the game an investigation. People are dying in strange ways and it’s up to the party to find out why. While this might be an interesting back drop or sub plot to other events, investigation games can get a little boring, especially at higher levels.

To give the concept a little more flare, I suggest taking cues from the films themselves. In Hellraiser, the Cenobites are nothing if not lawful. They will only kill people who really intended to summon them. If whoever calls the monster is clever enough, they might just be able to strike up a bargain in order to save their own lives. Of course, a deal with the devil is a deal with the devil and the consequences should be sufficiently horrible.

Candyman, on the other hand, looked at the woman who called him and saw his lost love. While that may sound hokey, there can easily be any number of ways for the monster to decide that he wants to do more than just kill the summoner. As in the film, the monster can begin to kill people that the character comes into contact with and hold dear, doing the killings before their eyes and in ways that would lead anyone investigating into believing that the character was the killer. This should all play into some greater goal of the monster’s that only reveals itself after quite a bit of trouble has gone down.

The Unstoppable Killers (Halloween, Friday the 13th) –

Stone cold, impossibly strong, and possibly un-killable. As entertaining as they can be in movies, Michael and Jason are probably not the best villains for a D&D campaign.

In a D&D game, the players are the characters, not the audience, and in order for someone like Jason to be scary, characters need to die. If only NPCs die, the villain can be interesting but not a real threat, and if PCs die without being given a fighting chance, nobody is going to have fun. If you do given them a chance to fight back and they kill or wound the killer, the killer has lost his horror value and become just another serial murderer to be put down, and if the PCs are forced to flee, only to confront the killer again and again, the game becomes redundant.

The only way I can really think of to make something like this interesting is to make the PCs flee, but only once or twice. In the meantime, let them look for clues to find out how to put the killer to rest forever.

The Dream Killer (A Nightmare on Elm Street) –

Nightmares are a great element for a horror game, but they really shouldn’t be overused. I would suggest putting this kind of killer into a game as a sub plot rather than a main story, at least for a while.

First, find a reason why the same entity would be antagonizing part or all of the party. Then go to work on the players individually. In a given session, take one or two of the players aside individually and run them through a short sequence, then as time progresses make the sequences longer and more intense. Don’t tell the rest of the group what is happening to the individuals.  Ideally, members of the party will do anything to keep themselves awake (If you can keep them from finding magical means, all the better) and after a while, you can turn the nightmares into hallucinations that begin to legitimately skew their perception of reality.

The Crazy Family (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of a Thousand Corpses) –

I like the idea of this for a low level game. At higher levels, it becomes too easy to teleport, fly, or straight up murder your way out of a place.

The key for this is in the setup. Anyone who has ever seen this type or horror film or any number of others with similar elements knows that if you go to the house in the middle of nowhere on the rainy night, the people inside are probably going to want to cannibalize you. That’s just the way things tend to work out.

Because of this, the horror should not be rushed. First the PCs should be lulled into a false sense of calm. Perhaps they should be in the area to deal with another problem (which may or may not be related to the family of psychos). The family members themselves may even have been the ones that asked for the PCs help. They should come across as honest, hard working people. Even make them seem a little bland so that the PCs won’t focus on them anymore than they would on other NPCs.

It’s even possible that not all the family members are evil. Mom, dad, and little Suzy might be decent people, but Uncle Jim and Bobby the teenage hunting enthusiast are actively killing and butchering travelers to feed to cannibal grandpa who lives in a secret room under the cellar.

Hell, maybe they even legitimately like some or all of the members of the party. Bobby might come across as a hero when he valiantly defends Shanktits the sexy party rogue from evil Uncle Jim, only lay traps to kill the mage later so that he can no longer try to steal Shanktits’ attention.

The sky is really the limit on this one. As long as you can keep the party contained without them getting annoyed or bored, you’ve got solid GP.

Opinicus with words, now put them in you.

So, you’re in a lv 10+ game and have decided to play a fighter.  Good for you.  Now look to the rest of the party, is anyone there a full caster? Yes? aww… too bad, you’re going to feel outclassed in everything you do, unless the caster doesn’t know what he’s doing in which case you have a fighting chance to feel important to the party.  The other caster build that will let you feel useful is a buff caster, but that requires the caster to give up the limelight to let everyone else feel useful, instead of just destroying everything singlehandedly.

Now, let’s say the mage in the party has decided to min-max and combat now ends on his round.  I’m talking about sudden maximized chain lightings or energy admixtured fireballs, or 120% real shadow evocations, or any other of the plethora of reality bending options mages have.  What do you do? What can you do?

Honestly, there’s not that much.  The fights are going to be short and brutal, one way or another.  The GM will probably start making the enemies tougher and nastier, so they could survive a going a few rounds with the world breaker without pants.  This means you’re going to need to come into your own soon, but if you’re not as optimized as the guy lugging around a huge book everywhere, you’ll show up as a weak link. The mage has done 80% of the work, and now you dropped the ball on the last 20%. Good job mister “I put all my skills into craft scrimshaw and diplomacy.” (That’s right, I’m looking at you AHT.)

So, how can you prevent this? How can you prevent becoming the weak link?  Other than the obvious tactic of making a really optimized character, there’s not that much you can do, and even if you made a powerhouse of a fighter, if the mage knows what he’s doing, you’re still on second fiddle.  And most people don’t have as much fun playing an outclassed character.

And here is where I’ll tell you the remedy to feeling inferior to a guy in a glorified dress.  Make the fun where you can and a lot of this involves role playing, you know, what D&D is all about.  Combat might be harder to get any fun out of with the mage melting people’s faces, but with Improved initiative, you’ll have a higher chance of going before the mage.  So before the mage traps all the enemies in a prison of force and then implodes them into burnt hamburger, you RUN THE HELL INTO THEM. You get your burly, sweaty, metal encrusted, fighter ass into the thick of things. Yeah, it’s a stupid move, usually, but remember, D&D is about having fun.  If you’re not having fun in combat because the mage does everything for you, then what’s the point of even being there for the combats? I propose that to have fun, you just gotta make the mage’s job harder.   He can’t just nuke everything lest he PK’s you, and most PC’s don’t want to do that (there are exceptions, who will actively try to kill you.).  Make it so the mage can’t just power-trip his way through everything.  Make him swear at you and call you an idiot.  If the only place where you can shine is out of combat, then bring that into the combat.  Call out, “THAT ONE’S MINE! Hand’s off him Magey McRobepants.”  Before the mage can buff himself with all his armor spells, protection spells, what-have-you, kick that door down.  Make him panic that the meaty shield in front of him just decided to ignore every enemy save the one in the back.  Usually by this point the GM secretly has it out for the mage and won’t mind that all his ground-pounder minions have free lane of access to the mage.  The mage is now too busy defending himself to kill everyone easily, and you have singlehandedly shaped the combat, Leeroy Jenkins style.

It is so easy for the party to get caught up in the pace of the mage.  “Oh, are his spells out depleted for the day? Time to rest.” What you gotta say is, “By rest you mean *Crash* I kick down this door right? Oh well, too late, roll initiative!”  Now, doing this is obviously not efficient at all.  You are purposely making it harder for everyone, but know what?  The other non-casters of the party are probably feeling the same thing as you.  At first, they’ll get pissed that they’re in intense combats, then they’ll remember the joy of a good challenge. The mage, who is used to getting his rest after ever other combat will suddenly find himself down to 1st lv spells, or even just cantrips.  He’ll sit through a fight or two, just shooting with his non-magic crossbow, or sling, or rays of frost, feeling really gimped.  Soon, he’ll learn to conserve his spells, cast them wisely, in preparation for the fact that he’s not going to be able to rest them back any time soon. Now suddenly, the mage isn’t blowing his load all over the place, everyone now needs to contribute to the fight as the mage is playing it cautiously.

Of course, doing all this is probably going to get your character smashed in the face quite a few times. It’s going to hurt, and if the mage is out of spells, don’t you think the healer is going to be out as well?  And here is where I say, if the game is high enough lv that the mage can easily kill everything, 750gp should be pocket change for you.  750gp is the cost of a fully charged wand of cure light wounds.  This is the most money-to-HP efficient healing item in the game. Just carry a few of these, and after combat, when the mage wants to rest, toss one to the healer, tell him to go nuts with it, and then say “But, we’re all full HP, let’s keep going.” I say you should have a friggin’ quiver of those things. I’ve been in games where I was practically grinding them up and snorting them off the halfing’s ass (the halfling was the cleric).

Ultimately though, it’s up to the GM to help balance the encounters.  If the mage can dish out lots of AOE damage, the GM shouldn’t throw 30 first lv warriors at you and expect everyone to have fun.

Opinicus signing off.

Posted by: allhailthoon | April 28, 2010

Creature Feature: Lycanthropes

If a DM is going to run a game that involves lycanthropes, they really need to think about how they want to portray them. Under what conditions are the transformations going to take place? Will it be a night time thing, a full moon thing, a frenzy thing, or a purely optional whenever thing? Will the player temporarily lose control of the transformed character? Will the character retain any of their human personality?

They should also put thought into the place of lycanthropes in the world. If other shape shifters exist, how are they going to draw a clear line between them? Are they going to treat lycanthropy as a disease with a contagion vector or as a unique curse? How common are lycanthropes going to be? Will they occur frequently enough that there will be bands of specialized adventurers with silvered weapons and nightshade that exist to hunt them down? Or will there only be one or two creatures haunting lonely moors and desolate mountain villages? Should the PCs know immediately what they are facing and what weapons they will need to use, or will they need to seek out scraps of dark lore and the wisdom of old wives in order to solve the puzzle?

Werewolf: When it comes to legendary shape-changing monsters, werewolves are really the gold standard.  They work well as either unique monsters like the Wolfman or as a sort of pseudo-race with small cults, raiding parties, or packs. But a DM should probably choose one or the other.

If a DM wants to use them both ways, they should probably intertwine them in some way and definitely start with the individual one in order to maintain the mystique.

Start out with the creepy howling beast on the moors, then after the PCs take him out, they can find out that he was a victim of the werewolf cult that dwells in the black peaked mountain. (If you want to be a real jerk, have the PCs find out about how he was really a great guy, just driven mad by the torture and dark rituals he was put through.)

Wererat: For an urban adventure, wererats are where it’s at. Personally, I like the idea of them as Oliver Twist style gangs of teenage thugs that turn into serious killers under the full moon.

What I really don’t get though is why they’re supposed to be lawful evil, especially if werewolves are chaotic evil. What about rats is lawful? They’re cannibalistic, sewer-dwelling vermin. That sounds like chaos to me. Especially when you compare them to wolves, an animal that lives in a pack with a fairly defined hierarchy and relatively organized system of behavior.

Werebear: I know I’m beating a dead horse with this alignment thing, but lawful good? Seriously? What does a lawful good lycanthrope even do?

I can see it now: The peasants in the previously mentioned desolate mountain village are huddled in their homes in fear. Suddenly they begin to hear strange sounds just outside the door. They cower together in the darkness, hoping to live until dawn. The noises eventually pass and when they wake up in the morning, their front porch has been mended.

Wereboar: There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a boar shapeshifter, but I don’t feel like they work as lycanthropes. The trouble is that boars, while dangerous, aren’t really predators. While the same can be said for rats, rats occupy the same spaces as humans, spread disease, foul their food, and generally serve to make life unpleasant. It’s easy to imagine a rat actively wanting to hurt you.

Boars are foragers and they generally don’t cause a problem unless you go into their space. Sure, they are dangerous, but only if you trespass on their territory, attack them, or try to harm their young. Humans hunt boars, boars don’t hunt us.

Weretiger: I picture the weretiger as an exalted creature. It’s easy to imagine one ruling as a god or emperor from some exotic eastern palace or temple draped in bright silks. He’ll laze about on a grand divan dispensing laws and words of wisdom, then during his transformation, his followers bring him maidens anointed with frankincense and white bulls with flowers wreathed through their horns.

Seawolf: Why would anyone not want to be able to turn into a wolf-seal?

Posted by: akalsaris | April 28, 2010

D&D for Kids!

I saw this first over at Geek Related, but Wizards of the Coast has just released Heroes of Hesiod, a rules-lite module designed for parents or teachers to teach kids (6 and up) about D&D.   It’s part of a tie-in for a novel series for young adults that Wizards is kicking off. Plus it’s free!

http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4dnd/monsterslayers

I got started with role-playing when I was 7.  I was reading pick-your-path adventure books and I told my friends Stevie and Alix that we’d play a Star Trek game: I’d be the book and give them two choices, then I’d tell them what happened next.  Clearly I was a nerd starting from a very young age.  But a rules-lite D&D game like the one above would have been a huge hit with my friends back then.

I like the simplified rules used – it’s basically two dice, a d20 and a d6, or 3d6 if you can’t get a d20.  As a D&D player, I love that the rogue has sneak attack – it’s important to start stabbing things in the back as soon as possible.  It establishes the tropes pretty well: human fighter, dual-wielding rogue, dwarf barbarian, androgynous elven wizard named Betilivatis.

On the downside, the story isn’t very exciting.  There are no real choices or interaction for the PCs, just the DM-NPC saying “Ooh, a baby red dragon!  Kill it!”  And there’s no death, which relates to the previous discussion.  I feel like there should be a few choices, like the pixie swarm might offer to help the PCs instead, or the monsters being in different rooms that the PCs have to choose to enter (a dungeon).   And I wish there was some varied loot at the end besides a bunch of Monster Hunter badges – like a shiny new sword for Jorick or something, so that the players can learn the fun of divying up loot.  Getting loot is one of the best parts of D&D in my opinion 😛

Here’s another link, this from the blog Musings of a Chatty DM, about playing D&D with his 7-year old 2 kids.  I love that the PCs see a ferocious badger and immediately start chanting “Badger badger badger snaaake!”

http://critical-hits.com/2010/04/02/nico-and-rorys-quest-meeting-the-ice-titan/

For another look at teaching role-playing to a complete newbie to RPGs, I highly recommend this thread.  It’s about a 1-on-1 game the DM is playing with his girlfriend.   Absolutely full of terrific advice for DMs about building the world around your PCs and their actions and desires rather than your 10-page storyline.

http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19905354/Lessons_from_DMing_with_my_GF

To be completely honest, the more time I’ve spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, the less I find myself liking the portrayal of Hell (Nine Hells, the Abyss, whatever). Somewhere along the way, in their effort to create balance and symmetry between law, chaos, good, and evil, Hell lost its magic.

Maybe it’s just a religious education talking, but isn’t it supposed to be all about eternal punishment for sinners? Sure you get the occasional mention of larval souls as currency, but other than that, Book of Vile Darkness and the Fiendish Codices read more like a celebrity tour of an evil Hollywood rather than someplace where you should worry about being trapped for all eternity. I understand that one of the points of the game is that eventually you should at least be able to entertain the idea of killing absolutely everything in existence, but sometimes that really takes the poetry out of a concept.

Moreover, it really takes some of the air out of the whole idea of actions having consequences. If you get to a high enough level, who is going to stop you from doing whatever you want? Sure, there are gods, but even they can be defeated in theory (and have been in the past).

The most satisfying rendition of an afterlife I’ve ever personally had the pleasure of playing through in a game was in a short lived level 15 campaign run by my bro for life Opinicus. The world itself was a fairly simple homebrew but then handling was so elegantly classical that the game and the journey of the living characters into the underworld felt legitimately epic. And I don’t mean epic in the D&D killing-gods-and-laser-shooting-dragons way, I mean in the Homeric way.

In his rendition of the underworld, there was no clear heaven or hell. The dead were locked in endless monotony, playing through scenes that constantly parodied their lives. Like in the Odyssey, when Odysseus journeys into Hades to speak to the seer, even the most honored dead seemed as though they would rather be living.

On the other hand, the lower planes as published in the D&D rule books don’t have any sense of death or finality. The natives have their own things to do, lives to live, and wars to wage.  Dealing with the dead is just a single facet.  Souls in D&D hell are like corn in America. It’s an important industry and without it, the country would take a crippling hit, but it’s not the only thing going on and it’s not the first thing on everyone’s minds.

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