Monday, September 1, 2014

Tales from an Israeli Storyteller

So my first crowd-funded book is finally commercially available for your pleasure and entertainment. I am super excited (and a little terrified) about this. While I was published many times in the past by Paizo, Wizards, Mongoose, Frog God and others, Tales from an Israeli Storyteller is my first self-published work. This is the first time that I get to play with themes and ideas that are wholly my own. This is the first time I get to choose my editor. This is the first time I get to tell great artists like Hugo Solis and Stav Levi what I want...ish.


Right now the book is only available electronically. I am waiting for a proof copy from amazon. If it's shiny and pretty, the softcover edition will become available on October 1.

If you've already read the book, please consider leaving a review. If you have a blog and would like to get a copy for review purposes, please contact me.

Uri out.

Crawls back to the sewers to complete RATS!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mini-Adventure -- In Medias Res

I ran a rather unusual adventure last night and thought I’d share it with the good people of the internet. The adventure is presented in a very bare form so that you could suit it to whatever genre/ system you’re using. Also, I’m lazy.

If you run this one, please let me know how it went :)

This adventure starts in medias res with no player knowledge whatsoever. The players get blank sheets for characters and the first words they hear are purely mechanical actions such as “make a reflex saving throw” or “roll an attack” without any descriptions attached to them. On the first round, the players do not choose their actions. Instead, each character completes an action that might be an attack against another character, a healing spell, a hide check and so forth.

Only after each character has completed its action, do the players take over. Even at this point, do not volunteer any information about the characters or their surroundings. The players have to ask everything explicitly, including how they look like, where they are and what items do they have.

At the end of each turn, each player rolls a 1d10. On a roll of 10, he receives his character slip (see below). On a second roll of 10, he regains full access to his memories, which may result in him also getting additional powers (f.e, a wizard now knows all his spells).

The PCs are on the bridge of a fantasy space ship damaged by fighting. I used these deck plans from Spelljammer. However, you can find many other deck plans in Traveller books, Wizards map gallery or the original Spelljammer.

What’s really going on?
Vampires have taken over a human colony and reduced the colonists to helpless blood sources. A group of heroes led by a wizard (Captain Dreber) raided the planet on an unmarked spaceship and snatched one of the “human groves;” a giant machine made of dozens of “human trees” designed to keep hundreds of humans alive but comatose. Dreber’s orders are to take the prisoners back to a nearby human planet outside of vampire space for rehabilitation. Presently, the grove is stored in the cargo bay.

A vampire regent (Lord Herzog) found out about the theft and decided to raid the ship with his private crew, his plan being to keep the prize for himself while blaming the theft on the humans. Captain Dreber, however, also had treason on his mind. He wanted to erase everybody's memory so he could then tell the crew and the prisoners that they are colonists under his command and to establish a new civilization on a hostile planet he’d discovered and where he’d be as god.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, the ship was attacked just as Captain Dreber was completing his memory wiping spell. His anti-magic space suit was damaged, causing him to forget everything as well. The spell was extremely potent – not only did it erase the last three days from all human minds; it also affected the undead attackers, the ship’s artificial intelligence and even private journals.

Who’s Who?
Vampires are completely naked except for exotic jewelry and fearsome tribal tattoos all over their pale flesh. Their leader looks the same except that his jewels are more expensive and his tattoos are gothic rather than tribal. Many of Jewels are magical items.

Crew members are in various states of battle dress, since they were attacked suddenly. All have HAU badges on their chest. Generally, they appear as classic fantasy warriors with good magical equipment and various degrees of injury.

The captain is in full battle readiness since he was almost ready to complete his scheme when the vampires attack. There’s a large hole in his space suit, just above his heart. He is unharmed however, and has several protective spells affecting him.

Characters are assigned to players randomly. I used a deck of playing cards for this, but rolling dice or handing slips would also work. Feel free to make some characters NPCs to give you another tool to control the plot.

King of Spades
You are Lord Herzog, a vampire regent from a great clan, old in honor. With your vampire spawns, you raided this human ship in the hopes of stealing back the human chattel these insolent thieves stole from a rival clan and secretly using them to empower your clan.

10 of Spades
You are the spawn of the vampire lord Herzog. Yours is not to wonder why. Yours is to do or die.

9 of Spades
You are the spawn of the vampire lord Herzog. Yours is not to wonder why. Yours is to do or die.

10 of Clubs
You are the spawn of the vampire lord Herzog. Yours is not to wonder why. Yours is to do or die.

Jack of Hearts
You are Captain Dreber. You are a wizard who commands a vessel sent from your home planet to rescue colonists from a planet overtaken by vampires. However, you have no intention of taking them back home. Instead, you want to wipe out their memory and take them to a new planet where you will rule them as God.

4 of Hearts
You are a fighter of HAU (Humans Against Undead) organization, a secret society dedicated to rescuing humans from the vampire clans and rehabilitating them on mortal planets.

7 of Diamonds
You are a fighter of the secret HAU (Humans Against Undead) organization, a secret society dedicated to rescuing humans from the vampire clans and rehabilitating them on mortal planets.

10 of Diamonds
You are a fighter of the secret HAU (Humans Against Undead) organization, a secret society dedicated to rescuing humans from the vampire clans and rehabilitating them on mortal planets.

You can also include colonists, although these are less fun to play because they lack any cool combat abilities:

Any 2/ Any 2
You are a common human colonist. You world was overtaken by vampires. You were stripped of your humanity and dignity and turned into little more than a blood storage unit in a vast blood farm.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mini Adventure -- Moon Hunter

I ran this sci-fi investigation scenario twice in the past year. Once with grown-ups and once with teens. The latter solved it in about three hours. The former are still in the dark. Alas, good role-playing often stands in the way of good police work.

PC Info

Earth 2084 is a feudal, space-faring society that has constructed scientific and mining colonies on numerous planets in the solar system, including on Saturn’s moon, Ganymede. Our story takes place on Lunar Mining Colony 5296c, a joint venture by Baron Freidrich von Siemens and industrialist Zheng Xiu Wong. Last week, the Baron received the below message from his vassal on the mining colony, knight-engineer Jonathan Ronalds:

your grace several dead chinese dont care send help jr

As you are the Baron’s nearest retainers, presently wrapping up a mission on Saturn, you’re sent to investigate the old knight’s cryptic message.

DM Info

Lunar Mining Colony 5296c is home to about 300 people including workers, administration, server providers and licensed merchants. It transports ores to earth using an innovative magnetic rail that functions as an orbital slingshot. The rail is powered by a unique energy source patented by Golden Tiger ltd., a company controlled by Mr. Wong. The rail works for 30 minutes every Monday.


  • Hun Wei Bin, Mr. Wong’s son-in-law, is the manager of the operation. Wong is also in charge of counter-espionage, a role he fulfills too enthusiastically.
  • Ser Manuel Gershwin and his six sworn guns are in charge of discipline and security. Manuel is chivalrous, gallant, ultra-conservative and dumb as a rock.
  • Doctor Nori Hakamada doubles as chief physician and science officer, a position maintained as a rubber stamp against EK (European Kingdom) regulations. She intelligent, aloof and
  • Workers mostly include low-risk prisoners from Earth, serfs of von Siemens and a small number of German and Chinese specialists.


  • Jenny (last name unknown), drifter (month ago)
  • Michael Philips, quality assurance (two weeks ago)
  • Ahmad Toshiba, cargo operator (week ago)
  • No one died three weeks ago due to slingshot malfunction that took a week to fix.

The Problem

Every time the mysterious energy source is tapped, it summons an alien hunter (I used gibbering mouther) somewhere within 100 meters of the rail. The thing kills humans and removes their tongues and eyes for some perverse inexplicable reason. All victims are partially sunken in hard rock and present signs of irrational behavior prior to death such as punching random objects, undressing or writing nonsense on the floor. While their eyes and tongues have been roughly removed, the cause of death is electrocution.
Both Hun and Nori suspect there’s something alien at work. Both agreed last week to keep their mouths shut and sabotage future investigations. Hun wants to impress his father-in-law to get a better job, and a string of murders is hardly a point in his favor. Nori has great scientific curiosity and little regard to the lives of criminals and drifters. 
 Manuel blames Muslim terrorists because so far no evidence has been uncovered to suggest anything else.


  • Videos from the attacks are missing and records of operations have been deleted as well. Only Hun, Nori and Manuel have access to videos.
  • Nori is researching a “new micro-organism” which is really a trace amount of the gibbering mouther.
  • Cargo operators all agree that odd gibbering sounds are heard when the railing is on, however, Hun suggested this is the result of drugs and threatened to fire them if they mentioned this again.
  • If pressed, Hun will confess that the energy source is a previously unknown element uncovered by his father-in-law on the fringes of the solar system.


  • During the investigation, Hun will send some of his goons to fake an alien attack when the rail is off. While the eyes and tongue will be removed, the cause of death would be a blunt instrument blow to the back of the head.
  • If the ploy doesn’t work, Nori will try to poison the PCs by offering the cook narcotics in return for spiking the PCs’ food. The cook will then die of an "accidental" overdose.
  • If is doesn’t work as well, Hun will invite PCs to a meeting on the surface of the moon, where several of his trusted goons will attack them.


  • If faced with arrest, Hun will surrender and hope his connections will save him.
  • If faced with arrest, Nori will kill herself, leaving behind a haiku:
Research of cosmos
Demanded great sacrifice
I depart wiser

Thursday, May 8, 2014

90 minute challenge strikes back!

Since my main projects are a bit stuck at the moment, I thought I'd use the break to share a few short adventures with you. Most of these are former 90 minute challenges (pro tip: it's never 90 minutes...) while others are single session stories (pro tip: it's never a single session). Some of these I already ran. Others never left the drawing table.
I'll be presenting these adventures in very general lines and without concrete mechanics. Hopefully, due to these little games' small scope, you won't have troubles completing them on your own. Anyhow, here's what to expect in the following months:
  • A near future investigation of a series of ghastly death on Titan.
  • A Gothic tale about a mysterious malaise afflicting three young ladies.
  • A biblical quest in the service of the Bible's coolest lady -- the Judge Deborah.
  • An encounter with a powerful guard golem following poorly worded orders.
  • A romantic adventure involving jinns and magic in a vast Arab bazaar.
  • A bloody escape from a hospital ran by a sect of murdering psychopaths.
  • A problem book causing all sorts of supernatural problems to an isolated desert tribe.
Now, for most 90 minute challenges, I use a very basic mechanic that works as follows: write down four things you're good at (your traits). These are both your abilities and your hit points. Tests are d6-based with difficulties ranging from 4 to 6. If the test is relevant to any of your abilities, you may re-roll once per encounter. Each time you fail in a high stake test, you lose one trait of your choice. This is the entire system. There isn't much you can do with it, but then again, given a 90 minute time frame, you don't want to be wasting any more time on character generation and rules exposition than you have to.

Werebook by the magnificent Hugo Solis!
While I drum up the first of these adventures, feel free to depress your players with last year's A Tree in the Forest. As always, if you think this has a happy ending, well, you probably just don't know me very well.
Also, if you didn't yet give it a look. We published a beta adventure for our RATS! game. It's got gorgeous art from Stav & Yan, awesome maps from Aviv and a whole lot of ratty goodness. Theoretically speaking, it could have a happy ending, but I wouldn't be counting on it...

That's it for now.

Stay awesome, my friends.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Studies in Underage Vampirism #3

A group of kids wakes up in a bloody cellar. They don't remember anything from the last 24 hours. They don't know it yet, but their young lives are already over. They are vampires.

Two years ago, I wrote about a vampire game I ran with kids who proved to be mature and intelligent enough to deal with the harsh theme. Alas, the challenges of life prevented me from finishing the tale. I say alas, because this means that you’ll never find out how it ended. That being said, you know what they say about happy endings and paying attention, so there’s that. Oh, and the Giovanni were involved, so there’s that too.

However, I will tell you what happened with my short vampire game this year. It’s quite the opposite of last year’s game and in my opinion and much better example of roleplaying.

It started just like the previous game, with the exception of having less violence and more digging. Thus, to save time, I’ll skip to the point where the PCs won the right to exist and received their first real mission – to find and destroy a vampire hunter active in a nearby city.

First of all, the starved kids had to feed. Most kids found victims easily enough; some with glee that had cost them Humanity points, others with a heavy heart and with some degree of compassion. It can be taken as a supreme testimony of their high-mindedness that they chose to spend XP to return their Humanity to high levels instead of gaining cool new powers. This is in sharp contrast to last year’s group, which chose to accept its damnation with murderous joy that led to a self-destructive orgy of death and destruction. And Giovanni. Lots and lots of Giovanni.

Art by Carlos
One of the kids came upon two young siblings sitting on a bench and going over board games and D&D books they got for their birthday. At this point, something broke and he decided that he didn’t want to be a vampire anymore. To this end, he separated from the main group and, using a combination of tear-jacking theatrics and the Presence discipline, got the aptly named Fosters family to adopt him. Once he got a room in their basement, he went out of his way to be a good boy, have the kids’ mother call him “son,” and spare the family his monstrous nature. He even went so far as to design a secret exist so that his new family wouldn’t know that he went out seeking human blood at nights.

At the other end of the spectrum was a boy who, while not succumbing to the Beast, nevertheless came to terms with it. He dug himself a little warren in an abandoned park and bit people freely (though still taking care not to kill anyone) before fleeing with Celerity. It was this kid who became the leader of the group, while the Foster orphan took the role of the wise loner to whom the group occasionally came for advice.

Preying and constructing shelters has taken an entire session because I insisted on roleplaying each feeding encounter. I am sick and tired of vampires being superheroes in gothic colors and I’ll be damned if I contribute to this trend. In my game, the Embrace is a curse and I made sure the kids experienced every iota of their damnation.

After feeding and finding safe havens for the night, the group finally went on a mission to hunt the Hunter. After long time spent wandering the streets and eavesdropping on police stations, insane asylums and a nearby army base, the group decided to use Animalism to get as many urban animals as possible to report on any unusual human behavior. After a while, a rat returned with news. A dirty, disheveled homeless man was seen carrying a shiny sword that shone like the sun.

At the same time, the Foster orphan decided to invest all XP he got into Science in order to find a cure for cancer. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but one has to appreciate the intention. Breaking into labs at night to conduct his research, he also started looking for a cure for the vampiric condition. And, if you think THIS has a happy ending, you REALLY haven’t been paying attention.

Art by Pierre-Etienne Travers

The rest of the group banded together to deal with the hunter and win their rightful place in Camarilla society. While en route to the spot where the Hunter was last seen, one of the kids had a pang of conscious and decided that he wanted to make it up to one of his previous victims – a young pregnant woman whom he attacked the night before, causing minor injuries. He knocked on her door, offering his services as a guardian or healer. His offers of help were met with shouts of “Help! Help! This is the crazy kid that attacked me last night! Somebody call the police!”

He ran away… right into the blade of the Hunter. The old adage proved to be true once again – No good deed goes unpunished.

A bloody battle ensued in which the group won, though not without losing much blood and resources. Even a crazy, hungry Hunter is still a threat to be reckoned with.

I am sorry to say, that while it was my intention to finish the story arc with this climatic encounter, the group insisted on pursuing their quests further. The Foster orphan tragically misunderstood Golconda as a geographical location in India and decided he wants to get his new family fly him there. The rest of the group wanted to investigate further into Hunter activity and find out where these strange men get their powers from.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Girls at the Table

Back in the day, the below article caused an immense scandal that got my previous articles removed from the Wizards website and led to me being called some very unflattering, but decidedly creative, names on various forums and blogs. I now understand it's a very touchy subject to many gamers on the other side of the ocean, but back then, I was ignorant of the fact that I just lit the fuse of a bomb I was sitting on.

Back then, writing this article was an innocent mistake. Today, however, it's conscious stupidity.

So why am I doing this. Well, mostly because a friend asked me to. However, I could easily say no. This friend lives far away and was unlikely to come all the way here and kick my ass. Why then?

You know what, let's expand this to a more general question. Why do I seem like a decent fellow most of the time, and yet from time to time make posts that get everyone riled up.

Around here, we joke about everything. There are no taboos. There are no sacred cows here, because we ate them all. For example, I have a friend who is a black Ukranian. I mean, the guy talks like a Ukranian, drinks like a Ukranian, fights like a Ukranian, but he's got black skin because his mom's family is originally from Sierra Leone. So one day, we were practicing for a LARP event and some dude passed by and asked if he could join us. The dude had fun and then he asked, “what do you get if you join the Community?” Someone pointed at my friend and said, "why, a complimentary slave!" Everyone had a jolly good laugh.

Israeli girls (at least the ones I know) tell jokes like, "it's not rape if you yell surprise!" or "what do you mean 'thank you?!' undress" all the time. They frown on vulnerable femininity and this is one of the ways they show it. Maybe. I don't know. I'm not a sociologist. Maybe military service does that to people, maybe we're callous because we're living in a bubble. I'm not sure. My point is that among friends, such jokes are perfectly fine. No one gets mad, nothing is triggered, no harm is done. We're all about shocking the bourgeois with our crassness. We’re badass. We make respectable people blush and frown. We real cool we. That’s how we roll in the shire.
Just like that....
So, not knowing any better, I used to write online just like I would talk while goofing around with my buddies. I never imagined anyone would take these things seriously. I mean, who, in his right mind, would even consider blaming a woman for being beaten, this is just absurd. No one would think we were really selling the best swordsman in our company. You can't own a person in this day and age, right? Clearly, it's a fine piece of black humor. Literally black humor.

Now I know. Now I pick my words more carefully. But online, the past doesn't fade into oblivion. It's always there, and you have to come to terms with it to move on. I did post this article and it's there. Might as well keep it in plain sight.

Many of my personal views differ form the overseas community's, if only because I'm a Soviet-born Israeli who grew in the shadow of Communist terror, never-ending wars and the evils of fanaticism, religious and otherwise. It really takes a lot to shock me or my fellow dice rollers. I know my work in the army led to people getting killed, several of my players actually killed people, or had friends killed in war or terror. But this is all in the game. Play or get played. You feeling me?

I am very opinionated, but I rarely voice my political views online these days. Social networking is for fun and gaming, and I want to leave it like that. I mostly just goof around, because in my “me” time, I really don't want to deal with all the crap of my world. And yeah, I can joke about it. Why not? Joking is coping, isn't it?

The ironic part is that at the time the shit hit the fan with the Wizards scandal two years ago, my flag group had three girls and one guy. I went to a demonstration against female segregation by the Haredim. I went to an Arab village to try to get folks there interested in gaming (funny story that...). I'm really quite liberal on most issues. I just suck at slacktivism and consider that entertainment and politics have nothing to do with each other. I talk and laugh about what's fun and do what's right.

So, back to the original question. Why am I posting this? Because fuck you, that's why!

(Did you expect anything else)

So, without further ado, my last disastrous expedition into Wizardstan...

Once upon a time...

Girls at the Table!

The first and most apparent difference between male and female players is what they enjoy in the game. From what I observed, boys or girls enjoy more or less the same things in D&D, but for different reasons; boys usually prefer “crunch” (often literally) while girls usually prefer “fluff” (also often literally.)


Male players seem to have two main motivations; winning and goofing around. These two are practically contradictory and often lead to friction and conflict.

D&D is Sport

Best Example: Oi! Stop talking about football, we have a dragon to kill! Buy provisions and LET’S DO IT!
Worst Example: Our mission is to kill the dragon? Okay, I kill the dragon. What do I get?

Those who live by this code feel that D&D, unlike what the rules say, has winners and losers; the one with the most XP a the winner. The one who successfully completed the most quests is a winner. The one who has the most money and the best items is a winner.
The one wastes times doing things that don’t grant XP or treasure is a loser.
An interesting side effect of viewing D&D as sport is how alignments are perceived; most players, upon meeting a new NPC, ask whether he’s good or evil. The more competitive players, on the other hand, ask whether the NPC is with them or against them – abstract concepts of good and evil are of little interest to a soldier on a mission. Who’s a foe and who’s an ally, however, is of top importance.
While turning D&D into a contest makes DMing easier and the general atmosphere at the table more serious and businesslike, it also makes DMing less interesting; instead of telling an interactive story with your group, you take on the role of a military commander who sends the PCs to missions which they either accomplish or die trying. Their odds of surprising you are very small, unless you actively put them in situations in which they have to make decisions based on morality and not gain. Even then, however, they are likely to simply ask you what would you prefer they did... sporty players are nothing if not helpful.

D&D is Playground

Best Example: I wonder who lives inside this city with walls of night and towers of unfulfilled dreams... let’s go there and find out!
Worst Example: Wow! A new sword? Awesome! I stab Ron in the head to see what it does.

Should you ever spot me fervently banging my head against the whiteboard, you’ll know someone just kicked the anthill that is my adventure too hard. This sort of players views D&D as a playground where they are the heroes and everyone else are ants or toys, to be played with or destroyed, according to the player’s disposition.
In the best case, such players use the game as a journey into their own subconscious, a therapy of sorts. This is fascinating to observe and makes for excellent sandbox games. Some of their actions might be irresponsible and throw the campaign into disarray, forcing you to improvise and make adjustments to your plans, but at least you know you’re building a good thing there. At worst, they use it to break stuff (and your spirit) to either compensate for powerlessness in real life or for sheer sadistic glee.

Good cop, bad cop?

Repercussions of Violence

What happens when you shoot everything that moves in real life or a CRPG? You die. No matter how tough you are, the cops, the National Guard, the USAF, The Justice League of America... someone will eventually stop your rampage. The problem with young players is that killing their characters can be traumatic and cause them to leave gaming for good. Nevertheless, you don’t want to encourage this sort of gaming, so here are a few tricks that can be used to counter it without resorting to PC-killing.
Imprisonment: the players attacked a night watch patrol and got TPK’d? No problem. They wake up bound and disarmed (erase all equipment from their character sheets). The enormity of their actions is made clear to them by an authoritative and stern judge. Although he could easily have them executed, the judge says, he nevertheless believes there is goodness in the PCs and sentences them to a long prison term instead. Some XP is lost because the PCs don’t get to practice in prison, contacts and patrons disavow them and the players walk away with a valuable lesson – you’re part of the world, not its center.
Conversely, you can give them a chance to break away and learn what it feels like to live on the lam; no more shopping in the market and no more quests from the King – you’re outlaws now and every visit to a town or a castle can be your last.
If the players messed with criminal elements instead of the authorities, you can have them shipped to a faraway slave camp from which they have to escape or die of overwork or starvation – this is more exciting for the players and more torturous for their characters.
Atonement: If you feel that prison is a little too harsh for your group, you can replace it with a fun adventure they have to complete to make up for their crimes. Feel free to use magic to compel the PCs to complete this quest... and then donate all recovered treasure to charity.
Manhunt: Having a powerful enemy is less fun than it sounds. A short while after the PCs kill an NPC for no good reason, they discover that he had some absurdly powerful friends, friends that the PCs have no chance of defeating. Soon they encounter those people and barely escape with their lives. Now the campaign has a new focus – somehow calling off the hit, possibly by making amends and changing their evil ways.
Common Sense: Ask the attacking player why he does what he does. If he says “because” or “I feel like it” tell him there is no such thing as “because” in your group.
You don’t allow players to play evil characters and so every act of violence must be explained in-play. If they fail to provide an adequate explanation, don’t allow the action. After all, you don’t stab the teachers in the hallway for fun, why would your Lawful Good Paladin do it? Feel free to confront them with the harsh realities of violence.
Yes, you will be seen patronizing, preachy and a right proper killjoy, but maybe, if you roll your Diplomacy high enough, you’ll get your message across.

In any case, it’s a good idea to take the time to instruct players about what role playing is and how it’s different from FPS in advance; we’re telling a story, not pointlessly roll dice.

Israel is, of course, full of Jewish mothers...


Girls mostly play to express themselves in artistic ways and to see others doing it. They are not nearly as confrontational as boys and give their positions much more easily. Those who are confrontational tend to be extreme individualists always voicing a dissenting opinion. More often than not, they are a voice of reason in a cacophony of silliness.

D&D is Drama

Best Example: I’m so sorry we weren’t here to protect your home, honored treant, join us and we’ll be your new family.
Worst Example: Wait! You didn’t let me finish describing how my character is dressed this morning.

A nine year old girl who came to see what D&D is all about asked me if her character can be a vegetarian, to which I replied “of course” and rewarded her 200 XP because she was the only one who bothered with non-combat aspects of her character. As I reviewed the character sheets that evening, I noticed she wrote in the character class “vegetarian ranger.” Practically every decision she made during this campaign was affected by her character’s vegetarianism and love of nature. This included not only her selection of friends and enemies, but also character appearance, choice of items and making a point of petting an animal or planting a tree at least once per session.
Dramatic players care about how their characters look like and how they are perceived by seemingly inconsequential NPCs. In a way, they are much more immersed in the game than the sportsmen, who view it as, well... a game, or the hooligans, who view it as GTA: Nentir Vale.
Crunch is of secondary importance to them; if you want to capture a dramatic player’s heart, it’s much more important to act the witch as stooped and cackling, to describe the dragon’s magnificence with epic prose and grandiose tones. A dramatic player cares less about the powers and bonuses granted by the treasure and more about its luster and beauty.
The negative aspect of the dramatic player is her exaggerated attention to detail which sometimes borders on narcissism and is likely to bore other players, who view a five-minute long description of how the group’s wizard is dressed or an equally long chat with a random eladrin traveler as a waste of time. Worse, if you go along with it, some players will feel the dramatic player is enjoying a special treatment as she’s getting much more air time than anyone else. This sort of narcissism is more often seen in male players than female players, which is not surprising, given that the original Narcissus was a guy.

D&D is Spectacle

Best Example: Could you please describe how the eladrin priestess looks like again? I want my drawing to be accurate.
Worst Example: ...

Another thing which girls sometimes do and which some boys find annoying is taking the role of the observer. Boys also sometimes behave like this, but it’s mostly because they are busy making detailed travel journals or comics of the game, not because they don’t feel like acting. A girl, on the other hand, would often sit back during the game and just observe the occurrences without taking any actions except during combat or when directly addressed by an NPC. She’s not being distracted; she’s perfectly focused on the game, probably more than this very active fellow who just cast flames of phlegethos on the troll who was killed five rounds ago because he didn’t hear you saying the troll is toast. She doesn’t feel the need to intervene in the story just yet.
My advice is: don’t force observers to act. There’s nothing wrong with observing; being quiet is certainly better than talking all the time. Trust me – when the time comes, she will act, sometimes surprising everyone with the decisiveness and cleverness of that one action.
Some time ago, a girl whose actions could be summed as “I follow the group” for half a session just happened to be the one to discover that the gigantic garbage pile the group was climbing could be used to empower the robotic PCs, a discovery that saved the day. She only did one thing in the entire session, but this one thing happened to be the most important thing in the whole game.

Heading towards war...

Bows and Fairies

We talked about why boys and girls play; now let’s talk a little about what they play.
My personal experience shows that girls are not less violent than boys; they are less wantonly violent. They don’t mind using force to achieve their goals or defend their honor, but they don’t like taking reckless risks solely for the sake of awesome.
I recollect a session in which a group came upon an infernal anaconda. A minotaur PC threw down his great axe, stripped to his breeches and declared that he’s going to wrestle with the anaconda one-on-one and strangle it to death with his bare hands. Why? Because this it totally badass!
This is not something I imagine a female player is likely to do. In fact, nearly all females playing for the first time, both young and old, created characters that specialized in ranged attacks, most often rangers and druids. Those who didn’t start the game as ranged strikers did so because of peer pressure from boys who really needed a leader in the group. Now, did you notice how leaders in D&D never really lead, but only serve the group? A girl forced to play a so-called “leader” is much less likely to stay in the game than a girl given a character with which she can express herself and act as an individual and not part of a well oiled monster-killing, XP-making warmachine.
Therefore, if you’re running an introductory game and want to appeal to girls, make sure to have a suitable character handy.
Girls seem to like fey and sylvan races and prefer their characters tall and slander. They like nature-based, ranged and quick classes and value Dexterity more than Strength or Constitution.
Taking all this into account, I think the character statistically most likely to be attractive to girls is an eladrin or elf ranger or seeker. The character least likely to appeal to girls would be a four-hundred-pound mentally-retarded half-orc warlord armed with a dinosaur femur and no back story whatsoever. (Side note: this is awesome, gotta play one like this next week!)
If you have a group with one girl and half a dozen boys, as if often the case, expect a fair (or not very fair...) amount of badgering and attempts to coerce the young lady into playing male style – either a team player who never asks questions or a jolly psychopath who goes around wrecking the campaign world. Some intervention is advised, at least at first. While I usually support absolute impartiality in DMs and consider railroading a crime worse than ethnic genocide or misspelling the word rogue, in this case, if you don’t intervene you’ll lose an almost certainly good player. I say, “almost certainly good,” because girls who bother coming to introductory sessions are usually independent thinkers and keen enthusiasts of the genre and often grow into very imaginative and dedicated players. Besides, we have a stereotype to kill, right?
Last but not least is a minor difference that should nevertheless be taken into account; contrary to the prevalent stereotype, girls are much less concerned with shopping for shopping’s sake than boys. An all-male group will never leave the marketplace of their own accord. They will spend the whole session buying trash they don’t need, animals that won’t help and stealing shiny nonsense that could easily get them hanged. Girls, in my experience, don’t do that. They only buy items that they actually need or that are necessary to advance in their quest. For example, a girl with a masterwork sword will buy an enchanted sword. She won’t buy seven other mundane melee weapons, a trained but sarcastic parrot and a souvenir glass bubble with miniature Waterdeep inside.
Of course, all of the above is a generalization. Last year, I had a girl who played a dragonborn barbarian and slew everything that stood in her path. However, she did have an elf ranger best friend, so there’s that. I guess my point is that anecdotal evidence can only go so far. Don’t assume that just because most girls prefer something, your players would do the same.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The Cracking of the Whip 2.0

This article was very controversial back in the day. It started a stimulating discussion on the Wizards boards, a much longer trolling match on the forum that will not be named and even got a mention in io9. Some of the criticism aimed at me was correct. For example, positive reinforcement is a more effective tool than punishment and removing XP is not effective at all. Other criticism I reject to this very day -- if you're not a trained psychologist, you shouldn't try to treat kids with mental problems, no amount of nice will cure schizophrenia.

Now, the below article has been changed to reflect the constructive feedback I received from my readers, as well as other lessons I have picked up on my own in the last two years. I'm not disowning the original article or its implied positions. Rather, I am changing my opinions upon the introduction of new facts.

So, without further ado -- the cracking of the whip!

The whip is of course metaphorical, unless held in the hands of a balor, in which case – run for your lives! But let’s get serious. Actually, seriousness is the issue. Some kids are not serious. Some kids don’t come to play, but to socialize. Some kids want to play but their heads are out there in the clouds. Some, like the Joker of Batman, are a force of chaos. As a DM, it is your duty to deal with them lest they deal with you (and your game!)

The most traditional method of punishment is reduction of XP. Personally, I'm not fond of this method for two reasons. First -- I like keeping the real world and the game world separate to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Secondly -- if someone doesn't care about the game, they won't care about the xp either. In any case, don’t remove a lot of xp at once; you want to warn the players, not to cripple their characters.

There is another technique, developed by my esteemed colleague Nitzan Rimon. It is based on rewarding bonus XP to anyone except the troublemakers. For example, if some kids are regularly late for sessions, wait until they arrive and demonstratively reward those who did come on time while stressing that those who were late get nothing. This technique is the most effective against kids whose misbehavior stems from malice or disrespect rather than absentmindedness or immaturity. It seems the former are more worried about other succeeding than about themselves failing.

My personal approach is different and has changed much since the first version of this article was published on the Wizards website nearly three years go.

During my years of work, I have encountered several types of troublemakers which I will describe, in the best D&D tradition, as class cliches. While the below archetypes are gross generalizations, they might help you identify and solve the problem in some cases. After each title you’ll notice a number of stars. This is to show how severe the issue is. One star is a minor disturbance hardly worthy of your attention. Five stars will kill the game dead.

All the below quotes are sadly true.

The Astronaut *
“I attack with elven accuracy.”
. . . right after being explained it’s not an attack (for the fifth time)
The Crime: The kid is just plain oblivious. He has no idea what’s happening in the game right now, what are his character’s capabilities or even what the most basic gaming terms mean. Like the hapless hero of Memento, his memory seems to be restarted every few minutes.

The Verdict: Just be patient and helpful. The guy is honestly trying to participate, but ideas keep buzzing between his ears. It’s not his fault, he’s not doing it to get you mad, he just can’t concentrate. Repeat yourself firmly and clearly enough times and eventually it will trickle down. Don't be afraid to suggest courses of action such as "you can shoot him, or hide behind a tree." Yes, it will make you sound like a live action Zork, but trust me, it's better than to wait for him to go over every single word on his character sheet until he accidentally says something which could constitute a legitimate action.

The Crybaby *
“But I don’t want to play a goblin!”
. . .after being given a list of twenty races, one of which is the goblin

The Crime: For the love of Pelor, how much can one complain! This kid always looks on the verge of tears or a tantrum. Any minor mishap – a botched roll, an item which differs from his dream artifact, an encounter with an NPC who is not Orcus – and tears glitter on the child’s cheeks even as his knuckles go white with fury.

The Verdict: Nothing. Yes, he’s annoying, but unless he’s interfering with the game there is really nothing you can do to appease him. Crying is a mode of extortion and as soon as you start making concessions there will be no end to it. I usually suggest the kid goes outside and washes his face, more for civility’s sake than anything else.

The Cheater *
“18! Yes!! What? Oh, these didn’t count!”
. . .after rolling a d20 for seven times

The Crime: Dice rolling is a serious business . . . too serious to be left for chance. The mild cheater keeps coming up with creative excuses why bad rolls don’t count (“the die touched the book, it’s not fair!”). The devious cheater is just plain dishonest.

The Verdict: Kids love to tell on each other, so the chances of cheating to go unnoticed are very small. The mild cheater usually won’t go out of his way to argue his case unless he is a crybaby (see above) or an antagonist (see below), in which case his cheating is the least of your troubles. The devious cheater should be fined harshly enough to teach him that crime doesn’t pay. Say, every roll you catch him fixing counts as a double 1. Ouch.

The Serial Character Changer **
“Can I play a Yuan-Ti, I want to play a Yuan-Ti, I hate my elf. I want him to die! I kill myself! Do I keep my XP and equipment.”
. . . after opening the Monster Manual on a random page

The Crime: A shrimp in an all-you-can-eat buffet has a longer life span than this kid’s PCs. The guy wants a new character every god damn session. Every time he says it’s the last time, then he gets back home, opens the PHB or Dragon magazine or watches a film, or looks out of the window, and changes his mind again.

The Verdict: First try diplomacy to convince the kid how cool his PC is. Then explain that his magic items and experience points will be lost with this transformation. Most will give up at this point. You can also tell them that they're going to waste an entire session just generating a new character, alone, while everyone else is progressing in the adventure. If even this doesn't stop them, just play along. It's a lost cause anyhow.

The Hyperactive **

“I’m Batman!”
. . . While running around, occasionally bumping into objects and people.


The Crime: Like a man possessed, the hyperactive kid is all over the place jumping, dancing, singing, talking on unrelated subjects, drawing on the table or chewing the carpet. When it’s not his turn, he insures it’s nobody’s turn.

The Verdict: It is important to distinguish between attention grabbers and genuinely hyperactive children. The attention grabber will relax if ignored for enough time and occasionally kicked out of the game for ten minutes or so. The kid who is genuinely hyperactive needs stuff to do or he goes bananas. Just give him missions (collect dropped dice, draw stuff on the board, help arrange chairs) and it should pacify him.

The Joker ****
“Want to hear me singing while balancing six dice on my nose?”
. . . in the middle of a villain’s dramatic monologue

The Crime: The same as the hyperactive kid’s, only with malice. The joker doesn’t do what he does because he’s restless, but because he wants to get cheap laughs out of the group and feel in the center of attention. Chances are, he's in your game because it's a room with people, not because he cares about the game.

The Verdict: Deprive him of this attention. Explain to the other kids that he’s ruining everybody’s game and that by playing along, they’re only encouraging him and ruining the adventure for themselves. Kick him out of the class often and allow him to return only if he returns to the class in a somber and serious manner. If this doesn’t help, apply Batman’s method of dealing with Jokers.

The Chaotic-Stupid ****
“So… this is the great God-Emperor everyone’s talking about? I pee on his shoes and fart in his nose.”
. . . while the party is negotiating with a 30th level demigod

The Crime: Possibly the most problematic of the archetypes, the chaotic-stupid player doesn’t misbehave in the classroom. Instead, he plays in a manner which, if DMed realistically, would result in him getting killed every session, along with the entire group.

The Verdict: Divine intervention. While I'm usually mortally opposed to removing player agency, in this case, it's perfectly legitimate to demand a dramatic explanation from the player. "You're setting the queen on fire: why? Why is a proud and serious paladin willing to die in infamy for one lame joke? Give me an explanation that makes sense from the character's perspective, or do something less stupid."
Usually the player will give up at this point. A stupid joke frankly isn't worth the effort of going into character motivation and background story. However, if the player is willing to come up with a reasonable explanation, don't hesitate to kill his PC. Forget everything I said earlier about young children and character death. Obviously, it doesn't apply to this player.

The Antagonist *****

“Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!”
. . . after being told to stop tearing tiles of the wall

The Crime: Antagonist meet DM. DM meet suffering. The antagonist is your enemy, plain and simple. He came to destroy the gaming experience for everyone via whatever means possible. Mild disciplinary measures such as kicking him out of the class for a short time or taking away xp and gold are useless. Taking him outside for a talk is also unlikely to cool his battle spirit. Some kids just want to watch the world burn.

The Verdict: In rare instances, the antagonist’s energy can be redirected into wanting to be the best PC in the game. He’ll still be a douche, a colossal douche actually, but at least he’ll be the douche who shushes everyone, helps you with the chairs (in return for XP) and screams at anyone standing in his way to more XP and treasure. Don't expect him to play nice though -- after all, adventurers are called murder hobos for a reason.

Sadly, few antagonists can be saved, so for them I recommend the harshest verdict of all – banishment from the realm!

Beyond Salvation
Kicking someone out of your game for good is a radical action and should not be taken lightly. However, a quote from the Boondock Saints comes to mind when musing on this subject, namely “destroy that which is evil so that which is good may flourish.” Some kids have real issues and need help, but not at the expense of those kids who came to play and have fun. The worst offenders are often the most charismatic kids and their presence is not good for the group as they turn otherwise good kids into their evil minions.

I’m not talking here about minor disturbances. You can’t expect 9 year olds to have the Queen’s manners, besides, I’m sure even the Queen also sometimes interrupts her DM in the heat of combat. I’m talking about true troublemakers. I’m talking about the kids who harass or bully others, who disrupt the campaign, who treat the game like their sister’s Barbie doll, who ruin the mood with juvenile pranks or scream obscenities, who listen to music or play loud games on their smartphones, who spew blatant racism or hate speech that makes others uncomfortable, who consciously challenge your authority for the hell of it and go berserk when replied in kind.

These are all cases I had to deal with in the past. In some instances I won, in some instances I lost. But this is my job. You’re doing it for fun. You don’t have to take it. Perhaps through supreme effort you could make a decent player out of the bully or the rebel without a cause, but by then you would have lost your game.

Lastly, expecting a child suffering from mental illness to behave normally makes about as much sense as expecting a child with a broken foot to run. It's objectively beyond his control and no amount of yelling or sweet talking will change this. My personal policy is to refer him to a proper specialist, not to play doctor with potentially disastrous consequences.