Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Short Life of Masha the Werewolf

The only werewolf NPC I ever featured in a D&D game was named Masha. She started as the kid's enemy, but after several bloody encounters the group and she ended up joining forces to destroy her evil father, a deathless necromancer who was poisoning the land, and free her mother, a vengeful rusalka spirit, who kept the men of the village from fishing. Amusingly, it took them some time to understand that the odd girl who kept avoiding them and the dire wolf that kept attacking them immediately afterward was the same person. In time, The kids got extremely attached to Masha the Wolf. This was a shame because the necromancer's death was hidden in her life (a.k.a "the dragonheart" effect).

In the final session, she and one of the PCs, a paladin named Brian, were killed defending the village from the necromancer's horde and corrupt allies. Brian's death elected no special response except for "heh, n00b" but Masha's death squeezed a tear or two from the young defenders.

In a rare display of genuine human drama, the PCs fixed the village with money from their own pocket (so very rare for young players) and renamed the church "Brian Church" and the main square "Masha Square." They decided that their next quest should be finding the Tree of Life and bringing back their slain friends, but alas, to paraphrase Alice Cooper, school was out for the summer and, for me, it was also out forever.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Zombie Dice and Jewish Holidays

Me: In honor of Passover, we're going to fight zombie Nazis today.
Kid 1: This makes no sense.
Me: Of course it does, Passover is all about fighting zombie Nazis!*
Kid 2: Shut up. I want to kill zombies.

I have recently come into the possession of a box of zombie dice and was eager to give them a nice rotten airing. While this simple little dice game is quite fun in and of itself, I felt it also had some roleplaying potential. Today I was proved right.

I like to do unorthodox, routine-breaking, holiday-themed adventures for Passover. Today I have chosen the classic Passover subject of Nazi Zombies, mostly because I wanted to play with my zombie dice. Because it was a one time affair, I didn’t bother with a complex system or plot.

The three possible outcomes of meeting a zombie...
The kids played Jewish partisans who have received a tip about “mysterious radiation” picked up by Red Army radars. Their NKVD contact informed them that this mysterious radiation was of top interest to Soviet science and the PCs were asked to investigate and to report back ASAP. 

Every kid got five points to distribute among stuff he’s good at, each point being a single re-roll for the session. Unlike last year, this year’s choices were disgustingly practical – mostly firearms and engineering with a sprinkling of martial arts and explosives. I asked if anyone even considered taking Diplomacy, Espionage or something more subtle. One kid answered, “Can we talk the Nazis to death? If not, I really don’t see the point...”

As for weapons, each kid got the following
  • Grenade or landmine
  • Kar98k long rifle or PPSh-41 submachine gun
  • Hunting knife or byonet
  • Survival gear

The rifle could fire wasn't automatic, but was precise and reliable. The submachine gun was full auto but was inacurate and kept jamming. Two kids chose rifles and three kids chose machine guns.

Now as the above picture demonstrates, zombie dice have three possible outcomes: brain (fail), feet (meh), and blast (win). Red dice have more blasts (easy), green dice have more brains (hard) and yellow dice have equal distribution (normal). I used this quality to represent difficulty levels.

So, if you want to spray your foes with a submachine gun, you roll three dice and examine them from left to right. Because a machine gun is less precise, you roll yellow dice for nearby targets and green dice for distant targets. A jam cancels all the dice to its right and forces you to spend the next round attending to your weapon. A long rifle never jams and uses red and yellow dice instead of yellow and green, but allows only one shot per round.

The Assault
Proving again to be the most pragmatic kids to ever walk God’s green earth, the party crept to the source of the radiation, a ruined barn guarded by four German soldiers, and sent a scout to sniff around before the attack. He returned with news of a strange humming coming from inside the barn and two cars parked in front of it: a shiny black Rolls Royce and a Volkswagen truck riddled with bullet holes... and moaning.

This didn't happen... yet
The kids decided to steer clear of the truck and go straight for the barn. However, first they had to remove the guards. Their tactic was unsophisticated but sound enough. They hurled two grenades and opened automatic fire as soon as the grenades exploded. The attack was successful, but one kid was shot in the stomach and fell to the ground bleeding profusely.

Probably because of their D&D mentality, the kids didn’t feel this event deserved their attention and pressed on, forgetting about their injured comrade (“one bullet is not going to kill you, just use a healing surge next round”).

After a couple of rounds, I took the kid outside and told him that he’s died from his injuries, animated as a zombie and was now hungry for brrrrrainz. The kid kept a perfectly straight face and shambled toward the group, which meanwhile defeated the Nazi guards and approached the barn.

Enjoying his role too much, the kid dropped a grenade near the moaning truck, releasing four more zombies that suddenly attacked the group. At this point I took another kid outside and told him that everything was fine. The group still didn’t decide if they want to shoot him or not.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll tell you how it all ended in two weeks.

Meanwhile, live long and eat brains!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Three Crazy Games

While usually play D&D and VTM with kids, sometimes I like to go a little crazy. In fact, some of the most memorable and fun adventures I ever ran were wacky and absurd games that allowed young gamers to flex their imagination and experience something truly new and exciting.

Of all the slipstream game I ran with kids, these three were the most memorable. SHIPS! and RATS! were awesome too... but you already know that. In fact you may know these as well. They were posted on the WotC website in days long spent...

And yes, I do realize I have a tendency to make all my titles a plural noun followed by an exclamation mark. That’s just how I like my RPGS!

This campaign relies heavily on improvisation and may not be suitable for groups full of rules lawyers. Strange as it may sound, this game of filth and ferrum (F&F?) was especially popular among young girls. Possibly because they weren’t bothered by the freeform gaming style but enjoyed the possibility to design a unique character from an infinite selection of spare parts… even if it was all just recycled trash.

This is how it went: after some cosmic holocaust, nothing but colossal amounts of garbage remained on a planet now devoid of all life. Slowly, various broken appliances connect to form unlikely heroes made from broken toasters (to shoot heat-beams), lawn mowers (to move around and slice enemies), Ipads (to think and sense) and so forth. As the game progresses, the PCs gathered more spare parts, creating truly unique characters.

Players had the option to connect with each other to form a juggernaut, a huge creature controlled by a several players, or stay small and independent. Curiously, all the boys ended up being part of some huge lumbering monstrosity, while girls were willing to sacrifice power in return for maintaining their individual characters.

Typical adventures revolved around fighting other animated garbage over control of power plants and supplies, fending off schizoid juggernauts and technomancers commanding hordes of formatted “zombies.” The most dramatic adventure dealt with a crashed spaceship and its surviving biological crew – a treasure coveted by many. The revelation that followed, although quite clich├ęd, left quite the impact!

Some day I will turn this into a very cool card-based RPG or board game. Some day...

Art by Mateusz Ozminski

Every adventurer was a kid once. What did he do at this tender age, sat at home all day and did his homework? Hell no! He had wonderful adventures, slew monsters and divided their loot while making sure mommy and daddy didn’t know a thing!

A single-session scenario I especially like to run is a fantasy version of Home Alone, where resourceful but physically undeveloped PCs have to fend off a goblin warband that entered the house while the PCs’ parents were away adventuring. Just bring some PC strips and a map of a normal house and the rest of the adventure will take care of itself itself!

If some kids are unhappy about not playing their usual PCs this session, you can tell them that these are their PCs twenty years ago and that any reward they now gain for cleverness or courage will be transferred to their regular adult PCs next session.

Below are a few quick PC examples:

11 hp, AC 10, Fort 11, Ref 8, Will 11
STR +1 DEX -2 CON +1 INT -3 WIS +0 CHA +1
Athletics +6, Intimidate +6
Stop Hitting Yourself! (standard; encounter) an adjacent enemy makes basic melee attack against itself. If it hits, add your Charisma modifier to the damage.
Get Lost! (standard; encounter) Charisma vs. Will. an enemy within 10 or less squares moves its full speed away from you and is stunned (save ends)
Equipment: Leather jerkin, club, random object belonging to a different class

Wizard’s Apprentice
7 hp, AC 13, Fort 9, Ref 13, Will 11
STR -3 DEX -2 CON -1 INT +3 WIS +1 CHA -2
Arcane +10, History +10
I Think I Get It… (full round; daily) you receive a clue from the DM.
Fast Talker (standard; encounter) Charisma vs. Will. Your enemy is stunned for one round (save ends).
Equipment: Hefty tome, magic wand

8 hp, AC 14, Fort 9, Ref 13, Will 11
STR -2 DEX 0 CON -1 INT +3 WIS +1 CHA +1
Strange stuff +8
This Is Nothing, Now Sir Lancelot… (standard; encounter) an ally restores 1d6+4 hp and punches you in the nose.
The Great Caesar, in 55 BC… (standard; daily)  an ally receives +2 to attack rolls or +4 to damage or skill roll until the end of the encounter. He then asks you to shut up.
Equipment: Storybook, training armor, wooden sword

8 hp, AC 13, Fort 9, Ref 13, Will 11
STR -2 DEX 0 CON -1 INT +3 WIS +1 CHA +1
Stealth +5, Thievery +8
Leave me alone! (minor action; daily) you become invisible until the end of your next round.
I don’t need you! (minor action; encounter) You gain +10 to your next skill check. This check may not be assisted by other party members.
Equipment: Pocket knife, outrageous makeup

Art by  Charlene Chua
One of the most memorable games I ever ran was literally improvised on the spot. On account of a colleague vaporizing (not literally), I had to DM a game for 15 kids (a nightmare into itself) with zero preparation time and no resources except my dice and some 3e D&D books. Now if you remember, the old Monster Manual had an extensive Animals section, which gave me an idea – animals against poachers!

I gave each kid a random animal of CR 2 or 3 and set them on a quest – to defeat the poachers who killed so many of their brothers and sisters. There was even an evil twist – the obese wolf they rescued at the start of the adventure was actually helping the poachers – he led animals to the poachers’ lair to be killed and skinned and in return he got meat (the lazy bastard couldn’t be bothered to hunt by himself!) The game was an absolute blast and I’m told that kids talk about it to this day.

The cooperation in that game was also amazing. For example, the snake coiled around the boar’s head and spat at its enemies to blind them before the boar charged. Granted, this isn’t realistic animal behavior, but when was the last time you picked up an axe and went to slay a dragon?

If you’re in a hurry, you may just photocopy some of the animals from the Monster Manual. Suitable animals for this kind of game include:
  • Cacklefiend Hyena (without Acid Bloodspurt)
  • Cave Bear
  • Crushgrip Constrictor
  • Deathrattle Viper
  • Dire Boar
  • Dire Wolf
  • Fey Panther (without fey step)
  • Visejaw Crocodile
With more mature groups you might also use various birds, which are weaker, but make great spies and emissaries. You may want to halve the animals’ hp and decrease their bonuses by -2 to -4 to make them feel less epic and more like normal woodland beasts. Just like with young PCs, if you have time to prepare, I recommend designing PC strips. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

First World Fantasy

Fantasy is not about swords, shields, fireballs and dragons. It is about perspective. It is about focusing on the curious and unusual, rather than the tedious and mundane. With the right focus, any place can feel like a fantasy setting.

Now, I'm not talking about urban fantasy, which is all about the little spots of wonder carefully hidden in the concrete jungle that is our lives. I'm talking about full-blown, colorful and exotic second world fantasy. Only it's not a second world, it's still here, on our curious little first world.

Continents are people too. They deserve to be awesome.

With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to try to transform a city I know into a high fantasy locale, without actually changing anything about it, just focusing on what makes it fantastic. This is my attempt:

Acre, Israel

Israel is a realm divided between two mighty factions – the eldritch Jews, who hide pots of gold in their backyard, and the mysterious Arabs, who ride magic carpets. The fallen city of Acre is a place where members of the two factions can trade and mingle freely... though not always fairly.

The tense peace is maintained by the Blue Guard and powerful constructs that patrol its cobbled streets and crumbling piers. Even as the city's lords struggle to maintain order, the three dominants temples of the city scheme to undermine the lords' reign and plunge the land once again into war from which the followers of only one temple will emerge victorious. A fourth temple is silent and aloof, preferring to delve into esoteric mysteries rather than fight for material gains.

Beneath the city are labyrinthine tunnels and caverns dug by insidious smugglers and holy warriors alike. They hide many treasures and secrets, but also degenerates transformed into monsters by the wares of immoral wizards and animals twisted by strange disease. Rickety and unstable, the old passages threaten to bury alive any explorer who dares disturb their ancient serenity?

What adventures await the heroes of this town?

The secret lives of shadows. Now there's a cool game.

Soon, Tim Bruhn responded with a similar (and very cool) treatment of the gamer capital of Seattle

Seattle, Washington

The ancient city state of Seattle is nestled between a nigh impossible to traverse range of mountains and a cold shoreline teeming with sealife. The city itself is an emerald beauty, with pine trees dotting even the deepest interior of the city.

The inhabitants of this coastal gem are made up of pale skinned descendants of Njords, the bulk of the concentrated in a neighborhood known as Ballard. However immigrants from Korea, Japan and China and other Asian countries are not uncommon.

Common of all the inhabitants of this region is an emotional distance that is pervasive. Smiles are common, but outsiders report that they are as genuine as a Fae's glamour. This "Seattle Freeze" can be overcome but it typically takes outsiders decades to break through. Natives of the Emerald City most commonly whine about how busy they are when they ignore your entreaties to join them in a sharing of a feast.

Your adventures await in this cold but beautiful land!

Why limit the light of your creativity to just one house?

Next came Kyrinn S. Eis’ vision of Miami as reflected in the fantastic mirror:

Mayami, Florida

Mayami, in the native tongue meant 'Big Water', but these people are now long vanished. What few other precursor peoples that still reside in the south of the peninsula dwell in frond houses built up on stilts, out in a reed, sedge, and sawgrass waterway to the west of civilised lands. With the colonial wars nothing but history, the territory occupied by maritime folk from around the world literally spread at the pace of driving back the floodlands.

Drainage canals, crushed rock dyke roads, and artificial highlands have elevated the dwellings of Northlanders and the multifarious Caribe peoples, although the frequent heavy rains of spring and summer will flood even these. Racked with summer storms born at sea, Mayami has suffered major disaster regularly throughout its century of habitation, and its people are often dismissive of preparation, but vicious in its aftermath.
The city is but a little over a century and has already come to cover nearly 36 square miles, with a population density of roughly 1,160 persons per square mile.  

Its extensive water channels, rivers, creeks, and ports, as well as its thousands of pond-lakes all teem with avian, piscine, and reptilian life forms, several of which are non-native and invasive species.

The weather year round tends to hover at twenty degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average continental temperatures, and although it has dropped to freezing more than once, snowfall is unheard of. Ports bring in and ship out vast cargo each day, and the gleaming cityscape is like an archaeological record, showing earliest styles from the city's founding era all the way through to gleaming towers of steel and glass in improbable shapes and designs.  

With this varied terrain and high population density, crime is scattered and ranges from the typical personal disputes to organised crime and gang wars in past decades. The lead criminal enterprise (apart from land development schemes) is narco-smuggling, for which the local constabulary are most eager to stop, having taken great pains to militarise their efforts and outfit their troopers.  In recent years a series of roving sentinels fly over the city, capable of observing while they are high above, unseen.

So, what is your magic city?

Friday, January 25, 2013

In Defense of the Ordinary

Some years ago, my friends and I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Brust, one of my favorite writers, and talking about writing. I asked him about the best way to write epic events. Steven Brust’s answer was brilliantly simple: in opposite proportion. The greater and more complicated the events you tell about are, the simpler should the language and narrative techniques be.

If you look at some of the greatest works of speculative fiction, you will see works that describe very outlandish and fascinating worlds, but focus on the plainest events (for these worlds and times). Take Starship Troopers, the Forever War, Flatland, the City & the City, When Gravity Fails, The Star Diaries, Homeland and countless other works.

It is true that the events of Homeland change Drizzet’s life forever and leaves a deep impact on his family, friends and enemies, but they don’t change the world. They don’t even change his city or school. Furthermore, Drizzet’s desertion only occurs after many, many pages of ordinary experiences. All these murders, conspiracies and dark sorcery – they are what constitutes daily life in that world. Presumably, a young man deciding to escape this somehow, is also something not unimaginable, though certainly uncommon.

Salvatore doesn’t shatter the world, allowing us nothing, but fleeting glimpses at the shards. He takes us on a grand tour and concludes with a surprise.

In the same way, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, establishes a strong sense of normality and shows us how a typical adventure in his world looks like, before culminating in the dragon’s defeat and resulting War of the Five Armies. And even these are, in a way, ordinary for his world because both dragon-slaying and fantasy wars are events its citizens are well aware of.

Just one of these lazy afternoons...
Recently, I notice a tendency among beginning DMs to turn to extraordinary, paradigm-shifting events from the very beginning of their campaign. I think they are forgetting that for young players, doing anything in a fantasy world is already extraordinary. Just casting fireball at a gang of orcs is already interesting, banal though it may seem to gaming veterans. If you start big, all you do is establish bigness as the default.

For example, a game in which the players discover that an ancient God is about to wake up and devour the world and, despite being low-level characters, no one but them can stop this, offers little satisfaction and makes no sense. It feels forced and artificial and will be treated as such by young players. And why wouldn’t it? If you never had to deal with anything, but the lives of billions and the power to change the universe, what does one life mean? One contaminated river, one hungry family, one displaced monster – they are, objectively speaking, inconsequential. There is nothing there to make you feel for the world, turning role playing game into nothing but a flowery war game.

Suspense of disbelief can’t work without a framework. The players want to believe in your campaign, but you’ve got to give them at least something to cling to. There is a reason why every published adventure includes hooks. Hooks are as important out of character as they are in character. 

Now, consider a game where the PCs are the militia of a small humanoid settlement in hostile territory. This premise offers no less challenges than the Cthulhu pestiche, and maintains a sense of normality at the same time. For me, small quests such as rescuing a kidnapped child from the hag sisters, defeating the goblin raiders, or finding the treasonous cultist inside the village, offer infinitely more potential for drama and imagining than the grand quest of finding the nine parts of a magic weapon needed to kill the evil God.
For a game to have value as a simulation of reality, as a collective story, and an emotional and intellectual outlet, it must be ordinary, at least at first. This doesn’t mean that the events should be mundane and the world similar to ours. Au contraire, the world should be strange and fascinating and the stories should involve as much of its magic as possible. If the setting is good, the world’s uniqueness will organically enrich your stories and they will feel like life itself -- the true advantage of tabletop RPG over other media.