Mar 28, 2012

The Dungeon Dozen

I have recently discovered a blog that even from a cursory glance I cannot recommend enough. This blogger has been doing for a while a lot of what I in part intended this blog for: tons and tons of charts. So if you like random tables and a bit of the absurd, definitely check out The Dungeon Dozen

Mar 18, 2012

My Houserules

It's been a while since my last post so I decided to take some time out of a busy weekend to write about my house rules, most of which have come from fellow bloggers whose sites may be found over on that side bar over there. They're pretty awesome people, check 'em out.

Rules I Got From Other Cool Blogger Dudes Or Otherwise Not From My Own Head
The Splintering Shield Rule, by Trollsmyth, which I found in Telecanter's handy dandy house rules pdf.
- The splintering shield rule simply states that a combatant may choose to sacrifice a wooden shield in a hasty block to avoid taking damage. The shield then splinters and is useless.
-My Changes: I have extended this rule to all shields, since a metal shield could also be dented or warped beyond utility, and because if not, my players would simply carry only wooden shields and I don't think it makes sense for weaker shield to be more useful. I also demand that my players declare that they will take this action before I tell them how much damage is dealt, which adds a certain element of a gamble to the move. Since this is a new rule to my game, I think I may also never tell them how much damage was actually dealt, just to make them question the worth of this action.

Zac S's Called Shot Mechanic, the basic gist of which is that a player can decide the likelihood of success on his own called shot, but must accept the same chance as failure. A player can say he wants to chop the head off an ogre on a natural 11-20 (max chance), but he then has to accept that on a 1-10 he will behead his adjacent buddy, or something less gruesome if you are a kinder DM.
I must admit I only saw this mechanic today and will be testing it soon, but have yet to actually see it in action.

The mana system (for which I found numbers in the Castles and Crusades DMG [yeah, I know they don't call it that, but that's what it is]). At this point I know I'll have some people angry that I claim to run a sort of old school game with this system, but I will say in response that at some point you have to make concessions to the players. I have no problem with the Vancian system of magic, but if you have a set of players who, no matter how good or otherwise old-school, despise Vancian magic, its okay to make a minor change, it doesn't make you a pushover DM to allow the players to have something their way in the interest of fun. In any game with house rules you are changing the game (hopefully) in the interest of making it more fun. So where as in this case balance holds up, I accept the mana rule and carry on, everyone seems to like it and it is a little faster than checking your slots for each fight, which works since I like to keep battle frantic.

My Own Rules
Most of these have to do with the nature of magic, since in my game magic is a very rare and mysterious thing, and its nature is unknown to most.

Sacrifice Rule (Part from that same DMG, changed a bit on my own) : a player may sacrifice one point from health and each attribute in exchange for a single point of mana. The player may do this until losing consciousness from loss of health or until an attribute is reduced to 1 point. One point is recovered to health and each attribute per day until all are recovered. No magical means can otherwise recover points sacrificed until all are regained.

Magical Items in my game have a mysterious nature to them: I will not tell players the powers of a magic item, and they often have many if used in different ways. The players must discover these powers and when they have learned them all the magic item will tell them its name (not literally as in speaking, but they will come to know its name, as a suggestion of a thought).

Examine Magic Item is, to help the process of identifying an item, an ability granted to wizards and illusionists to spend 24 continuous hours examining a magic item to glean some hint of its powers. This hint can be in the form of images seen like a vision or of a word that suggest the effect.

Critical Fail is by no means my own rule, but I can not trace it to any one specific source. Anyone who has played dnd probably knows this, but I have heard of people not using it. A natural 1 on a d20, just as a 20 is a total success, indicates catastrophic failure, usually hitting an adjacent ally with your failed sword swing or dropping a weapon, but really only limited to the DM's cruelty and imagination.

Hit Chart. I have a hit chart that I use when I feel like it or when combat gets dull or when the players ask about it. As opposed to standard hitting and dealing damage it can spice things up, but I don't obsess over using it constantly. My hit location chart has no specific effects for hitting certain areas of the body, so it becomes a creative exercise to think of interesting effects based on the situation. Again, I'm not strict about this rule, it is really just to excite players when simple damage seems to leave some of them disinterested.

I plan soon on unveiling to my players a new property of magic that has been long in the making. I am very excited for this rule and will doubtless have a post devoted to it later, but I cannot reveal it here because of my players who may be reading this post. Those players who know me well would do well to be very afraid. Those who know me better can picture the sinister smile on my face as I just think about it.

Mar 5, 2012

Did you know? (And other crazy ideas)

Did you know that there were female gladiators back in good ol' Rome? Gladiatrices, they were called (from the singular Gladiatrix) and they fought dwarves. Yes, dwarves.

Did you also know that giraffes are crazy ninjas? Its true

Do you know where I get a lot of my gaming ideas?

From crazy stuff like that. Observe:
(Please excuse the low quality. My scanner isn't working and so these are taken with my phone's low-rez camera)

And what from this can I use?
Giraffe-men as a new monster?
Perhaps some arena games?
A band of female warriors?
A band of dwarves?
Female dwarves?
Could the dwarf-eraffes be intelligent and have a city?
Are we dealing with a whole new race?

In truth most of these ideas may never amount to anything, but its a nice exercise: just jam a few things together (I usually do three) and see what ideas you can get out of it.

Here are a few examples:

A flying mermaid. That eats shoes. Why?

My players wanted some hints as to what they might expect. Simply as an example of something ridiculous I blurted out the first thing to come to mind. A ____ ____ that does ____? A flying mermaid that eats shoes.

One of these days I'm probably due at the psychiatrist's.

Other sources of inspiration?

This one came from staring at Iron & Wine's Shepherd's Dog album cover. If you haven't seen it, I'll let you know it is a little creepy. So what better to do with an unnerving picture than to make it even more disturbing?
"More disturbing" should be my DM's motto...
Some sketches that work their way into my game aren't even intended for the table. Here I just wanted to draw some robots.
And these ended up as the dwarven automaton my players had to deal with last session. (Did I say deal with? I meant avoid in terror)

Oh, and the dwarf that came along with that dungeon:
So what may seem (or may be) an excuse to throw some pages of my sketchbook out there I really mean as an exercise in generating ideas, however absurd. So go and draw, or just pin words to a board and hurl some darts. Blurt out nonsense, or write down that disorganized gibberish that pours out of your brain when you first wake up.

Have ideas, people. You're free to steal mine but I'm afraid I can only manage to squeeze so many through the crack under the door of this homework dungeon.

Good luck and keep rolling.

Mar 4, 2012

Heroes are Extremists (Part Four: Evil)

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

An evil hero!? Gasp, oh dear, my brain has exploded!
... Is what you may be thinking, having seen my series so far and knowing I intend to provide both antagonists and protagonists on all ends of the alignment spectrum.
... Or you already read my segment on good antagonists and knew this was coming all along. Either way here is is: the final segment of my rant of daikaiju-esque proportions.

The evil character, on my handy Axis of Intent, is a character who, opposite the selfless good, serves only his own interests, often at the expense of others, who are if not tools only obstacles for the evil character.

Lawful Evil- my dad, himself Dungeon Master "back in the day", always defined the seemingly paradoxical lawful evil as a politician, and though I didn't quite understand as a kid, it seems now an apt description. The lawful evil can easily be a villain; taking the system we depend on every day and twisting it to his own advantage. The lawful evil is the scheming banker who can't be charged for slipping expensive agreements into your contract, the attorney who admits no evidence against his client because he can work the technicalities to make it inadmissible. The lawful evil is difficult to pin down because his greed and ruthlessness are all woven perfectly into an unbeatable system. Action against him is nearly impossible through the web of bureaucracy, and even then he has broken no laws.

This same character can be our ruthless protagonist if pitted against his own kind. As much as we may dislike this character, we for the same reason like seeing his kind get screwed, and who better to do it than the lawful evil himself? Sure, he is only helping himself, but that hardly matters when a corrupt industry collapses under the pen of our grinning anti-hero. Not quite a hero, but certainly a compelling protagonist.

Neutral Evil- The neutral evil is an average guy who looks out only for himself, not caring who he hurts along the way. This character is too moderate to be hero or villain, but in any case is easily an antagonist.

The only way to make this character compelling as a protagonist is to show us how he changes. No example comes to mind right now, but I'm sure someone in the comments can provide a clever allusion. By providing us with a cruel character, we want to follow him to see how he will change, how our values will prevail and he will see that he is wrong.

Chaotic Evil- The chaotic is the classic uber-villain. This character has no rules, and no regard for others. This character uses others as tools for his own gain and destroys those who have become an impediment to his goal. The most recent (and extreme) example of this character in popular media is Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, and it takes little explanation to see exactly what I mean in that case.

But even in the farthest corner there are protagonists, and those who some would call heroes. I mentioned earlier The Road Warrior, but this applies to many post-apocalyptic settings: the protagonist at the end of the world is chaotic evil. A character who is alone in a world with no resources has only himself to look after, and by my own alignment definition is therefor evil. Max needed his gas, and without that need would have continued his morose wanderings and left those nice people to die. There are no laws by which to abide and therefor he can only be chaotic, having not even his own rules to follow.

For an example less steeped in technicality, let's consider Whedon's amazing Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. Dr Horrible is obviously a villain, or so he claims. He is a criminal, landing him in chaotic territory, and who else is he acting for? He wants his own prestige to join the League, and has few other goals. So a villain, or at least an antagonist, right? Then why is it our hearts sink when [Spoiler Warning] Penny dies?
Because even in these qualities we saw Dr Horrible as a hero. The super "hero" was a jerk and Horrible deserved the girl, and in his love we could see our own values, so that the slightest flaw in his evil was enough to make us a hero of him.
Examples in graphic.

The evil alignment holds mostly villains and almost never heroes, but that never means such a thing is impossible. You can see that a well- worked character can come from anywhere and, with variety as the spice of life, you owe it to your players to toss in all sorts of enemies and allies. Make them question their morals, or give them ample reason to break some face; either way, show them not every baddie is just a punching bag and not every partner is just an especially fleshy shield.

Heroes are Extremists (Part Three: Neutral)

Part One
Part Two

A neutral character, on the Axis of Intent, is one who does not actively try to save or harm anyone, or who looks out for those within his own sphere of family or friends or teammates. On the Axis of Means this character is neither lawful or chaotic; he believes in the necessity of some laws, but is willing to break others when the situation requires.

Lawful Neutral- I have claimed on occasion that the average person is lawful neutral: you don't speed but in a hurry may go what is "safely" a bit over the limit, you probably pass by the begging homeless man but you wouldn't kick him either, you dutifully pay your bills and fill out your paperwork, like it or not. Obviously the average person still leaves a lot of room for various personalities. The lawful neutral doesn't care enough to be evil or good, but doesn't want to get arrested and so follows the law. No heroes or villains here, but this person can be a helpful nice guy protagonist or an antagonistic obstacle through inaction.

True Neutral- The true neutrals are druids and mindless androids. The druids traditionally are devoted to the balance, and so for them pro- or antagonism depends on which way the wind blows. In a crap world where the ruling forces are evil a druid can unquestionably side with good in order to restore the balance, in a good or even nearly-balanced world things are a bit more iffy. The true neutral is difficult to make into a hero, though in said crap world this is entirely possible, and more often is a protagonist if the balance is on the players' side, or an antagonist through inaction or complacency, though unresistant and so truly just a speed bump.

Chaotic Neutral- The chaotic neutral works for the good of those he deems worthy, and screw everyone else! The chaotic neutral abides by no rules except occasionally his own. Mr. Freeze is one of my favorite Batman villains for this reason: he is not evil. He does everything he does because saving his wife is more important that the laws he breaks or the people he kills to do it. How many of us, to save a loved one, would worry about the laws that prevented us from doing so? And does this make us, as Mr Freeze, villains? This puts us on a fine line between Law and Chaos that can be fun to twist on your players.
The same character can, in this way, be portrayed as a hero. Any superhero, say Wolverine, willing to take desperate measures for his cause, maybe even kill, who does it not for the public good but for his own reasons, fits in this category.

I should say at this point that in most intents chaos is, despite its nature, a breeding ground for heroes, especially tragic heroes. Chaos speaks to us of desperation, of having to do whatever can be done, despite and laws or consequences. For those of you wondering why I insist on heroics in the middle of the spectrum, I hope this explanation suffices: everyone loves to see a hero broken down, a noble figure on the brink, and sometimes when they fall we smile through our tears because even to the end we could call them heroes, and if we couldn't, their extremism makes them villains. This, to my mind, is the compelling side of chaos.
The system so far...

Heroes are Extremists (Part Two: Good)

Find Part One here.

I'll do you all the kindness of shortening this article: I'm not going to recap, click the link above if you want to know what I'm talking about.

Good is the end of the Axis of Intent that I will cover first, the end that we all usually associate with the hero character. The good character is selfless. He will sacrifice himself for the good of the many and do whatever he can to bring justice to the world. But with a little stretch of the imagination, this character can be a hero or an antagonist.

Lawful Good- The lawful good antagonist may seem a paradox, and often it is, or at least difficult to craft well. By nature the good character is selfless and supports justice, so in this case you must use the lawful aspect to your advantage. A lawful good character must adhere to laws and codes to implement justice, and these can often be cumbersome and inefficient, which presents an obstacle if placed in opposition to the players' need for expedience, or it can simply be annoying to chaotic characters or those attempting illegal action. In any case to make what can be a heroic figure into an obstacle law's bureaucracy must be emphasized. This makes the lawful good character into a sort of speed bump or wall that antagonizes the players in their need to circumvent it, if they are good, or to destroy or avoid it if they are criminals, wherein an interesting Inspector Clouseau dynamic can be established (has anyone pulled this off in the long term? Let me know, faithful commentators). Keep in mind that this lawful good antagonist is rendered useless against strictly lawful players, who will be obliged to obey the same laws, unless they have knowledge of or means to find some loophole or technicality unknown to the protagonist.

The lawful good protagonist is much easier to create: we know him as the hero. The lawful good hero is the Captain America; the simple, unironically good guy. This hero works best in a world where all evil is crime, wherein a lawful solution is always the right one. Of course, the easy recipe for controversy is to call into question the propriety of a lawful solution: would it be alright to kill Joker for all he has done? Should you really save the terrorist from him bomb, or let him die? But beware pulling this too often, as any disillusionment ruins the lawful good character (excepting rare cases I'm sure some of you can bring up)

Neutral Good- The neutral good character still acts on behalf of the public good, but may use unusual means: not strictly lawful, but hard to pin as illegal. As a protagonist this may be the righteous protestor, but is hard to make a hero in the present time of the game. Such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. have been considered such, though, and I doubt it is impossible to create such a character.

This kind of character does present a dilemma to lawful characters, however, in that the lawful may be helpless to stop, on the basis of law, a character who is doing something potentially obstructive to public safety, like a crowded mob of strikers blocking a road, or having the potential to turn violent. In this way the leader of these groups, if control is lost and the mob turns violent, is an antagonist in his responsibility, even if it was not his intent, retaining his neutral goodness. This antagonist again is more an obstacle than an active threat, and potential for violence lies more in his followers who may not be so strictly goo or neutral.

Chaotic Good- The chaotic good character is willing to break any laws in the pursuit of justice and the public good. This can create a very intense hero or anti-hero in this capacity, but from the perspective of a lawful character, the chaotic good is a menace with a blatant disregard for the law who should allow justice to be served through the law. Many vigilante characters lie in this grey area, sometimes leaning more toward neutral. Batman promotes the system of courts and jail, but himself commits break-ins and assault to achieve this goal.
This kind of extreme do-gooder can make a compelling hero, but to J Jonah Jameson Spiderman is still a menace. At the end of The Dark Knight, Gordon still has to send the cops on Batman, because these are not the traditional heroes, and so are controversial and can be approached as either a hero, as above, or a villain. (a great example is the Teen Titans story A Kid's Game. The heroes were the Teen Titans, but Deathstroke in combating them was trying to prove their own risk, to stop more children from dying, even if he had to kill more to prove it, is he a villain? Sure, but evil? ...)
The system so far...

Heroes are Extremists (Part One: Some alignment basics)

This is the beginning of a four-parter about the classic alignment systems and assumptions that are often made. Allow me to illustrate the general assumption about the two axes:

And now if I may be allowed to blow your dice-addled mind: this is wrong.

And perhaps you already knew that. Batman is a good guy, but obviously not completely lawful (more on that later). Robin hood is another case, more to the chaotic end of the spectrum. But there is little question that each of these characters is still unquestionably good.
No, see: what I intend to do here is prove that on my own chart
Again, nothing revolutionary, I know. Give it a moment.
A hero, or rather a protagonist, may be chaotic evil or an antagonist lawful good.

Now the observant among you have noticed that I make a distinction between hero and protagonist. I do this on purpose and so to avoid any confusion will here establish some terms I will use:

Some Terms:

Hero- A hero is the traditional figure that prevails in myth and legend. Odysseus, Superman, Hercules, Batman. The hero has principles, he is noble, he does not seek actively to harm but will often do what it takes to ensure justice and protect his own, whether that be his friends or the world. The important aspect of a hero is that we admire him, we look up to a hero and often agree with his morals, if not in action at least in principle.

Protagonist- The protagonist, on the other hand, is simply someone the story follows. We are given the protagonist's perspective and we follow his actions. In a game we are always the protagonist because we can see the story from no other perspective. We don't have to agree with the protagonist, he is simply a vehicle for the story. In The Road Warrior, Max is kind of a jerk, and we may not like him for being selfish and uncooperative, but we are given the story from his perspective and so he is the protagonist, but not a hero.

Villain- The villain is the antithesis of the hero, again a traditional character that opposes all our morals and concept of what is good. Satan corrupts and promotes misdeed, the Joker kills for the sheer joy of it or some elaborate plot. Our reaction is again the most important part of the villain: we hate him, or if not hate, we want him to be stopped. We want our own worldview to prevail over him, we want the forces of good to win the day and reinforce the rectitude of our own values.

Antagonist- An antagonist is not a villain. We may not like an antagonist, we may hate him, but he is not a direct threat to our values. Draco Malfoy is an antagonist, surely, but he cannot be a villain because he has so few of his own schemes that he is really not responsible for his own misdeeds (to the extent of my knowledge. Sorry fanboys, I've only seen the flicks). An antagonist is the speed bump that makes you slow down when you're already late. An antagonist is that guy in class who always has some juvenile comment: annoying, but not actively threatening the world as we know it.

So I do say deliberately that an antagonist or protagonist may lie on any end of the spectrum, or right in the middle more often.