Thursday, July 31, 2008

Handling Angelic Encounters

Angels here meaning 3.5 and previous edition angels. The 4e angels look like confused fire elementals.

Angels, and their diabolic/demonic counterparts on the other side, have been around since the beginning, or darn close to it. If you are beginning to recognize that statement from post to post, then you can attribute it to the fact that I want to put out statements that can (possibly) help grognards as well as those newer to the hobby.

Anyway, Angels are always there. Usually they only show up at higher levels, but nonetheless, they exist in the game world. They are, of course, paragons of good. Even aside from that, they are, in most campaign settings, lawful as well. See my previous admittedly rambling post for my thoughts on extremism in alignment, but let's think about angels. If anyone had a reason to be strictly good and lawful, angels would be the ones. As much as demons are always chaotic evil, angels are always lawful good. Holding the line, as it were.

This means that in many campaigns, angels will do what they can to help the party, if the party is at least neutral and not currently doing an evil act. Drop his one use of Resurrection today to rez that fallen rogue? Sure! Hand over some heavenly raiment to help the PCs combat the demons? Why not? Act as a glorified paladin/cleric multiclass tanker/healer? Of course!

I don't see this as reasonable. Think about 'good' and 'law' from an angel's perspective. I would reason that most angels don't have much experience with paladinal humans. The humans they typically see, if they typically see them at all, are probably the ones they are trying to stop from summoning demons.

So lets say you are an angel. In your society, in your homeland, everyone typically does the right thing. Charity is an unknown word because it's the default. If your neighbor is hurting, you help him. You know that he would do the same. If there is an invasion, everyone does what they are best able to do. You don't cheat on your spouse, and she won't cheat on you. You don't think about demonic or evil magic. There is no crime; it's unthinkable. No thieving, no murder, no arson; nothing evil happens.

Now, take that angel, who has lived in such a society, and place him in a human town. For some reason, he can't go back to Celestia right off. Imagine the culture shock. At first, he would be strikingly naive. On request, he helps every beggar he can. He gives them money, or food, or whatever else they need that he can provide. He believes sob stories from people, and helps if they say their mother is sick and they just need money for medicine. He heals the injured and refuses reward, thinking that when he is injured, they will do the same out of inherent goodness.

Now what happens when he sees the consequences that humans take for granted in the above scenarios? The beggars he gives his gold to spend the money on drink and worse, dying from their excess. His offer of Remove Disease makes the person speaking of their sick mother nervous; their mother has been dead for ten years. An accident injures him, and people demand money to heal him. He turns to get it, and finds his coinpurse missing. He's been robbed. The cleric demanding payment says he's sorry, and that he'd heal him for free if it weren't for those church regulations. The angel knows from his powers that the priest is lying. The cleric doesn't care about altruism, he just wants the divine being's money.

Even these relatively petty wrongs would seem repulsive to him. Lies? Gluttony? Indulgence in drink? Self-destruction? Greed? Theft? These things are anathema to everything he's ever known. Humans suddenly change from a meek race that needs protection from demons, to nearly demons themselves. Unsavable. Corruptible without effort. Untrustable. The small good acts and few random acts of kindness don't even start to make up for the moral failings of mortals as a whole.

Is this angel likely to trust your chaotic neutral party? Is he even likely to bother speaking with you? He certainly wouldn't provide you with assistance, since he would half expect you to stab him in the back as soon as he turned to leave. Even a paladin isn't neutral compared to what the angel sees as default behavior.

This isn't to say he wouldn't help the party if they were combatting demons and one of them fell. Of course he's willing to raise someone who fell in such a noble battle. But he won't give you money. He won't give you information on how to get to the heavens. He won't help you in any way that leaves him less able to retreat or hold his own against you. He knows how your kind works. You are all sinners and murderers. He can probably look at you and know that you've slain innocents and that you rarely help anyone who can't pay you. You aren't as good a person as he is. You never can be, and he knows it.

So don't make angels some glowing beacon of light that trusts the party implicitly. Make them terse, stern, and unforgiving of sins. They are still good; they still help where they can. But they won't be suckered into giving you the chance to use their gifts for evil, or for your own hedonistic pleasures. They won't attack anyone that isn't inherently evil, but they won't trust anyone that isn't inherently good.

As a closing note, for players: If you play a half-celestial, consider making part of your backstory having been raised on the celestial plane. You wouldn't be accepted there: your capacity for deceit and underhandedness is appalling compared to others there. But you arrive on this plane, and see that other mortals are far worse. Creates some interesting roleplay hooks.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Obligatory Alignment Post

Alignment has always existed in D&D, in some form. In the original brown books, there were only three. Been a while since I've read them, but the options were Good/Neutral/Evil, I believe. Later on you saw the silly current model, with basically five alignments in a line. Lawful Good being the top, Good, Neutral, Evil, and then Chaotic Evil being the bottom. 3E had the nice grid system, with law-chaos being one axis, and good-evil being the other. Most of the players in my group basically said "Neat!" and then picked Chaotic Neutral. With 4e, we are back to the five option variant.

Alignment is something that bothers a great many DMs. It's not the system itself that causes issues, it's how seriously many players (and DMs) take it. They act like that "LG" scrawled on the character sheet means that your character is Jesus reborn. He saves the world every day. He pats children on the head and hands them 500 Platinum just for smiling happily. He gives all his money to charity. He never asks for quest rewards. As soon as anyone mentions any action that might construed as less than holy, he flips out angrily and qutie possibly draws a weapon.

Chaotic Evil is the same way. I'm mentioning the extreme examples of alignment here because they are the ones more commonly overplayed. I'm not even sure how you overplay neutral without just quoting that Futurama episode. Anyway, Chaotic Evil does not make you a psychopath. You are not the Joker. You don't just slaughter everyone you see out of some unending berserker rage. Being chaotic evil does not mean that you have to do your best to be evil and belligerent to everyone you meet. Chaotic Evil races often form tribes, and the tribes have to work together to do things. This is because, primarily, they know that they have to in order to survive, and secondly, they know that the first guy to turn will be slaughtered by the others. Chaotic Evil doesn't mean stupid. Your character should be aware that there is always someone stronger than he, and act accordingly.

We've all played with players like that. Sure, if you are a paladin, maybe you can justify some of it, but not to the extremes that most people play. Lawful Good does not mean you have a constant stick up your arse. You can justify charity and even hatred for evil humanoids, assuming you don't just hate for the sake of hating. Vengeance isn't much better. "Lawful Good" doesn't justify slaughter. The only real place where it might justify constant combat is against inherently evil foes, such as demons/devils.

Slaughtering orcs is not really a good act. Forming a peace agreement is closer, but not always possible. If you know the orcs are low on food and likely to raid the nearby village, you go out to talk to them. They are, perhaps, belligerent and crazy because the DM just wants you to fight. OK then, killing them is fine. I wouldn't call it a good act per se. You are probably getting paid, either in cash or in reputation, so at best it is mercenary work. Chaotic Evil characters can justify slaughtering orcs better than Lawful Good can. Hell, your chaotic Evil barbarian has been itching to taste blood for days of being in town, and when he sees the orc camp in the distance, he doesn't' want to talk to them. He understands that he can't express his inner violence in town, but these are orcs! The peasants will praise him, and he might even be able to take some of their daughters' honor before his true nature is revealed and he's chased out of town.

This is a bit rambling, but I'm just trying to convey my idea of alignment. Any time you can state that your character "Always" does this, or "never" does that, and justify it only from your alignment, you aren't doing it right. Your paladin hates orcs? Ok, why? Being a paladin isn't enough. Even if you keep the behavior of at least drawing steel on sight, you need to justify it. As a child, you saw your parents and village slaughtered by a nearby orc tribe. You were saved from the ashes of the village by the nearby fortress-temple of Hieronious, after crawling through the ashes for three days, delirious with thirst. Ok, there you go. You have a reason to hate orcs, but it's not just 'because I am good'. Hating orcs is a flaw. Hating anything is a flaw in a lawful good character. Taking joy in slaughter is a flaw. It's not good behavior to be that guy.

In short, as the tl;dr version, you are not your alignment. You are a human/whatever. Act like one. You are intelligent enough to know that there are gray areas in goodness, and that your rampaging evil can't conquer the world at level three.

So, paladins of the world, take the stick out. CE barbarians, put the axe down. Embrace sanity.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Orcs are not just Orcs

You've been asked by the local nobility to go and slay the local tribe of savage humanoids. So of course your group of good-aligned adventurers tromps off through the wilderness to put a stop to the possible onslaught of monsters. You get there, find a group of level-appropriate orcs, armed with some level-appropriate equipment they found somewhere. They blindly charge and you slaughter the whole group, loot their dungeon, and tromp happily back to town.

Everyone is happy right?

Savage humanoids are a staple of the tabletop RPG genre. They have many shapes: Orcs, Goblins, Bugbears, Kobolds, Troglodytes, Lizardmen, whatever. The problem is that a lot of DMs treat them as above. You don't need a reason to slaughter them: They are GOBLINS. They exist, as an all-male, all-adult, all-evil collection of monsters to slaughter. Either that, or they do something blatantly evil to give motivation to a set of adventurers. They slaughter a village and leave a burning ruin. They raid caravans. Eat babies. Kick puppies. Don't rewind their rental tapes.

That's fine, I guess, but the villains and the world feel more real if the events that happen have some real motivation behind them. "Being Evil" doesn't count.

Why do they do this? Are savage humanoids just to lazy to make their own stuff? Being evil doesn't mean you have to pick on people that you know will kill you. Orcish and Goblinoid oral histories have to be FULL of tribes that got stupid and picked on human settlements, only to be obliterated by a group of three to six humanoids. Dead down to the last man, woman, and child. Tents burned, stones scattered, dungeon plundered, history destroyed. Why would any tribe be so stupid again?

Every setting that includes savages tends to say that they exist in great numbers across large areas, usually mountain ranges. Now, mountains aren't really arable, but that's not the point. When did you last see a goblin farmer? But the point I'm aiming for here is that they obviously have some way of feeding themselves, or there wouldn't be so many. They have some way of working stone, or wood, or some other material, because all those people need shelter. They have alliances, enemies, and political intrigue of some sort, even inside their own civilization. Why would such a people randomly ask for destruction by assaulting human cities? Though life might be hard, they aren't dying off.

Well, there are reasons of course. I can't just pose questions and not answer them.

1. Jealousy. This is, in a lot of ways, the underlying cause of most human conflict as well. "Yeah, we are doing OK over here, but those guys have gold streets that flow with milk and honey. I want their stuff without having to work for it!" The orc tribe living in the Darktimbre Forest look across the farms to the human city that glitters with prosperity, and they look down at their half-rotten deer meet, and they bristle. They want gold-plated buildings. They want high walls and roofs over their heads. They want farmer slaves, since to a slaving culture, it seems that's what they are. They want to lay about in the city like noblemen while others do all their work.

2. Resources. Effectively the other primary cause of human conflict. Whereas in the above, they have basically what they need, here they don't. Sure there are millions of orcs in the mountains, but that's exactly the problem. They've over reproduced. There are no more cougars to hunt, no more bones to gnaw, no more booze to funnel down their throats. Then, they see those human trade caravans roll by, guards bristling with weapons, but the carts loaded with a few tons of food and drink. The orc patrol hasn't eaten for three days, and their canteens are empty. Desperation sinks in, and they assault the humans. They eat the people, eat the stored food, guzzle the wine, and laugh as they wear new human chainmail over their full bellies. Then they realize something. They have a tribe of two hundred strong orcs, and caravans come through every week. What's to stop them doing this forever?

3. Religion. Arguably the cause of the remainder of human conflict. Orcs worship Gruumsh, Goblins traditionally Maglubiyet. Kobolds and whatever else generally have their patron deities as well. Gruumsh does not care for Corellan Larethian. How dare that elvish tree city worship such a heretical god? They must burn, and their tainted food and resources must burn as well. It's all tainted, and consequences be damned.

Those are all fairly basic, yes. But you are dealing with a pretty basic people. Orcs and goblins do not traditionally have a lot of INT or WIS. They see things plainly. "I'm hungry, and that human farmer has food." The goblin knows the farmer won't willingly share. So he kills him and takes it. "We're cold, but that human inn looks warm, and their people have clothing." The orc tribe of 20 knows they could live off of the reserves in that minor village for weeks. They are cold and starving in the northern winter, and so they attack. Ok, enough of motivation.

Savage humanoids are still humanoids. Despite 4e's monster manual barely mentioning noncombatants at all, orcs have families. They might be evil, but they are still capable of love. They marry, they have children. They care for the children because they have the same racial preservation instinct as every other animal. Attacking a group of raiders should be a hugely different experience than attacking the tribe's home. Raiders will fight until it looks like they will lose. Then they will flee, because the rewards from the raid are unlikely to come, and death is never preferable to life. Fathers protecting their wives and children will fight to their dying breath, and with a ferocity that you will never see the equal of. Attacking a group of barbarians that know you will slaughter their children should throw them all into a rage that will only end when the threat is over. They will not break, they will not surrender, and they will not back down.

For that matter, consider your good aligned party. Most parties are at least non-evil anyway. You attack a tribe. You slaughter their fighters. Let's say you stop short of killing noncombatants. Most parties will loot the bodies in front of their terrified loved ones, and then head back to town to sell the stuff they picked up. This is not good aligned behavior. Besides, many of the children will take up arms if they watch their fathers get killed. Now you have an implacable foe that is equivalent to a ten year old boy holding a sword. He can kill you if you ignore him; a sword is a weapon in any hands. But it is an inherently evil act to kill children. What do you do?

So give the next group of orcs some thought. They need a reason to do what they are doing. They need to seem more human in their dwellings. They need family. Your enemy isn't just "Orc #23", he's "Muzgob Goretooth, Orc Fighter, worshipper of Gruumsh, husband of Melgri Goretooth, and father of three".

It will make the game more interesting, I promise you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Nightlands: Lumina

Ok, another valid line of inquiry is Lumina itself. What kind of place is it? It's obviously important; it's the starting location for the players. Is it big? Small? All human or a mix of cultures? What kind of rules and laws exist? How does it survive being in a darkened world? What sort of adventures can be had in the city before even venturing out into the nightlands?

I like Lumina being a city, with perhaps a river running through it. The entire haven is urbanized heavily, but with a bit of a catch. Since the place has been so insular for so long, districts and small communities have formed. This sounds a bit like some Warcraft/Stormwind stuff, but bear with me. This allows for some flavor to the city. The dwarves have their walled district, though they allow access fairly freely. They also have tunnels and underhalls that run through most of the haven, and even slightly outside, though those tunnels get dangerous and decrepit very quickly, as though the stone itself were cursed. Because it is. The dwarves thus help sustain the metal industry, crafting new metal tools and limited weapons. They also are useful for general wealth, gemstones and the like. We are taking a bit of stretch on how much metal and how many gems would be under a normal city, but that can be useful too. Maybe certain materials aren't present in the haven and must either be traded for or found by PCs. Maybe later in the campaign, the dwarves delve too deep. Not that I'd ever copy anything.

The elven district can help with food. Elves and Eladrin can both live here because let's face it, they are just 3e elves split up a bit. Anyway, Elves tend massive hanging gardens and even underground cave farms, providing wood and food for the greater part of the city. Elves are also hired by nobles and wealthy from elsewhere in the city as groundskeepers, maintaining nice green spots all over town. Eladrin, for their part, work in quiet, contemplative monasteries and universities in this district, working on magic to fuel the city's continual population increase, trying to find new ways to help their brethren continue the plant growth as more and more demand is created. Certainly a few enterprising adventurers could procure ancient texts from the nightlands and possibly be well rewarded.

Humans and halflings, as well as most half-elves, can live in the main city. A traditional if highly-compact fantasy city. Mostly stone and woodwork, though by necessity the buildings stand multiple stories high, packed tightly and somewhat chaotically over each other and bridging streets. This gives plenty of shadows and dark alleys for theives, but this district has a particularly strong police force. The town guard is mostly humans, with a few dragonborn and dwarven mercenaries thrown in. Tieflings also live in this district, not expressly outlawed, but subject to a great deal of racism. Face it, demonic ancestry tends to do that. Adventure hooks in the human district are fairly bog-standard fantasy fare. Thieves, town guard quests, organized crime, fetch-and-carry, whatever.

That leaves dragonborn. I like them being a somewhat insular community, staying mostly to themselves. They have a fairly quiet, orderly district that is really more of a neighborhood. They are few in number and carefully control their reproduction, so their community is more standard construction. Nice stonework buildings, but mostly street level with a single residence per building on the second floor. They are expert craftsmen, traders, soldiers, and guardsmen. I would say that adventures here are hard to come by, as the PC party is unlikely to be trusted without a dragonborn character. If they have a dragonborn, perhaps another group has stolen something held dear by the dragonborn, and the PC can be hired to bring it back. It's also possible that their district is so small due to being marginalized by the other races, and the PCs could be hired to find a new haven for the dragonborn, outside of Lumina.

I'd say that goblins and orcs are nonexistent in LUmina. They have to stay outside. No half-orcs either, thanks to 4e.

So Lumina is a city divided into districts. Fine, we'll cover politics of these districts later on. What protects Lumina from the horrors of the nightlands? Stout defenders on the walls? What about flying menaces? Bowmen?

I think I'll go the high-magic route and do something else. Lumina was a haven to begin with because of a secluded wizard. His tower was here (still is) and he created a number of golems to defend the place. Iron golems, bronze colossi, I don't know yet. So they built walls, running on the base instruction to defend the city and her inhabitants. I suppose the walls contain vertical bars over the river to filter out water monsters while allowing edible fish. Golems being immortal, they still walk the walls, maintaining the magical dome that keeps flying menaces at bay and defending against larger threats when required. They do their best to ignore the residents, and only give boring, mechanical answers when forced. The residents now mostly ignore them. Strangely even if they are destroyed, new constructs arrive very shortly to replace them. The wizard is apparently still active in his sealed tower, in the center of the city. Since it's been thousands of years, he's either undead or it's an automated process. The citizens typically prefer to not think about it. He doesn't affect their lives negatively, but wizards are fickle and strange, and there's no reason to provoke him.

So we've covered racial districts, some political tension, food, water, metal, wood, and protection. What's left? Well, religion is a tremendously important part of sapient life in any era. The predominant religion of an area has always defined laws, moral codes, and way of life. Of course, D&D has sort of a lax view on religion. A polytheistic pantheon of gods, with no real strife except along alignment lines, usually really only along good/evil lines. So basically a weird approximation of the God/Satan dualist relationship, split into around a dozen or so. I haven't really read up on the 4e religious changes, though I know there are a few. We'll go with major gods from Greyhawk and hack it later as required.

Obviously in a world like this, Pelor is considered the chief god of civilization. He is light and warmth incarnate; the sun that rises and falls, shining down on Lumina from afar, keeping it from the eternal night outside. Pelor is often considered the primary human deity, and that makes a lot of historical sense. Name two ancient pantheons that didn't include the sun as a major god.

Aside from Pelor, I'd imagine the other gods are worshiped in turn as well. Physical strength has always been important, so Kord is useful to fighters, warlords, and the odd cleric. Corellon Larethian is of course still patron of the elves, and probably the eladrin as well. Obad-Hai is revered in and around the elven district. I would imagine someone like Fharlanghn, the god of roads and travel, is nearly forgotten by ordinary folk in Lumina. Dwarves of course still have Moradin. As I recall, Bahamut was introduced as a deity proper in 4e, for dragonborn, so there's that.

As far as it matters for play, I would wager that in a heavily urbanized town with such limited space, small shrines would be common in homes, but for any sort of cleric services, one would need to find the large cathedral of Pelor, somewhere in the human district. This building would likely be hugely important in society, and nearly anyone in the city would be able to give directions instantly. There are smaller woodland shrines and groves for Obad-hai and Corellon Larethian, as well as large underground temple-forges for Moradin. As is typical with religion, however, I suspect that clergy of racial gods don't favor those of other races visiting their shrines. This goes for Bahamut also.

Bahamut is a special case. Most of the other gods have boring incarnations. Pelor, for instance, is typically depicted as basically Gandalf. Bahamut and Tiamat both are glorious dragons, full of astounding physical awe and wonder. The dragonborn of Lumina, despite being only a small community, have nonetheless crafted an imposing statue shrine of Bahamut in their district square. A sixty foot tall dragon, with a wingspan easily double that, carved from marble in the center of the square, stands resolute in defense of his children, with wings opened in a spectacular display. This statue has hints of dwarven and elven workmanship as well, with golden accents and dark, beautiful eyes of polished ebony.

With religion defined, there's only a few more things. I see the government of such a city being a largely appointed city council. Centralized leadership of such a disparate group of races would be effectively impossible. The council exists as a single councilman (or councilwoman) from each race, excluding tieflings. Each district also elects by popular vote, with varying levels of voter turnout, a collection of advisers to the councilmen, serving as representatives of the vox populi. Of course this system suffers from the same issues as representative republics on Earth do. Graft, corruption, oligarchism, popularity over capability, and the like all exist in varying degrees from district to district.

Councilmen would rarely bother with a non-paragon group of adventurers. During heroic work, however, the party may be approached by a district representative for work. Dependent of the flavor of adventures the party enjoys, this can be anything from political intrigue to dungeon-delving, from thieving an item from another representative to slaying a group of orcs in the outlands. Councilmen, once the party is influential enough to even matter to them, are mostly so wrapped up in their political dramas that they rarely see outside of it. Thus they mostly lend towards carefully worded dealings with the other council members, spying, and even in extreme cases, assassination. In epic tier, the council as a whole may, somewhat forcefully, request the party's help with threats that endanger the whole of Lumina.

I believe that sums up the general feel of Lumina for the time being. A generally peaceful place with of the same underbelly that any such gathering of sapients would have.

More on the nightlands some other time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

World Building: Nightlands

There are a number of considerations with regards to this "Nightlands" setting that need to be resolved before heading much farther in.

First off, how big are the safe havens? Is Lumina a major city? If so, how does it sustain itself? Dark areas aren't really much for farming, and unless the haven is just outright huge, traditional farming won't work either. Secondly, what about trade? Does it exist? Are the nightlands so dangerous that even heavily armed trade caravans can't make it? If that's the case, do the citizens of Lumina even know there are other havens? For that matter, how dangerous ARE the nightlands? Is it possible to have a civilized area outside of a haven? If that's possible, why have people stayed inside Lumina for so long? If it's been long enough that the history of the world has been largely lost and forgotten, who would have any viable adventure leads or quests to send the party on? I'm not really going for a West Marches sort of thing, so there needs to be someone with some knowledge of the outside. What is protecting Lumina exactly? What about the other havens?

OK, so that's a bit much to cover in one post. We'll start with a few basic facts about the nightlands and go from there.

I see the nightlands as dangerous to the average commoner, even nearly suicidal for one, but for the superheroish PCs from 4e, the nightlands approach survivability. This means that though the average Lumina rank-and-file won't step outside, the city can make brief expeditions outside the haven if they have a tolerably sized military squad or hire some PC-level mercenaries. This has an effect of also allowing limited trade, but only of high-level items. There's no profit in running food from place to place, because of the protection required for the caravan, but moving magic items and the like might be worthwhile, especially given the (ridiculous) merchant markup in 4e.

So the citizens of Lumina stay in the haven because it's too dangerous outside. What makes it dangerous?

Well, there's the darkness first and foremost. Darkness has always equated to danger in human history and there's no reason to assume that would be all that different in a fantasy realm. Of course, darkvision exists for non-humans. As far as real danger goes, there are monsters. Since the area outside of havens is both dark as well as cursed, there's a reason to have evil/aberrant monsters all over. Mind you, that doesn't mean that the first-level party in their virgin adventure is going to run into Beholder Eye-Tyrants camping outside the city gates, but there should be a persistent sense of danger and the unknown in the nightlands.

I think the prevailing monster type should be undead and dire animals. Now, I haven't read 4e's monster manual all that much. I've heard that the designers sort of shied away from templates and whatnot, so making your own variant monsters (zombie wolf, for instance) is harder than before. Well screw it. Before each session, edit a few monsters from the manual to make them a starving/dying/undeadish variant. Instead of a dire wolf being a wolf that is bigger and vaguely spiky, have it missing the flesh from half of it's face, with a festering wound on it's left flank, growling low while staring at the party from it's cloudy, dead eyes. The creature abilities are the same, excluding perhaps a vulnerability to holy/radiant damage, but there's a bit of a ruined, dark flavor to the thing.

Can there be civilization outside the havens? I say yes, but only if you can use 'civilization' loosely. For that matter, we can go as far as this: Goblinoids and Orcs are humanoids that were outside the havens when the darkness fell. The ones that were able to survive were slowly changed by the cursed land, becoming orcs, goblins, bugbears, what-have-you. Note that they have no reverence for humanity, and they have no real knowledge of their origins. This information might be hard to discover for the PCs, if it were even possible. Anyway, Orcs and Gobbos are still basically evil and savage. Their skin is darker green than MM would show, as an adaptation to their environment. It's been known that the harder life is in a place, the slower technology and society develops. If there is no leisure time due to constant danger and hunger, then you rarely progress beyond hunter-gatherer groups. So that's how the orcs and goblins are. Some settlements, but mostly neolithic technology. They do have tolerable weapons, since they need them to survive. Perhaps they looted them from old ruins, and treat good weapons with a reverence that civilized peoples reserve for the gods.

So are there other havens than Lumina? Yes. But I will leave those for later. I think Lumina and the surrounding environs are more than sufficient for getting through heroic tier.

Perhaps more on this setting later today.

Friday, July 18, 2008

World Building

World Building has always been an interesting topic to me. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings for the story on some level, but the real value to me was this false world that was created. You knew, academically, that the time period/world described therein wasn't "real", in the sense of having actually existed, but it felt real. It was fleshed out enough that national relations made sense, people remembered legends without waxing pedantic about them. There were things that happened that arguably didn't relate to what the PCs were doing. The hobbits met Tom Bombadil, for instance. He existed, he seemed to be something strange and nigh-godlike, in a forest-spirit sorta way, but he didn't advance their quest. He was just there.

Campaign settings are similar as well, though with less flair. Too crunchy, and even aside from that, the plotlines are largely DM-spawned. It's rare that a DM can really form a plot, at least in my group, which doesn't either get completely destroyed by the chaotic-stupid PCs, or just doesn't have the kind of life that the campaign setting itself deserves.

Since this blog is largely an attempt to improve my DMing and playing via talking about it at length, in sort of a Rogerian style, I believe I will start a series of articles on world building, as I attempt to create a compelling setting for my next campaign.

My setting generally tend towards high-magic and all kinds of cross-planar invasions and dealings. Last time, I tried to shy away from that and make a more traditional, mundane sort of environment. Magic wasn't unknowable, by any stretch, but the party was mostly kept relatively poor compared to equivalent level for the DMG, and magic weapons were less liberally sprinkled. This worked for a while and kept the chaotic-stupid at bay. That is, until an earth elemental killed the party monk and he rerolled wizard. More on that in another post.

However, I think with this world, I will go for broke and make it a completely fantasy-based setting. Realism has it's place, and it's not in a game where the Gods grant spells on a whim and wizards fling fireballs after escaping goblins.

That is not to say that I'm throwing out simulationism, just any semblance of historical fantasy.

The "Points of Light" idea in 4e interests me in a sense. I like the idea of civilization having not spread over the lands, with huge tracts of what amounts to unexplored wilderness between them. Maybe it doesn't make sense on all levels, but that's what DM bluffing is for.

So, "Points of Light". But like I said, take that and make it high magic, fantastic, and extra adventurous. Instead of "light" in this case meaning effectively "Civilization", we'll make "light" mean "light". Millenia ago, there was some catastrophe, probably the cliché of too much power in the wrong hands, and the then-civilized world fell. The magocracy collapsed, cities fell into ruin, and a black pall spread over the land. It's not important to come up with all the details at the moment, but a thick black cloud spread across the sky and blocked the sun, shrouding most of the world in permanent night. A few wizards of astounding power managed to create safe havens. One such safe haven is where the players start.

These havens are protected by some means from the evil monsters and darkness outside, and the cloud doesn't cover them, allowing life to continue. I think this world has in the realm of perhaps a million total non-savage sapients.

I like the name "Nightlands" for the blighted lands outside the walls. Since we are going with such an on-the-nose naming scheme, we'll have the players start in the haven of "Lumina".

So to get to the setting I'm creating, I've heard that it's best to have a single line or two that defines the world. I'm having some trouble casting that into a single line, but let's see...

"A darkened, forsaken world struggles to restore itself to the light."

More on this setting later.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Skipping Time

Something that is fairly rare in campaigns in my group is the concept of time passing.

Now I obviously don't mean this in the sense of everything happening in the same second. No. What I mean is that from start to finish on my last level 1-20 campaign, the time that passed in the world may have been as much as one year. That's it. Go from scraggly farmer-equivalent fighting ability as level one guys, to (literally) gods among men in a year's time.

This is largely due to the mercenary kind of work most of the campaigns with my group tend to take on. As described in the previous post, it often becomes sort of a cyclical quest-money-quest-money sort of thing. The PCs spend exactly enough time in town to buy stuff, then they are out rampaging through dungeons or wilderness encounters again. There's no feeling of the town/castle/safeplace being anything more than a string of shops and quest givers.

It wasn't always this way, mind you. In the first campaign I DMed (Back in college, remember I'm not a grognard), the players interacted heavily with the town. It was a bardic town, however that works, named "Crumbsprinkle".

Crumbsprinkle had all kinds of problems once the PCs started basing there. Demon attacks, theives, orcs, goblins, svirfneblin, drow. But the PCs cared. They even built a castle outside of town with some dwarven allies they'd made. They designed the castle, the paladin placed a temple to Hieronius in there, it was neat.

Despite being based out of Abbigallen, the capital of the nation of Stark, from about level six to around twenty, the PCs in my latest campaign seemed to have a hard time even remembering the town's name, let alone giving a crap about what happened to the place. I'd chalk it up to gamer burnout, since we've been playing basically weekly for years, but still it's disconcerting.

What do you do to keep players interested?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Group Stagnation and You

As mentioned before, my gaming group is currently playing a World of Darkness game set in the Night's Dawn book series. As a whole, the WoD rules seem to fit the scenario pretty well and the first few sessions went pretty smoothly.

The problem, and I don't have a real solution for it, is that things went formulaic pretty quickly. Now, running on a formula isn't always terrible. A roleplaying game often sort of inserts one anyway, particularly D&D. Go to tavern, get quest, kill monsters, loot, sell, buy, repeat. The problem is that certain game systems aren't about loot, and playing World of Darkness with primarily combat and little RP to speak of becomes an issue.

It's a fact of my group that most of our campaigns are combat based. Few of us tend towards the character-laden backgrounds and the longwinded conversations with NPCs. Why? I'm not sure. Call it videogamer culture. Most of us seem to expect the "Hi, I'm Joe NPC. Here's a quest, come back when it's done and I'll give you money" sort of conversation. I'm as guilty as anyone in this regard. That's fine in D&D. A group like this can run dungeon crawls for weeks on end without much problem, as long as loot keeps flowing and the dungeons aren't always the same.

The problem that I see with the current campaign, and to be frank with the latter half of my previous campaign, is that it's all we do. Yeah, we occasionally hang out in town, but for real-life months on end we have weekly sessions that are just combat broken up by periods of planning for combat. Of course, as players we could affect this slightly. We could hang around 'in town' forcing our DM to come up with more NPCs while we schmooze our way to allies and bollocks up diplomacy for enemies. The problem is that the DM doesn't plan for this and the players, myself included, don't go this direction.

Again, fine for D&D, but not for WoD. In WoD, you mostly have all the guns and crap you need in the first session. Your wealth/resources stay near-constant and you don't need to buy any more equipment. Magic items are rare and scary; there aren't +5 Vorpal Swords sitting on shelves in your local pawn shop. So instead of even combat-loot-combat-loot sort of gameplay, you end up with combat-combat-combat-combat.

How to fix it? This is a bit hypocritical, since the last campaign I DMed ran into the same problem, but mix it up! Let the PCs have allies outside of the combat! Let us go to new locales that are described in interesting ways! Don't assume I've read the source material, make up new places and new planets! Have us make an enemy of some criminal syndicate that we can't just shoot to death! Have a character have a subplot that lasts for two sessions! I dunno, something other than "Hey, I'm Joe NPC Jr. Go kill that cult and here's $40,000 you can spend of stuff you don't need anymore".

This isn't an insult to the current DM. He's got a decent style and we do mix things up occasionally. The issue is that the current story arc seems to have stagnated, and it's a pity, looking back on how awesome the first few sessions were.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

So you enter The Verbing Noun...

Welcome to The Verbing Noun, a blog on gaming, GMing, world-building, and whatever else comes to mind. The hope is that I will update this blog often.

I am going to go ahead with the 'gaming pedigree' sort of post that a lot of gaming bloggers start with. To be honest, it's not much of a resume. I'm 25 at the moment, and I've been gaming for perhaps five years. I started with D&D 3.0. Many of the grognards, were they ever to read that, would feel a swelling of either pity or scorn. I've played 3.0, 3.5, some few houserules, and World of Darkness. In the currently running campaign of my group, I am a player. It's running the World of Darkness rules overlaid on the "Night's Dawn" trilogy of books. If that title means nothing to you, then you are like me.

Speaking of this, I'm currently waiting for tonight's session to start. It's been a few weeks, despite the normally weekly sessions, and so I'm a bit distanced from the character and the rules at the moment.

The impetus behind starting this blog, which in all likelyhood will be written with the same rambling, stream-of-consciousness vibe that this post had throughout, is spending a good chunk of my working hours reading other such blogs: ChattyDM, Trollsmyth, StupidRanger, and the like. You should look them up, though I won't link them here. I don't want to send away any potential readers quite this early.