Thursday, August 21, 2008

Messing with Players

Messing with the minds of your players is a fun thing to do, and can make for very interesting and memorable moments if done sparingly. Think about it. Most players are trained from years of lazy DMing that anything the DM goes out of his way to mention is probably important. They don't get stopped traveling across a distance for anything short of a random combat encounter, so why shouldn't they be on guard when the DM starts a sentence "Ok, so one day while you are walking, you come across..."?

One trick, of course, is to mention things that have no bearing on the PCs or their adventures at all. Interrupt a two-day trip across wilderness, but don't put any combat there. Just have the party come across a strange patch of brightly colored mushrooms. These are commonly fairy homes in mythology but that would likely end up in a combat. Instead, the party just finds a patch of mushrooms. The mushrooms have no particular alchemical value, they aren't cooking mushrooms, they aren't hallucinogenic, nothing. Want to really weird the players out? Have a magic weapon just slightly above the PC's level sitting in the center of the patch, under the mushrooms. Identify, at least in 3.5, doesn't show curses, so the players will be tempted to use the weapon, but forever be waiting for the other shoe to drop. The trick is that there's nothing wrong with the weapon, the players are just being paranoid. Plus, they'll rack their brains trying to figure what the heck that patch of shrooms had to do with anything.

Actually, outright generosity normally unnerves players, even more so if it's done secretly. Every morning, the party finds a small pile of 25 gold laying nearby the place they slept. There are no footprints nearby, no noticeable scent, no note, and no magic. It is ostensibly just a pile of gold. The PCs will likely spend an hour trying to figure out if it's cursed, fake, trapped, or some other problem. The second day, they will probably take the gold. They will almost certainly eventually try to find out who or what is leaving it there. That's up to the DM, of course. I sorta like the idea of a pixie, with invisibility, silence, and some other hiding spells, leaving it there. It's sufficiently weird (why would the pixie do that?) that the players will definitely be on edge. I'd say if they detect the pixie and it realizes that they have, it stops leaving money. Just a sort of strange vignette that the players will puzzle over for a while.

Also, just upsetting the typical tropes works well for throwing a kink into the party's thought processes. When the PCs file into a tavern, and spot that dark stranger in the back, they will probably attempt to approach him at some point. Thing is, the dark stranger is just a traveler that is sleeping sitting up in the common room. He has no use for adventurers, isn't some high level ranger, and doesn't want to be bothered. In fact, there are no adventure hooks in this tavern at all. Why should there be?

For that matter, I had an NPC weird out a pack of PCs lately. The PCs were high-teen levels in 3.5, so they were basically gods. Immune to everything, unstoppable in combat, etc. I'm a permissive DM, so if they can find a spell or ability combo in the books that makes them all-powerful, they can use it. Anyway, they walked through some criminal organization that had hounded them since low levels, and eventually took out 'The Circle of Twelve', a group of twelve level 20 rogues/clerics/whatever that ran the show. They knew of a single, unquestionable ruler of the group, named 'The Thirteenth', that no one seemed to know much about. Once they finished killing the twelve, they immediately set to looting. Suddenly, a fairly unassuming man in extremely powerful equipment appeared, clapping and grinning. They could plainly see the tattoo on his hand, signifying him as the thirteenth. He made no move to combat them. He congratulated them on their success, telling them that it was a great show. He related plot information that he had absolutely no business knowing, and that the PCs were unaware of. He told them that they had beaten his men, and that he was not looking to die. He would retire immediately, and go work on other pursuits. After this, he wished them luck, and disappeared, with his armor and weapons falling to the ground. The party didn't see him cast a spell, even a quickened one, and he wasn't on any transitive plane. He was just gone.

The party took his stuff, and his advice, but a comment a bit later amused me. They were talking about the battle a few sessions later, and he came up. "Yeah, I don't know what that guy was. He was really weird." That's interesting. He wasn't "a rogue". He wasn't "that cleric guy". He was unexplainable, an anomaly. There was no place to just file him away. It was fun. This party that typically knew everything and solved all issues didn't know what had happened there. I did, but I'm not going to reveal it here.

Now, as an aside, you've got to do this in moderation. Obviously, the party thinks that everything is a trap or adventure hook because that has usually/always been the case. One fairy ring of mushrooms or exceedingly generous peasant is an oddity, ten are boring. If every encounter is strange, then none of them really are. For the most part, stick to normalcy. But every once in a while, throw in something unrelated. It's a good idea and it will spice things up a bit.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Handling Cultic Encounters

Ok, so almost as big as the "everyone meets in a tavern" cliché, at least in my campaigns, is the "evil cult". No matter where you go in some game worlds, there is some cult dedicated to an evil god that wants little more than to conquer/destroy the world. They are generally just dungeon fodder; some humans you can fight and loot for the greater good. They are at most fringe groups most the time, since 'destroying the world' isn't the most powerful political platform.

Anyway, I don't like this sort of cult. Sure, doomsday cults have existed / do exist in human history, but no one is 'just a cult member'. People don't go and start talking in a wheedley or demonic voice, hunched over in some dark robe, and staying inside some hole dug out of a mountainside, just because they are waiting for adventurers to come and slaughter their cult. However, it does work as a minor scuffle for PCs, sure.

In light of wanting a different sort of crazy cult to combat, I'd like to take a real-world example. The problem is, defining any real world religion as a 'crazy cult' will likely offend all kinds of people. We don't discuss religion or politics in polite company. However, I don't care if I offend certain groups, so I will go with Scientology as a group that we can base a new type of cult encounter with. Scientology, if you haven't heard of it, is an incredibly wealthy crazy cult founded by a science-fiction writer in the fifties. The wikipedia article is fairly informative. Part of their belief system involves space aliens and panspermia. It's not a 'destroy the world' sort of group, but it could easily be tweaked into a cult that could at least cause the PCs problems.

One thing that makes Scientology particularly interesting for RPG usage is it's wealth, influence, and tendency to use that wealth and influence to protect itself. Religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, etc, are big and powerful enough that they don't fear eradication. The idea of forcefully or legally removing Judaism, for example, from Earth is so impossible as to be laughable. However, Scientology is primarily a group of wealthy people who have purchased a high ranking for themselves, and a long list of rubes who have gotten swept up in the group and have been forced to sever ties with their erstwhile loved ones. There aren't enough people and there isn't enough tradition to call it invulnerable to legal hiccups. If Scientology was legally banned from, say, America, the group would effectively cease to exist in a generation or two. Thus, they use their money and influence to slap anyone around who dares to criticize them. This is directly applicable to an RPG set in an urban area.

In your fantasy city, perhaps some group like this exists. They aren't the rulers of the place, probably, but they have the ear of the ruler. They have money, which can buy friends. Thus, becoming an enemy of the group is no trivial matter. Far from just annihilating a cult of six guys that hang out in a cave complex, assaulting this group would be beyond the abilities of most adventuring groups. Even aside from the sheer number of people, there's legal troubles. They are based in a city, and thus are protected by it's laws. Their money and influence also means that they aren't hampered by those same laws, at least not to the extent that average commoners are. If your group goes outside of town and slaughters a dozen followers in a cave complex, you get back to a very unfriendly place. Some commoners, unbelievers, might be happy about what you did, but wouldn't express it in public. You might not be immediately arrested, but you'd be followed everywhere. The church might start a slander campaign, digging up dirt to use against you.

For the purposes of a RPG, the church probably worships a legitimate power. This could be space aliens, if you are running that sort of game, but it could just as easily be Vecna, Nerull, or some other evil god or goddess. Of course, the neonates don't know the true object of worship. Scientologists don't start out knowing about the alien thing, though they aren't exactly an object of worship anyway. It's too hokey to use as a conversion tool. Perhaps in this city, the lower level followers believe the church to worship something innocuous. Most people wouldn't mind following a new church of wealth, for instance. The people worship the idols, they obey the tenets of the church, and all the power goes to the real leader of the group. After the worshipers have given a lot of money to the church and severed most of their connections outside of the religion, they find out who the real leaders are. At this point, they are in deep and have decided that it doesn't matter who runs the group; they like the power they've gained, and the group isn't hurting anything.

How does something like this spread? Easily, if you know how to do it. Scientology was started effectively to make money for the founder. He made a few bets that he could start a religion by himself, and it worked out. There are idiots to be taken advantage of everywhere. For instance, the church leaders arrive in a new town, and manage to convert a few poorer people with tales of great wealth if they give money to the church as a sacrifice. The people, long held down by poverty and society's unfairness, agree to anything that seems likely to improve their station. The group has money already, and uses it to slightly improve the means of the new converts. Rumors of this new god of wealth spreads, and new converts come in. The church uses the monetary influx to build a nice communal home, in a poor area of town. The building is nice, with marble walls and sunlight. The converts now live there, and it feels much improved over what they knew before. More importantly, the people living in the shanties nearby see this opulent place, and want to throw in as well.

Over time, the monetary and lifestyle improvements gained by joining dwindle. However, it's now an established religion. The combined money of the city's poor is more than enough to establish political pull. People tend to join up as a matter of course now, similar to joining a church of Pelor. Concerned citizens around the city speak out against this new religion, but for some reason, all of them have bad things in their past that are always brought up, or they simply disappear. After a time, no one questions the group any more.

This is an interesting place to bring in the party. If they see this established group, and have some way of knowing that it's crooked, they will probably want to either bring it down or join it to swipe loot and then run off. Either way, they put themselves into a situation where more than just a few nut jobs in a dungeon are angry with them. A group this size has real power, and power that a strong sword arm and spellbook can't easily stop. Perhaps the party is conscripted against the religion by someone who knows at least part of the truth. Perhaps the founders of the group are now realizing that the church is out of control, and offer money to the party to expose the secrets. It's possible that the church converts one of the PCs, and he or she just happens to be smart enough to see through their lies after giving their money to the group. Either way, it's a nice setup.

Do be aware, however, that bringing heavy use of religion as a negative force into a campaign can cause problems for sensitive players. Be aware of your players' limits. If you are playing with several confused fundamentalists who see no problem with playing D&D, but would be offended by this action, you may want to be careful about it. Religion is one of those topics that tends to cause a lot of conflict very quickly.

I've used groups like this in campaigns before, and it throws players off a bit. A large-scale group that, although marginally or severely evil, has a lot of popular support is a dangerous opponent. The group I used, "The Order of the Cloth", helped the common people constantly. They healed the injured (Cure Light Wounds is free, after all), fed the hungry (Heroes Feast,Create Food and Water and the like), rebuilt damaged buildings (Mending,Wall of Stone), and generally helped out. Most of these effects can be created by clerics of levels below five or six, and people may be impressed by even a level one or two magic user in general. Helping the masses made the group well-loved, and hard to oppose. The party also had no hard evidence that the group was evil, but they just acted somewhat suspiciously and were a little overzealous in appealing to the party to convert. It was fun times.

Anyway, consider a popular and influential evil cult. It's a nice way to spice up a region a bit, and it allows for a group that the PCs are too small to immediately oppose. Plus, the long-running villains are the ones that are the most fun to oppose.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Handling Dwarven Encounters

Ok, so, Dwarves. A favorite of many, many players. What's not to like? They are stout defenders of their race, heavily akin to the stone they live in. Sturdy, strong, gruff, and drunk half the time, dwarves are all around fun for player characters. However, as NPCs, they often end up being passed off as drunkards and half-lawful humans. They seem to rarely have their own feeling in diplomatic and friendly relations. I think different races of people are different races because they are different.

Dwarves are generally portrayed as Gimli from The Lord of the Rings. A mountaineer sort of people, short of stature, but broad and powerful nonetheless. A society based heavily on law and tradition, which is slow to change but quick to anger in times of need. They are normally stalwart allies of humanity, and despite a slight antipathy, tolerant of elves. Dwarves are also commonly portrayed as holding an extreme hatred to the savage races, since they share their mountains with orcs and goblins. Giants in particular are hated. Dwarves seem to favor the drink a bit, which suits a people with such hardy constitutions. They are also usually shown with a flaw of greed. Dwarves value alliances and friendship, but things like that tend to crumble when glittering gold and shining gems are involved. See Thorin and the Arkenstone. See the reclaimants for Moria, who basically marched into certain death for the possibility of leftover mithril.

I think that these qualities should show through in more than just roleplaying an NPC as gruff, or mentioning that he has a beer tankard in hand. I think that one should consider dwarven culture when dealing with dwarves. Let's place an example scenario here. The PCs are all non-dwarven. Let's say that they are humans for simplicity's sake. They are headed to a dwarven city in order to establish trade relations. Perhaps this is a fairly newly founded city, a few deep tunnels dug, and some basic amenities. This means that the dwarves are more than hopeful that their human neighbors will find them worthy of a proper trading partner status. There are many goods that humans make with more proficiency than dwarves, and if nothing else, the humans will provide decent allies against the inevitable goblinoid raids.

Of course the humans would be treated with preference. Greeted warmly, not gruffly, and escorted through the nicest parts of the halls. The dwarf assigned to helping them around would likely be the most congenial, and more importantly, most tolerant of the dwarves' number. Because the humans are probably like modern day Americans in foreign lands. The average human, and probably even the party, doesn't bother to learn the culture of the place they are visiting. They don't bother to research the rules that society as a whole there just understands intrinsically.

For instance, our party here is invited to the Steelfist Alehall. Now, the humans probably think "Eh, a tavern" and don't think any more of it. With a culture that values alcohol, particularly ales and lagers, however, this may be a great honor. How many non-dwarves are even afforded such an opportunity? This is a grandiose display of respect, and the humans brush it off as nothing but an idle waste of time. The diplomat escorting the humans grits his teeth but leads the way for the uncaring humans.

Everyone arrives at the Alehall. There are a few dozen dwarves there, sitting at stone tables and drinking heartily, while laughing and talking as friends. It's a lively place, full of companionship and cheer. The mood dampens slightly as the humans walk in, and perhaps a joke or two gets interrupted. "So a human and an elf walk into an alehall, and.. uh... I'll tell you later." Anyway, the people recognize the diplomat and know that the visit is for the purpose of impressing visitors, and so return to carrying on, in a perhaps somewhat subdued sense, with a focus on looking like good people and wealthy enough to justify trade. The diplomat leads the party to the bar, and the owner of the hall comes over. Not just a barkeep; these visitors are too important. The owner warmly greets everyone, and reaches for five mugs, each easily able to contain a full quart. "Aye, welcome, 'umans! Fer sech honored guests, I'm wellin' to give you a q'ert on the house!" Apparently he's got a touch of an accent, and a more home-ish and rambunctious personality than the diplomat. Not all dwarves are the same person, after all.

Then, the party monk, somehow slipping in from the days before 4e, waves his hand dismissively. "Thank you, kind dwarf, but I do not drink alcohol."

An innocuous comment, to be certain. Polite as well, even overly so for most human taverns. In such places, the barkeep would likely laugh amusedly and fetch a water or milk for the man of temperance. The player of the monk is roleplaying his character, which is a good thing, and the other players probably see no issue with him refusing a drink. It's never been a problem before.

However, this time, the noise in the room quiets noticeably, with many of the closer dwarves looking at the monk in half shock and half annoyance. The gregarious smile immediately drops from the alehouse owner's face, as he pauses mid-turn. The diplomat coughs pointedly in the sudden quiet, and speaks with a certain emphasis, hoping to allay this faux pas.

"Honored visitor, you are in a dwarven alehouse, and the owner has offered you a quart. Perhaps you should accept his generosity."

This is how I think such a visit should be. Just being gruff and beer-fond humans isn't enough. Dwarven culture is a different culture. Just like eating a pork chop with your left hand would be offensive in Tehran, refusing a gift, particularly a gift of the hall's finest ale, would be a grave error in judgment in the dwarven halls. If you hitch hike by sticking your thumb up and out in some countries, you are likely to get attacked for giving an obscene gesture. If you angrily throw your fist into the crook of your elbow and show your middle finger in Tokyo, you will get little but confused looks. In a dwarven city, offering your host a gift of wine and bread might be considered strange. However, if you arrived and presented your host with a finely carved granite coffer, inlaid with a sparkling ruby and etched with gold, he would be overjoyed and consider you the very pinnacle of what humanity had to offer. It doesn't matter how fine the wine was, or how fresh and warm the bread was. It just wasn't the right gift.

So spend some time thinking about your dwarves. Think about what they are genetically and culturally predisposed to thinking is proper. Think about what they like, what they dislike, and what they could frankly care less about. Think about the differences in human and dwarven etiquette. Drinking on the job in human lands is generally enough to get you fired. In dwarven culture, it's absolutely the norm. An axe in human culture is just a tool, either for hewing logs or raiders. To a dwarf, and fine axe is worth more than all the elven wine and human paintings in the world. Nothing quite matches the beauty of that shining adamantine weapon, with the line of glittering emeralds down the haft, and the goblin-leather wrapping on the hold. It's an astonishingly valuable treasure. A human adventurer would look at it, shrug, and say something like "I use swords, not axes."

So yes, when you voice a dwarven NPC, feel free to play Gimli. Enjoy your beer, but also make a point to say and do things that are slightly outside the norm, because you aren't just a short human, you are a dwarf, proud and true.

Give it some thought.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nightlands: Adventuring

Adventuring in a world like the Nightlands should be suitably different from other campaigns. Notably, the party would like be seen as crazy to even think of walking out of the gates in such a small group. In normal settings, the wilderness is dangerous, sure, but common. Farmers live on the edge of civilization themselves. They aren't happy with it, but they are used to fighting wild animals and the occasional bandits. Adventurers are unusual for their desire to throw themselves into danger for the promise of some coins or for the good of their brothers, but not crazy.

The Nightlands aren't normal wilderness. They are cursed and evil. They change people over time. This is common knowledge, bloated and exaggerated through years of rumors and hearsay. Everyone has a friend's girlfriend's cousin's grandfather who once went with a military group into the Nightlands, only to come back crazy. Everyone knows that it's only safe inside the walls of Lumina. People who decide that they want to make a living by heading outside the gates to fight cursed monsters and demons are probably considered unstable by some and dangerously insane by most.

Herein actually lies a problem I've seen with this world so far. If the Nightlands are dangerous and basically impossible to penetrate for the normal person, how are any features of the Nightlands known well enough to even send the adventurers after? Typically in D&D, someone with money will ask the party to do something, with a promise of reward. It's a fairly basic quest structure, and money is commonly a decent motivator. Wouldn't it be considered an insult to even ask someone to go out there? It's akin to saying "Err, there's a quarter at the bottom of that meat grinder. I'll give you fifty bucks if you jump into it and get that quarter for me."

Then again, if the party is known as one of those crazy groups that is willing to risk all the dangers of the Nightlands for coin, it makes sense that they would get requests to explore/loot/retrieve things nearby the town. That's something to work out later.

Anyway, so adventuring in the Nightlands is different. One way I think I'll make it different from other worlds I've played in is that it's basically unexplored. It's a rare thing that concrete human knowledge lasts much more than a few hundred years. What we know about cultures more than three thousand years ago can basically be summed up in a small pamphlet. The Nightlands, according to the first post, have been this way for 'millenia'. This is effectively since time immemorial. What is known about the Nightlands is what can be observed from the town walls, combined with information from the trading caravans and military excursions done decades ago.

So the party makes their name running errands for some mooks in town, or they are well known bar brawlers, or whatever else. They are now level one, and feeling buff and brawny enough to head out into the breach. They can possibly procure a 'map' of the Nightlands, but nothing more than a few miles from Lumina would be accurate in the slightest. Sure, the landmasses might not have changed all that much, but towns that existed thousands of years ago will probably not exist anymore, except as barely recognizable ruins. Actually, even the coasts have moved and changed. Volcanoes erupt and expand the coastline here, a sea cave has collapsed and removed a few miles of coastline. Nothing produced thousands of years ago is accurate at all.

So as opposed to your normal party heading southwards towards that castle ruin on their map, the Nightlands group can head southwards and hope that something remains of the castle that they read about in the engravings in another ruin. Of course, from the walls of Lumina, one can see a few features scattered about. All that anyone in town knows for certain is what they can see from the walls, or from scaling the wizard's tower in the center of town as high as they dare.

Come to think of it, I don't believe I've placed Lumina in any particular type of terrain, other than one that can support a river and presumably has some area that can be mined through without flooding. It does have to be basically free of major natural disasters, so that it's still standing and in reasonable shape despite having no outside assistance for centuries. Ok, we'll put Lumina on a temperate plains sort of area. Mostly flat land around, with some rolling hills in the distance. Since the outside lands have been free of human(oid) deforesting for so long, it's slightly wooded now, limiting vision to major features. The river flows somewhat lazily over such terrain, but the occasional flooding can be controlled via floodgates built by the golems that protect the city. This means the dwarves likely had to dig through quite a depth of soft, spongy soil before getting to proper stone. Still, one presumes that dwarves don't mind mining a bit.

A terrain set like this gives the citizens of Lumina some tantalizing proximity to a few ancient structures. They can see them, but they know they can't explore them. Attempts to explore usually end in death for everyone involved, because it's dangerous and stupid to go outside the walls, as we've covered. So this provides a starting point for groups that announce a desire to head into the Nightlands. That ruined tower that the populace sees to the north, when the menacing dark seems to lighten a bit, is a suitable dare for this bigshots to go to. How's that for an opening tavern quest?

Instead of the dark stranger offering information, or the random noble who seems to hang out in bars hoping to find someone to get his lost family amulet, you can have the local neighborhood street toughs irritated by the party in there acting like big shots. The PCs think they are so tough? Fine, go to Northtower then. Stay there overnight, and bring something back that proves you were there, big shot. This has the effect of showing the party as capable of going into the Nightlands without dying, as well as establishing some low level jerks in town that can act as mild antagonists while the party is there.

Well I've been going on long enough here. The point is that adventuring in the Nightlands should have a feeling of going into the unknown. No one knows what dangers await out there, and they generally think you are crazy for even wondering.

More on the Nightlands later.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Taverns and Clichés

There's been a bit of talk recently about the good old fashioned "Tavern" cliché of D&D. I figured I would share some thoughts on this one.

My first game of D&D was in my sophomore year of college. I enjoyed the idea of D&D and so had proposed it to a few friends. Consequently, it was my first game, two or three others at the table as well, and then a couple vets, with a DM who I assume had played but not DMed before. All told, a pretty normal group I suppose. Anyway, We all rolled people up, which of course took hours since it was 3.0 and half the table had never played. Before we got started, one of the vets said something that interested me and still sort of defines D&D in my mind.

"Ok now forget the D&D videogames you've played, because now you can do anything."

Honestly I forget if it was Buddha or Shawn. Doesn't matter.

Anyway, that was sorta exemplified in the first scene we all played out. Speaking of "played out", it was a scene where everyone met in a tavern. Starting a D&D campaign in a tavern is by far the most horrendously cliché beginning possible. I can't say the result of the tavern meeting was exactly atypical either. Everyone was playing somewhat chaotic stupid, and we ended up with a barfight during which the level one gnomish sorcerer cast Burning Hands an ended up leveling the building with a fire. I don't recall how much trouble, if any, we had with the town guard after that. I do recall that the DM hadn't planned on all that happening. That's what cemented my interest in tabletop gaming as a whole. We broke the plot.

If you aren't a videogamer by default, that probably doesn't mean much to you. D&D plots get cracked all the time. Nothing ever really goes the way the DM wants it unless it's forced that direction. Forget all that freedom and put yourself in the shoes of someone who has only played videogame D&D, like Neverwinter Nights and Icewind Dale. In NN, you can't choose not to save the Waterdhavian creatures. You can't choose to kill Aribeth in the beginning of the game. You can't ingratiate yourself to The Chimera in Icewind Dale 2, and sack Targos. It's the same as trying to ally with the ghosts in Pac-man. It just isn't in the code.

That's all sort of off topic, but leads to my point in this shortish sort of article. Many of my favorite experiences in D&D occurred in taverns. Barfights, fires, Horrid Wiltings, Dark meetings with strangers, plot givers, goblins, whatever. The tavern is overplayed, sure. Every adventuring party has been in one and picked up quests. I mean, my blog is named "The Verbing Noun" because I ran out of tavern names at one point and used it.

Of course your games need variety. I'm not saying the party should always spend their money on ale and whores. They shouldn't always be smashed off their arses with beer, mead, wine, or any other drink. The tavern doesn't have to have anything to do with everything the party does. My point is this: taverns are fun. They offer fun things to do. Don't close your mind to them entirely. The freedom of D&D means that nothing is ever played out.

Make them fun again!