Names and Faces

Sunday, July 27, 2008 - 12:34 PM

I am addicted to writing new people. While doing some planning for the next session of my DnD group, I came to fully realize how much of the work I do is character-based. My favorite plots are by far character driven, and one of my favorite aspects of RPGs in general is intercharacter relations. There are very few NPCs in the games I run who do not have some kind of backstory. Even if the players never find it out (or care, for that matter), it's there, waiting.

This, unfortunately, also dredges up tons of stories and plots that never get used. This plethora of inspirational bursts all end up in a couple of extensively huge files which I comb over on those occasions where I'm drawing a blank on the next puzzle piece of whatever story I'm running. Not unlike the vast amount of material in my gaming library, I could probably spend a good ten years without using everything in that file. Sometimes it is a bit aggravating, but it's also a source of fascination to me, sorting through these names and faces and thinking 'Where did this one come from?' It's like rediscovering an old book that you forgot you had.

The added layers of interaction provided by an RPG really brings these characters to life, both for themselves and the players who meet them. In the course of the games I've run, there have been many characters who my players remember very well indeed, and I'm pleased to have been able to provide that experience for them. Some of these random characters started out as mere henchmen or local craftsmen, and as players settled into their own roles, they discovered more about these people and thereby discovered more about the world their own alter-egos were wandering about in.

That sort of perspective is, I think, why a game with well-made characters will shine above others. Immersion is a key to any story, and the fastest way to make someone relate to a situation is to provide them with a sounding board in the form of a character they can find something in common with. In a world where the impossible can happen, it can be hard for the participant from our world to really grasp how the thoughts and feelings of those in the impossible will be shaped. When you provide complete people from that world to interact with, their perspective gets shared in a contained way that the player can take in and use.

Added perspective also lets players flesh their characters out further. Character development is often relegated to 'awful things happen, what do you do' situations, and that's a pity; it can be so much more. For example, in my current campaign, the party encountered a rather horrific woman named Corant, who was capable of some ferociously awful things. Certainly the fight against her was a nasty one, but it wasn't the fight that truly impacted the PCs; it was what they discovered much later about her past as a girl. Corant is laid to rest, but the seed of her history still sits in the players, and over twenty sessions later, the girl who would later become a monster still influences their decisions. On a much gentler note, this same group has had their characters grow from conversations with archmages explaining to them what it really means to save the world, from moral dilemmas and debates thrown from one to another, and even merely from one repentant NPC, seen only one session, who offered a PC his sword as an apology for fighting against them.

The progression of the story and watching my players go through the story, changing it as they go; this is a significant part of why I run games. And now, as I describe Tirilan, Jolani's son, in words and numbers, I wonder to myself what new twists he will offer them.

If they ever meet him, that is.

Labels: ,

Art demands Art

Saturday, July 19, 2008 - 1:53 PM

This was originally posted under a pen-name blog of mine, some while ago. Due to my artist recently creating something based on this work, I'm reposting it here.

I can't emphasize how well she captured Sinclair.
Sinclair by Liz Harper

There were only three ways to survive Between, according to Sinclair. You had the strength to take what you needed, you were smart enough to get what you needed, or you always had what others needed. Sinclair took it one step further; s/he made certain others had needs.

In the Between, Sinclair's fingertips were a number of unconnected hovels, husks that emulated the lost souls who always came back to them, again and again; wreckage, broken architecture, a smashed and featureless facade hiding the gaudy velvet synesthesia of whatever mad dreams and fancies lolled senseless within. Sinclair had many customers, some who served, and some of whom never actually left.

Today, Sinclair was predominantly female, with a lean, arrogant face. Heavy auburn hair hung around it like banyan vines, twisted into braids, and writhing out from them were snake-skeleton tattoos, sunning themselves across bare, pale shoulders, tails hidden at the nape. Full lips were touched with dark gloss, pressed into a regal pout, and a pair of silver rings stitched the bottom lip. The body was slender and efficient, Sinclair's preference, with the sort of impossible proportions that drew the eye of man and woman both. No matter what flesh Sinclair was wearing, the eyes were always the same; blue and cold, like arctic sky, poisonous as mercury.

Those who knew Sinclair understood that it was not inattention that kept those eyes unfocused, always seeming to slide away from things in their view. These eyes were fixed on a lanky man of sinew and bone, wrapped in Betweener rags, who was pleading for clemency. It was accounting day, when Sinclair collected what was due. Unlike the Horse Trader, another of the great merchants Between, Sinclair loved debt, and adored drawing business out over months and years.

To one side stood Emily, Sinclair's accountant, dapper and autistic, a prodigy of numbers that Sinclair had bought from the King of Fools a while back. She murmured the man's accounts over and over in her small, reedy voice, which always made Sinclair think of a very small violin. Two others indebted to Sinclair kept the man penned, two very loyal sheepdogs who craved disobedience from their flock. Neither had the wits or will to break Sinclair's hold on them, but they were happy with their job, and that was as Sinclair preferred. A few others looked on, mostly those also in debt. Walter, a slender fair-haired man with uncommonly long fingers and an excellent kinesthetic sense, occupied space next to Sinclair, carefully holding a couple of kittens, who fussed incessantly.

"You don't have anything more to trade," Sinclair announced softly. "You come here and plead to me."

The man was still reaching forward, as if he were drowning and Sinclair might save him. "I can't dream anymore!"

"That's because your dreams are on lease. I keep them in a very lovely silk and silver Faberge egg near my bedside," Sinclair said. "My books aren't even; you'll have to give something... come forward, and let me see your hand."

The two sheepdogs were very disappointed that the man didn't even hesitate. Sinclair made a mental note to punish them on general principle for not being polite; there was too much brutal eagerness showing. When the man reached out a hand, Sinclair took it, running long fingers over it, cool as snakeskin. To Sinclair's flesh, the flesh of another was a book. Reading deeper than veins and muscle and bone, Sinclair deciphered the riddles and metaphors of blood and nerve, rewriting some of what was found there, rearranging the patterns of body chemistry.

Looking at the man, Sinclair smiled, and offered a hand, palm open.

The man knew what this was, and there was a flicker of reluctance, and fear, but he knew there was no choice.

Sinclair hated leaving people choices. They should just do as they were supposed to. And this one did; he licked the palm. Almost immediately, he seized up, made a startled manikin, and fell to the floor, twitching slightly. Sinclair tilted a glance at Walter.

"Walter, sweetheart, go ahead and let the children play."

Walter, smiling softly at being noticed, walked over to the man, and set the kittens down. The little creatures immediately started clawing and biting, tugging and bounding about the immobile body. Walter patted them fondly and then moved back to his place near Sinclair. Sinclair silently hushed Emily, and then looked at the line of debtors. This happened almost every time, and it was never tiring to watch their faces.

"This man can feel everything that is happening to him," Sinclair told their hungry faces. "He will not die, unless I let him, but he'll be spending the rest of the day under the happy needlepoint attention of kittens. Each hour, I shall have dear Walter add two more kittens, until there are twenty. And they won't tire of him; I made certain of that. Now, this man is short but one day in his dues. Some of you, Emily tells me, are short far more than that this month. Consider that I have a sense of proportion. Consider this, and consider something to offer me when I call you here next. Those who have nothing may leave for now. The worthy may stay, and offer what they will."

And just as always, many of the hollow-eyed clients slithered out, fearful, addled in their need for Sinclair, and what Sinclair had for them. And just as always, Sinclair knew that some would now offer up far more than they would have. They had heard the stories of Sinclair's other methods, the penchant for thieving the body of another even while they were still using it, the horrible intrusion of Sinclair's body into their own.

They crept forward, careful.

Emily began the next page of debts, and Sinclair whispered to her to tally up payments, fixing eyes on the kittens, who gnawed and pricked the paralyzed man's hand raw, content and simple in their cruelty.

Little darlings, thought Sinclair, and smiled.

Labels: , ,

The Flavor of Machinery

Saturday, July 12, 2008 - 10:24 AM

While combing through the 4ed Monster Manual the other day, I came to a sudden realization.

I didn't recall seeing a single monster who, outside of basic skills, had any special ability outside of combat applications.

I did a second look-thru, and though a very, very few exceptions exist, the monsters in the book are nothing but blocks of combat stats. Even in the case of the exceptions, there are barely any indications as to how these abilities are used except in combat situations.

Before I continue, I want to be sure people don't consider this observation a complaint on my part. This is the flavor of 4ed; it is a combat game, and emphasizes combat more than 3.5 by quite a bit. So, it is what it is. However, I think that the significance of this mechanical foundation is being overlooked by a good number of people.

When you build a conflict resolution mechanic for a game, it will influence the overall feel of the game. It doesn't matter how well you story-tell around the mechanics of a system; one way or the other, the mechanic will affect the mood and the tone. Further, what gets delineated mechanically and how will certainly affect how people build their characters, and therefore influence how the characters behave during the course of the game.

In Kult, for example, the system makes combat very dangerous. There is no heroic dodging of bullets in this game; if someone pulls a gun, you take cover, because it doesn't matter how tough you are. By the rules of the game, any slob with a gun can kill you with one bullet. This mechanical emphasis on how fragile a character is enhances the claustrophobia and paranoia of the setting overall. Also, for practical reasons, it influences people to keep their characters out of combat.

Another fine example is Riddle of Steel, where things which are important to your character actually enhance your performance in the game system. This provides a mechanical reward to players who pursue their character's passions and agendas, and also allows them to communicate to the GM in no uncertain terms what they want to do in the game... particularly because these same agendas and passions are given specific game statistics and are responsible for generating experience points in that system.

In 4ed, noncombat skills have been boiled down and reduced to a smaller set of categories. Skill challenges are an interesting new tension-filled way to handle use of skills (though really, some GMs have been doing something similar with 3rd for a while now). However, the vast majority of mechanically defined applications and abilities (and I do mean vast) are all to do with combat. There is a nominal smattering of 'utility powers', and certainly the ritual casting opens up a good few options, but again, it's few options. Combine this with the level requisites for various rituals, and you quickly find that outside of a small parcel of trained skills, your average 4ed character is not, mechanically, very versatile.

I'm going to break my usual rule about comparing 3.5 and 4ed at this point, because 3.5 is the nearest best point of contrast for what I'm observing here. In 3.5, everything was delineated, and skills were fairly extensive. Their use was further enhanced even in an out-of-combat capacity by various feats, prestige classes and sometimes magic items. Monsters often had abilities which were certainly out-of-combat oriented, even if they were only spells and the like. Utility spells complemented skill use, and skills such as Performance provided additional options for players in the social context.

In contrast, I note that, as written, neither the Succubus or the Pit Fiend in 4ed can even detect magic. In the case of player characters, utility-style abilities are heavily level dependent, and you only ever get a limited few. Skill checks are the primary way to get anything done mechanically outside of combat, and in 4ed, anybody can make a skill check. Some are better than others at it, certainly, but if you have a hankering to build a skill-focused character, your options are few. The vast majority of abilities as presented are for tactical combat.

Certainly the GM can add or subtract to a game whatever they like. My policy is that you do not let the system run you; you run the system. But looking exclusively at the mechanical support for given types of actions in 3.5 and 4ed, one can see what the feel of the game is going to be. That said, the feel overall of 4ed may change depending on where they take the game from here (and that is a very big question). As it stands, those people who enjoy diversity in a character and social interactions outside of a peripheral view will probably want to stick with 3.5. How you define your character may start in your head, but the numbers let you know what you can and cannot, absolutely, do in the game. In 4ed, those numbers are almost exclusively, and very specifically, about combat.

Is it wrong? No. A different game than 3.5? Absolutely yes. I'll play both, myself, but I can readily tell what players will enjoy which game more. I still maintain 4ed is a very clean system overall, but it is (currently) a very focused system with a strictly limited perspective on how the world works.

One might think they were planning to make a computer game out of it or something.

Labels: , ,

Paths, pt 6

Thursday, July 10, 2008 - 10:18 PM

Redemption had always been part of Naello's plans, but he frequently felt as if the opportunities for it were stolen from him, and his bitterness had increased, drop by brackish drop, over the years. This in turn whetted the hunger for atonement, but he could find no way to earn that which he wanted most.

When the neshniya came back with the wrong blood on their hands, at first he'd been outraged. They'd never failed him before, but somehow, the damnable four had managed to evade the neshniya. He quickly realized that being angry at the neshniya was pointless, and feeling foolish quelled his temper just as quickly. But in gathering information, they'd overheard something that made their failure worthwhile.

He looked out the tiny stone window to the broken, bleak land that hid him in apathy and fog, and his back shivered involuntarily at being turned to the neshniya.

This was a possibility, at last.

“Tell me again what you heard,” he said.

The low, impassive voice that replied was like a wisp of cold fog given voice. Chalciere was the neshniya leader, and generally spoke for all of them. “In the city of Arn, a man claims that he has the soul of Martel the Gorecrow. This information was taken from a traveling tinker, heading south from Arn.”

“What else did you hear,” said Naello.

“The information warranted interest, as the quarry might be following the same trail,” continued Chalciere in an even, expressionless tone. “We interrogated several, and discovered the following: the soul is contained in a red glass hourglass, set with hematite. The man in possession is a very rich man in Arn, but he does not pay alliance to any Guildmaster there except in normal dues. The man in possession hires many bodyguards, and intends to sell the hourglass to the highest bidder. He will not leave Arn, knowing that his trade is illegal elsewhere. We know his name and countenance.”

Naello smiled without humor. It was a triumphant grimace more than anything else. Martel's reputation was so tremendous that even now, after his death, people did not want to say his name or remember what he did. Some hadn't even believed he'd been slain.

And the four had killed him.

What if a terrible mistake occurred? What if Martel came back from Hell and destroyed the four who sent him there? And what if Naello were to come forward and defeat Martel in turn?
The red hourglass was almost certainly one of those crafted in Mancora, designed to hold one's life in place for the duration of their unnaturally slow sand-fall. The hourglasses were not well known, and most measured a century rather than an hour. The glass will have been turned, then, to contain Martel's blood-stained soul, and it will hold him for a hundred years... or unless his soul is given somewhere else to rest.

Revenge and redemption, thought Naello.

“Forget the quarry. Go to Arn. Find this man and take the hourglass, and bring it to me. Be as quiet as you can, but kill anyone who interferes, and kill any witnesses who see you take the hourglass.”

The command made his heart contract; he remembered the first time he'd told the neshniya to kill witnesses.

“...kill them quickly,” he added, turning to look at them. “No side trips. No feeding. No torture. But bring me the head of the man with the hourglass.”

They stood there, wrapped in black cloth and hunger, with no sign of deference. Their empty black eyes looked through him, and for a moment, he had to repress the urge to flee, to hurl himself out of the window rather than let them satiate themselves on his body. But they obeyed, leaving the cold hall swiftly on silent feet, with Chalciere last, light as a spider.

When he turned back to the window, the hall seemed colder.

He ignored it.

Labels: , ,


Monday, July 7, 2008 - 1:46 PM

My second session of 4ed went sliding by this past weekend, and already I'm finding a definite feel for the system. Judging from other opinions and what I've read, skill challenges seem to be a much larger part of the system than the way I have been using them. This seems to be a sort of compensation for the lack of out-of-combat mechanical options given to the players, at least at lower levels.

Overall, the game went smoothly. There are some design decisions I'm still attempting to figure out (the charging rules seem odd to me, for example, though I understand how they are supposed to work), but in general the rule sets were easy enough to pick up. At this point I need to absorb the quirks of the system and bend it where it needs bending.... there's no system in the world that doesn't need bending somewhere, after all.

I had mixed reviews from players about 4ed. Some really don't like it. Others do. Some are neutral. The major complaints, in general, have been the editing/content of the books (which I agree with), and the lack of sufficient mechanical support for anything not having to do with tactical combat (which I agree with in part).

My own opinion has moved into a reasonably neutral one. There are some ideas here which I like, and which I can translate mechanically into my 3.75 campaign (never trust 3.5 by itself). As a system, 4ed is solidified in my mind as a tactical wargame with RP enhancements tacked on. It is a reasonably quick system with a good, solid balanced system foundation. Character options at the moment are very limited, but that also keeps things streamlined which in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, there are some bits and pieces in the rules text which are just not written very well, and I expect as time goes by more rules arguments are going to crop up about things which the designers probably did so many times they figured nobody needed clarification on them. Lastly, I am certain that the foundation of the game is going to suffer when the publisher dumps a horde of new character options into the next set of rulebooks. I hope my certainty is ill-founded... but I'd say it's a safe bet, judging from what I've seen happen in other games time and again.

On the tweaking 3.5 note, I'm very much enjoying the Pathfinder material that has been coming out these days. The Paizo group has been consistent in their creativity and quality, in my opinion, and I see no reason to cancel my subscription with them, even though I don't game nearly often enough to make use of everything I get from them. Even so, spinning source material through my brain always leaves a trail of seeds that burst into something new, and I enjoy that well enough. Integrating some of their rule changes and adaptations for the standard 3.5 system is something I'm playing with at the moment.

As far as playing is concerned, I'll be posting some information about the 4ed scenario that I was testing out this past weekend... and the continuation of that scenario, as well. In this particular adventure, I am adhering strictly to the guidelines presented in the 4ed books, to see how they play out in practice with the sorts of players I run games for. Also, more Paths fiction is on the way.

Until then...

Labels: ,

By Request

Wednesday, July 2, 2008 - 10:10 AM

Someone asked about the menu for the dinner party... so...

During the Devious Heads game:
Miniature bisteeya
Quail-egg and breading/sesame seed variation on scotch eggs

At table:
First: Watercress vichysoisse
Second: Scallops and sole baked in parchment, on julienned squash, zucchini and carrot// white wine, shallot and tarragon reduction
Third: Smoked, tea-marinated cornish game hen quarters wrapped in green tea crepes// light port and spice reduction, finished with Earl Grey tea
Fourth: Sirloin cuts baked in puff pastry with caramelized fennel and shallots// Mushroom reduction, sauce poivrade
Fifth: chocolate beignets with vanilla-amaretto sauce, ginger-mascarpone cheesecake with walnut crust

Also, there was a vegetarian variant for each of the meat-bearing courses for the single vegetarian at the table. All of the sauces were vegetarian from the get-go.