Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Twenty Questions, Part 5: Religion

Question 1 is "what's the deal with my cleric's religion?" There are a LOT of possibilities. Instead of going through them all, I created this set of tables to allow the quick creation of new religions for roleplaying games; it's not comprehensive, either in the possibilities for roleplaying or in covering all religions in real life. I should point out that using a real religion for your cleric is another possibility that is probably under-utilized and opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities we won't get into today.

A fun twist to put in your campaign setting would be having your players' clerics' religions be wrong about the the cosmology of the universe; if the clerics discover this, it could make for very, very interesting higher-level play as the clerics decide what to do with this information.

Who are the gods? Roll 1d8:
1: Atheist- there are no gods. There's still divine magic, but why is up to you.
2: Monotheist- there is one God, who usually created everything and runs the whole show.
3: Henotheist- there are many gods, but worshipers only worship one particular god; the default in vanilla D&D.
4: Polytheist- there are many gods and worshipers worship all or many of them. Clerics and priests would normally be dedicated to just one god, though that wouldn't stop them from worshiping other gods when expedient.
5: Ancestor Worship- the gods are dead ancestors and care about what goes on with their living families.
6: Animism- demi-gods or petty gods are everywhere. Every action and object has a demi-god that is in charge of it.
7: The Force- presumably self-explanatory. If your players aren't familiar with the Force, watch Star Wars instead of gaming for the next few sessions. Midichlorians optional.
8: Roll 1d4 times on this table and combine the results.

Who can join this religion? Roll 1d4:
1: Exclusive- this religion won't take converts; it's for the chosen few (race, class, being born into the religion, having a birthmark, etc.)
2: Esoteric- this religion will technically take converts, but they don't advertise and conversion requires a lot of work (and possibly gold). There may be secret knowledge learned only after levels are attained or at the feet of a guru.
3: Friendly- this religion doesn't place an emphasis on conversion, but converts are very welcome. Some individuals will proselytize with varying degrees of insistance.
4: Evangelistic- this religion actively seeks converts and all members are responsible to share their faith. Forced conversions may or may not be seen as legitimate.

How are the gods inclined? Roll 1d6:
1: Omnibenevolent- the god(s) of this religion are always loving and working for the good of their worshipers/the universe. Note that they may cause difficult circumstances "so they can grow."
2: Loving- the god(s) love their worshipers/the universe, but can be angered by betrayal, apostasy and evil, which they will punish.
3: Temperamental- the god(s) will generally be good to their worshipers as long as the worshipers fulfill every one of their obligations to the god(s); if they don't, bad things (spell denial, etc.) will happen.
4: Moody- even if worshipers do everything they are supposed to, the god(s) may not be in the mood to grant them favor today…
5: Apathetic- the god(s) don't really care what happens to mortals; the interest they take is strictly for entertainment. Note that they may meddle to make mortals' lives more entertaining.
6: Malevolent- the god(s) aren't very nice. Worship is generally to placate them and keep them from killing everybody. At its most extreme, we're talking Cthulhu and his ilk.

What is the moral code? Roll 1d6:
1: Amoral- this religion cares about transactional things like sacrifices and a good harvest, instead of any kind of moral code.
2: Laissez Faire- this religion teaches a moral code, but each person is only supposed to care about how well they as individuals follow the code.
3: Helpful- a moral code is seen as a helpful way to live the good life, so tenets of morality are regularly shared with those one cares about, but it's up to them to take the advice.
4: Societal- this religion cares about the health of society and teaches its moral code as a means of achieving or preserving a healthy society. Moral degeneration is seen as the precursor to the downfall of society.
5: Pushy- members of this religion try to force everyone, even non-believers, to adhere to their moral code because they fervently believe that that's the way it's supposed to be.
6: Roll again 1d4 times; there are different factions or streams of thought on morality in this religion.

How is worship done? Roll 1d6:
1: Sacrifice- the main act of worship is giving material possessions to the god(s), often by destroying them or donating them to a temple.
2: Service- the main act of worship is meeting the needs of either other worshipers or anyone in need; these can be physical, spiritual or both.
3: Praise- the main act of worship is corporate ceremonies where the qualities and/or actions of the god(s) are extolled.
4: Study- the main act of worship is to study the sacred texts and grow in understanding of the religion.
5: Mystic Communion- the main act of worship is individual communion with the god(s), usually while alone.
6: Ritual/Ceremony- the main act of worship is to perform defined tasks that please, placate, support or imitate the divine. (Thanks to Antion for contributing this.)
7: Public Devotion- the main act of worship is some public act; possibilities include telling a ruler off for abandoning the faith, acting out metaphors to get a point across to the apostate masses, self-flagellation or other public repentance activity, taking part in a regular parade for the divine (probably with some representation of the divine housed in a palanquin that they carry), etc. (Thanks to Antion for indirectly suggesting this.)
8: Roll again 1d4 times. This religion has more than one major act of worship.

What level of religious involvement is required of those who follow this religion? Roll 1d4:
1: Assent- this religion doesn't get involved in life much; members just kind of know there are gods that they occasionally worship.
2: Regular- worshipers regularly go to sacred places to perform worship, but other than that the religion doesn't affect their lives that much.
3: Worldview- the worshipers view of life is fundamentally shaped by their religion and it affects many of their choices, but they can easily be confused for someone who doesn't share their religion.
4: Lifestyle- this religion affects all areas of life and worshipers always wear articles of clothing or jewelry and perform rituals or prayers that make it obvious to all that they are members of this religion.

What spheres of influence does this god rule over? Roll 1d4:
1: All- this god reigns over all parts of the universe.
2: Many- this god is responsible for many aspects of life or areas of control.
3: One- this god has one sphere of influence.
4: None- this god has power, but isn't associated with any one part of life or realm in particular.

As an example, I just rolled up a religion that is monotheistic and has an apathetic god that doesn't exercise control over anything in particular, but whose worshipers are an exclusive group that pushes their morality on everyone, practices service to others as their primary mode of worship and wears religious clothing and perform rituals and prayers throughout each day. It sounds like one way that believers in Crom might react to his apathy: "if Crom won't help us, we'll help ourselves and each other." They probably got their stereotypical paladin attitude from the fact that others not buying into their religion and moral code could destroy an entire village in the unforgiving environment where this religion was founded. Their moral code probably revolves around helping others and keeping the impact of one's actions on others in mind when making decisions; their dress is probably mountain dress, even if they've migrated to another, more hospitable place (moving to an unfamiliar place filled with people you don't understand can be an impetus for intolerant, emotional and judgmental religious fervor). Their rituals might include asking everyone they meet if they need a place to stay for the night or if they need a meal or other need. You get the idea.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Trap #7

We're going to try a little experiment today. I'm getting rid of the six short entries at the front of these trap stat blocks and adding a third longer entry at the end. Also, I'm going to try to take more liberties with adding to traps from here on out. "Inspiration, not dictation" is a great motto for these traps; otherwise you can just roll them up yourself. This trap is intended to be something that can be used in battle, both against or by the PCs, though the latter will be pretty risky.

15: Magical Devices
1: Latch/Switch Trigger
8: Curse

Description: On a wall is a lever in the "up" position. On the end of the handle of the lever is a symbol; it shows a flask being poured out inside a shield design. If the lever is pulled, randomly select a character in the room that is NOT touching the lever; that character is cursed and their prime attribute (or, at your option, a random attribute) is dropped to 3 until the curse is removed. The lever gains energy from the drained attribute and resets itself with that energy, moving bace to the "up" position. The area around the lever (~5 foot radius from lever) is bathed in a sickly blue, occasionally flickering, obviously unnatural light; the source of this light is a small panel in the ceiling. Taking inspiration from here, the blue light prevents any character with a Strength score over 9 to enter the area it bathes.

Detection/Disarming: The lever is easy to see, and a Detect Magic spell will clearly show that it is magical. The symbol on the lever is difficult to understand, but clever players may deduce that the lever is intended for defense (the shield) by draining or pouring out (the flask being poured out) something of the target (the ability score). Dispel Magic or physical violence are effective ways to destroy the trap, but give the PCs a 75% chance to knock the lever down, triggering the trap again, if they do not specifically state precautions the PCs take to avoid this; also, note that a PC that, say, clubs the lever down is vulnerable to the curse, since that PC is not touching the lever. The panel emitting the blue light is also powered by the drained ability scores. If the lever is destroyed, the panel will cease to emit light. If removed, the panel could fetch a good price from the right buyer.

Designer: This trap was placed by a magic-user of some sort who was afraid of being attacked. The idea was that, if he was attacked, he would flee to this room and pull the lever as much as he could, weakening his attackers, all while being protected from most fighters by the blue light. He'd then finish them off in more normal ways. This magic-user could still be around or he might be long gone. If he's gone, the trap may seem random and disjointed from the nearby occupants and rooms; newer residents may or may not be smart enough to use this trap in violent encounters with the PCs.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tuesday Trap #6

This trap is… pretty ho-hum. Pit traps in general seem to be. They do work well in keeping your players on their guard, though. If you don't want your players complaining when a more complex trap kills, maims, grievously wounds or traps their characters, communicate to them beforehand that there are traps about by throwing a few pit traps into the environment; falling into a pit trap once or twice gets the point across much better than "alright, guys, I expect you to be careful in this dungeon." They can all be exactly the same, too… after all, even if they're not, they sure feel like they are. (You might want to vary the contents at the bottom of the pit, though.)

Also, according to my calculations, I'm now caught up on my Tuesday Traps series. These posts will be weekly from now on.

My Rolls:
1: Pit
5: Central Latch type
10: 10' Deep
14: Poisoned Spike
5: Number of Spikes that might Hit
10: THAC0 of 16 (+4 to hit)
13: 3d8 Damage per Hit
5: Number of Items in Pit
75: Broken Chair
15: Moldy Fruit
32: Small Metal Mirror
87: Humanoid Limbs
4: Offal

Trigger: Pressure
Save: Dexterity -6, AC, Poison
Reset: Manual Reset
Effects: Multiple Targets
Duration: Instant
Bypass: None

Description: This trap may be placed just about anywhere; it doesn't matter if it's in a hallway or a chamber or even outdoors. The pit is covered by two boards of equal size that meet along the center of the pit and each cover half of the pit, with their border running between 12 and 6 on a clock face. The sides of the boards that correspond with 9 and 3 rest on small indentations that are wider than the pit, keeping the boards from falling into the pit. The boards are held together by reeds laminated across the seam of the boards on the underside of the boards. The reeds and laminate are weak enough that even an unencumbered halfling would break them. Characters may save at -6 to avoid falling into the pit.

The pit is 10'/3m deep and the fall, as well as the falling boards, does 1d8 damage. The bottom of the pit is covered with poisoned spikes. Roll to attack five times at +4 to hit. Each hit is a spike, which does 1d8 damage. Each spike is poisoned; save vs. poison or suffer another 1d8 damage. Also in the pit are the entrails and arms of a recently (but not too recently) killed goblin, a smashed rocking chair, three molding apples and a small bronze hand mirror.

Detection/Disarming: Characters may detect this trap by many of the standard methods of trap detection. Examples include tapping the ground with sticks (a hollow sound will be heard), sprinkling liquid on the ground to see if it pools or drips through the floor, rolling barrels or large stones in front of the party, etc.

The trap may be disarmed by filling it with rubble or covering it with boards or some other flat, strong material.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday Trap #5

This roll left me scratching my head… the table explicitly and specifically says not to roll on the trigger table for this trap, since it's a spell trap. OK… but a Blade Barrier isn't exactly a trap if it's just sitting there, right? And if the default duration, according to OSRIC, is 18 rounds, the party won't even encounter it if there's no trigger… unless you're a little extra creative. It's this kind of creativity, where you have to not just color, but color outside the lines a little, using tables for inspiration rather than for dictation, that I'm really thankful to the OSR in general for teaching me and for giving me a game where I can exercise it.

My Rolls:
13: Spells
10: Blade Barrier

Trigger: None
Save: None
Reset: Automatic
Effects: None
Duration: Instant
Bypass: Magic

Description: In a room or hallway, there is a fireman's pole hanging from the ceiling and a hole in the floor that it descends into. A meter or so below the floor, the pole is greased to the degree that characters cannot slow their descent at all, and fall at the speed of standard free-fall. The pole leads to another level or sub-level, but the pole ends an appreciable distance above the floor of this level so that getting ahold of the pole to climb back up, even if the grease can be dealt with, should be nigh-on impossible. Cruel refs can make the distance between the beginning of the grease and the floor of the second level quite a ways; kind refs may make the greased portion of the pole short and interpose a chute between the end of the pole and the second level to mitigate falling damage. Falling damage should be assigned consistent with the system being used.

On the second level, players find themselves in the middle of a whirling circular wall of all manner of swords, the result of a Blade Barrier spell. Anything passing through the Blade Barrier takes 8d8 damage. Every 15 minutes, a Magic Mouth on the wall casts a Blade Barrier spell of slightly different radius from the one currently in effect. The Blade Barrier reaches up to the ceiling and down to the floor of the chamber the characters are trapped in. Every day or so, some malevolent denizen of the dungeon drops by, dispels the current Blade Barrier spells right after one is cast (so there is 15 minutes to deal with those trapped) and deals with the victims of the trap in a way consistent with their nature. Possibilities include eating, enslavement, robbing and leaving the party destitute, interrogation, etc.

Detection/Disarming: Any character who jumps down a hole, fireman's pole or not, without at least a cursory examination is just asking for it. Smart players' characters will examine the pole and hole before jumping in. One way to do this is to fly or levitate into the hole without the aide of the pole. Another, more common, way would be to throw or lower a torch down into the hole. There should be a 50% chance that a torch going into the hole (whether held by a character or not!) lights the grease on fire. That alone should be plenty of warning to the party! If the second level is close enough to the mouth of the hole to see, and if no chutes block the view, the party should be able to see an open floor, but not the Blade Barrier; the party should be told that they can see strange shimmering on the floor, though, from the torchlight reflecting off of the spinning, whirling blades.

Once trapped, characters will probably need magic to escape, becoming gaseous or incorporeal or dispelling the Blade Barrier. If the Magic Mouth is smashed, it will no longer cast Blade Barrier, so one wizard with a way to get out of the the Blade Barrier with a club or mace of some sort should make short work of this trap. Of course, getting out of this new level is another matter entirely…

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Punji Sticks and Agent Orange: Fantasy F---ing Vietnam and being Intentional about Fun

I love traps in D&D, even more than I love most monsters. They're a chance to be heinously creative in the most violent way possible and, what can I say, I enjoy getting a chance to do that. Equally enjoyable, though, is watching a group of players successfully navigate a trap. As much as I enjoy the violence inherent in traps (and, to some degree, we all do, seeing as we're playing D&D) I think I enjoy the creativity even more, which is why I think I actually enjoy watching players successfully deal with a trap even more than watching their characters caught, hurt, maimed or killed by my traps; of course, that's still an entertaining consolation prize.

Because there's creativity on both sides of a well-run trap of this type, I'd like to be on the other side of the screen when some of these are encountered; I'd like to be creatively dealing with traps for a change, and marveling at the creativity of the ref, instead of the other way around. In fact, I'd like to play in a game, no, a campaign with lots and lots of traps in it. I'd like to play in a game of the type that is commonly referred to as "Fantasy F---ing Vietnam." That is, I'd like to play in a game where dangerous traps are everywhere and a significant part of each game is working through finding and dealing with those traps, in a way reminiscent of the experience of soldiers fighting the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, who had to constantly be on the alert for all sorts of traps. (So, yes, in some ways, I'm a frustrated player, though I do honestly enjoy ref-ing; it's just that I'd love to be both ref-ing and playing.)

I currently own, in hard copy, two trap books. Both were originally published before I was born. One is Dragontree's Handbook of Traps and Tricks and the other is Flying Buffalo's Grimtooth's Traps Too. I bought them so that I could run Old School traps in my games. Both of them are excellent and full of nasty traps. I've noticed, though, that there are two different kinds of traps in these books.

The first kind of trap is the kind I bought the books for: devious, nasty traps that require creativity, cleverness and caution to survive. They're the kind of traps I hope I emulate in my Tuesday Traps series. I like to define them as "fair but cruel." They're likely to catch unprepared players off guard, but they're not unavoidable. I think it's fair to compare these to punji pit traps in Vietnam. These traps injured, maimed and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers, but that was largely because they didn't have the luxury of poking about with ten-foot poles; to grossly oversimplify, they were carrying their rifles in their hands.

There's another kind of trap, though, that I could call the "gotcha" trap. It's a trap where there's really no escape, no way to detect the trap before hand and, even if you could detect it, no way to disable it. As an example, the last trap in Grimtooth's Traps Too is microscopic flesh-eating worms encased in the spine of a book; when a character opens the book, the worms are released and, unnoticed by the character, worm they way into the character's body. The ref now has carte blanche to do whatever he wants to the character, whenever he wants to do it. That's it, no warning, no discernable trap, no possible way a character can have any idea what happened until it's too late. I think it's fair to campare these traps to Agent Orange, the industrial herbicide that thousands of soldiers were exposed to without knowing (putting aside whether the government knew about it or not- I'm already a bit worried that I'm going to hit a raw nerve by digging deeper into this Vietnam metaphor) that it would do all sorts of horrible things to them, usually later on in their lives. There wasn't anything they could do to avoid it and there were no warnings, no matter how careful or creative they were.

These kinds of traps, then, are another way to decrease the kind of fun I look forward to with traps at the table because, once again, they kill creativity, because players can't use their creativity to defeat traps.

Not only that, but when players don't have any chance at all of dealing with traps through roleplaying, they eventually stop roleplaying and start asking to roll dice. When you can roll dice, you've got a chance, no matter how small, of detecting microscopic worms and then rolling again and avoiding or destroying them; you don't have to be able to explain how you did it. You just did, 'cus the dice said so. And that- having to use the dice to defend yourself against the GM- is lame.

Now, I understand that there are other kinds of fun out there. There's a goofy, let's watch our characters die sort of fun that is OK with gotcha/Agent Orange-style traps, and it's one kind of Old School kind of fun. There's a New School kind of fun where the ability to deal with traps is part of the character's build and dealing with traps with die rolls with really high modifiers is validation of the skill points or feats or powers put toward that ability- the kind of fun where playing the game is quite a bit about testing your character build.

Both of these are legitimate kinds of fun. They're just not my kinds of fun.

(At least, they're not the kinds of fun I am usually interested in when I'm playing an RPG; I actually think I could enjoy both of these kinds of fun, provided the first kind was for a one-shot or one uncharacteristic adventure and provided that the second kind had build options that didn't seem to me to be ridiculously arbitrary from the designer's standpoint; that is, I can appreciate character building in Risus much more than character building in 3.5. But that's another post for another day.)

My kind of fun, when it comes to traps, is where both the ref and the players are clever, creative and careful and both the ref and the players get to enjoy watching whoever's on the other side of the screen be, or show off the fruits of being, clever, creative and careful.

What's my point in all this? My point is first of all that it's a good thing, if not particularly of life-or-death importance, to know what kind of fun you like. I've done that, and maybe helped you figure out what kind of fun you like, in which case this post will have been worth something.

My second point, though, is that certain kinds of fun can be fragile, especially the kinds of fun that take more work. I think that running traps the way I find most enjoyable takes more work than running traps of either the "gotcha" style or the roll-roll-done style, and I think that's why it's rarer. If not intentionally maintained, this style of play will naturally morph into one of the other two styles; if I'm not careful to make sure this trap has feasible ways to be discovered or if I don't put enough work into it and include enough detail so that this trap can actually be role-played, it's going to be a gotcha or roll-roll-done trap. If I let my players roll to discover traps because it's the umpteenth time they've asked, or if I let my inner tyrant-GM push aside my inner referee because the players are frustrating me somehow and I want to "show" them, I'm going to be slipping into the other kinds of fun (or un-fun, in the case of vengeful GM-ing).

It's easy to slip one way or the other. I don't want my traps to be wimpy, so it's easy for me to slip into gotcha traps. I don't want my players to get frustrated, so it's tempting whenever they ask to roll for something I want them to role-play (they, to their credit, don't do this nearly as often as they used to). Even though I recognize that these other types of fun are legitimate, if I want to have my kind of fun then I have to be intentional and put work into defending it. That's part of why I adopted Courtney's format for traps for my Tuesday Traps; they force me to make sure I'm not pulling any gotcha traps. Sure, it takes more work to think of at least a few ways to deal with the trap, but I have to put the work in if I'm going to have this kind of fun.

So I think about my fun and I defend my fun, not by tearing other kinds of fun down but by putting in the work to maintain the style of play that I find fun.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tuesday Trap #4

Yeah, I know it's Thursday, but I've decided that I'm actually going to catch up on the traps I missed. So you get a Tuesday Trap today.

My Rolls:
10: Melee Attack
20: Touch Trigger (magical)
15: Blade Slash
12: THAC0 14 (+6 to hit)
9: 2d6 Damage

Trigger: Touch (magical)
Save: AC
Reset: Automatic
Effects: None
Duration: Instant
Bypass: Larger steps, clogging

Description: Of a set of stairs, one or more of them is trapped. When a trapped stair is touched, no matter how lightly, a blade swings out from below the stair one step higher. The touch and the magic involved power the swinging blade, so no reset is required. The blade hits at +6 and only the character's armor protecting the shins or calves (depending on whether the character was ascending or descending) counts towards calculating AC for the attack. The blade does 2d6 damage and may cripple characters at your option (characters may, again, at your option, get a saving throw to mitigate or avoid crippling). Characters should make a saving roll not to fall, taking whatever damage is appropriate. Cruel referees will place multiple traps on the same stairway and/or have this stairway run along a drop-off for increased damage from falling.

Detection/Disarming: The simplest way to detect this trap is to tap each stair with a pole or other object before stepping on it; amusingly, even players who think to do this on a dungeon level's floor will often not check stairs before descending or ascending them. Once detected, taking a larger-than-usual step is sufficient to avoid the trap (unless the next stair is also trapped…). The small slot the blade emerges from should be camouflaged, perhaps by a dark strip of cloth that hangs over it and blends in with the stair, or another method of your choosing; visual detection should be difficult. Detect Magic will also detect that something is magical about the stair, but will not indicate anything about the blade; the magic portion of the trap is wholly contained in the stair. This trap may be jammed or broken by roughly and forcibly inserting items such as poles or crowbars into the trap.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Twenty Questions, Part 4: Secret Societies

Question number 17 on Jeff's list of setting questions is "Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?"

Answer 1: Here's one. Here's another. (If you know of other online, nicely written up secret societies/cults, please let me know in the comments and I'll add them here. I'm always on the lookout for more.) Both are all written up with just about everything I'll need to get started, except specific NPCs and an internal structure. Fitz has a simple way to make cult hierarchy easy here. I could also use Telecanter's work with factions here. Make up some NPCs, spend a half-hour or so on hierarchy and I'm good to go. Better yet, I can have some of the NPCs the PCs already know be members and put crafting the hierarchy off until next session's prep. You can also generate a cult with Brendan's generator here.

Answer 2: Well, you're actually all members of this secret society I made up. You'll be getting quests each session for your PCs to fulfill. Assassinations, retrieving evil artefacts of power from deep dungeons, poisoning wells, human sacrifice, coups d'etat … all part of your job. Once your PCs prove themselves and level up, they'll get to run the secret society in their neck of the woods. Your PCs may or may not be told what the true aims of this society are… if they want to find out for sure, they'll have to do some sneaking around inside their own society…

Answer 3: Well, you're actually all members of this secret society I made up. The goal of this secret society is benevolent: you want to defeat, foil and uproot all the nasty evil secret societies of the sort given as every other answer to this question. You may be getting quests, left alone in a sandbox to discover and destroy evil secret societies on your own, or some mixture of the two. In the general setting, your benevolent secret society may be winning, making the world noticeably safer as time goes on, losing, and you and your buddies having to lay lower and lower as time goes on, or right on the edge of victory and defeat, the outcome determined by your actions. Optional elements of the campaign might be trying to keep up a fake identity and earn a living (dungeon-crawling as a day-job?) while moonlighting with the secret society. Benevolent secret society members seem to have much lower salaries than those of other secret societies, for some reason…

Answer 4: Yep, and these guys are SCARY. They're not interested in petty, rational things like taking over countries or eradicating magic users or making the world a more pleasant place, at least for them. No, these guys want to destroy as much as they can, whether that's wakening Cthulhu and dancing in ecstasy until it's their turn to be consumed, bringing about Ragnarok or hastening the heat-death of the universe, these guys, for some inscrutable reason (which you, the player, never gets to find out, because that would make these guys less scary) want to end pretty much everything. If your PCs are interested in, like, existing, they had better stop them. Also, there's probably not a hierarchy for these guys, behind the screen; a sure-fire way to make sure you players don't understand these guys is to not have any coherent or detailed understanding of them myself. Yes, sometimes your interactions with these guys will seem contradictory. In-game, that's because of all sorts of crazy, Byzantine intricacies of this cult that your players couldn't keep track of even if they had access to the information; outside the game, I'm just messing with your heads.

Eh. This set of answers doesn't feel as helpful as the last few entries have been… can you think of any other possible answers?

Tuesday Trap #3

Tuesday Traps are back! I'm quite pleased with this trap. It's weird and unsettling (I hope) in a silly sort of way, and it has many, many ways to get around it, but all require some thinking. It's also much shorter than the previous traps in this series. Here's hoping it's the start of a trend.

15: Magical Devices
17: Trigger: Sound (magical)
10: Inflict Wounds

Trigger: Sound
Save: None
Reset: Automatic
Effects: Never Miss
Duration: Instant
Bypass: Move silently, Silence spell, Fly spell, Levitation spell, Spiderwalk spell, Long carpet, Dispel Magic spell, Destroy trap, etc., etc., etc.

Description: This trap is a hallway (as long or short as you want it- if it takes more than 10 seconds to go though, the first character in- and those following- will get zapped; if it takes less than 10 seconds to go through, the first character, at least, will be spared- that will be confusing to the party). The stone walls are carved so that they appear to be covered with the life-size ears of humans, demi-humans and humanoids (at your option, they are painted with lifelike color). The floor of the hallway is made of 1 cm square ceramic tiles arranged in a checkered black-and-red pattern. Whenever the ears carved into the wall hear any noise, the red tiles discharge an Inflict Wounds spell upon any living creature in contact with them. It takes them 10 seconds to recharge. The Inflict Wounds spell allows no save; victims lose 10% of their hit points.

Detection/Disarming: The decor of the hallway makes it obvious that something is up, and even points to the nature of the trigger. Discerning characters can attempt to move silently through the hallway through either skill or magic, move through the hallway without touching the floor (if the characters put something on the floor to walk on, they are saved from the Inflict Wounds spell, but mere footwear- definable as something they are actually wearing- will not shield them), disable the magical trap with magic or merely set about destroying the ears or tiles by hand. Only perfect magic ears and tiles work, so breaking them with a mace, club, etc. will do the trick handily, but characters will run into trouble when they discover that destroying the ears makes quite a lot of sound and a good number of the ears are out of reach of the areas outside the hallway… destroying the tiles is much more effective and safe, but less obvious- players should be informed of the damage without being told that the attack is coming from the floor. Moving through the hallway in this way should be very slow.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Risus Review/Play Report

Did some gaming tonight. Only two players made it and one felt sick and dropped out halfway through.

The two players recently got married and did a lot of moving, so they had lost their character sheets. I figured that was the perfect opportunity to try out another game system: Risus.

Risus is a six-page, rules-lite, universal RPG. Characters are described by a name, a sentence or two of flavor text describing the character and, lastly, several "Cliches." Cliches are basically character classes, occupations or backgrounds. Players get 10 dice to divide between their cliches, which they make up. A sample character, presented in the rules, goes like this:

Grolfnar Vainsson the Viking
Description: Tall, blond, and grinning. Likes to drink
    and fight and drink and chase Viking women
    and fight and sail the high seas and raid.
    Wants to write great sagas about himself.
Clichés: Viking (4), Womanizer (2), Gambler (3), Poet (1)

Whenever a character is faced with a challenge, the player chooses whichever of the character's cliches seems most appropriate (or most fun, or most advantageous, depending on the style of play) and rolls as many d6s as the character has for that cliche. If the roll meets or beats the target number of the challenge, the character is successful; if not, the character fails.

When two or more characters engage in any sort of conflict, they roll however many dice they have for whatever cliche they are using for the conflict (conflicts can be anything from physical conflict to a battle of wits to a horse race to political maneuvering). The character with the lower result loses a die and they again roll their dice. When one character's cliche is reduced to no dice, the other character wins and the winning character's player gets to decide exactly what happens to the loser.

There are a few complications that let characters team up with each other and a few optional rules that let you mess with dice other than d6s and get to use more dice and things like that, but if you want to know about them you're probably interested enough in Risus that you should download it (for free) and read it. Like I said above, it's only six pages, and you can find it here.

The bottom line, before I get into the play report, is that we enjoyed ourselves. My players tonight are my more serious ones, but we tried to get into the spirit of Risus and loosen up more than usual. The characters played were James, a SWAT Operator who got the address for his SWAT operation VERY wrong (as in, we were playing in a pretty standard dungeon) and Smee, a handmaiden who moonlights as a black market bug smuggler. After Smee disappeared because her player felt sick, James met his doom at the hands of a huge animated omnibus edition of the Twilight series, which ate him. James found himself inside the Twilight saga, all of his guns malfunctioning, the prey of sparky vampires. So, yeah, we were pretty silly. It was fun.

We played in The Abandoned Temple of the Howling Obelisk, by STEM (thanks, STEM!), which was part of a recent Risus One Page Dungeon challenge. You can find all the OPDs here. Also, thanks to Risus Monkey for pointing them out to me; I've been wanting to give Risus a try for a while, but not having any adventures for it was holding me back. Risus OPDs removed that obstacle for me.

I went into Risus knowing that while it is rules-lite, it isn't an "Old School" RPG, though one of the influences it cites is Tunnels & Trolls. It wouldn't be fair, then, to critique it as an Old School game; that's not what it's trying to be. The fact that it has a unified mechanic, then, shouldn't be seen as a problem. What is is that we Old Schoolers like to say? "It's not a bug, it's a feature." The unified way dice rolls are based around the number of dice you have under your cliche is elegant, intuitive and is ridiculously easy to learn. I have a more difficult time explaining some house rules than I had explaining this whole RPG. That's really cool.

You're also supposed to roleplay descriptively in Risus, which is cool, and something I wish I was better at. I find myself falling into "the orc attacks you… [roll]… and hits for… [roll]… 3 damage" more often than I'd like, though I do try to be more descriptive than that. The Arduin critical hits and fumbles tables help with that, but not as much as Risus seemed to. First off, I'm amazed by how only ever rolling d6s simplifies things mentally, freeing up some brain-space to think about how to describe what's going on. Secondly, the advantage given to those who use "inappropriate"cliches (like "Hairdresser" in a barroom brawl) and describe how their character uses some ability from that cliche to engage in the conflict in a "really, really" entertaining way is enough that smart players will use this tactic, with the requisite entertaining verbal description, just about as often as possible. Getting to decide and describe what happens to whoever lost to your character also encourages roleplaying. (I wonder whether Tavis Allison got his "please describe your/your enemy's horrible death" from Risus…) Again, very cool.

One issue we ran into is actually a problem I'm familiar with from toying around with Tunnels & Trolls. In both T&T and Risus (if I'm understanding them correctly), when you have opposed rolls during a conflict, losing a round of that conflict decreases your likelihood of winning the next round of a conflict because you lose some of whatever makes you able to engage in that conflict, whether it's dice under a cliche in Risus or more complicated stats in T&T. The less well you've done, the less likely you are to do well this time around; I think I've seen it described as a death spiral somewhere. That's both been an issue for me when I've tried solo games with T&T and it was an issue in the game today that James' player brought up during a break.

Risus does offer a few partial solutions to this death spiral. One is allowing players to team up with each other during combat. All of the team leader's dice count, as well as all team members' rolls of 6, and if the team loses a round and one team member elects to take double damage, the leader gets double the dice during the next round of the conflict. That double damage/double dice, from what I can tell, leads to both sides getting in death spirals together instead of the first party to take damage pretty much automatically losing. It also allows a party to have a fighting chance against a single powerful foe.

The ability to switch which cliche you use from round to round during the same conflict, and some other tactical options (trading more dice this round for automatic dice loss at the end of the round and destroying three enemy dice instead of one if the cliche you're using is both inappropriate and entertainingly described) all help to mitigate this issue, but it still remains. Sure, you can take this monster with these tactics, but what about the next one, and the next one? You'll be too worn down from this fight.

So the death spiral remains an issue for me, especially because Risus strikes me as aiming for a laid-back, light-hearted style of gaming and the only way I can see a death spiral as an integral part of the game is when the players are doing resource management of their hit points, which can be fun, but is a different kind of fun than Risus strikes me as having as it's goal. Any illumination that anyone experienced with Risus (or T&T, for that matter) can give me on this topic would be especially appreciated.

This death spiral isn't a deal-breaker for me, though. Risus won't be my go-to RPG anytime soon, but it's certainly an RPG I'm glad to know how to play. It's something I'll keep in my mind as a great RPG for quick one-shots, especially when all the materials that are available are scratch paper and d6s. It's also a game that I'd like to play more. Over the last year or two I've run a few face-to-face one-shots with friends, trying to drum up interest in a campaign. If I ever try that again, I'll probably try using Risus, both because I want to mess with it more (and use advanced options, like pumping dice) and because it will be easy to use and easy to create characters for. Chargen alone should take less than half the time it usually does.

So, next time you're casting about for a new system to try out, especially if it's a one-shot, why not try Risus? It's quick and easy to learn, it encourages both role-playing and smart mechanical tactics, and it's as much silly fun as you want it to be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When your blood-brother gets married…

… you tend to miss regularly scheduled installments. Sorry about that. I have another wedding coming up later this week. This blog is on hiatus until I get back to my own time zone some time next week.