Across the Screen #4: Communication

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Telegraph your GM today!

I have been around the role playing community long enough to know that one of the primary obstacles to a good cohesive campaign is a lack of communication. Time, of course, is the real death of countless campaigns, but I can’t change time, so we’ll focus on communication.

What problems can come from lack of communication? Plenty. Are you feeling left out as a player? Are you feeling overwhelmed as a GM? Is something about the campaign not meshing? Like in any group setting, small problems grow in the dark. Feeling slighted or stressed doesn’t always go away on its own, and a simple misunderstanding can be exacerbated substantially by time and silence.

Surely as role players, you have all had times where you have felt marginalized, unappreciated, or at the very least frustrated by the action of inaction of others; that feeling is completely natural. For many introverts that flock to the hobby (and perhaps some socially conscious extroverts), our instinctual reactions are also natural, though not especially helpful. We insulate ourselves, and stew on perceived slights.

So how do we fix this? Is the GM being fair with combats? Why can’t the group go west when the GM wants them to go East? What is wrong with stealing that paladin’s magic sword if he is just a figure head?

These are all examples of issues that I can and will discuss in future editions of Across the Screen, but for now know that they don’t have to result in a ruined campaign or even a bad session. Make sure that you speak frankly with each other about issues or misconceptions that might arise during play.

Now, this isn’t always easy, but the more you can work on keeping an open discussion (especially after or between sessions), the more harmonious things can be. Remember, no one knows you have an issue until you bring it up. Finally, if you aren’t comfortable or even confident that discussion can solve your problem, it might be time to rethink the group dynamics. Sadly, this is a harder issue to solve, but sometimes it is necessary to address. More on that further down the road.

For now, I leave you with the following advice. The game is meant to be played and enjoyed. If you are a GM, you have a duty to be inclusive and fair. If you are a player, you have a less realized duty to bolster the GM with good character choices and participation. Both of these things are easier when you communicate with your GM. Talk between sessions, ask for information and advice, and make sure that all participants are having fun. It only takes a bit of discussion to dispel most misunderstandings.

Next week, we will discuss the very important decisions that are made at character creation, and why it is probably better to make your character at the same time as everyone else, if able.

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The Ishim: Counterpoint to the Imp

 

The counterpoint to the imp; there are no monsters that are a good counterpoint to the imp in D&D and its ilk. There are lantern archons, and other such beings, but nothing really comes close to an iconic creature that would serve as the mirror to the imp the way that some angels have equals among the higher ranks of demon kind.

So here is the Ishim.glowing_halo_op_640x560

Ishim
Small Celestial, lawful good
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 11 (2d6 + 4)
Speed fly 40 ft. (hover)
Str 4 (-3), Dex 17 (+3), Con 14 (+2), Int 11 (+0), Wis 13 (+1), Cha 14 (+2)
Skills Intimidation +3, Insight +3, Persuasion +4, Stealth +5
Damage Resistances lightning; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities fire, radiant
Condition Immunities deafened, exhaustion, poisoned, prone, restrained
Senses blindsight 120 ft., passive Perception 11
Languages Celestial, Common
Challenge 1 (200 XP)
Messenger. The ishim is the messenger for the divine host, and projects its voice magically to all who can hear within 100 feet. The ishim has advantage on intimidate checks when it uses its booming voice.
Magic Resistance.
The ishim has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Tongue of Flame. The ishim can speak and understand any language. Additionally, it has an aura that grants this ability to any creature within 50 feet that can speak and understand a language.

Actions
Divine Flame.
Ranged Attack: +5 to hit, range 30 ft., one target.Hit: 13 (3d8) radiant damage.
Divine Speech (Recharge 6).
The ishim utters a holy phrase. Enemy creatures within 100 feet must make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw, becoming frightened for 1 round on a failure. Creatures that fail this saving throw by 5 or more are frightened for 1d4 rounds.
Invisibility.
The ishim magically turns invisible until it attacks or until its concentration ends (as if concentrating on a spell).

An Ishim appears as a small glowing halo, sometimes literally a golden shining hoop, at other times as a glimmering mandala of symbols and numbers, but always with a golden light. Though small, the light it sheds makes it appear larger or at least more imposting.

The ishim is an exalted celestial creature that occupies the third sphere. They are the divine messengers, and are either born into existence by divine will, or are the exalted souls of righteous men of piety. Ishim are just as likely to deliver a word of warning to a man about to commit a grievous sin as they are to warn a city of impending catastrophe. Their minds are mysterious, following the vaulted edict of the diving host, and rarely speak outside of their intended message.

In rare situations, a person is deemed to have a pious destiny may have an ishim granted to them, in which case the ishim becomes a doting mentor and guardian. Such cases are exceedingly rare, and recipients of this mentorship are usually cloistered by mortal agents seeking to protect the individual.

Limitless Adventures and Boundless Encounters

limitless-adventuresSo, Limitless Adventures has reached out to me and asked that I review their products. I want to refer you to my reviews page so that you can see the reviews that I’ve posted, but let me say in brief that the Limitless Adventure series of encounters is excellent! I’ve had the pleasure of looking over both the Storm King’s Thunder and the Sword Coast iterations of encounters, and they have some excellent and brief encounters that can replace those tedious random table encounters.

Please check them out, as they are excellent and brief encounters that can fill out a session or be themselves expanded to a thorough story. There are even “Further Adventure” notes that excellently suggest ways to expand each encounter into something more interesting.

In addition, I wanted to help announce that Limitless Adventure has a Kickstarter  that will be a collection of the first 15 encounter products from their line. Here are some highlights.

  • 150 fully detailed encounters set in 12 different environments
  • OGL stat blocks for all mosnters
  • Creative, CR appropriate treasure
  • 451 “further adventure ™” writing prompts

You will have your choice of PDF or softcoverprint copy (color and black and white options available).

Judging from the excellent nature of the encounters that I have already seen, I look forward to the compilation, as should you. If you want to see for yourself, have a look at the Limitless Adventure website and see the products that they have available, including a few free products.

Oh, and here is the link to the kickstarter!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/limitless-adventures/limitless-encounters-vol-1

 

Return of the King, or Better Living Through Cooperative Play

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Pictured: A ruthless marketing ploy by me

Hahaha, that’s a pretty good blog title. So ok, I believe that I need to get back into the blog racket.

I have been doing rather extensive writing for various companies, including some successful kickstarters, and I have filled my time with doing just that, but I feel like I have so much more to say that cannot be encompassed with a “for pay” product, or at least not until I can stand on my own two feet as a publisher… as I someday hope to achieve.

I have a lot of ideas, and I think  I can share them with people better through this platform. Things that amuse me and probably cannot be neatly monetized*. Things that strike my fancy and require more time and attention to refine into something that should be sold for money.

I also hope to bridge a crucial gap with my blog, and one that I think I had attempted to tackle when I started; I wish to help those gaming groups that are in conflict. I have witnessed, both first hand and through numerous broad gaming topics and forums, the continual ebb and flow of game table politics.

Player A doesn’t get along with player B. Game Master X has a problem with power gamer Y. A character dies, and arguments ensue over how it was handled… etc, etc, etc.

These are the issues that I feel should be tackled, and it warrants more attention. Do you have a gaming issue at your table? Feel free to leave a comment. I may even dedicate a blog post to it. Will I take your side and demonize the other party? No, I intend to be impartial and seek harmony over vilification**.

So I will attempt to start a new segment entitled “Across the Screen” in which I give advice, both targeted and general, aimed at helping the harmony of game play. After all, life is too short to have a bad role playing session.

* Such as conversions of intellectual property, done as FREE loving tributes, of course.
** It is entirely too common for advice threads that relate to game table quarrels to devolve into immediate name calling and side taking without any form of resolution. The intention here is for all sides to be considered, and an equitable resolution to be achieved.

Fiendish Friday: Katsuhiko Jinnai

Jinnai

This might seem weird, but I’m going to dip back into my anime roots to discuss what makes a good villain. And let us not get confused; a good villain is not necessarily a successful villain or a powerful one. Rather, a good villain (by my reckoning) is one that evokes villainy, feels fully (or at least mostly) defined, and is dynamic.

But I won’t beat you with buzzwords. Rather, let me show you by example.

El Hazard was a relatively underrated show that didn’t get much traction outside of being the cousin to a much more popular Tenchi Muyo. What El Hazard had going for it was far more action and excitement*, a better setting**, and arguably a better protagonist***. What is not up for debate is that El Hazard had numerous antagonists that stole the show compared to most other anime, to say nothing of Tenchi Muyo and its relative lack of quality antagonists****.

But I digress. Katsuhiko Jinnai is basically a high school student rival to the high school student protagonist. Outside of the ability to communicate with bugs (depending on the El Hazard variant universe), Jinnai doesn’t necessarily have any special innate abilities. In a world where people can bend elements (before it was cool), control ancient and potent technology, or just be big and/or strong, Jinnai was merely smart, and ambitious.

It’s quite clear that Jinnai is a megalomaniac with a napoleon complex. There is nothing especially ground-breaking about his motivations or demeanor, but his methods are impressive. He whips an army of bugmen into shape, convinces their queen to make him a general, and takes great sweeping risks for big payoffs; all for the sake of rubbing his success in the face of the protagonist.

His carman-esque level of dedication to his villainous craft is admirable. He smacks of some kind of character from Edgar Rice Burroughs or even Robert E. Howard; larger than life, commanding, outrageously bombastic, but somehow fun and enjoyable. His trademark cackle and sneer make him almost more cartoon than cartoon, but somewhere along the line you accept him as ridiculous but necessary to the otherwise somber presentation of the fantastical fantasy setting.

But as I’m almost at 500 words, counting footnotes, I’ll let you just go and watch El Hazard. The original OVA is short (7 episodes), but the episodes are a full 30-45 minutes. It’s a fun watch if you get the chance. Just… avoid El Hazard 2. It’s just not a good sequel.*****

Warning: Extreme Anime Nerdiness Ahead!
*Seriously, more fight scenes per capita than Tenchi Muyo.
** A somewhat pulpy “transported to fantasy arabia” setting rocks compared to the “Japan and sometimes empty space” settings initially explored in Tenchi Muyo.
*** Makoto beats Tenchi hands down. He’s smarter, has more of a personality, and just DOES more things. He even seems to have will and motivation. Ack, that’s another post altogether though.
****Outside of Kagato Tenchi had very few good villains. Dr Clay? Give me Dr Clayton Forester any day! But even outside of Jinnai, there was the Bugrom Queen (who probably should have seen more play), the weird blue skinned people with an axe to grind, and the spectre of ancient and dangerous technology that made things interesting.
***** El Hazard: The Wanderers is fine. I keep meaning to watch El Hazard: Alternative World, and thus have no opinion on it.

Topical Tuesday: Who Do You Write For?

When it comes to role playing (and other games, presumably), every piece of writing is aimed at a particular audience. However, we don’t really consider who those audiences are. Writers have largely internalized the precepts of gaming to such a degree that they give nary a thought to who and why.

When you stop to consider the nature of the game at large, it is clear that there is a strata that delineates the distinct audiences of gaming. Most role playing manuals cater to two; the player and the game master*. The secret third category is for the game designer is a third that has always been a tricky target. This often folds into game master, for what is a game master but a co-designer of a very specific game?

But the interesting aspect of this dichotomy (trichotomy?) is the stratification of the categories. There are players who will never game master. All game masters are players, whether they care to admit it or not. I’m not sure that I’ve met a game developer that wasn’t also a game master, but I’d be inclined to say that it is rare. Typically, you don’t simply go from one category to the other, but rather they are cumulative.

So how do you write for each, or any combination? This has been the conundrum of the industry for awhile. What sourcebook will reach the largest audience? What gaps need to be filled? Do you want to lay out the tools for your system so that others can tweak them, or are you more interested in writing adventures that make the work easy? There are no wrong answers, since the field is so wide, but attempting to target any or all of the categories (player, GM, designer) is the more difficult task.

And while I can offer no definitive advice, I can only tell you that it is important to understand that the distinction exists, for various reasons. Players will enjoy things differently than game masters will. This is especially critical when designing monsters. A game master may enjoy a nasty baddie, while players may not necessarily like the thing that sucks levels and leaves no treasure. Again, it’s a fine line to tow.

So why have I said all of this? It’s an idle musing perhaps, until I can figure out something more definitive, but I invite you to chew on the ideas with me.

P.S. Finally! A post under 500 words! Stat blocks are wordy…

*… storyteller, referee, or what have you.

Fiendish Friday: How to Make a Villain Stand Out

Starship Troopers

So, Fridays will likely be for big bads. That is to say, rather than some monster that you might run into in droves, this segment focuses on villains, boss monsters, and motivations for said forces of evil.

Today it is about the creation of a memorable villain. No matter what, we as GM ALWAYS struggle with making a cool villain that is worthy of the party; for what defines a group’s awesomeness and heroic nature better than a villain of commensurate dastardliness?

Take for example a villain that I employed in a Rifts campaign. I was running a game that paralleled the then big plot push that went with Siege on Tolkeen.* I was running two games in tandem for both sides of the war. Today I will focus on one side, being the military based campaign of Coalition States soldiers** fighting against a wizard city-state.

But the villain here wasn’t a wizard war band nor a marauding elemental. It was racism.

The Coalition States modus operandi was largely predicated on the superiority of humans, despite a lot of contradictions***. But the players weren’t fighting racism in the traditional sense. Rather, they faced it through tough choices made in the field as they decided how to act on their orders; Orders given by a commanding officer by the name of Captain Mauler.

Mauler was the embodiment of their struggle with racism. Did they give in and follow orders to the letter, or let their decency shine through and break ranks? It made for an interesting campaign, with a lot of poignant moments and choices.

And rather than posting stats for Mauler****, I’d rather talk about how I made him stand out. He had stark white hair, and wore a chiseled scowl. He was calm in a way that was unnerving, like a stalking jungle cat. Everything about him was severe, embodying his inability to yield to a point of view, with echoes of Captain Beaty from Farenheit 451*****.

If you have a villain, sometimes it is best to have him be inaccessible but prominent. It could be a magistrate that interacts with the players early only to seek revenge for a perceived crime spree that they didn’t really commit. It could be a dragon that masquerades as a human, spurned by some social interaction and driven to follow the group closely before a fateful encounter.

But above all, the presentation needs to be definitive. A good villain needs style, motivation, and purpose. Without any one of those things, the villain falls flat as just another obstacle. But with all three of those elements, you face a villain that not only challenges your players, but the themes of the story as well.

What convictions drive a man to excel at brutality against non-humans? Can he be convinced to see a different way? If not, what do you as a soldier do to reconcile his egregious nature with your desperate grip on morality? Alternately, what might you do if you fall in line with his sensibilities?

A good villain begs questions like this.******

*If you care.
**Basically, the “federation” from the Starship Troopers, including the psychic elements.
***Such as “employing” mutant dogs and psychic mutants.
**** It would be kind of pointless.
***** Though I had yet read it.
****** On a somewhat related note: Kekfa > Sephiroth.