Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 1

When I started writing role playing material circa 1999, it was on a lark. Really, I had already been compiling my own gaming notes for a lame web page that I had assembled hastily so that I could share my equally lame ideas with the internet.

The important part of the equation is that I was part of a community. I felt the need to share, just as I do today. As important as a release schedule is to the lifespan of a game line, so too must the collaboration among its actors work to infuse it with both new members and creative energy.

So as goofy as my attempts were, they were welcomed and lauded. I was heartily engrossed with the little known game of Systems Failure, and I had decided to detail the exploits of the game that I had been running. Those exploits were seen fit for publication in Rifter issue 12. I even own the original art prints from the article, graciously offered to me by the article’s artist.

While I still cringe a bit as I read the article with more than 15 years of wisdom as a filter, I can still appreciate my own diligence. Here was a complete portion of supplementary information, and perhaps a blueprint of what a post-apocalyptic bug fighting chronicle could be. In my idealism I had created an alternative to the default of gritty survival and abject conflict. It did not invalidate the default, but rather appended to its thematic in a way not unlike the suggestions near the back of the book for blending the setting with other genres.

And while the Systems Failure game line is sadly as dead as “Street Fighter: The Storyteller Game”*, it remains near and dear to my heart. If my work was appreciated in only small measures, I still pride myself in having been a part of it. It taught me that I could become a part of the gaming zeitgeist if I really tried, something that I’ve done on and off for the last 15 years.

Ultimately, it is my desire to internalize a game and its component parts, to really understand and appreciate the product as a whole that drives me to demonstrate that understanding. Systems Failure went from being a survival nut/millennial crisis pastiche of jokes to instead explore a deeper subtext of freedom and existential survival. This was what excited me, and this is what I wanted to be a part of.

So as I moved on from Palladium Books** in 2001, I hitched my wagon to the next most interesting thing, and became ensconced in the world of anime role playing. The sadly defunct Guardians of the Order was just starting to produce licensed anime products, precipitating a meteoric rise, and really espousing the then burgeoning world of blended nerdiness. It took two things that I loved and put them together, even if it didn’t come out exactly right***.

Somewhere along the way I ran into Seraphim Guard and their flagship book, Heart Quest,and was conscripted to write for said book. Seraphim guard was, at the time, looking to fulfill a still unrequited need for anime role playing that wasn’t just hi-jinks and explosions. Guardians of the Order themselves sort of beat them to the punch with their own book, though neither really got any attention. For a very long time, my most prominent writing credits were for Heart Quest. I wrote their “Magical Girl”, “Historical Romance” sections.

Sadly, they used an earlier draft that was still full of errors, but I was still proud of my work, by which I stand even today. Though I am not sure, I believe that the same bungled draft was reprinted in the 2nd edition (or a diceless edition, it’s hard to say) without any further input from me, which brings me to the next event. Seraphim Guard had sadly been some sort of weird ponzi scheme that was divided and sold into three separate entities. Seraphim Guard still exists, in a sense, but the rights to publish Heart Quest were then sold down a river to another company, and yet another game that was to be part of the line was sold to a third company.

At the time, I was in talks to develop an entire setting for Heart Quest, which I had been doing with aplomb until I came to understand that my new bosses (spread across three companies) were ambivalent and hard at work scattering the hard work of myself and other authors to the wind.

I had tried in vain to understand the new delineation, and to present the work I had done to that point. I had hoped to salvage some semblance of interest in my projects, but it was to no avail.**** Suffice to say, I had poured my heart into a whole lot of nothing, and it was a hard pill to swallow. Connections that I had built had nearly vanished overnight, and I was unsure of what to do. So I did what I do when a setback occurs; I ruminated. I may have been defeated, but I also learned from the experience.

Eventually, my attentions turned to a new source of interest. I had been introduced to Exalted. I will continue on with my musings as a middling freelancer next week for part 2 of my series.

*I always predicted that there could have been a Darkstalkers supplement that begged to be part of the World of Darkness. Alas…
** A long story.
*** Part of the problem for Guardians of the Order is that there was not enough role playing design experience to provide a solid foundation for the decidedly fun books they had published. This is likely to be a topic for a future blog post.
**** This was in the early days of self-publishing, at a time when I hadn’t conceived of doing it all myself. Had this event occurred today, I might have taken those lemons and turned them into lemonade as I am doing now.

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Apathy Virus

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This cartoon is not about apathy, but it can cause apathy.

I had considered making a monster entry for today, but I thought that I would instead go for something a little more frightening. Like a zombie menace, there are some existential threats that can’t just be cut down by a sword.

Apathy Virus

The apathy virus is an insidious diseases that is spread subtly, laying low entire populations. What it does not do, however, is directly kill the infected, but instead causes them to lack the will to live or thrive. The virus may originate from many sources, up to and including sadistic death cults, apocalyptic horsemen, and aggressive biological weapons engineers.

The worst part of this virus is that it can spread quickly due to it not being immediately lethal, and having a very long incubation time. Worse yet, many of the symptoms are not readily recognized as being signs of infection. Within one week of infection, victims suffer from a mild depression and lack of energy. After approximately two weeks of being infected, victims begin having a lack of appetite, and sink deeper into depression.

In the final stages of the disease, victims merely lay about waiting to starve to death, and are not easily roused or woken. Approximately 10% of the victims simply fall into a coma, while 85% simply die of starvation. This process will destroy a given population center within a handful of months, bringing the collective society to a halt.

A mere 5% of infected are able to function in an almost zombie-like state, attempting to survive with as little exertion as possible. These “survivors” will often die due to predation, accidents, or simply not being able to feed or care for themselves, sometimes contracting other diseases due to lack of hygiene. So called survivors are also likely to continue spreading the disease, often living long enough for ill-fated rescuers to discover them and become infected.

If caught soon enough, the disease can be quarantined and controlled. The cure, interestingly enough, is overwhelming happiness. Some magics are effective at creating positive emotions, and thus remove the infection. More mundane attempts to combat the virus have sometimes relied on opiates and liquor heavy festivals.

Given time, the disease will die out with its infected victims. When properly treated, victims can recover within a day.

5e Statistics: The apathy virus is airborn, and spread by exposure to an infected individual. Exposed individuals must make a DC 11 Constitution saving throw, becoming infected on a failure.

Once infected, symptoms develop within 4+1d4 days. Symptoms manifest as levels of exhaustion; when the symptoms have manifested, the creature must make a Charisma saving throw after each long rest. On a failure, the creature gains a level of exhaustion. This exhaustion is not physical, but has the same penalties tied to it.

These exhaustion levels can only be removed by magic, or by experiencing great joy. This joy can be reuniting with a loved one, or hearing a beautiful song. Not all joy is created equal; some joy can remove all levels of exhaustion, while some are small enough to remove only one or none at all. Once all levels of exhaustion have been removed, or if joy is felt during the incubation period, then the disease is expelled, and the creature is inoculated to the disease.

It should be noted that this disease may affect only a certain race, may or may not include animals, and can vary in its intensity or length of incubation. Some creatures may or may not have a natural immunity to this virus, perhaps as many as 10% of the population. If the creators of the virus are especially cruel, these immune may or may not function as carriers.

Adventure Seed: The adventurers come upon a city of dying city. The few functioning survivors are at a loss for what to do, and ask the players to help while also warning them to stay away. The city stands as a bulwark against a great danger (perhaps an orc tribe), and its loss would devastate the region. The players must first research the nature of the disease, keep it from spreading outside of the city, and discover a functional cure for the abundance of infected people, all while trying not to contract it themselves.

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.

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

 

Across the Screen #3: Solid Advice for GMs

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For GMs

#1. Listen to your players. Solicit feedback. Make sure that they are enjoying things. Some people like less combat, some people want more logic puzzles, and some people don’t want to hear you prattle about the minutia of the labor dispute of your created world. That’s important information! You share your world with others, and it is important to let them shape it as they move through it. You will soon see that the players who are heard will be more engaged, more connected to the world, and more enthusiastic about the game in general. And it doesn’t mean that you have to accede to every request, but that some compromise makes the game more fun.

#2. Be firm, but fair. You can’t try to kill the players unless that is the point of the game (say, Call of Cthulhu). You aren’t there to provide a challenge, you are there to provide fun. These two goals can sometimes match up, but you shouldn’t confuse one for the other. The trick is that you can always kill your players. You are the alpha and the omega. But surely you are there to tell some kind of story, whether it be a sweeping epic or a gritty drama. The story should not end with the characters killed by five angry dragons that they foolishly insulted. It is important to…

#3. Fail forward. No consequence should stop the progress of the story. Did your players fail to solve the puzzle? Figure out a way to move the plot along. Maybe there is a consequence, but allow the players to continue moving towards their goal. Losing or failing at something should not bring the game to a screeching halt, and no consequence should ever make your players feel hopeless or highly frustrated. And don’t be afraid of letting your players find “gordian knot” and “ocams razor” style solutions. Unless your players are especially good or enjoy complicated puzzles and mysteries, you won’t get much enjoyment from sitting and watching them try to solve them.

#4. Make your encounters memorable. Don’t just make an encounter with 12 orcs because a table told you to do so. Instead, make the encounter meaningful, either by including complications (strange terrain, some narrative element, etc) that makes the encounter meaningful. I refer you to the bonus article “Creative Encounters”. It seriously makes a difference when your players can remember a session as being dynamic.

That’s all for now. This list is not exhaustive, and will be appended, but I hope you find some usefulness in it.

Next week we tackle the ever popular session zero. Until then, don’t forget to reach across the screen!

Across the Screen Bonus Article: Creative Encounters

If you are reading this soon after I post it, you will know the shock that I do (or an elation I cannot understand). But… I intend to move on.

There is always so much to do. But lets start with something simple.

Today I ask you to think about tactics and emotions. You may not think it, but your groups tactics are shaped by circumstance. Whether you are a tactical leader for your group of players, or a GM looking to predict how your players will act, you should take care to understand the role that emotions play in a fight.

For instance, consider a fight in which there are innocent lives at stake. There is a very much different tone to a fight with an evil dragon in its cave lair than it might be in a crowded church full of children. The final action sequence in the first Avengers movie was a pretty good portrayal of this, and shows not only the difficulty of simultaneously managing a battle and a crisis, but how true heroism can be achieved by rising to the occasion.

If your players are more mercenary, you could even have the treasure (a pile of loot or some mcguffin) being dangled over a pit of lava about to be dropped in at any moment, and suddenly the stakes have changed. Or perhaps the players have the choice of sacrificing their own lives to achieve an objective that may or may not be greater than themselves.

It is actually exceedingly easy to unbalance your players, as long as they are invested enough in the story, or at the very least in their characters. Once the fight has ceased being about “who can make the other side stop moving first”, the tactical themes can shift dramatically.

And I say all of this to highlight that the point is to care. You should care that your characters are making choices that are more meaningful than “kill thing, get paid”, and game masters should really think to craft a story into something that is more memorable than a diablo-clone*. It falls on both sides of the screen to come together and make a story shine with highs and lows of dramatic tension and narrative depth.

With all honesty, this requires less buy in than you would think. The players are already there, and you as the game master should take initiative to really make encounters be as exciting as possible** so as to be a highlight of the game, and not just a statistical break between social interactions and exploration. Your combats and encounters should be as much a part of the story, not because combat is intrinsic to the game, but because it is an ever growing opportunity to blend rules and storytelling in exciting ways.

So I put to you that you should try to think of a great encounter.

  • The group find a ghost town where actual ghosts are about to hang a live captive at the town gallows. Use difficult terrain, put a fountain full of oozes between them and the prisoner. Make them work for it!
  • A throng of refugees is running from a pack of hell hounds. How does the group hold the line and keep the hounds from maiming a large number of innocents? What do they do to help afterwards?
  • An eclipse has caused the sky to open up and rain monsters on a crowded city. How do your characters react? Do they flee the city and leave the rest up to fate, or do they try to enact a plan to minimize the chaos?

There are no bad ideas, only bad implementations. Remember to be kind and let the players decide. If you punish them for any choice, that is bad game mastering. Of course they COULD want to flee with their lives. Of course they MIGHT want to try and take a valiant stand against insurmountable odds. You have to roll with those punches because you are the one that put that situation in front of them.

Just shape the campaign to reflect the choice they made, and don’t crush or judge your players. If there is a “right answer” that you have in mind for a situation, there is no way for the players to know it without some guidance, and at that point it isn’t about their agency or their story, but yours. If you present a unique challenge, always ask yourself what you might do if the players don’t do as you wish them to do, because they are VERY likely to surprise you with an ironic consistency.

That having been said, please share with me some of your ideas. Have you had some exciting encounters that have made you or your players really think or feel? Are you thinking of introducing a gut wrenching emotional choice into your next session? Tell me about it, because I’d love to hear it.

And always remember to reach across the screen.

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*Not to trash on that video game genre, but really it exists to scratch that itch so that tabletop doesn’t have to.
** And not every encounter, but really most of them. There is never an excuse for making a mundane boss fight, for instance.