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.

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.

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.

Wednesday World Building: Flunked out of the Magic Academy

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Apparently, pointy hats do not a wizard make.

Backgrounds are pretty neat, but they tend to be pretty mundane. 5th Edition, by and large, is encompassed by a world of fantasy rife with magic and the supernatural.

But what of when magic fails? Other than those to whom magic comes naturally as with sorcerers, or those granted power as with Warlocks and Clerics, Wizards must learn. Wizardry in particular is a rigorous field that one must seek out and master. Your specific setting might have wizardry academies or cloistered wizards that carefully choose single inheritors. but there will always be those that take up the call of magic, and fail.

schmendrick

New Background- Failed Magician

You came to be an apprentice, but it never took. Whether you just never had the knack, or you squandered your opportunity for arcane might through a series of bad choices or mistakes, you were rejected and turned away from magic while in the middle of your training. You know enough to get you in trouble, and this rudimentary but incomplete knowledge has proven to be more of a liability at times.

Your new path fills you with enthusiasm, but you can still harken back to the times scrubbing out old potion bottles or attempting to read from an animate book, and can recite rudimentary magical principals with ease, though this does not mean anything without a more thorough background in magic.

There is perhaps a wizard academy or cabal that resents you for spurning the gift of magic, or you may be marked by some strange magical aura that highlights the shame inherent in failing at the pursuit of magic. This tends to manifest itself as an immediate recognition by other mages that you were once meant for a life of magic. You either find kinship with other magic users, or rue their eccentric ways.

To your other companions, you might either hide that part of your life, or underscore your past by regaling them with the story of your excommunication. Whatever the case, it is likely that your past will come back to haunt you in any number of interesting ways, whether by zealous witch hunters, unpaid magic guild fees, or a situation that calls for your limited understanding of magic.

Skills: Arcana, Perception

Language: Two of your choice.

Equipment: A magical encyclopedia, chalk, apprentice robes, a ritual dagger,

Feature: Hedge Magic
You know the basest bits of magic, and it’s been enough to get you into trouble, especially when those around you assume you know more. You may either elect to be able to cast ritual magic, with knowledge of one ritual selected from level 1, selected from any spell list. Alternately, they may know one cantrip that can be used twice per day. In either case, you must make an Intelligence (arcana) check with a DC of 12. The spell is cast as normal on a success. Otherwise, the spell fails without counting towards your uses per day.

Alternate Feature: Cursed Caster
You have learned magic, but your understanding of it is flawed. You may cast one spell from level 1 or 2 from the wizard spell list. Each time you cast it, you must make an Intelligence (arcana) check with a DC of 15. If you succeed, you cast the spell with no negative consequences. If you fail, you cast the spell as normal, but receive a curse. The nature of the curse can be anything from being polymorphed into a mouse to being poisoned. In either case, the effect lasts for 1 minute. Any effect that would end the curse is expensive, either doubling listed costs or costing 1000 gold in addition to any other requirements. Work with your game master to come up with an appropriate spell choice and curse feature. A player must remove this curse before being able to pursue class levels in wizard or sorcerer.

Suggested Characteristics:
Failed spellcasters come from all walks of life, from apprentices turned charlatans to desperate students researching forbidden tomes. They may come from all walks of life, but their interest in the arcane arts are as steadfast as they are misplaced. Some abandon the further study of magic, while others seek to pursue a deeper magical career.

d8 Personality Traits
1- I clutch an empty spellbook when nervous, and refuse to let people touch it.
2- I was maimed once by a spell, and react viscerally when I hear or see it.
3- If it has to do with magic, I can’t resist knowing more!
4- I whisper unless I absolutely need to speak louder. My old teacher might be listening…
5- I make a mystic hand sign to ward off bad luck and evil spirits.
6- I doodle magical symbols on EVERYTHING!
7- I am a real magician. I’m even dressed as one!
8- I carry a wand, and I think that it’s real.

d6 Ideals
1- Freedom. No one should be forced into servitude.
2- Fairness. The privileged should not hoard all mystic might.
3- Pilgrimage. There is a new path that leads away from magic, towards destiny!
4- People. Magic should be used for the good of all!
5- Responsibility. Magic can be dangerous, and should not be taken lightly.
6- Aspiration. Magic is the key to a better life.

d6 Bonds
1- Arcane secrets should be kept secret.
2- I’m dedicated to learning magic the right way!
3- I won’t let anyone else suffer as I did as an apprentice.
4- I wish to prove my innocence at the academy and be reinstated as a student.
5- I always wanted to meet that one nymph… it’s why I learned magic!
6- I’ll have a student of my own someday!

d6 Flaws
1- I will use any magical item or device without thinking.
2- I think I can brew potions.
3- I refuse to use any magic that is not my own!
4- An old mentor is angry with me, and seeks me out for revenge.
5- When it comes to magic, I stubbornly refuse to admit when I’m wrong, even in the face of danger.
6- I’m aggressively competitive with real magicians.

Wednesday World Building: The Devil in the Details

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As I am working on a homebrew setting* for my home campaign with my kids, I am brought to think what it is that I am doing to make this world unique. This is my first serious attempt at a setting that comes from me, rather than being some commissioned work or contributing my talent towards building another person’s setting. My intent is to create something that I can share from the heart with my children/players.

In reflecting on the first 8 or so sessions, and thinking of the tiny segment of my setting that the player’s have traversed, I find it important to evoke the details. They are currently in a forest that is ruled at large by mythical forces. Fey creatures vie for supremacy with other strange beings as they all try to live in civilized throngs that dot the forest.

The fey are the most prominent force within the forest. They have organized under various factions that comprise an entity called the Court of Seasons. While other fey affiliations exist, the pull of the seasonal courts is very likely the most noticeable. Whenever a seasonal faction gains control of the court, that seasonal weather takes hold of the entire forest. Regions that are far from the forest have weather that largely lasts year round**.

But back to the point… though my players have yet to deeply involve themselves in fey politics, they are already starting to see the signs of it evident in the world. Right now, they are chasing a bad guy across the forest for crimes against nature, but in time they will realize what this bad guy’s past has to do with them and the story of the forest. But for now, they are enjoying the snow… except when a mysterious Rime Knight appears to chase them to their next destination.

Although I may just be nebulously teasing the details of my campaign, that is exactly the point that I am trying to make. You readers may already know more than my players do about these aspects of my game, but to them and you the details are the trees that make up the forest. I could tell my players the sweeping history of the Two Oaks that rise above the clouds, or what the courts themselves mean, but then I would simply be narrating my story. The story is about them, and the discovery is what makes it special. They define the experience just as much as it defines them.

So how does that help you to world build? Consider that you can simply pepper details about your setting into your games (or fiction, or what have you) and evoke a larger sense of wonder and curiosity than if you were simply to read a page out of a history book***.

* Not Diem Mundi.
** As is the case in the real world.
***We can’t all be history buffs.

On the Assumptions of and About Role Playing at Large

There is a prevailing sense of ownership over many hobbies, and each of those hobbies has its barriers to entry, seen by most as “paying dues” to be considered “in”. I can’t really agree with this, especially as I am inducting my own children into the hobby, and I don’t wish to see them alienated for their lack of experience or exposure to role playing.

While I can definitely understand this mentality for the creative aspects of role playing (that is to say, writing for and publishing material), it is not sustainable to have this attitude about the participation of role playing at large. We are buried under a mountain of old stories, minutia, experience, and in jokes. It’s a hard culture to engage, especially when you consider that many role players feel similarly ostracized from other groups or activities.

I’ve had my head in the sand in respect to those who aren’t already into roleplaying, and that is unfortunate. I came to this hobby eagerly, and was willing to jump through whatever existing hoops there were to be initiated. But just like other expensive pastimes precluding a wider participation base (I refer you to hardcore model train enthusiasts), roleplaying does a lot to exclude newcomers.

A lot of talk is made about how video games are causing the demise of roleplaying. I don’t believe this one bit. And yet, the vastly disproportionate popularity between the two leads to certain conclusions. The prevailing theory is that role playing games are dying because they can’t possibly compete with multibillion dollar entertainment mediums. This is apples and oranges, but why don’t we avoid the logical pitfalls and instead use this as a teachable moment?

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Imagine that video games came with a big manual that you had to read (old computer gamers know that this was once the case). Any barrier to gameplay will immediately turn away a large swath of potential players, no matter how interesting or unique your entertainment experience is, and this goes beyond in game documentation. Things like install times, tedious tutorials, lengthy and unskippable opening cinematics all detract from the desire for a player to play your game. Will there be people who jump through hoops to participate in the experience? Of course, but this is the filter through which media finds “cult hits”.

But we don’t need to be a cult hit hobby anymore. Some may cry over the inclusivity and updates that 4th edition D&D brought with it, and some still decry the “crowd” that grew the ranks of role players when Vampire the Masquerade first arrived, but the truth is that we can’t afford to be exclusive anymore. Not you the player, not me the fledgeling blogger/freelancer, and not the industry at large. We aren’t hurting for new blood, but we are at risk of stagnating due to a misplaced sense of hubris. The hobby must grow, or it will remain stunted.

Even now, role playing has been coming around to a new vision and a new approach; one whereby new players aren’t treated like pledges to a secret club, but rather as welcome as able and ready members. Games are playable after reading the first few pages, sometimes without dice. Other rpgs are now played at parties, casually. I welcome this change, but it isn’t enough.

We need to improve inclusiveness, break down the cultural and gender based barriers, and remember what it felt to be new at role playing. What ill placed word or thickly (and poorly organized) written rule set might have turned us away? Maybe none, but for some of us there was no keeping us from this hobby. But think of any other time you’ve been turned down from something, or discouraged from an activity. We don’t want to be that group anymore.

There needs to be a ground floor, a level 0, a place where casual gamers can come in and see what it’s like, so that there aren’t only ardent (and let’s face it, critical) fans of the game that color the way the industry turns its wheels. If board games can bring in more fans that role playing, then it is clear that there is a need for a change. Though I am not an apt herald for this change, I will still trumpet its cause.

Level-Zero
There is now a level 0.

A Curse as a Feature

Note: This is a contribution to the monthly RPG Blog Carnival, by John Four of Roleplaying Tips. Please see the announcement post on Cursed Items HERE.

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Cautionary tales abound!

Too often, we find ourselves thumbing through a list of cursed items, and nearly to the last they exist as a kind of codified practical joke. Now, I enjoy the legacy of the game’s origins as much as the next guy, but so much has changed since those early days. The question we should ask ourselves is, what do cursed items say about our setting of choice?

Why throw in a shiny object that zaps you any time you wobble it about? Magic items need not be a bothersome handicap or deadly debilitation, but rather a deeper element of a character’s growth and development. A man cursed to perpetually wear his armor is not so much annoyed by it as he is defined by the experience, and perhaps doing it out of some sense of honor or penitence. He choses to endure the curse, and may even refuse to have the curse lifted until he feels the time is right.

Consider the following item.

hairshirt

Hair Shirt
Wondrous Item- Rare

This shirt is composed entirely of coarse woven animal hairs. The workmanship, though good, renders this shirt offensive to both the eyes and to the skin. Anyone wearing this shirt halves healing received from short rests, and heal 1/4 of their hit dice maximum during a long rest (but still regain full hit points).

If you are a Cleric, and you don no other armor, you may consider any healing spells to have rolled the maximum amount possible. Healing spells that target you are considered to have rolled the minimum amount. This does not affect static healing (such as Lay on Hands). Monks may not recover ki points while wearing this armor.

Alternately, if you are an ex-Cleric of good alignment, you may wear the hair shirt to retain some of your powers. You have access to clerical abilities equal to those of a Cleric of half your ex-Cleric levels.

This item may not be removed without either the use of a remove curse spell, or upon the completion of a geas spell cast by a cleric of the same religion that you follow. Wearing this shirt prevents the benefits of any armor or spell or effect that grants armor, but does not interfere with other bonuses to armor class.

The hair shirt might be seen as a boon, but for someone who cared enough would realize that their character is wearing a torture device. Honestly, what does that say about this character? You don’t have to feel bad about it, but it should make you think. What led this person to do such a thing?*

There is also an aspect to this particular cursed item that could be employed as a plot devices, in the sense it could compel the cursed being to pursue a task; in this case, to redeem themselves, and see the potential road to atonement. Such an item may be the most utile for players and DM’s alike, given that they do not always remove choice, they merely present an opportunity. This kind of cursed item could turn a boring NPC into a memorable one.

And neither should any curse hinder the player any more than necessary; maybe the curse sword of prophecy compels the wielder to seek the end of tyranny, and it does so by whispering in its owner’s ear at night. This does not carry any specific penalty or hindrance, but it is a way to express a prominent motivation, and it doesn’t hamper the player’s effectiveness at the table.

While demons and sadists might work hard to litter the world with cursed items for their own sake, curses are not often handed down lightly. They are the result of a serious transgression, or an enduring vengeance. The gods themselves may twist the power of an heirloom to spurn the descendants of a fallen priest, and a dying archmage may channel his dark and dying soul into a potent magical bauble. These are not opportunities to play “gotcha” with your players, but rather a time to fill your world with style and personality.

It’s time to stop looking at your character as a collection of mathematically relevant game modifiers, and start realizing that the things they do and obtain are relevant to the story. That is the story that you are telling, through your actions, reactions, and the choices you make at every session.

*Ask Sir Thomas Moore.