Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 4: Education in Indi Games and Podcasts

Circa 2013

Empty_book

While I had taken a hiatus that lasted roughly one year off of gaming in general, I had a lot to consider. My life had changed, I had a new job, and I had a new group of friends. Ultimately, so much was fundamentally different about my life that gaming simply took a back seat.

And it wasn’t that I didn’t still like it or want to prioritize it, but I had always imagined that life would take precedent over anything gaming related; that I would stop being so obsessed with role playing if my life ever careened away from the bachelor path. That simple fact seemed to keep me sane through the wild abandon that I had shown in my youth.

Nevins_Library_First_Librarians
As wild as reading books can be, that is.

Ultimately, I had slowed down, and taken stock of my life. I had no uncontrolled urge to  pad my ego or revisit the spring of my youth; rather, it was a time for reflection and re-calibration. I was a new person, sloughing off many of my old ways like so much dead skin. While role playing was marginalized in this yearlong period, I had ultimately yearned to return to it.

While this had ultimately manifested in a fungus like growth that urged me to continue writing. Part of this apotheosis was manifested by my heavy reading of Pathfinder books due to my mistaken hope that the elven royalty campaign in which I had been playing might resume. My research of the Pathfinder setting had me fall in love with the way that Paizo produces material, and gave me inspiration to do the same.

At the same time, I had still been stinging from being done with Exalted, and sought to create a system that facilitated the telling of a story. That ongoing attempt is a pet project of mine that falls squarely into the indie gaming zone, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a lot to learn about the methodology behind such an undertaking.

What I had done was to start listening to podcasts.

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The irony here is that I hate the words “blog” and “podcast”, as they are a blight on the English language, but that’s another topic altogether.

I have been happy to find a number of podcasts that continue to give me an insight into the industry. RPG Design Panel Cast is a very impressive podcast for those of you that are interested, but others such as Gamers Tavern or The Tome Show are great for presenting the voice of the industry in a relatively personal and digestible level.

The interesting element to all of this is that I had, until that point, been insulated from games that didn’t come to me from friends or that I liked on sight. These podcasts started to introduce me to such games as Fiasco, Savage Worlds, Apocalypse World et al., and Dogs in the Vineyard.

I had always cast a critical eye to the very foundation of a game’s design. Why do orcs drop gold? Why should a failed skill check ruin the fun? What does epic even mean? But what I had now was a much needed dose of wisdom that came from people who were experts at what I was merely grasping. I had a framework that compelled me to stand on the shoulders of those giants to reach for something greater than myself.

Castlevania_Boss_Frankenstein
Like a literary 8-bit boss.

These instructional podcasts helped me adjust my thinking, especially as I enter a new phase in my life. I find myself introducing my children to role playing with some care and attention, thanks to what I’ve learned. I design games not as an acerbic bachelor that growls on message boards, but as a father and an educator that wants to see what games can do for the mind.

At the same time, I find myself finally receiving an education in game writing that isn’t insular. Best of all, they are being published legitimately. I am lucky to have a bevy of people and a community that is supportive that may actually help me see my hopes to fruition, but I will talk more about that in the weeks to come.

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Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 3- Elven Wizard Prince

Kyonin

What had drawn me to Pathfinder was my wish to start a new game with my favorite GM, whom decided to give the relatively new Pathfinder system a try. In our game, the Obsidian Portal entry of which I may link to later, we all played as the children of elven royalty. I was initially hoping that we would get to play a World of Darkness game, but I was willing to try, as I had not stretched my wizard muscle in quite a while.

Houdini Showing How To Escape Handcuffs
I’m pretty sure that a pulled wizard muscle was Houdini’s downfall.

I retook to wizardry quickly, creating a character that, while not optimized per se*, was prominent in both personality and potence. My Elven Wizard, Lorathorn, had saved the group from a few tight spots, and at times with only his wits and planning. He would go on to be king of an elven nation (thus the name of the blog), and make hard decisions that rankled his many siblings. I loved this game, and it resparked my hitherto latent interest in a system that I had largely turned my back on for its “lack of storytelling potential” ** Ultimately, what I had come to crave were these complexities that I had long spurned. The difference now was that there was a system that was more adequately geared to accommodate such complexities without the pretense of being “realistic” or what have you***.

Now, I had heard virtually nothing of Pathfinder outside of my tangential brush with Paizo through Dragon Magazine, thanks to a miniature promotion that appealed to my  interest in collectible figurines. Through that portal, I knew that Dragon and Dungeon were soon ending, and that the company would roll out a new magazine. I would refer you specifically to their blog entries beginning here.

While I had my fill of D&D some time in 09, thanks to a somewhat turbulent and unwelcoming campaign, I had been away long enough to yearn for the complications and puzzle-like mechanisms that could link to form potent rule combinations. Pathfinder, as it happened, was even more fiddly in terms of complex interlocking rules, but with a somewhat more unified approach than Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition (et al.) had been able to offer. This unity is what line developers do, and in Pathfinder it was done well.

I like how intricate Pathfinder system is. I can’t say that the experience is for everyone, given how popular 4th edition D&D ultimately was (feel free to challenge me on this), but Paizo and it’s Pathfinder game occupy a space in the role playing panoply that caters to this need for intricacy.

Rubik's_Cube_variants
Like a rubik’s cube of violence and adventure.

I say this because here I find myself, waist deep into my renewed interest in writing in a (somewhat) more professional capacity, and coming to terms with my strengths and weaknesses. I love the crunch and interlocking methodology of D20 and it’s component offshoots, but my passion has (and ever shall be) with prose writing, as I prove here. Wherever my strengths may lie, I would have to use the mirror of community, both for self reflection and to understand an audience with whom I had not yet been acquainted.

It bears mentioning that Pathfinder has been very kind to me. The only thing stopping me from involvement with the community at large was my frictious time spent delving into the other groups, which had left me trepidatious to the prospect of trying again.  From the time I started playing as Lorathorn in 2010, it took me nearly 5 years to finally get the nerve to initiate contact, which I did by entering the 2015 RPG Superstar contest at Paizo.

And while my entry was not stellar****, it did help me take a step in the right direction. I have since initiated contact with a number of great people that have dispensed invaluable advice and wisdom regarding topics from proper formatting of statistical blocks to the philosophy on rules balancing. While all of this contains my experiences with Pathfinder, I have also been listening to a steady stream of podcasts that have filled my head with ideas from independent role playing games, a subject about which I will discuss next week.

* I rather dislike optimization as a rule. I don’t mind maximizing your potential as one would, but following rote templates takes the fun of discovery and adventure from developing a character. It’d be like playing a game of Magic: the Gathering with a deck made by someone else, thus robbing you of the pride of architecture. [Achievement unlocked: paragraph footnote]
** Powerful storytelling can be done with any role playing system, but a system can tend to pick a GM, as it were.
*** See part 2.
**** I seem to do poorly at contests, it seems

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

the_return_of_the_king_cover
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.