Tag Archives: adventure

Fangs and Fury

Here’s this month’s BlogBattle post, based on the term, “Blaze,” and once again centered around the misadventures of Grant and Teagan, my 1930s “Indiana Jones-meets-Supernatural” duo of explorers.

I took a stab at a sketch of them on a lengthy return flight from a recent mission. I’m not satisfied with this–it’s unfinished and not what I envisioned–but it was a fun effort nonetheless.

Last “episode,” after dealing with a werewolf, Grant fell unconscious from blood loss. Teagan succumbed to lycanthropy and used that unnatural strength to fight back against a double-agent who betrayed her. This time, we join Grant and Teagan two days later, after Grant has sought a cure for Teagan’s condition.

From The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of Horrors, Destroyer of the Defiled, and Terror of the Treacherous.

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.

Firelight danced around the ruined Army camp nestled in the mountains, and wisps of fragrant smoke twisted through the chilly air as Grant hunkered over Teagan’s quivering form. He turned away from the sweat-soaked bristling hair matted on her arms and torso. Grant almost laid a hand on the furry patch of her forehead–between the pointed canine ears that now sprouted from her misshapen body–then reconsidered the danger. He averted his eyes from her bloodied claws and that makeshift muzzle he’d tied around that maw full of jagged teeth. Teeth that could tear his throat open in an instant, or turn him into a monster like–

It’s still Teagan, he reassured himself. She drank Dah-rey’s vial of silver. She’s going to pull through… once the fever breaks. 

His feeble hopes withered at the sound of her ragged breathing, and he turned toward the aged man kneeling beside the fire. “How long will it take for those herbs to purge her body of…”

Striding Bison crushed more of the dried brown leaves with a mortar and pestle, then sprinkled them into the flames. Another aromatic plume rose on the breeze, far more smoke than a pinch of herbs should produce. Curling tendrils stretched toward Teagan’s afflicted body like the fingers of a mournful spirit. “A while,” he said with a shrug, cryptic as ever, his shaky hands moving with reverence and care. The shaman had helped them when past adventures had gone awry, but those had all been of the mundane snake-bite, gunshot-wound, dehydration in the desert variety.

Howls tore through the night, and Grant peered into the murky blackness on all sides. A wasted gesture–the firelight destroyed his night vision. Even so, instead of the call of another werewolf pack, he recognized the war-whoops of hunting parties from local tribes.

“The Chickasaw know what hunts under the full moon,” Striding Bison intoned. “They hate those the wolf spirits possess. Their braves will come with cleansing fire… not the kind for burning herbs, but bodies.”

Grant put his palm on Teagan’s head and grimaced at the heat radiating through her coat of fur.

“They will kill us too,” the shaman added. “They will consider us tainted by her presence. None of the tribes take lycanthropy lightly.”

If the thought bothered Striding Bison at all, he showed no sign. He poured steaming water from a kettle into a stone bowl, dipped a cloth, and laid it across Teagan’s head.

Helpless, Grant left Teagan to shiver under her blankets. He surveyed the wreckage, noting the makeshift defenses the soldiers had erected. The werewolves left no survivors but also had no interest in equipment or supplies. A broken crate of rifles caught Grant’s eye, their dark metal glinting in the firelight. He pulled one from the container and found another box filled with circular drum magazines. “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got,” Grant mumbled, quoting the President he idolized. Teddy wouldn’t back down from the fight. 

Striding Bison smirked and ground more leaves into powder. “The Chickasaw won’t be impressed by Army guns. They’ll have gangster rifles too–and they can shoot from horseback.”

“I know,” Grant said, his shoulders sagging. “But I have to do something.”

The war-cries echoed louder, closer. Even though the mountains blocked some lines of sight, the light of the fire would be seen for miles from the right viewpoint.

“You are one man, McSwain. They are many. They are trained for war, whereas you…”

Fury flared within Grant’s chest, an explosion of rage at the futility of his situation. All his strength cried for action, something to throw, someone to punch, some means to resist the obvious fate looming over him. His fingers tightened on the grips of the Tommy guns in his hands and he glanced at his companion. A realization washed through him like a lit trail of blasting powder. If I have to die to protect Teagan from butchery, so be it. And if I’m going to die anyway… 

Grant dashed to Teagan’s side and set the Tommy guns in the dirt, then drew out his knife. “Bison, you have more of that coyotesbane?”

“Of course.”

“I’m loosening the bonds on her feet and doubling the ropes around her wrists. In a moment, I want you to lead her to safety while I distract the Chickasaw. She’ll be able to move, but she won’t be able to hurt you. Think you can manage?”

Striding Bison’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Grant’s actions. He said nothing, but his eyes moved to the knife.

“I just need to buy you both enough time for her to fight off the disease,” Grant said. He drew the knife along his forearm with a wince, and a line of crimson formed. “The Chickasaw don’t know who was afflicted.”

Grant untied the muzzle and held his arm above her elongated face. Though unconscious, Teagan shifted and jerked, emitting sharp sniffs and a low, hungry growl. In a flash, her teeth latched onto his arm, gnawing and lapping at the wound. He screamed but held still, muscles straining in anguish. When he could bear it no more, he tore his arm free then wrestled the muzzle back over Teagan’s maw.

Pain shot up his arm, throbbing and thrumming with his heartbeat. The moon grew brighter and his senses opened to the world around him with such clarity that he felt as if he’d been deaf and blind all his life. His thoughts wavered between lucid concern for Teagan and a sudden thrilling bond with all of nature.

Striding Bison looked on in horror, then came alongside Teagan and helped her to her feet, her bony arm stretched too far over his hunched shoulders.

Even as he watched the thick black hair sprout from every inch of exposed skin, Grant racked the slides on the submachine guns and turned toward the approaching war-cries. “Come face me,” he howled, his voice deep and guttural. “But be warned! This wolf has fangs!”

One More Round

BlogBattle is back, and so are Grant and Teagan, the fearless duo whose fortunes and foibles in the 1930s comprise most of my entries to the competition. 

There’s plenty of time left in August’s contest, with the theme word of “Moon.” Check the link above and pen your own tale of luna-cy. 

Note: I write these as if they’re disjointed episodes of some ’50s radio show because it’s silly and amuses me to do so. 

—-

After a long hiatus, we proudly return to The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of the Horrific, Vanquisher of the Vile, and Doer of Daring Deeds! (Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway)

In this episode, howl with delight as–armed with only one silver bullet–Grant faces down betrayal in… “The Werewolves of Wyoming.”

Mountain Moonset, by Jessie Eastland. From Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Grant leaned against the broken stump of a felled tree, his arm propped on his knee, the dented flask in his hand reflecting the dancing firelight. His eyes glinted like gunmetal as he stared at the corpse on the other side of the fire. His other hand rested on the ground, bloodied but clutching his Magnum revolver. The normally spry man now looked like the mountains surrounding the camp—ancient, weathered, too weary to move.

Brushing back her locks of Irish red with a crimson hand, Teagan dug through the contents of her rucksack. He’s losing blood. So am I. There had to be something they could use…

She tried to ignore the fur-covered limbs and the torn waistcoat stretched across the creature’s frame. Blood soaked through the bleached shirt beneath its vest, the result of a single shot to the heart from Grant’s gun.

Unfortunately, it had taken five attempts to hit the mark. The bullets work. At least we know that. We just need more of them. 

The fire in Teagan’s calf blazed and waned with her heartbeat. A jagged hole in her trousers revealed several puncture wounds in a line. She focused on Grant and pushed her pain aside.

Grant shook the flask and the contents sloshed. “Enough for one more round, if you ladies want some Tennessee warmth.”

Teagan glared across the campfire’s radiance as Grant handed the flask to Da-Re, the meddlesome and far too fetching agent of the Empire of Japan. She brushed a hand through her raven hair and smiled. He handed it to her because she’s the closest, Teagan told herself, trying to quench the jealousy flaring in her chest. Why is she sitting so close? 

The wind picked up again, a mournful wail that tore through the pass. The next gust carried what sounded like answering voices in the dark. Thick clouds rolled low in the sky, as if the moon played peekaboo with the creatures of the night.

Da-Re took a swig and gave a hissing grimace at the alcohol’s burn. “Sorry you had to kill your friend, Mister McSwain.” She handed the flask back to Grant and pointedly avoided acknowledging Teagan’s existence.

Grant shook his head. “Roquefort was always more of a patron, wanting this or that recovered, some mystery answered.” His voice slurred, more from fatigue than the whiskey. “The wire demanding an urgent meeting to ‘renegotiate the contract’ should’ve tipped me off.”

The world lurched and Teagan’s vision spun, but she shook off the sensation and rifled through her supplies. Bandages were easy enough… she could make a number of fabric strips out of Grant’s tattered shirt from their first encounter with the beasts. If I can get my head to clear, at least… but we need something to fight off infection…

More howls reverberated through the mountains, each distinct. The pack sorting out their numbers, searching for their missing member, closing in on where they’d last heard his call.

Each voice stirred the depths of Teagan’s being, some primeval yearning for the open plains, the freedom of the wilderness, the thrill of the hunt. The ache of the wound on her calf throbbed with the resounding echoes.

Eyes closed and body drained of strength, Teagan felt her head loll forward as she fell to her hands and knees.

“They’ll be here soon,” Da-Re muttered, drawing Teagan’s attention. The slender Asian rose to her feet—with Grant’s Magnum in hand—then stooped over the furry corpse. She reached into her vest and drew forth a long metal syringe from between two vials filled with a glimmering metallic solution. Colloidal silver… a possible defense or antidote to lycanthropy?

Teagan looked at Grant, eyes blurry as if underwater. He lay on his side, unconscious but breathing. She could almost hear his heartbeat. “What did you do to him,” she asked, her voice a harsh growl.

Da-Re chuckled. “I waited. Nothing more.” She plunged the syringe into Roquefort’s corpse and pulled the slider. A line of dark red shone through the slot in the metal as the empty glass within filled with blood.

“What are you doing?”

“So many questions, Miss O’Daire.” Da-Re checked the vial, wrapped the syringe in fabric, and slid it back into her vest pocket. “The Emperor wants an army that is ready to withstand all opposition… and you’ve seen these creatures’ ferocity. If we can discover a way to harness that power without the unpleasant side effects…”

“Too dangerous,” Teagan rumbled. Talking felt so difficult. Staying lucid seemed impossible. Why was the moon so bright? “You’ve seen what it does to the victims… surely you won’t do that to your own people.”

Da-Re smirked. “We have plenty of test subjects in the lands we’ve conquered.” She tossed her pack over her shoulder. “Sayonara, Miss O’Daire. I trust I will not see you again.”

Teagan ignored the treacherous woman and crawled toward Grant. His shallow breaths sounded like rushing winds to her over-sensitive ears. He still lived. She could smell the tang of iron in his blood—far more bearable than the stink of those metallic vials Da-Re carried in her vest pouch.

“You should leave him be,” Da-Re said. “More peaceful this way. When the werewolves come, they’ll come for prey.”

Teagan’s muscles tensed, and sudden rage coursed through her. Her back arched, bones popped, and fabric tore as she turned her gaze to Da-Re. The woman looked like a silhouette with the moon—so blazingly bright and full—behind her in the sky.

Bhitseach,” Teagan growled, “they’re already here.”

She lunged across the fire, claws extended for the kill.

 

Tune in next time for Da-Re Versus O’Daire, and the Beast Within!

 

Day Fourteen: Supporting Actors

Day Fourteen in the “30 Days of D&D” challenge is Favorite NPC.

Players are the heroes, the stars of the epic adventure, upon whom the spotlight shines and about whom the story is meant to be told.

Non-Player Characters are supporting actors filling up the world, the “everybody else,” almost always played by the DM. Whether it’s the innkeeper or the salty guard captain or the evil necromancer raising an undead army, the NPCs are there to spice up the game and create interaction, but they’re not meant to steal the show.

When played well, some NPCs can still garner significant attention and affection from the group–either as a trusted ally or a hated foe.

I know I’ve done something right when the party keeps bringing up the name of someone they’ve encountered, and several have achieved that status.

Faelynn, the washed-up, binge-drinking former leader of a band of rival heroes, is one my players reference for laughs.

The leader of a small quest-hub town is a guy whose Pathfinder miniature figurine is like fantasy Nick Fury holding two axes over his shoulders. My daughter threatened to disown me for not calling him “Samuel El-Axen” from the moment he entered the scene… and that is now his name.

I wrote about Fleuris the good necromancer and Asslya the mentally scarred spirit-talker, both of which I love to add to the mix.

Right now, my favorite NPC is a little male goblin no wait male halfling no wait female elf sorcerer who has a knack for getting reincarnations off that Wild Magic surge table.

Early on in the game, the low-level heroes found out that some goblins were sneaking into the town and filching supplies. The PCs followed the tunnel to the goblins’ lair and had a good fight with some ranged magic users and archers. I took advantage of the description of “booyahg” as the goblins’ limited understanding of magic in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and so I really wanted to bring that out in the game.

One of the goblin casters got a fumble. Yes, I’ve been using fumbles on nat 1s and crits on nat 20s, combined with a crit hit deck and fumble deck which are unfortunately designed around 3.5 rules. The fumble card I drew said “Wild Magic surge,” and had some minor bad effect… but that seemed like perfect justification to roll on the surge table for the goblin.

Come to think of it, unless I misread it, Volo’s says that you roll every time the goblins cast, because they suck at magic. Or maybe that’s how I wanted to read it. 

I rolled the effect that grants an immediate cast of reincarnation if the creature dies within one minute. Needless to say, the PCs knew that caster = bad, and my poor goblin wasn’t long for this world.

They flipped out when suddenly a cloud of light enveloped the dead goblin and it got up as a halfling, then ran to hide in a secluded room of the cavern. The bloodthirsty players charged toward the hiding goblin halfling, ready to strike… until a pathetic attempt I made at distracting them actually made them feel pity for this little guy.

Cue role-playing, lengthy discussions of “Are you REALLY going to try to change and not be evil?” and warnings that they would be watching his every move. Based on the cloud of light, we named the halfling “Brightborn,” and he guided the PCs through the rest of the cave.

Well… he also accidentally dropped a fireball on top of himself and the party, then played it off as a sign of power from the chaotic evil gods, shouting, “I AM THE EMISSARY OF KURNN!”

He popped up a few more times over the course of many sessions, most recently via a handwritten note to come to the Laughing Mountain Inn and “look for the elf.”

They enter and find a blonde female who waves them over. “Hey guys, it’s me,” she whispers with a nervous grin. “I’m the emissary of Kurnn and all that. So… um… you won’t believe what happened…”

Day Twelve: I’ve Got Options

With the word “dungeons” as a part of literally the name of the game, it’s surprising how easily these can be forgotten. I know that, for me, if my players are going to have to explore one, it needs to matter.

It’s day twelve of 30 Days of D&D, and the topic is Favorite Dungeon Type or Location.

Video games like Skyrim are awesome for the quality of the sandbox the player is placed in. I remember hearing that as soon as you finished the tutorial / intro, you faced an unstated choice:  Follow the road to the next storyline quest location, or wander in whatever direction you liked, exploring the region and its assorted scenic points.

D&D can be like that. Some DMs prepare that way, sprinkling the setting with a whole lot of everything else that’s going on in the world. I think that’s a good component of a game, especially if you’re trying to maintain a sandbox style or at least feel.

At my best, I keep a few of those parts of the world at the ready in a computer file or hard copy folder, just in case the players decide their current plan isn’t as interesting as some bit of news or rumor they hear, or some random clue they find in the wild.

On the one hand, I don’t want them to feel like they’re on rails in any way–“You can only go east because, um… reasons.” Namely, because that’s where the thing I prepared is on the map. (I did have to admit that to a group of players once. Didn’t like it.)

That said, I also don’t mind if they end up mysteriously coming across the orc cave I’ve prepared, regardless of whether they turned north toward the mountains or east into the forest. It feels natural and unexpected, because I haven’t tied myself down to “this dungeon exists at this partiuclar spot, period dot, end of story.”

Even more than location, what matters to me about dungeons is purpose. Every dungeon or mini-dungeon I build is meant to have some kind of meaningful end result.

I don’t remember what, but something powerful and BAD happened at that altar, carving a deep ditch through the stone.

Maybe it’s finding out more information about a bigger threat to the region or discovering an item necessary for the Big Bad’s ultimate evil plan.

Maybe it’s a plot twist or even a low-scale moral conundrum. Those goblins you thought were a threat? They’re actually in trouble, oppressed by the kobolds who moved in with the young dragon they serve, or deceived by their newfound friend, the hag. This sort of thing has led to some great role-playing and even a few recurring NPCs of an unusual variety.

Ancient Ghost
A picture card I made for an ancient ghostly NPC the players had to deal with in order to enter a key structure within a ruined city…

Maybe it’s just some object of great power, the knowledge and details of which have been lost to time. I don’t know why, but I always love the “ruins of the ancient, more advanced civilization” background to a dungeon, with objects that exude strange powers, interact with the players in various ways (usually bad), or reveal secrets about the world on a much larger scale.

I care far less about the location or type than about why it matters for these heroes to stomp through this particular network of tunnels and caverns.

Day Eleven: Adventure Time

Today’s topic in the 30 Days of D&D (or yesterday’s… don’t judge me!) is:

Favorite adventure you ran

I’m thinking the creators of the post might mean published adventure content. D&D puts out a bunch of rule books or setting content, stuff that gives you and your players great big worlds to play in and great big heroes to portray, and that’s most of what I purchase.

They also put out scripted adventures – story arcs designed for characters at certain levels with enough details provided to run games, in case you’re not looking to try to design your own. While these might have enough details to provide a setting or add onto a campaign already in progress, they’re also designed around providing some villain or villains, who are enacting some evil plot and must be thwarted.

I’ve never run one of these.

A lot of people get excited about the new stuff, like when Tomb of Annihilation came out (late last year? I think? Wasn’t paying attention). More power to them; I certainly don’t have anything against people playing the scripted books. Sooner or later, I hope to run a game of Curse of Strahd, which is like D&D in a horror/vampire setting.

There are advantages to the adventure books – they usually have a lot more thoughtful details put into the encounters and immediate locations. Someone has mapped out the dungeon, or they’ve laid out the blueprints of the castle, along with all the traps, monsters, plot twists, and treasures. They’ve probably been more inventive and varied in their approach than the stuff I come up with on my own. Maybe they’ve put a lot of backstory in, or they’ve set out some additional plot hooks so that the group can continue playing and building upon the story after the published part is over.

The heroes try to rescue a (supposedly) good necromancer from drow captors and their elemental minions, in order to get to the bottom of a surge of undead swarming the mountainous region…

For better or worse, I have only run homebrew settings. Usually, I’m trying to explore a corner of the world in my fantasy works, building upon the little bit I’ve already established in my head or in my books and drafts. This is invaluable to me, as sometimes what the players do can spark a creative idea for a scene using my established fictional characters.

In a way, running a game based on the world in my head makes the improv part of my in-game storytelling job easier. I know what has transpired in this or that part of the world, and what someone in one town might know about what’s going on in the region. Even though there aren’t a lot of details written down, I feel more comfortable describing the world to my players than I would if I had to remember a bunch of details in a published book.

This might feel like a cop-out answer, but my favorite “adventure” that I’ve run is the ongoing story of the world I’ve made, and the players’ contributions to the events that shape its future.

Day Seven: Story Trumps Powers

Today is Day Seven of 30 Days of Dungeons & Dragons, and the topic is:

Favorite Edition

ok. It’s actually day eight for me… I failed my saving throw against sleep after getting home from work around 10:30 PM, so my post is late!

I feel like we’ll all get over that.

Full disclosure: I really only have two options to choose from, 4E and 5E, even though five editions exist. I suppose it might be fair to say that since I’ve tried Pathfinder, I’ve played something much like D&D 3.5, but I absolutely hated the mechanics of that system, so I won’t address it further.

I liked 4E. I love 5E.

I first started playing D&D when 4th Edition came out. Unbeknownst to me, having no previous experience with which to compare the new books, 4th Edition focused heavily on all the cool powers your characters possessed.

Every class had a variety of options. Some could be used all the time, at-will. Some were complex or taxing enough that you could only use them once per encounter or combat. Some were the best abilities in your whole bag of tricks, and could be used only once a day.

Fighters didn’t just get better at swinging a sword or ax as they leveled up… they learned amazing techniques and maneuvers that they could employ much like how a wizard might cast a spell.

I honestly enjoyed 4th. It felt like a big deal when one of my players declared, “I draw back my bow, glare at the enemy, and unleash a Thunder-tusk Boar Strike.” Then he rolled a nat 20, and everyone cheered at the ridiculous damage inflicted on this rando bad guy.

It also felt a lot like learning your button rotations in World of Warcraft or some other MMO. Use these abilities when fighting trash mobs, and then use all these “cooldown” super abilities when fighting a boss.

4E got a lot of grief for putting the spotlight on tactics and combat, powers and spells, while leaving the story in the dark corner at the edge of the stage. I think that’s an unfair perspective–if story mattered at your tables (as it always did to my players), you could make sure the collaborative storytelling aspect shone through.

It’s an unfair assessment in my opinion, but it’s one I hear often.

Not surprisingly, from the playtest materials of 5th Edition, the D&D team made sure to sprinkle hints and ideas throughout their works, like plot seeds ready to sprout into epic campaigns.

The character sheet dedicates prime real estate to jotting down reminders for role-playing, covering what matters to the character:

  • Personality Traits, like “I have a quip for every situation, the more inappropriate, the better” and “People, like feral beasts, are not to be trusted unless broken.”
  • Ideals, such as “I’ll always lend a helping hand” or “I’m not afraid to use my strength to get my way.”
  • Bonds, such as “I would do anything for a member of my old traveling troupe” or “One day I will find my missing sister and make those who took her pay.”
  • Flaws, such as “At best, I immediately forget the plan. Most days, I directly disrupt it” or “I can never resist a pretty face.”

When you make a character, you establish these aspects and have them readily available to answer “What would Grobthar do in this situation?”

One bit that caught my eye was the character backgrounds, particularly the starting equipment that you get for being a sage instead of a charlatan, for example. The sage starts with, among other things, a letter from an old friend with a question you haven’t yet been able to answer. What question? Who is this old friend? Where might the answer be found? Why does this information matter? 

The charlatan starts with a particular scheme they use to dupe their marks – do they forge documents, run con games on street corners, or make some easy gold by selling worthless trinkets to the naive? How would you role-play this in town? Who have you fleeced in the past? Who might be looking for a refund for the fake holy relic you pawned off on them?

The trinket tables in the DMG and Curse of Strahd are full of interesting and/or creepy options that can tie into a campaign or provide additional fluff for the setting.

Also, there are rules for laser guns, jetpacks, and bombs–if your campaign needs those. Haha… “needs,” as if there is any other option.

Newer 5E books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes break down the story and background elements for a variety of monsters, allowing a DM to create enemies that feel like real personalities operating inside a vivid world, with unique motivations and intentions along with distinctive features or quirks.

With Volo’s, for example, common enemies like a hag, an orc chieftain, or a gnoll pack alpha become much more than bags of hit points and loot, pursuing some obscure, vaguely evil threat while waiting for a party of heroes to come slay them for XP.

To me, 4E felt like a great game, well worth the time spent playing.

With every section of every book, the 5E materials feel like pieces of a living world that welcomes you into a story which is already being told, already ongoing, just waiting for the answer to the age-old question:

What do you do next?

In Defense of Railroading

The players sit, holding their lucky dice. The lights are dim, and eerie music plays from a YouTube video to set the mood. The Dungeon Master looks over his screen and describes the setting…

DM: You see a well-worn path that winds between the trees, leading deeper into the gloomy forest.

Player 1: Well, forget that noise. I’d rather stay on the road and finish my journey into town.

DM: An overwhelming mist has descended, obscuring everything from view… everything except the path.

Player 2: Uh… I really wanted to get to town to purchase some new weapons and talk to the Mage’s Guild about new spells. Can we maybe set up camp and wait out this weather?

DM: You could… but now arcs of electricity tear through the clouds of mist, and the hairs on your skin rise. Anyone close to the mist is likely to take damage. But the path remains clear.

Early on in my development as a DM, I learned about “railroading” the players toward your intended destination. If a Dungeon Master / Storyteller forces players toward a particular path in obvious, heavy-handed ways, the game feels like the characters are passengers on a tour bus, being shown the sights but unable to direct the vehicle’s course. When a game about choices feels like you have none, you’re probably being railroaded.

That’s a bit of an excessive example, but this sort of thing can be pretty common if the DM has prepared an adventure and expects or demands that the players go along.

Railroading always ruins the fun… except for when it doesn’t.

The beauty of a tabletop RPG over video games is that anything’s possible. Any genre, any style, any action, any decision is available as an option to the player.

While that can lead to sensible decisions, increased immersion, and even awesome RP-ing, in certain groups it can also go awry. When problem players are willing to affect the entire group in order to get their personal jollies, the abundance of options creates opportunity for their hijinks. And when several players are new to the game, infinite choices can lead to no choice being made in a timely manner.

For example, upon entering a new setting and receiving a map of a mining village, some parties will see opportunities to go off on their own instead of staying with the group.

The same scattered attention can happen when players are provided a few different choices outside of civilization. When they come upon a wrecked wagon with signs of goblin prints but no indications of an attack, one person will suggest following that trail while another might try to chase down the other wagons in the caravan. And yet another is convinced there’s something in the ransacked wagon worth investigating or discovering.

Players can debate at length about what to do, where to go, who to talk to, how to accomplish a task… and every new bit of information starts the whole process over again.

This is where a little railroading may be better than none. I typically see three ways the game gets derailed: individual player actions, lack of personal motivation, and lack of flexibility on the DM’s part.

Moments in the Spotlight

It’s great for each player to have their time to shine, their moment when their character’s set of skills or connections can make the difference between victory or defeat. “Moment” is the key word, however.

When an individual turns the session into their private quest, it may make sense for the character’s story and motivations, but it also makes for a slow game. The other players are left “watching the show” as the DM has to interact in character(s) with this party member who has gone off on their own.

If multiple players do this at the same time, it turns into a nightmare of interwoven conversations and distractions. And while they all sort out their personal interests, players focused on the primary party goal are left staring at the walls or fiddling with their dice.

DM: You follow the leads for the missing caravan driver and arrive in the village of Choraulis after nightfall. The so-called guardsmen posted at the gate — miners, really — give you a close eye but let you pass. There’s a good bit of laughter, music, and noise at the finely-decorated inn to your left. The miners also have a raucous dive of a cantina set up near their shanties.

PC 1: I want to search around the inn, just to get a feel for the place, see what sort of people are in there.

PC 2: That orchard over there… is that, like, a nature shrine? I want to go over there and check it out.

PC 3: Is there something like a Mage’s Guild here? I’d like to find out what kind of magic spells and items they have.

PC 2: So am I at the Shrine?

DM: Yes, it’s a shrine of Nature, and the two ladies who run it are surprised and excited at the idea of a Dragonborn Druid – (chipper voice) “What an oddity! How pleasant to make your acquaintance!”

PC 1: If those guards are still there, I’d like to see how approachable they are, if they seem friendly, that sort of thing. Perception, I assume?

DM: No, that’d be Insight. Give me a roll. Ok, you spot one with a small insignia, and it seems like the other guys defer to him. He looks friendly and inviting, although a little on edge.

PC 4: Would I have contacts among the merchants in this town?

DM: Yeah, certainly. Um… this store over here – the gem cutter? They work with your guild on the regular.

PC 1: (to the guard) My good man, I am seeking a traveler who may  have come this way with a merchant caravan. Have any wagons reached the village in the last day or two?

DM: (Gruff voice) Why, yes, three came in a couple days ago, from Delfindor.

PC 2: While in this shrine, can I commune with nature and see if there really is some corruption or negative influence affecting the area?

DM: Yes, a Nature check, please. (Chipper voice) It’s been hard these last six months since everything started turning strange. Wild growth in the mountains–like a whole summer passed in a tenday’s time. And then there’s the undead–

PC 5: Guys. Can we go find the dude we came here for? Maybe someone in the noisy inn knows something.

PC 3: I’d also like to find an alchemist or maybe an herbalist?

PC 1: We’re looking for a man who came in with those wagons. Any chance you’ve seen him or know where they’re staying?

Solution:  A place like a city or friendly settlement might feel like a lot of available options. For groups where this becomes a problem, consider if there’s an in-game reason to restrict those options until the primary story or quest is sorted out.  A town under siege because of some rogue “heroes” or a teeming horde of undead isn’t going to have shops open for business, nor are the town leaders going to take time to chat about the latest rumors of interest to the party.

As a positive spin, find a way to interact with the players in the downtime between sessions. While it may seem awkward to go back over “here’s what I wanted to do in town during the middle part of our group game session,” it’s infinitely better than destroying the ‘group’ part of game play.

I’ve had tons of fun working over instant messages or in later conversations sorting out with players what their character would do. These sidebar conversations, handled outside of game time, have created new plot hooks to weave into the main game, developed the characters’ motivations, advanced their stories, and provided opportunities for players to role-play who might not be as comfortable with it at the table in front of peers.

“My character does/doesn’t care about that.”

Some players are happy to let you know they’re not about whatever’s on the menu. On the one hand, if they’re really trying to role-play their character’s ideals and interests, this is good feedback. A party of chaotic neutral characters might not be interested in saving the princess from the evil demon for the Greater Good of the Kingdom and all that is Just and Right.

Conversely, a snippet of setting or information might look like a really interesting side quest to one of the players, if that’s a lead their character would pursue.

“There’s a shelf full of old tomes and parchments detailing magic rituals? Uh, guys, I know the orc warlock is going to sacrifice the villagers to open a portal to the Abyss, but… can we just hang out here for like a day while I thumb through all of this?”

“Look, near the wrecked wagon–a cry for help in the language of druids. And judging by the tracks, it was left by one of the goblins. Why does one of those creatures know Druidic? How strange. I’d like to find this goblin…”

Likewise, these reactions are great feedback for what to include when you do want to hook that player… and what to avoid if distractions are a problem.

Solution: First, be sure to take these things into account when devising how your PCs get quests. Not everyone is a do-gooder out to save the world… similarly not all characters need a bag of gold jangled before their eyes to gain their assistance.

Place the individualized hooks where a distraction won’t matter. Sure, it might make sense that all the books full of magic are in the library the players find early on as they explore the castle…

But why not have large empty spaces among the books where it’s clear that a significant number of tomes have been carried off? Perhaps even a note from the big bad evil guy’s magic-user sidekick, explaining, “I borrowed these and brought them downstairs to my study. I think these are the key to opening a rift between our world and the realm of our masters…”

Now the distraction points the interested player and the party toward the confrontation you’ve already planned.

Perhaps the sight of a crude message in Druidic would be better placed at the opening of a goblin lair, to create questions and unique twists where the players already are instead of offering a detour from where you’re hoping they’ll go.

All Aboard? or All a-bored?

The DM has a huge role to play in keeping things moving smoothly, and illusion of choice is a great tool in the toolbox.

It’s awesome to create that “sandbox” feel of a living world where something could be happening anywhere the players go. However, in creating such a setting, a DM can get overly focused on the geography and current state of the parts the players will see.

I prepared an encounter with a band of orcs… but they decided to take the road south instead of east to where the orcs actually are…

The players wanted to get information about what the zealots are planning, but the leaders of that sect aren’t located in this part of town…

In a recent session, I made the mistake of focusing heavily on the map I’d created of a settlement. As one of the players sought out contacts and information, he ended up getting sent back-and-forth across town because that’s where those people and places are. (After all, it’s on the map.)

It’s great to know what exists where in the setting, but a rigid approach can lead to the DM getting frustrated because the players turned down the wrong tunnel or traveled to “the wrong spot” when literally anywhere can be the right spot.

Solution: The hated part about railroading is when it looks like there is no other option or choice but forward in an undesirable direction. “The tunnel is a one-way path, and oh you want to go back up and out? Well you can’t because the tunnel collapsed behind you.”

Having options such as branching tunnels or different locations of interest in the region gives the players a sense of agency. “I want to turn left instead of heading deeper into the Underdark” is a choice.

But as the DM, you control the outcome of the choice. Whether they turn left, turn right, or go straight, they can still find their way to the encounter you have planned or receive the clues that they need to advance the story. Whether they go east to the forest or west to the mountains, they can still encounter the band of bad guys who happen to have items of value or plot hooks to move things along.

This isn’t so much “railroading” as it is teleporting a destination to the end of whatever tracks the players are on. (Okay, yeah, that’s railroading, but it can serve a purpose of keeping the game moving.)

One method I used in the past was to have short episodes or level-appropriate encounter settings prepared in advance — an orc camp, a bandit fort, a small drake’s underground lair. If it became obvious that the players weren’t heading the direction I’d assumed, or going after whatever “main” storyline I had prepped, these plug-and-play encounters could easily drop into the session without any significant disconnect or lengthy explanation.

I think of games like Skyrim. The beauty of it is that after the initial tutorial quest, you reach a road you can follow to the next main quest… or you can turn left and wander into the wilds. All throughout the world, you find sites and encounters, people up to no good or monsters in search of prey. It seems like a living world where other creatures are doing their thing whenever you’re not there. But each of these settings has its own segment of story or plot that triggers once you enter.

Fourth Edition had a book called Dungeon Delve which basically served this purpose – several pre-made sites and dungeons that could easily slide into an ongoing campaign when the DM doesn’t have a ton of time to prep something or when the PCs decide to go an unexpected direction.

Next Stop: Fun

For experienced gamers, it’s probably clear that the “collaborative” part of collaborative storytelling means the PCs should be somewhat willing to go along with the adventure provided. Most groups have no problems seeing some of the possible options and choosing which to pursue. For those, railroading is unnecessary and probably detrimental.

But if players seem confused about where to go or what to do, maybe a few tracks concealed beneath the mechanics of the game would help guide the players along toward the fun everyone seeks.

My Galway Girl

Ed Sheeran’s new YouTube video caught my eye in the trending videos the other morning:

The video is a fun romp through the nightlife of the town, from clubs to bars with a dance troupe and a tattoo parlor in between. Sheeran’s music always feels rich and full of inviting complexity to me–easy enough that you bop along to the beat like the usual radio pop, but with enough quality and skill baked in that you can really enjoy some subtle touches. Likewise, the catchy chorus is contrasted with his usual quick-witted wordplay and cadence. It’s a good example of everything I like about his albums.

Despite my love of Ed Sheeran’s music, that’s not what really drew me to check out the video.

About a year ago, I started a series of loosely connected short stories for the wonderful Rachael Ritchey’s weekly BlogBattle. I’d tried my hand at some varied pieces based on the prompts, but someone else had done an ongoing story with a couple interesting characters and their madcap antics. I thought that would be an interesting challenge.

Some combination of the League of Explorer content in Hearthstone and my kids’ enjoyment of the Indiana Jones movie series led me down a path toward a bumbling tough guy with the chiseled jaw and gleaming smile who gets all the credit, and his “hapless” assistant, the fiery redhead from Ireland who actually gets the job done and saves his bacon.

He’s the brash and dapper charmer who, heedless of danger, punches his way through a burial chamber full of Nazis to snag the mysterious  artifact and save the damsel in distress. She’s the “weak” sidekick checking meticulous research in her pouch, marking traps with flags, and disabling the Nazis’ death machine–all the while casting sidelong and suspicious glares at the obvious double-agent on his arm.

Enter Grant McSwain, Doer of Daring Deeds, and his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.

For a dash of realism, I did some wiki-browsing and found articles on supposedly authentic Irish phrases. Those searches led to a travel site for “places to visit in Galway, Ireland,” which seemed like the perfect hometown for this world-wandering adventurer. I loved what I read–it’s always fun trying (as much as one can over the Internet) to dive into the characteristics and unique qualities of a particular town or region.

To see it in living color–even if somewhat staged–is that much better. And while the song and video are entirely modern, Sheeran still conveys that ancient “don’t you wish you were here?” allure of the Emerald Isle.

If you haven’t seen the video, it’s fun and worth a view. And if you haven’t read the adventures of Grant McSwain, you can check the BlogBattle category of posts, or you can find them compiled on Wattpad here.

Thorn – a fanfic #BlogBattle entry

This week’s BlogBattle genre is fan-fiction, with the word thorn as the prompt.

Normally, I avoid writing fanfic, and I rarely read any. But I can understand the love people have for various characters, and I’ve seen a few really touching examples where someone captures the essence of a show, movie, or book. That said, I found myself surprisingly excited to give it a go for the contest, and it was cool to try. 

Since the first time I ever heard of fan-fiction was related to the TV show Supernatural, I decided to go with the Winchesters as my fanfic victims. And thanks to Rachael posting the rest of January’s words and genres, this is going to be a three-part story.

“That map’s no good this far out, Sammy,” Dean said, his hands firm on the steering wheel of his Baby. The black Impala tore down the backwoods road, engine pounding out a warning to the creatures ahead: the Winchester boys are coming.

“I know where we are,” Sam replied, his lips pursed in frustration. “Just trying to figure out where this Vale might be.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “No doubt it’s in a calm little clearing,” he mocked, “a circle of trees and thick grass with flowers and fairies and soft music playing in the background. Come on, Sammy. Crowley sent us here, so you know we’re steppin’ into a trap.”

Earlier that week, over shots in a bar, the Prince of Hell had tipped them off to the presence of something unnatural in the woods near Boulder, Colorado. “Couple of your dad’s old friends up that way,” he said with a slight smirk. “Good chaps. The lady’s from my side of the pond. Had a couple run-ins with ’em in the distant past–came away impressed.”

Sure enough, once Sam knew where to look, the news stories and search hits shone like a beacon. Hikers attacked, abandoned campsites, talk of evil woods and trees walking about like men. A bloody body turned up a month ago, and two others last week.

Sam folded up the map and tossed it in the back, then pulled out an old leatherbound notebook.”Dad’s journals say these folk stand guard over a site of power, something tied to capital-N Nature. Listen to this. He wrote that ‘they’ve been Hunters since before most folk knew what Hunting was.’ Everything he wrote sounds so… in awe of this couple. Wonder what they did to earn that kind of reverence.”

Dean curled his lip in a dismissive sneer. “Yeah? We’re about to find out.” He tapped the brakes and slowed as they approached a mailbox with McSwain stenciled on the side. “Here’s their cabin.”

He cut the ignition and exited the car, then checked the revolver in his belt and surveyed the treeline with narrowed eyes. Sam slipped his father’s journal into his jacket pocket as he stepped out of the car. “Sure this is the place, Dean?”

The shack looked run-down, barely holding together. A rusty car sat in the garage, unused for years based on the dust and grime. An old woman rocked on the porch, with the black metal of a rifle leaning on her shoulder. She sang in a soft tone that carried through the yard.

The Thorn lies in jail in the Dwimmerdim Dale
,

But ‘neath the moon pale, the Thorn will prevail,

And draw out the blood of the bad and the good.

So come all ye fae, ye hearty and hale
,

Lest Thorn grow to choke all the life in the vale

At the sight of the boys, she leveled the gun their way. “You can keep on that side of the fence, Sasquatch,” she told Sam, “at least until I know what you’re about.”

Dean flashed a fake badge. “Teagan McSwain? Wildlife Protection Agency. This is Agent Irwin, and I’m Agent Grylls. We came on account of some stories in the news–”

The woman raised the gun to her shoulder and took aim. “Go back the way you came,” she said, her voice rough. “Nothing for your kind to handle here.”

Sam reached out with open hands, reassuring. “Ma’am, look, truth is our dad said he knew you and your husband, Grant. He was a Hunter, and–well, it kind of runs in the family. His name’s John, John Winchester?”

The gun quivered in her arms, and then she sprang to her feet with a smile. “Oh my swait Jaysis,” she said, an Irish lilt creeping into her voice. “Come in! How’s little Jonny-boy?”

As they passed through the gate, Sam and Dean traded confused looks, and Dean mouthed the name in silence. “Uh, sorry to say he passed a few years ago.”

“Well, damn. Coulda used him.” Her eyes grew hard, and her jaw clenched. “My husband’s missing in the woods, gone several days now. Went to find the source of the tales you mentioned, but never came back.”

Dean glowered at the woods, and Sam knelt down beside the aged woman. “Where did he go, ma’am?”

“He meant to find the source of this corruption, headed toward the vale up the road. It’s an ancient ritual site of the Chickasaw tribe, a natural shrine of sorts.”

Dean balled his fists at his waist. “We’ll do what we can, ma’am. Can you point us the way?”

Within moments, the Impala rumbled along the narrow trail, its engine making easy work of the rough climb.

“She’s pretty far gone,” Dean said. “For all we know, her husband’s long dead. I wouldn’t get my hopes up for this one, Sammy.”

“Seems like a nice enough lady. And dad’s notes–”

Dean scoffed and flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Dad wrote down a lot of things that don’t make a whole lot of sense until it’s too late.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What’ve we got to deal with natural aberrations?”

“Other than a box of hollowpoints and some shotgun shells,” Dean said, “not a hell of a lot. Should be an ax in the trunk if some trees get feisty.”

The Impala lurched to an abrupt stop. Dean’s forehead bounced off the wheel and Sam’s neck whipped his head forward before snapping back into the seat.

“The hell did you hit, Dean?”

“Nothing!”

Dean floored the accelerator. The engine whined, but the car merely shuddered, immobile. Thick, twisted vines stretched and spread across the Impala’s hood. Sam peered out the window at the front tire, then the back. “More vines, wrapping up the tires like a spider web of plants.”

A figure shaped like a man covered in wood strode from the treeline. Its eyes glowed vibrant green, and the same energy shone from the wide grin splitting its face.

Sam glared at Dean. “You just had to talk about cutting down trees…”

“Uh, Sammy? I think we found Thorn.”

Diffraction Free to Read on WattPad

It’s the Winter Solstice, the shortest period of daylight during the year. For various reasons, my mind ties that dichotomy of darkness and light to Lyllithe, the protagonist of my fantasy novel, Diffraction. 


I completed the revisions and final copy on the Solstice last year, then published it on CreateSpace and Kindle Direct. It’s been available for purchase for the last year, and I have deep appreciation for those who bought a paperback or e-book copy. That option is still out there (and the e-book is reduced to the minimum price I can choose based on the royalty plan).

I’ve also made the book free on Kindle from December 22nd through Christmas Day, so if you know someone who might like a free fantasy novel, point them that way.

However, the real point of this post is to call attention to the full book available to read on WattPad. Though I appreciate every purchase, what I need more than a buck from an e-book sale is a body of readers–and maybe some love on social media. Reblogging this post or sharing the WattPad link among your circle of friends might put Diffraction in the hands of interested readers.

Winter isn’t coming… It’s here. What better way to start it than curling up under a warm blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and an invasion of bloodthirsty zealots?

Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season.