This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.
Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.
“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”
The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.
Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.
It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.
No, we get into the stories.
Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?
We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.
We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.
You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.
Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.
We’ve been playing a tabletop role-playing game for Family Game Night.
Tonight we took a break to level up the characters.
I also took some time to level up my son’s interest in the game.
Justin (7 years old) has a rogue character named Clayface, and he seems to be enjoying himself. The problem is, all Clayface ever really has to do is shoot his crossbow at everyone’s face.
When I ask, “Justin, what do you want to do?” that’s always the answer.
“I shoot the goblin in the face.”
“I shoot my crossbow at the spider. In the face.”
“I want to shoot my crossbow RIGHT IN HIS FACE!”
So I thought, how am I going to get Justin to think more about what different things he might want to do?
That’s when I thought of these guys:
Justin is an absolute nut about Angry Birds.
And this is a silly family game where anything can be allowed.
So why not give Clayface the rogue a slingshot and a sack of birds to use as ammunition?
For the next session, I get to hand Justin the sheet below. It may not get him sneaking around and role-playing a rogue, but it will get him thinking about what he wants to do in the game, even if it turns into, “I fire Little Red into the goblin’s face!”
Real life has been hectic and complicated, forcing me to adjust priorities and pay time and attention to some important things…
…Like family game night!
(Not really, but we did make time Monday night to get our game on for a bit.)
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I discussed her character. Jami likes the idea of Bethrynivere the military leader, but the character bores her. Likewise, Deborah loves Beastly Tiger, the dim-witted wall of muscle. But she doesn’t care so much about the panther companion that comes with a beastmaster ranger.
We looked into some other options while leveling up the kids’ characters.
Deborah selected a marauder ranger, which basically means combining various actions in order to capture a sense of “You’re the fastest character out there, rushing around the battlefield, charging into your enemies.” She plays to Beastly Tiger’s strengths (namely, his Strength stat) by chucking throwing hammers and then running up to smash faces with her larger war hammer.
We finished the character, and I couldn’t help but hear, “Stop! Hammer time!”
Meanwhile, Jami is trying to choose a class and race for a new character. She doesn’t want to duplicate any of the roles in the party, so a magic user is out. A rogue is out. A burly up-close fighter is out, because that’s basically what Beastly Tiger is no matter what the class says. On top of that, the party has no healer. Jami is convinced she should make a healer just because they need one, but that’s not what she wants to do.
I assure her not to worry about healing. I have a plan for an NPC of sorts, an angelic being that grants healing to the characters (in a limited fashion) when they get their butts handed to them in combat.
I don’t know how exactly I’d explain its presence yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something! I just don’t want Jami feeling forced to play something she’s not interested in. So she ignores the healing classes and looks at a few options.
And maybe it was excitement about the upcoming Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria… or maybe it was inspiration from Gollum’s total rage assault on Frodo at the end of Return of the King… or maybe none of the above. But Jami settled on the idea of a Monk, and she decided her monk had to be a Halfling.
Yeah. You heard of Frodo, now meet his cousin Judo.
I kid, I kid. The monk’s name is Lily-Ann. The heroes met her in a session a while back where they fought that Dire Bear.
Once the bear was vanquished, the team gathered all available clues and figured that the thieving merchant they needed to find was probably holed up in the abandoned cathedral near the town. They set off to chase him down, and encountered an assassin who also sought him for reasons known only to her.
There was a brief tense moment–Beastly Tiger threatened to eat the assassin for dinner, and she responded coolly, “I think you’ll find my meat too tough for your tastes.” (I was proud of my off-the-cuff cheesy retort!)
Then the heroes realized the assassin shared the same short-term goal–stop the merchant, recover the gem–so they agreed to work together. They stepped into the cathedral and found the merchant holding the gemstone, protected by a large bubble of energy. Goblins surrounded the bubble, clawing and scraping to no effect. The merchant raised the gem, revealed his true demonic form, and exerted control over the goblins, turning them against the heroes.
That’s where we left off about two weeks ago.
While plotting the big fight, I thought about incorporating vampires into the plot line. I liked the idea of this merchant-devil guy gaining power from the blood that is drawn on the pre-made map. (Eevil Paizo, including little hooks and plot ideas in your simple map drawing!) But then he’d have to be a merchant-devil-vampire guy.
Devil vampires? Yessss…
Come to think of it, I had a campaign that was headed toward an arc about toppling a vampire clan. We had to stop due to various military deployments and such, and we never got to realize that portion of the story. Maybe these devil vampires could be a similar arc for family game night.
And the need to stop their evil would certainly explain the angelic being’s presence and interest in the heroes. Bonus!
So, with all this in mind, I set up the fight. I throw in a heap of goblin minions. In game terms, they’re the cannon fodder, the scrawny little losers that die as soon as they take damage. Minions give the players a sense that their characters are really powerful heroes, crushing all opposition.
They serve my purpose as well; the devil vampire has a healing buff that grows with the blood of each goblin slain.
On top of that, Lily-Ann and the assassin NPC both take bleed damage early in the fight. Bleeding sounds like something else that might give the devil vampire strength, so I describe the power he gains. Now they really want him to die.
Of course, with all the bleeding, they need a healer. So I tell them there is a flash of radiance at the back of the sanctuary, and an angelic being appears, hovering above the ground. She starts shooting beams of warm light at the heroes, and their wounds are healed. They want to know what her deal is, why she’s there, but they’re content to let that wait until after the fight.
The heroes smash their way through many goblins, while the assassin tries to distract the devilish merchant. The kids and Jami focus exclusively on the goblins, but the devil vampire remains completely protected behind a powerful shield. I set about 13 black token stones in an arc inside the cathedral, marking the boundary of the shield.
Deborah describes the various ways she wants Beastly Tiger to attack goblins… usually something like playing Leap Frog over a friend and then landing a crushing shot with the hammer. At some point, Jonathan decides that his not-sneaky-at-all Dragonborn Wizard is going to try to slip around the goblins by creeping through the shadows behind the pillars of the cathedral sanctuary. I can’t believe he wants to do this, but that’s the beauty of the game.
They can do whatever they want, or at least try.
As the kids and Jami beat up the goblins, Justin misses his attack by a very narrow margin. I describe how his crossbow bolt flies through a goblin wizard’s robe instead of hitting the goblin. And I think, “Well, if it flies through his robe, it’ll hit whatever is behind it… namely the shield.”
I describe the impact on the shield, and I replace a black token with a red one. This piques Jonathan’s interest.
On his next turn, he abandons his sneaking plan and decides to start attacking the shield directly. I end up replacing another token or two with red, and I explain how the shield flickers or wavers with each hit.
Suddenly no one cares about the goblins.
Like, not at all.
All of them are focused on the shield, to the extent that they’re ignoring the attacks of little goblins standing right next to them.
Justin has Clayface firing one crossbow bolt after another into the shield, trying to bring it down. The heroes are close to breaking through. One of the little pesky goblins runs up to harass or attack Clayface, and rolls a 1. I pick a card from the Critical Fumble deck.
The goblin ends up with something like, “Return to Sender.” It means the attack failed so bad that the opponent grabs and keeps the weapon the attacker just used. The goblin essentially runs up and hands Clayface his knife in the middle of the fight, while Clayface remains focused on the shield.
The goblins didn’t last long. And once the shield was brought down, the heroes were quick to pile on the devil vampire. Jami’s monk has a powerful move she can do once per fight, called Open the Gates of Battle. It does extra damage when you attack a target that has full health. Throughout the fight, we were discussing when she could or should use “Open the Gates.” She really really wanted to use it on the big devil vampire, and the moment finally arrived.
She says, “I wanna OPEN THE GATES!” Deborah and Jonathan cheer with her, “Yeah! Open the Gates! Open the Gates!”
Justin yells, “AND THEN CLOSE IT ON HIM!”
The heroes surround the devil vampire and beat on him with everything they’ve got. My assassin NPC manages to snatch the gemstone from the monster’s hands, and jumps away. (I’ve been trying to get her to grab it the whole time, but unfortunately I’ve been rolling a string of 3s and 4s.)
He responds by spraying acid and bile all around him a la Exorcist, pushing the heroes back. Then he rushes at the assassin and tries to get the gemstone back.
With everyone unloading their best attacks, the devil vampire is in a bad way. I get my turn, and he takes the gemstone back, raising it up into the air triumphantly, calling on its power to aid him and cackling in a mustache-twirling villain sort of way.
Justin declares, “I want to shoot him IN THE FACE!” and attacks with a crossbow shot that I know will kill the vampire. And it’s really late at this point, and we need to finish.
Always finish with a hook, if you can get away with it.
The devil vampire’s grin turns to open-mouthed confusion and he looks from the gem to the assassin at his feet. Something has gone wrong. “NOOOOO!” He screams at her. “WHAT HAVE YOU DO–”
I tell Jami and the kids, “The crossbow bolt flies into the creature’s mouth, killing him and triggering the explosive power of Clayface’s weapon. The devil vampire explodes, sending the assassin sliding across the ground. The goblins under the vampire’s control fall dead. Aaaaaand… we’re done. Time to get ready for bed.”
Deborah and Jonathan shout, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
And the next day, Jonathan is already asking, “Can we play more tonight?”
They can’t wait to see what happens. Thinking of the silliness they come up with, I can’t wait to see what happens either.
It’s almost weekly game night with my wife and kids. Maybe I better post last week’s silliness.
Last week my wife and kids had their heroes continue a desperate attack against the goblins who took over their town. They had just finished clearing out the Town Hall when the last living goblin cried out, “Wait! I’ll tell you everything!”
So we began with that conversation.
The fearful goblin explains the mysterious jewel the goblins are seeking: it’s a magical artifact that can exert control over the goblins in some way. The band of goblins are part of a larger organization led by the enigmatic Kal, who no one has ever seen and lived to describe. Kal has allowed the goblins to keep the jewel as a sign of trust in their relationship, and the goblins have pledged their support to Kal’s unknown goals.
Further details are all well above the head of the pathetic goblin captive, so the party stops questioning him.
However, if his story is true, the goblins aren’t motivated to ransack or destroy. The heroes begin wondering if it’s possible for them to help the goblins find the jewel and thus end the invasion on the town.
They bring the goblin captive into the next underground tunnel and head for the smithy to attempt diplomacy.
The goblin is sent up the stairs with the offer of coordinated effort.
His corpse is dropped down the stairs a moment later, followed by a fireball.
Burak, the half-orc sorceror I control, takes a crit and gets knocked 15 feet down the tunnel. I’m fine with this. As I’ve said before, I like finding ways to get him out of the way. That way, we can focus on my wife’s character and especially my kids’ characters as heroes.
Justin’s rogue, Clayface, is the first up the stairs. The party already knows there are four goblins near the stairs. But I whisper to Justin, informing him that there are four more goblins at the far end of the room. One of them is the purple goblin the heroes have been looking for.
I don’t put down any pieces because I don’t want the rest of the party to know yet. They’re downstairs. They can’t see these extra goblins.
But I do tell Justin, “Would Clayface want to tell his friends anything about what’s up here?”
Justin thinks a moment, and ‘Clayface’ informs his allies, “Guys, there are goblins up here.”
Deborah looks at me with eyes and a smirk that say, “Duh… we knew that.”
Jonathan calls out, “Uh… okay! Thanks…” in a sing-song response.
Jami’s character is next up the stairs and finds out about the added goblins. She laughs about Justin’s well-meaning attempt at a warning.
Soon everyone is upstairs from the underground tunnel into the smithy (well, everyone but Burak). The fight is pretty intense, and almost all the heroes are bloodied, D&D 4th Edition’s term for “half-dead.”
On his turn, Jonathan decides that Killbot is mad about this.
He starts asking about rules for biting.
“I want to walk up and bite the goblin on the nose.”
I try not to laugh. “Your character is pretty big and these guys are small. Look at that picture of your character. If you bite a goblin, you’re probably biting on his whole head.”
“Okay, even better.”
We roll for grappling, as Killbot tries to catch and hang onto a goblin. Then we roll an attack for the bite itself. It hits but doesn’t do too much damage. Jonathan doesn’t care. He just wants the goblins to know that the Dragonborn wizard is MAD.
Then it’s Justin’s turn.
He has a habit of getting excited that it’s his turn and immediately rolling dice to see “how well I do.” He knows most things in D&D require the roll of a 20-sided die.
He rolls a 20, a critical hit or automatic success.
As usual, I have to ask him, “But what are you trying to do?”
“Shoot my crossbow at something that’s not dead that’s not one of my friends in the game.”
Killbot continues his toothy rampage. He grabs and bites the purple goblin on the head.
But the goblins score a lot of hits. Jonathan looks around and says, “I’m the only one in the party not bloodied yet.”
He says this as I calculate damage for an arrow that hits him and bloodies him.
The purple goblin and another goblin die in a scorching burst cast by Jonathan’s wizard.
The three remaining goblins get mad and start chanting, “Bursh nakh!”
Two of the three fall dead from Clayface’s crossbow bolts.
But then the wall shakes, splinters fly, and the last goblin rejoices.
Killbot grabs hold of the third goblin, and bites him. The goblin tries to break free but is held fast.
Then Justin decides he wants to shoot at it.
“Justin, your friend is holding the goblin… the goblin who is about to die.”
“You remember, your magic crossbow causes explosions when it kills enemies.”
“You might hit Killbot with your crossbow, or you might hit the goblin and make it explode. Are you sure about this?”
I try to throw him some rope.
“Let’s talk about delaying actions or holding actions. You can choose something you want to do, and say ‘if this or that happens, I will do this.’ So, maybe Beastly Tiger could stand next to a door and declare, ‘If an enemy comes through, I’m going to smash it in the face with my hammer and call it a hobo.’ Your character picks an action and waits for the right moment to do it. Does that make sense?”
“And you guys are in the same room. So you can talk about this. You can tell Killbot, ‘Throw that goblin toward me.’ Then when he does, you can shoot it and make it explode.”
“So… do you want to do that?”
“I want to shoot it.”
“Right now?” “Yup.”
I give Killbot a break and allow him a saving throw to see if he can react in time. You roll a d20, and on 10 or better, you succeed… so you have just over a 50-50 shot at whatever it is. He saves, and throws the goblin away just as the crossbow bolt hits it.
With the goblins defeated, the heroes have a moment to catch their breath.
Then they learn what “Bursh nakh” means, as the Dire Bear the goblins summoned bursts into the room like the Kool-Aid man.
There’s a merchant who has a magical gem he took from goblins. There are goblins who have taken over the town in order to find him and get it back. There are townsfolk in need of heroes to free their homes from the goblin invaders. And in the last session, there are a bunch of dead goblins in the street after the initial assault breaches the gate and gets the heroes into the town.
The kids’ characters have done some research, and they know about secret tunnels between buildings. They hope to use these to surprise the goblins. I remind them which buildings have tunnels and where they lead. Jonathan declares, “I have a plan!”
So they plan to bust into the nearest buildings (a collection of small stores), take out the goblins, move through the tunnel to Town Hall, wipe out the goblins, and then move to the Blacksmith’s forge to find and eliminate a purple goblin for a reward from the dead blacksmith’s mourning apprentice.
They figure if they do this, they will benefit and they will break the goblin invasion.
Deborah also suggests listening in on the goblins’ conversations to see what they can learn.
But first, they have to get into the building. And at this point, I remind them that they’re all standing outside a tailor’s shop, right next to the window where the goblins inside can surely see them.
Roll for initiative!
Beastly Tiger (Deborah’s hunter with a newly acquired magic hammer) launches himself through the window, executing a tuck-and-roll across the table on the other side to land with a crushing blow on the first goblin. The total damage of the hit is more than half of the goblin’s life, and we follow the suggested house rule that such a hit is an instant-kill on a monster. So this goblin gets pulped.
I place a little red glass marker and remove the goblin. “It’s a blood bubble!” Deborah cheers. Queasy Mom is not enthused. Blood bubbles are super gross.
Jami’s character Bethrynivere is up next. We’re playing a lot more by ear than by rules, so we both remember a different version of Bethrynivere had an ability that “commands” another player to make an attack — hence the “leader” role of the warlord. Bethrynivere does this (because we forget that this version doesn’t have that power), commanding Beastly Tiger to “Strike left!”
Deborah rolls a 20. The critical hit card we draw says “crushed knee” and gives a rough idea of how this affects the monster. But once again, the damage is enough to instant-kill the goblin. We decide that Beastly Tiger’s hit smashes the knee, spinning the goblin into the air, and it lands upon its head, incapacitated.
Another blood bubble is placed.
My goblins are up next. One of them, having seen two of his allies exploded in brutal fashion, dives out the other window of the store and finds the rest of the heroes. He takes a shot at Bethrynivere but misses.
A goblin sapper sets a bomb in the building, hoping to eliminate Beastly Tiger. Then he makes a break for it. Now there’s only one other goblin in the room with Deborah’s character.
Deborah declares she wants to grab the goblin, throw him toward the bomb, and then dive out the window to escape the explosion. We discuss ways to make this happen, and Jami finds one of her warlord’s powers is to draw attention to herself, essentially allowing her to move a monster toward her.
“I’m the one you want! Face me!”
The goblin moves forward a few squares, ready to hurl a spear at the warlord. Then Beastly Tiger grabs him.
Beastly is an athletic and acrobatic nightmare for monsters, and this is no different. I require a few rolls–one attack roll to grab the goblin, one for the acrobatic feat of flipping the goblin behind Beastly, one for the acrobatic attempt to dive through the window. I give the goblin a chance to avoid falling flat on his face (he fails).
A moment later, half the building (and the goblin) disappears in the blast.
The goblins outside have been eliminated, except for one: the sapper who set the bomb. He is hurt, but he’s running. Killbot, Jonathan’s dragonborn wizard, decides to wait until the sapper gets to the Town Hall. Jonathan asks what his character can see of the Town Hall: are there windows? There’s a window right by the double-door where the goblin is standing. The goblin pounds on the door, calling for his friends to let him in. That’s when Killbot strikes, with a magic missile blast of force followed by a bolt of lightning.
“The goblins inside can’t miss the flash of lightning and the thunder that follows, and they certainly realize that they no longer hear their friend’s cries for help. They’re going to come out and look for who did this.”
So Jonathan suggests that the heroes rush into the secret tunnel in the now-destroyed merchant shops, and sneak into the Town Hall while the goblins are outside, in order to set an ambush for them when they return.
Deborah still wants to eavesdrop on goblin conversations.
In the end, a compromise is reached. The heroes sneak into the basement of the Town Hall, and creep to the stairs that lead up to the main floor. From there, they can listen to the goblins.
Justin’s character, Clayface, is the consummate rogue–or “sneaky guy” as he would say. I have him roll a Perception check, and he rolls high. So I tell him that Clayface does some kind of Hawkeye-Avengers stuff where he listens closely with his ridiculously-high-for-level-1 Perception skill, and maps out roughly where all the goblins are by the sounds of their voices. He’s very satisfied with this.
Jonathan’s wizard is smart enough that he possibly knows some of the goblin language, so he interprets for the others. The goblins are concerned because this gem has a secret power that will allow whoever holds it to control the goblins somehow. They aren’t really out to attack the town. They’re running scared, trying to find and stop the merchant who has the gem before he figures this out. I tell Jonathan that there are some other complicated and unfamiliar words about “undead” in there, for foreshadowing.
I also tell them that the conversation dies down. They know a fight should start soon, with goblin guards at the top of the stairs. Deborah loves playing Beastly Tiger as a dimwit, so she has him say, “I can’t hear you. Keep talking!” Jonathan laughs and “rolls” for Beastly Tiger’s bluff attempt.
Appropriately, he rolls a 1. Deborah accepts this.
One guard gets smashed instantly by Beastly Tiger; the other escapes a near death when the string of Clayface’s crossbow breaks. (Justin also rolls a 1 when trying to attack the fleeing guard.)
Now the goblins know there are intruders, and they take up hidden positions. The heroes creep up the stairs and try to figure out where the goblins could be. I ask Justin to try another Perception check. He rolls a 19, and adds his high skill.
“You can hear their panicked breathing.”
The kids love it. I point out a couple of goblin positions, lurking under tables or around corners. But clearly there are fewer known locations now than there were before.
Beastly Tiger still has initiative (because I’d rather not reroll all of that), so he rushes in, with another acrobatic leap onto a table followed by a smashing attack with the hammer. I keep letting Deborah do this because 1) that’s how she pictures her character, and 2) since she ends up rolling twice for every attack, sooner or later, one of those maneuvers will end in spectacular failure. Last session, she tried to leap onto a rooftop and rolled a 1. I told her Beastly Tiger smashed his face into the overhanging beam as he tried to pull himself up. It was delightful.
Another goblin gets insta-smashed.
Another blood bubble is placed on the map.
Meanwhile, Jonathan puts out a treasure chest in a back room. He’s the one that wants to be a DM. He convinces Jami to send Bethrynivere that way, and she finds the chest along with a goblin mage. Those two trade shots, and then Killbot comes to Bethrynivere’s aid, blasting the mage with lightning.
Along comes Clayface, sneaking into a hidden position to strike with his Dragonfire Crossbow.
Early in the session, Justin remembered very clearly that sometimes the magic crossbow he got from the townsfolk will make a target explode. I remind him that it only happens when a monster gets killed by the crossbow. Sure enough, the goblin mage is almost dead, when Clayface hits it with a sneak attack that does bonus damage. I roll attacks against Bethrynivere, and it’s not enough to hit. She raises her shield just in time to avoid being hurt by the shower of fire, bone, and meat.
Another blood bubble is placed on the map.
Jonathan rushes his character to the chest, attempting to fling it wide open. I take advantage of his greed and attack him with a trap. I roll pretty high, and now his wizard is bloodied–half dead. And poisoned.
He expresses shock. “Killbot has never been bloodied before!”
That’s what you get for going after the treasure while enemies are still around!
Beastly Tiger picks up one of the two goblins left, and tries to slam it into the other. The attack fails, but my goblin also fails his attempt to keep his footing, and he lands on his face. Bethrynivere starts healing Killbot and Beastly Tiger, who has taken a few hits and is also bloodied.
The goblin on the ground crawls under a table and hides, and the other goblin takes another crossbow bolt from Clayface. Once again, the damage is more than half the monster’s total life, so this goblin explodes as the Dragonfire Crossbow’s magic kicks in.
Another blood bubble is placed on the map.
Jonathan has Killbot open the chest and claim treasure. I take out the deck of Wonderous Items or whatever it is (another Paizo is Eevil topic in the works), and I tell him to draw three cards. He gets a card of coins, a messenger ring (with a secret compartment to place a note), and a “helm pendant.”
I promise to tell him what each of these do, but I don’t get to it in time. (More suspense for the next session, perhaps!)
At this point, Jami has been quietly talking to a friend who tells us that this year’s last showing of Shakespeare on the Green – Julius Caesar – is tonight at 8 PM. We need to go very soon if we’re going to get there on time. I glance down at the map, looking for a quick end with a hook for the next session.
“As you approach the cowering goblin under the table, he cries out in Common, ‘WAIT!! I’ll tell you everything!’ “
“First, I’ll Glancebind as a minor action using the bridge the bandits are standing on. For my standard action, I’ll Loose the energy into bolts of force and hurl them at the leader. Then I’ll take another minor to Unshackle the circuit on my right hand; that will be a ball of fire that I hurl at the bridge.”
Yesterday I introduced a magic system I intend to use in my fantasci setting, The Bordermarches.
Since this setting is also where I normally place my D&D campaigns, I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate the various elements like Refocusing magic into D&D terminology.
Disclaimer: I’ve played a few RPGs over the years, but I only started playing D&D on 4th Edition. That colors how I describe the game mechanics.
Refocusing is my attempt to explain away the common use of magic in this setting. I’m not a fan of “I shoot magic in the darkness simply because I CAN.” In my system, magic users use a special eyepiece to siphon energy (potential or kinetic) from the mass of inanimate objects around them in order to power their spells.
A caster must Bind or Glancebind from a source of energy. The source must be an inanimate object; a caster cannot get energy from living things. This is a minor action (something along the lines of drawing a weapon, retrieving an item from a pocket or pack, etc). It’s up to the DM to decide whether Glancebinding affects the object the energy is pulled from… for example using a waterfall as a source of energy might dry up the waterfall for a few seconds. Using a bridge might weaken the supports, possibly collapsing the bridge.
Next, the caster can choose to Loose the energy to power an attack or spell. What type of action this is will depend on the spell. In 4E D&D, most attack spells are standard actions, which take the majority of the time you have in a turn. Thus you can only do one standard action per turn.
The caster can instead choose to charge a circuit or Shackle the energy. By spending another minor action, energy can be stored for later use in special rings of metal that a person carries or wears. These have to be a high quality of metal and craftsmanship, so they should be expensive and difficult to come by. They also glow brightly when charged, so keep that in mind if your caster tries to be sneaky.
Finally, a caster can Unshackle stored energy by draining a circuit. This is another minor action, and serves the purpose of a quick cast spell. Again, this is part of why circuits should be fairly rare — your min/max players are going to want to stroll into a horde of enemies with twenty glowing rings hanging off their vest, casting powerful spells every turn through minor action Unshackling.
This may slow down your magic-user classes slightly, as they can’t just cast spell after spell each turn. I think the pain of that energy resource demand is offset by the ability to store up a few spells based on how many circuits the character has on them.
Refocusing also requires the device that makes it possible: an Ocular, an eyepiece that grants the magic-user the ability to see and manipulate potential and kinetic energy in inanimate objects around them. This can be any sort of eyepiece: a monocle, spectacles, a lens strapped to one eye with a leather cord or strip of cloth, a special glass installed in the visor of a plate helm.
I wanted a system that requires a bit of technology to use, and I like the idea of needing a device in order to use magic. Removing the eyepiece from a caster negates their ability to cast, but the fact that it’s an eyepiece means that almost any player or NPC can have one. You don’t have to be stuck with the stereotypical wizard in a robe. The burly knight in full plate and the shifty assassin might also be able to Refocus.
And though Oculars are plentiful, they are not ubiquitous. Everyone doesn’t have a couple laying around. These should be treasured possessions that are fairly hard to come by without good connections.
The easiest way to incorporate this is to declare that the powers a magic-using character might have are unchanged; they just get energy to fuel those spells through this process. In the event of choosing a non-magic class (like the knight or assassin above), you can set it up as a Multiclass character or NPC, or simply grant access to a few powers/spells chosen by the DM and player.
One final drawback: Oculars can burn out or fail like a blown fuse. You can’t pump infinite energy through them. This is also the hard-line solution to the min/maxer who tries to cast three or four minor action Unshackled spells per turn.
I’d suggest a three strikes approach: give them a warning that the eyepiece is getting hot (and their characters would know what that means, so make sure the players know the possible consequence). Next, if they keep it up, give them some damage as they have this burning instrument near their eye.
Finally, if they refuse to back down, you can amp up their one final spell by doubling its damage or something, then shatter the Ocular. Having a piece of searing glass explode near your eyeball can definitely put some hurt on a character. It should never come to this if you’re communicating possible consequences clearly.
But players can be stubborn.
There. That’s it for now. I’ve left it fairly vague to allow for personal flavor (for example, whether objects are destroyed when power is siphoned from them, or whether this is just the explanation for the magic powers a character possesses or an open door to let the player come up with whatever they can imagine to bend reality in-game).
I’d love to hear what you think…
Does it work? Is it too powerful? Is it too much of a nerf to magic-users?
You’re the Demon Hunter. You cut swaths through the gathered hordes like the wind sweeping away chaff. Your traps rend the flesh of your foes. Fueled by your deep hatred and your rigid discipline, your arrows punch through demonic flesh. You are so powerful that you can fight your way into the depths of Hell itself to face the greatest of Evils.
But you didn’t bring a rope.
“There’s the door I want. Too bad I can’t jump, or climb down. Nope… gotta fight my way through another few hundred demons to get there.”
“Your subjects despair at the chaos around them. Your nobles still look to the old lords who founded this land, and hope that the Cerunae might return to set it to order. They do not know what I have seen. The Empire you wait for, the glories of old you hope to see restored… Your fallen cities are all that remains of it.”
Welcome to the Bordermarches — the setting for the book(s) I am writing, as well as a number of tabletop RPG campaigns I’ve run.
First, some background:
In 2008, I deployed to the Mid-East for a few months. Just before I left, a friend suggested starting a tabletop RPG group at his house. While I was sitting around in “the desert” between flights, I was looking for something to do. Then the exchange set up a display stand for the core rulebooks of the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons: the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
I had some extra money and thought, “I’ll check this out.”
The core rulebooks inspired the original version of my setting. They describe a flawed and dangerous world, a place where civilization huddles in ‘points of light’ surrounded by darkness and the unknown. For the purpose of the rulebooks, the writers suggest the backdrop of a long-fallen empire, an ancient power that spanned the known world and left secrets behind in its ruin.
Naturally, this works great for a campaign.
What technology might the ancient empire have possessed? What’s left of that?
What power or magic did they know? Can it be learned today?
Who or what destroyed them? And is that destructive force still around?
Does it lie dormant, biding its time, its hunger growing as the day of its return approaches?
Or was it a tremendous global calamity, a meteor strike for example?
Has that devastation become a legend of gods casting fire to the earth in their wrath?
And perhaps it was an act of the Divine after all?
If so, what prompted it? Some rampant evil that now rises again and threatens a global judgment?
Needless to say, there are almost limitless options.
And that’s assuming you don’t decide the empire in question is actually still intact and in control.
Since it gives so many options, I ran with that general idea… a world in decline, a realm under siege on all sides, an unstable government struggling to stand while crippled by corruption within.
In the world of the Bordermarches, the Cerune Empire has fallen. Its Amethyral Throne has been bereft of a rightful Imperial for several hundred years. Wars and squabbling for power consumed most of the Empire’s greatness.
However, in the centuries prior to its decline, Cerune sought to expand its reach to other continents. A grand expedition carried the Emperor’s banner across the seas to found a seat of power on a new continent. Opportunity and hope brought great numbers to this new land, and the Cerunae spread until natural borders or strong resistance stopped them.
The Snowcap Mountains cross the north, separating this land from the tundra nation of Glacierift. The jagged peaks of Tiernalen’s Wall form the eastern edge, and none return who venture into the forests on the other side. To the distant southeast, arid wastes and twisted magic prevent further expansion. The gloom of Feyshadow Fen marks the western border, between the Snowcaps and the bay where the Cerunae first landed.
This distant addition to the Empire marked the furthest edge of Cerune’s power, the borders of its reach. Four City-States took root across the expanse: Mirelenai, the crime-ridden port city where the Empire first landed; Lanaloth, the city of harvest that provides food for most of the realm; Aelwyn, known for the finest craftsmanship and most courageous warriors; and Aulivar, the greatest and highest of the Cities. Though each seeks its own interests, they are also bound by a mutual defense pact in case of a greater regional threat.
And such threats now arise against the Marches.
To the north, Glacierift has collapsed, descending into madness and violence. Its former soldiers and desperate refugees seek aid from Aulivar, and where they do not find it, they take what they need by force.
To the east, contact has been lost with many of the scattered mining villages that supply Aelwyn’s smithies. The few gibbering survivors speak of bloodthirsty savages. Tiernalen’s Wall has held back the remnants of the Cerunae from further expansion, but it does not prevent outsiders from pouring into the Marches.
To the southeast, the Army of the Marches stands watch over the border of the Wastes–a border that encroaches steadily on the green fields and farmlands of Lanaloth. Merchants and travelers no longer cross the Wastes freely, and the few who risk the journey bring reports of the Orghûl preparing for war.
And in the southwest, Mirelenai crumbles under the weight of its own corruption. The Seamistress and her loyalists wage a losing war against organized criminals and the power-hungry nobles who fund them.
The days are dark for the Marches, and hope dwindles in the face of such opposition, like a flickering candle at midnight.
And there is one who seeks to extinguish it…
So there you have it, the introduction to the Bordermarches. Sadly, with this limited information, it’s run-of-the-mill fantasy fare. But I hope to reveal and explain some core concepts that I believe set it apart as unique.
And right off the bat on that list is the “troubling complications of scientific progress.”
1. noun. (archaic) an acronym for Non-Player Character, commonly used in Role-Playing Games. This character is one with whom the Player Characters (PCs) can interact in order to gain information, accept goals or objectives, or conduct business.
2. noun. (modern) A target or prop upon which the PCs attempt to unleash all manner of pain, suffering, and torture, without expecting any consequences.
The session in which the children accidentally all the NPCs.
(Grammar Nazi disclaimer: it’s a meme. The mistake is intentional.)
So, in session 2, the intrepid heroes created and controlled by my wife and children have successfully defeated a two-prong attack by goblins and a host of icky natural critters. As is always my fear and always the custom of seemingly all D&D players everywhere, regardless of what they face, the heroes attempt to capture the last surviving enemy in order to interrogate it.
One goblin remains and is questioned. He reveals that hordes of goblins are en route to the nearby town, bent on recapturing a jewel that was stolen from them. The heroes take their prisoner along in the hopes of using him as a bargaining chip.
Inwardly I laugh at the thought of goblins caring about one of their number held as a prisoner.
But that’s a surprise for a later session.
The plan for session 3 is mostly role-playing and interacting with NPCs.
This is one of the most fun parts of the game for me, because you never know what a player is going to decide to do to your NPCs. It’s usually good.
Session 3 begins with a recap, and then I describe the scene as the heroes return to their town (the supposed target of the goblin hordes). The townsfolk are camped out in makeshift tents like refugees, cast out from their own walls. The goblins have already struck.
I pick out one of the official-looking faces from the Urban NPCs deck, and now he’s the guard captain who meets the heroes and briefs them on the situation. He’s gathering together all able-bodied townsfolk for a counter-attack in the morning, and he needs the heroes to assist in the raid.
However, the rest of the people are giving the party the stink-eye.
And so I take a moment to describe skill challenges to my kids. “Now’s your chance to use some of these skills your characters are good at in order to figure out what’s going on, why the town is mad at you, and maybe get some info that will help you beat the goblins the next day.”
I also had a stack of those face cards ready for them to randomly choose, with a rough idea of who each NPC might be. They rolled initiative, but I had my half-orc barely-functional comic-relief character go first to show how an interaction with an NPC might go. He talks like Hulk, if Hulk was stupid. Or more stupid than whatever version of Hulk you might be familiar with.
I lucked out and got the crazy-looking guy. The conversation was devoid of anything useful, other than serving as an example of picking a skill to use to interact with an NPC, rolling a check, and seeing what happens.
Justin’s character, Clayface the rogue, was up next, and he got the innkeeper. Since the innkeeper was fairly friendly, all went well, and Justin used Streetwise to get some gossip about what took place.
Then my wife’s warlord, Bethrynivere interacted with a politician from the big city. The NPC was a total witch–no, not a magic-using witch, the other kind–and blamed the incompetent “countryside buffoons” for the failed defense of the town. But Bethrynivere was able to use History (her character’s primary hobby) to point out the unique and abnormal nature of the goblin attack in order to persuade the politician to help the party rather than hinder them.
She makes the guards bring out some of the salvaged supplies that have been gathered for the assault. I just let the players pick a total of five random cards from a Dragon Trove deck (or whatever it’s properly called… I’ll probably write a “Paizo is Eevil” post about it and offer a picture and link).
The warlord ended up with a special suit of armor. The rogue got a new crossbow. The hunter picked a heavy hammer. The wizard got a mysterious magic potion. And my “special” half-orc got a chainmail shirt he intends to sell for some extra gold.
So far, all has gone pretty well.
Jonathan’s wizard, Killbot encountered another wizard, a supermodel-perfect blonde-haired fellow who boasted proudly of all his awesomeness and ridiculed the so-called heroes for letting this calamity happen while they were out camping in the woods. I really tried to push Jonathan’s buttons by being as annoying as possible, but he calmly made a Diplomacy check to defuse the situation. Then the two wizards discussed the magic energy in the area, and Jonathan’s Arcana check helped confirm what this wizard suspected. The jewel the goblins were after was a powerful artifact that was changing the flow of magic around the town.
I was pleasantly surprised thus far. The kids were taking this pretty seriously, and kind of thinking about what their characters might do instead of how they personally would like to respond.
Then it was Deborah’s turn.
Actually, I’m pretty sure.
Deborah is smart, and she has a concept of what Beastly Tiger is like and how he interacts with people.
For one, he calls everyone a hobo. Sometimes he politely asks them if they are a hobo.
Because apparently old people are hobos, as a general rule.
Turns out Beastly Tiger is also a hobo.
Oh, now we’re getting some backstory here.
So Beastly Tiger encounters a monk, a servant of the Divine Aspect of Strength. And this fellow suggests that he is willing to offer a supernatural blessing to people of proven strength so that they might better defeat the goblins who have taken over the town.
“Show me your strength,” the monk says in my best Ian McKellen Gandalf impression, “and I will bless you.”
Deborah looks at the card for the hammer her character received, and grins.
“I could make you fly,” she threatens.
At this point, we have a conversation about consequences in-game, and how the townspeople might react to an attack on their number.
We also revisit the definition of Diplomacy.
Beastly Tiger re-thinks his plan, and the suggestion is that he can show off some martial skill with throwing knives.
Deb rolls low, and I describe the monk’s eyebrow raise in a question as Tiger’s knife nicks the side of a tree.
I almost went with the Miyagi line, “Wood not hit back.”
The monk is not satisfied and demands that Beastly Tiger try again.
So then Tiger decides perhaps a good demonstration would be to throw the monk into the tree.
Poor NPCs, objects of wrath and torment.
We discuss again the wisdom of such a decision.
Tiger finally decides to pound the tree with his hammer, sending splinters flying in all directions with the force of his mighty strike.
And that finally works.
Thank goodness, because I thought I’d hear the fateful words, “I attack the monk,” any minute now.
One “round” of NPC interactions has finished, and so I ask the kids if they want to do another round.
They’re loving it. “Yes!” they cry.
Again, my orc-sorc goes first. But DM PCs are notoriously horrible for stealing the spotlight, and I have eleven characters to play in this session already. So I want this out of the way quick.
I pick a random card and get a poor waif’s face.
I can picture her begging, “Please, sire, just a crust of bread to get me through the week…”
But Burak the sorceror is… sorely lacking in the People Skills department. It goes a little something like this:
My shout of “NO” is so loud and unexpected that my wife practically jumps and the kids’ eyes go wide. But then they start cackling, because once again it is proven that Burak is a moron.
“Surely no hero really acts that way,” you may think.
Yes, but players do it all the time.
I had a player show up impaired, we’ll say.
The session turned out to be quite odd, but never more so than when the heroes saved a villager from ruffians on his farm.
The Halfling comes running out the door of his farmhouse crying for help. The ruffians chase him, clearly intent on bodily harm if not bloodshed.
The heroes intervene and defeat the ruffians.
Then the player immediately says, “I INTERROGATE THE HALFLING!”
“Interrogate” is a word with connotations. It’s not just “ask how he’s doing” or “try to find out why the ruffians were after him.”
I questioned his chosen course of action at least three times, explaining, “That’s the Halfling you just rescued. You really want to interrogate him?”
“Shhh…” he whispered with a dismissive hand-wave. “It happened. It happened.”
Yes. Players do interesting and horrible things to NPCs.
So back to the game…
Now it’s Clayface’s turn, and he gets some beggarly-looking fellow with obvious fright on his face. I figure this is a contact of Clayface’s, someone with minor ties to criminal elements, someone who knows what happens in the back alleys of town. And Clayface wants to know what this guy knows, so Justin goes with Intimidation checks.
Last time, Justin’s character was represented by a “Human Bandit” miniature, with a big sack like Santa Claus slung over one shoulder. Thus, when it came time to question the goblin they captured, Justin’s plan was “I hit him with my sack.”
No questions, no demands. Just start beating the goblin until answers fall out, I guess.
This time, I gave him a miniature that looked a little more roguish. It’s an assassin with a flowing black cloak, jumping back as if parrying an attack with his shortsword.
Now Clayface’s intimidating plan is, “I whap him with my cape.”
Roll for a Humiliation check, maybe.
Naturally, he rolls a 20. (Pun intended.)
Capes can be pretty scary, I guess.
Soon, they’ve finished another round of chats with the friendly folk of the town.
They’ve learned about secret tunnels they can use to get the drop on the goblins.
They’ve learned about the jewel the goblins are after–that it’s probably an artifact of some magic power, that it’s affecting the area around the town in a bad way, and that it was seen in the hands of the merchant they rescued in the first session long ago.
They’ve gained some material and supernatural aid to help them own some goblins.
And they’ve been offered a few side quests from concerned citizens with interests in town.
It seems a good place to stop, and I’m left hoping that the players learned a little more about how the game works.
But I suspect that we’re going to have to talk about not beating on the NPCs again soon.
And I’ll be okay with that as long as I don’t hear “Shhhh… it happened.”
Paizo continues to get my money, despite all my efforts to resist them.
And they deserve it, because they put out some great stuff.
In part 2 of this topic, I mentioned the value of pictures to communicate an impression and image of a Non-Player Character to your players. Naturally, the same holds true when dealing with description.
You can be an amazing wordsmith, and you can have an impeccable delivery, but my experience is that your players hear “words words words wall of text still more wordsCASTLE with words words blah blah Baron von Guy-we’re-gonna-killokay enough already let’s move on.”
Description problems get compounded when combat ensues.
“I fire my Thundertusk Boar-Strike at the goblin.”
“You can’t see the goblin. He’s out of line of sight because he’s in the hall around the corner.”
“You failed to mention that, DM.”
“I mentioned it while you were checking Facebook and laughing at a LOLcat.”
And this is why many games use maps. Good use of a map of some kind will get everyone seeing roughly the same thing in the portions of the game where that matters. It quickly answers questions like “Can I target that guy?” and the natural follow-up, “Can I hit that guy with an arrow/a fireball/the wild dog I’m holding by the throat?”
Because that happens more than I would have guessed.
(Maybe I should choose my players differently.)
Different games use different combat systems, of course. Different groups of players are going to employ combat rules in their own unique ways. So some folks may not even need a map. I’ve heard arguments that in some games, combat — at least the storytelling aspect of it — is enhanced by not having a map.
But I don’t have supreme confidence in my descriptive storytelling or in the attention span of players. And as much as possible, I want them to see the world as I see it in my head.
An easy method that requires very little artistic talent is the plain hexagonal or square grid roll-up playmat. Get wet-erase markers, draw lines for walls and add a few simple features, BAM! Instant dungeon.
But for some of us, this might not cut it.
So there’s the option of tiles. Wizards of the Coast has put out a whole mess of these sets, with punch-out cardboard map pieces you can mix and match to create any number of settings. They’re generally pretty easy on the eyes, but can be painful to the wallet if you want a good variety.
And my experience has been that I spend more time in preparation looking through a bag or drawer of tile pieces trying to find parts that are “just right,” and then I spend too long during the gaming session trying to recreate the map that I made before.
I don’t want to put together a puzzle in front of my friends, and they don’t want to watch me. They want to own monsters with nat 20s.
I need something faster.
Eevil Paizo strikes again.
How about maps I can just lay down and run with? (To be fair, Wizards also puts out similar products, and I’m sure there are smaller companies doing it too.)
Need urban combat in a city? Who wants to draw every individual building? And if you’re rushing, be honest: all your buildings will end up as little featureless squares. So why not unfold one of these City Streets flip-mats?
Maybe you need more detail. Maybe you’ve got your players clearing out an enemy force by going building-to-building. You can pick up the Shops Map Pack and have interior maps for every building on that flip-mat, including upstairs and downstairs in most cases. Now you have the element of surprise, too. The players only see into buildings as they get inside them–you lay down the individual building map as needed. So you get something like this:
Of course, this plan costs a pretty penny. Or about 2,500 of them. Plus tax. Plus getting to your local game store and hoping they have it, or getting it through the store in the links above… which probably means shipping and handling, too.
If you want to spend the money but don’t have a conveniently located game store–you can get Paizo’s eevil map subscription plan, which gets you each new map and pack as they come out (charged to your credit card at the time, of course). The advantage is that you also get access to a free .pdf of the map or map-pack, in case you want to print your own.
Printing your own… hey, there’s an option! Maybe I don’t want $25 a month going to random map packs I may or may not actually use. What’s stopping me from printing off a map for cheap?
In fact, using that limited artistic talent again, you can print off sheets of 1×1 grid, and then draw whatever you want on them. Like I said, I spend time looking for the “just right” tiles or maps, time I could be spending on any number of other things.
Quality suffers a bit, of course. It’s not shaded and colorful and pretty. But a quick-drawn map on a sheet of paper or two serves the intended purpose, providing a graphic representation of where all players are in combat, so that your players can develop and execute strategies to kill things and take their stuff.
It all depends on the needs of your group and the needs of your budget.
Heck, if tiles and measuring range and all of that are unnecessary in your system or your group’s playstyle, just sketch out the setting like a football play.
The pic isn’t great, but you can jot down names of PCs and monsters on the page, plus add a little bit of setting detail.
(This is meant to show a couple trees for cover and a line for the trail through the scene).
I threw in lines to show movement and red lines to show ranged attacks, with red circles for the blast radius of spells.
Is this high-quality? No.
Does it work? Possibly.
Does it cost money? About two bucks for paper and a pen. If you’re doing any traditional tabletop RPG, you probably have plenty of both right at your fingertips.
As always, find out what works for your group and what saves you the most time and money, then run with it and have a blast.
For the sake of brevity (relatively speaking), I’m not even going to get into stuff like 3D terrain pieces or the crazy craftsmanship (warning: language) that can go into setting up a particular encounter. That Penny Arcade link just shows some pictures of the ridiculous extent they went to in creating a setting for one session. If you can find the articles where they explain the game mechanics of those settings, it is mind-blowing.
Anyway, you can do that. You can literally create worlds for your players to explore.
And you probably ought to, if you are able. But for most of us, that just doesn’t happen, because life.
Speaking of relevant things that distract from life…
I’ll just leave this roll20 link here. Welcome to the future.
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.