Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Seriously, Now

Okay, so you may have seen that I am a bit... confrontational in my approach as a Game Master for D&D Encounters. In the first season, I tried to kill my players on a pretty regular basis. It was fun, especially for those players looking for something a bit more challenging in their weekly encounter.

The new season has been quite a bit rougher on player characters. Honestly, that's to be expected. Athas is a rough place. It's a world of hostile environments, hungry monsters, and evil plots. The world is actively trying to kill you. So yeah, it's expected that the D&D Encounters Adventure set in Dark Sun is going to be a much harder adventure to play through.

Today's encounter can kill entire groups of people before the party even has a chance to act. In a normal 5-person party, the encounter can dish out 9d6+9 damage on the first real turn. I know, because I did it. I killed four of the five characters before they had a chance to act. The last character, who gets to move when initiative is rolled, didn't stand a chance. The total-party kill took less than five minutes. It was my second TPK of the night.

Now, I'm fine with a total-party kill, but when an encounter kills two full parties right after one another, there is something drastically wrong with your encounter. I have to assume that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast did not playtest this adventure thoroughly before release. Each encounter has been difficult, some of them insanely so. I didn't actually get to play through the first encounter of this season, but I've heard it was intense. That encounter killed two parties as well, and that's a big deal.

Let's remember that D&D Encounters is meant to get new players into regular gaming, and to get players who haven't had a regular game in a while back into it. This is a really tough thing to try and balance; you need to create an adventure that is challenging enough to keep the old players interested, but easy enough that a crew of entirely new players stand a solid chance of victory. The level of challenge and the level of depth in an encounter need to be constantly weighed against these goals.

This week's encounter was not weighed against, well, anything. Between 18 and 63 damage is not balanced against a first level party. A +7 versus a non-armor defense score on a burst attack that deals 3d6 damage is not balanced against a first level party, especially when there are three of those attacks that can go off in a single turn. Having a surprise round that can only be countered by a Passive Perception score higher than any passive perception score possessed by the player characters is like ordering Game Masters to kill all of their players. Nothing about this was well thought out. If played as written, there is no way to survive this encounter.

Only one of our three groups survived the encounter, and that was mostly due to the soft touch of our volunteer Game Master, Dan. He only used one of the burst attacks, and it was still a rough fight. The first table I killed was one of our most experienced groups. They were down to a single villain, bloodied, when the last man went down. This encounter was a bloodbath.

If this is how Wizards is trying to bring new players into this game, this isn't the way to do it. One of my players actually said, and I quote "No one who has played this adventure is going to want to buy Dark Sun when it comes out."

That is not the reception you want from this initiative...

A Battle of Wits

There’s a lot to be said about the Skill Challenge system in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. A good chunk of what’s to be said seems to be negative, if the attitude of the intertubes (or my co-worker Matt) are to be believed. Personally, I think it’s an interesting way to encapsulate multiple-phase skill endeavors, like putting together a complex magical machine, or staging an opera, or flying a bunch of airships into a legion of catastrophe dragons. It’s also an interesting way to abstract larger-scale events, much like a training montage; D&D Encounters: Undermountain used this idea to get across that the area in which the player characters were adventuring was as dangerous as stabbing yourself in the face. (Honestly, most of the time you’re better off just stabbing yourself in the face a bunch of times, as it’s the same general emotional effect as Undermountain, without the mind-numbing boredom in between knifings)

There are things at which skill challenges are horribly bad, though. They are not a good way to deal with social interactions, for instance. If I need the Duke of Asperger to ally with my buddy the Earl of Alzheimer, that probably shouldn’t be a skill challenge. That should be a role-playing bit. Or it should be an actual conflict, a battle of word and wit, to convince Asperger that he’s better off fighting with the Earl on this one. But skill challenges don’t abstract arguments well, because the quantities in a skill challenge are known. In a real argument, I can surprise you. I can bring evidence forward that you didn’t know I had. I can work your words against you and skin you with insults. I can provoke or bully or coddle or cosset. It’s a dynamic, shifting situation.

Like combat.

Mouse Guard did this incredibly, image ridiculously well. One of the things about the Burning Wheel system is that it only has one conflict resolution system, really. When you are fighting with someone else, be it with words or swords or magic or science, the rules are basically the same. You should really buy a copy of both Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard. (You can get both at Warp One, which is where I work. Just so you know. Plug plug.) They’re some of the best work out of the Indie scene in years.

Without going over Mouse Guard’s whole system, arguing went like this: you would decide whether your were going to attack, defend or maneuver, and then roll some dice when it was your turn; an attack took off some of your opponent’s hit points, defending made it harder for your opponent to get at you, and feinting made your opponent easier to hit next time. If your opponent ever hit zero hit points, he or she lost the argument. If you were down half your hit points at the time, your opponent could offer a compromise that would reflect that, though the argument was lost, it wasn’t lost by much.

Today, I’ve decided to put that theory to work with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

Diplomatic Encounters

Diplomatic Encounters have a lot in common with Skill Challenges, but are quite a bit more like combat in the way they are played. Players roll initiative, attack, defend, use various features (not unlike cover or combat advantage) to gain the upper hand, track hit points and can use Skill Utility Powers to deliver devastating blows to an opponent’s argument.

The Basics:

To deal with a Diplomatic Encounter, image the player characters make skill checks against the Passive Insight of their opponents. When their checks are successful, they deal damage to that opponent. When a character has zero hit points, he or she has lost the argument and no longer has the will to continue fighting their point. When all of the characters on one side of an argument are at zero hit points, the other side wins.

Roll Initiative!

Unlike Combat Encounters, which rely on speed and reflexes to determine the order of action, Diplomatic Encounters are entirely based on the charisma of the participants. Initiative is a simple Charisma check (one half level + Charisma modifier + other modifiers). Monsters will not have this initiative check modifier in their stat block, because this is a house rule, but every monster has its Charisma modifier at the bottom of the stat block.

Each player rolls initiative separately. Game Masters roll once for each type of NPC involved in the Encounter.

Running Diplomacy

On their turn, each player or monster involved in the encounter may choose an applicable skill: Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate. Any of these skills may be used to attack, defend, or feint.

The player must describe the action they are attempting in detail before rolling the check. If the GM determines that a different sort of check makes more sense, that skill is rolled instead. If the player speaks convincingly in-character, they gain a +2 bonus to the roll.

Attack: Roll the skill check against the opponent’s Passive Insight. If the attack is successful, use the damage chart on page 42 of the DMG to determine damage. If the character is a Leader, they deal the amount of damage appropriate for a character of their level under the Normal Damage Expressions: High column. For instance, a 9th-level Cleric successfully attacking a Cultist would deal 2d8+5 damage. If the character is a Controller, Defender or Striker deal the amount of damage under Normal Damage Expression: Medium.

Defend: Roll the skill check against the opponent’s Passive Insight. If the defense is successful, choose a character; that character may spend a healing surge.

Feint: Roll the skill check against the opponent’s Passive Insight. If the feint is successful, the opponent takes a –2 skill penalty to Insight until the end of your next turn.

Additional Rules

Proof: When a character has proof of a claim, be it a scroll with the signature of the king on it, or the testimony of a nobleman who saw the whole thing happen, it’s a powerful force in an argument. On the turn you unveil proof of yoimageur claim, you deal damage based on the Limited Damage Expressions table, rather than the Normal.

Deception: If you have told out-and-out lies to sway support to your side (made a successful Bluff Attack), you gain a +2 bonus on your next Diplomacy Attack against a different target.

Promises: Promises are the currency of the Powerful. When you make promises while Defending an argument, the character who would receive the benefit of the healing surge gains your Charisma modifier in temporary hit points.

Repeating Yourself: Every time you repeat the same points, you’re weakening your argument. Your opponents gain a +2 bonus to Attacks when you repeat yourself.


Reputation: When you are well known, your arguments carry more weight. If you spend a Fame point, you can reroll a skill check.

Important People: When you are important, your arguments carry more weight. Once per encounter, you can add one half your Import points to a skill check.



So you win, but half of your team is shaken by the argument. Or you’re the last person standing, but you’re at half your bloodied value and you’re feeling a little worse for the fight. Obviously, you opponent has a point, and it’s a good one, or there wouldn’t be that long awkward silence now that the fight’s over.

If one half of the people on your team are at zero hit points or less, you have to accept a compromise. If you are going one-on-one against a powerful opponent and you are bloodied when the fight is over, you have to accept some compromise. Depending on how badly worn down you are, the compromise can be something as small as “You can borrow the crown jewels, but you must return them on Wednesday, and Feivel is coming with you as a chaperone,” to something major like “You want to fight? Go fight in the arena. That’s what it’s there for. But we won’t solve our trade problem with the Athesians with violence.”

A guideline.

Teams: When 1/4 of your team is down for the count, no compromise is needed. When 1/2 of your team is at zero hit points, a small compromise is needed. When 3/4 of your team is out of the fight, a pretty big compromise is needed. When there’s one guy standing on a tenth of his hit points and a migraine, you’re probably just going to have to find a different way to deal with this.

Singles: If 1/4 of your hit points are gone, no compromise is needed. When you’re bloodied, a small compromise is needed. If you’re at half your bloodied value, a large compromise is needed. If you’ve got one hit point left, find a different way.

Using Powers

You can use Skill Utility Powers to beef up your argument. It was originally my intention to write up a few specific Skill Utilities for use with these rules, and I may still do that in the future, but it’s three thirty in the morning and I should be asleep.

For now, we’ll say that when you spend a Diplomacy, Intimidate or Bluff Skill Utility Power, you automatically succeed on your skill check this turn. When I have some specific powers written up for Diplomatic Encounters, this rule will probably change, because all of those powers will be Diplomacy, Intimidate or Bluff Skill Utility powers. ^_^

A few examples, though:

Baffle them with Bullshit, Arcana Utility 2
Standard Action; Ranged 10
The next time you would make a Diplomatic Attack skill check, you may make an Arcana check instead of a Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate check. If the Attack is successful, you deal 1d10 + Intelligence modifier damage.

Prerequisite: You must be trained in Arcana.

Punctuated Threat, Intimidate Utility 2
Free Action; Melee 1

Target: One enemy you hit
Trigger: You hit an enemy with a Diplomatic Intimidate Attack
Effect: Make a second attack with a +2 bonus to strike. If it hits, the target grants you combat advantage until the end of your next turn.
Prerequisite: You must be trained in Intimidate.

Historical Prescedent, History Utility 2
Standard Action; Ranged 5
The next time you would make a Diplomatic Attack skill check, you may make an History check instead of a Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate check. If the attack is successful, the target grants you proof until the end of the encounter.

Prerequisite: You must be trained in History.

Promise of Power, Bard Encounter 3
Encounter * Arcane, Implement
Standard Action; Ranged 5
: One Creature
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: 2d6 + Charisma Modifier psychic damage, and the target takes a –2 penalty to Insight (save ends). In addition, an ally within 5 squares of you may spend a healing surge.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On the Topic of Mayor Bear

In our most recent session of the Bones of a Dead God campaign, for which I still need to write a session review, the party fought a swordscale dragon, which was just a reskinned Young Iron Dragon. The dragon was the mayor of a village of Dragonborn that live on the Cage Cliffs, the jagged edges where the ribs have cracked and formed into fertile land.
I have a history of putting quadrupeds in positions of authority in villages. In one of our many D&D Fight Nights, the player characters were searching in vain for the mayor they had been sent to assassinate. They had actually walked right past him a couple of times, as the mayor had polymorphed himself into a pig, and was on his way out of the castle with the rest of the livestock in the morning. They managed to find and kill him, but it was noted that even this was not the first time I had a non-humanoid creature in the role of mayor.
May I have the most distinct honor and pleasure to introduce to you, Mayor Bear: images
In one of the very first Fight Nights, I set the characters to finding some random dingus in a village that had been taken over by goblins. They were having a hell of a time finding the thing, going for the obvious Red Herring in the village square fountain, and then thinking it was the glowing axe being used by a hobgoblin warrior. Neither of these things were actually the dingus; the dingus was locked safely in a box in one of the store rooms of the market-place.
Before they could get to the store room, however, they met Mayor Bear, who was a bear in a fez that wanted very much to hurt them. I don’t think I came up with any good reason for why Mayor Bear was the mayor of the village, but it was established that he was, in fact, the duly elected official in these here parts. That’s actually something of a common thread with my quadruped mayors; they’re all elected.
Now, you could take this to be some comment on democracy if you wanted to. I mean, when taken from that point of view, it’s an interesting metaphor; Mayor Bear would symbolize qualities in the politicians I was meaning to satirize, be it is his overt aggression or his attempts to seem like everyone else while so obviously apart from them (the fez). But really, it was just something I came up with on the fly that I thought was kind of funny.
The same was true of Mayor Pig. He could have been a symbol for the cowardly politicians he was meant to represent, showing their gluttony and ineptness. But mostly he was polymorphed into a pig because I thought it was a clever way out of the castle.
And finally, the Swordscale Dragon could symbolize the unbridled power given to politicians when we elect them, the ridiculous sway they hold over a group of people. But mostly he was the mayor because he was the session end-boss, and I wanted him to have a reason to be in a village full of dragonborn.
What this has led me to is this: before we can begin any true discussion about the symbols and meanings behind a piece of art, we must first consider what might be blatantly obvious to the creator. It may just be that whatever symbol we’re analyzing is something the creator found interesting, or entertaining, or is just a whimsy. Something to consider.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is D&D Encounters Sexist?

This was something of a discussion that cropped up yesterday around the D&D:E table. Holly and I just got back from our European vacation, and as the place in Amsterdam that was holding D&D:E was not, in fact, holding D&D:E, we didn’t get to go. So this was our first hit of the Dark Sun Encounters season. Holly was none too pleased about not being able to build her own character for the event, and when she took a look at the pre-made characters, she went from unpleased to livid.

“There’s only one female character?” she asked. Honestly, I hadn’t taken too close a look at the pregens, so I shrugged and said something non-committal. “And the only reason she’s adventuring is TO FOLLOW HER BROTHER!?!?!”

Now, for some gaming groups, having a single female character at the table isn’t going to change anything. In a 2001 marketing survey done by Wizards of the Coast, it was found that only a small fraction (some 19%) of tabletop role-playing gamers were women, which would lead me to believe that there are probably a lot of groups that don’t have a single female player. That’s not something I’ve ever personally experienced, though. Here’s why:

Vacation 819

This is a group of four women and two men. I’m sitting behind the Game Master’s screen, and if you can’t tell from the size of the picture, that’s the D&D: Encounters adventure book, and one of the Dark Sun maps on the table. This is from yesterday.

I’m not saying that all of my groups are predominantly women, but I’ve never experienced the gender slant of role-playing games. I’ve been gaming with women since my earliest days rolling funny-shaped dice, so I can’t say as I really understand where the bias comes from.

Three of the girls above had to re-skin their pre-made character because they didn’t want to have to cross-dress to play. That’s one half of my second flight that day. That’s one quarter of my total player count for this week. They are very unhappy that their needs as players are not better catered to, especially by a company as big as Wizards of the Coast.

The first season of D&D Encounters had two female characters in it, the monk and the cleric. It’s interesting to note that out of the three total female player characters pre-generated for us by Wizards of the Coast, two of them are healing leaders. Only one of them, the monk, is capable of dishing out damage, and as the girls at my table noted yesterday “A lot of the women gamers out there just want to beat face, they don’t want to heal anyone…”

So yeah, Wizards is coming off pretty sexist right now. They’re marginalizing female gamers, and there’s at least one group of those gamers that are pissed right off about it.

The fixes is pretty easy, too. If you’re not going to let people make their own characters, make a much broader group of characters to choose from. Keep the table limit at six, but give us some twelve or fifteen characters to choose from. Or, for every male character you provide, give us a female alternative in the same class. Or, you can provide us character stats without character details, just give each character a minor quest they want to get done by the end of the adventure.

I mean, it’s not hard to make gender-equal gaming a reality. We just need to try a little harder…

Monday, June 14, 2010

An Epiphany, in Two Parts, About Dungeons

I’ve had something of an epiphany since getting to Europe. As game-related epiphanies go, it’s not exactly world-shattering, but I thought it was important enough that I should share it here with all of you.

Dungeons happen in towers, not in basements.

In Muiderslot, the first tower we entered was where they kept their prisoners. At the medieval Louvre, there was an inner tower at the castle specifically to house prisoners. Tomorrow, I’m going to one of the most infamous dungeons in history, which also happens to be the Tower of London. (Versailles did not have a dungeon; they had a much more modern prison for their prisoners, though if I understand correctly, there are other palaces within Paris that have dungeons, and all of those are in towers as well).

Tower dungeons, honestly, make a lot more sense than subterranean dungeons. If you’re going to be holding people for a long time, there are going to be some things those people need, that you aren’t going to want to have to provide for them. First would be some waste management issues; if your prisoners use exactly the same sewers as everyone else (the moat, or the River Thames, for instance), then you don’t need to worry about transporting the waste away for your more long-term residents. Also, they are going to need fresh air once in a while, or they are going to suffocate. Ventilation is not something easy to come by in medieval Europe. Pushing air around is a rather silly waste of time and resources when the people doing the air-pushing could be doing something much more constructive, like torturing people, or cooking. Also, escaping from a tower can be pretty tough; there’s only one set of stairs down, and there are guard rooms between you and freedom. Assuming you could do enough damage to your windows that you could squeeze out of them, you might conceivably jump to freedom, but I would not suggest it; Muiderslot doesn’t look like much, but those towers are break-your-legs-or-kill-yourself high. Jumping into the moat might also seem a good idea, until you remember that it’s the sewer, you’ll probably get yourself the gout, and because there’s no good medicine, you’re going to die from a fever somewhere in the next town.

The second part of the epiphany is that people don’t keep their important crap in the dungeon. You keep people in your dungeon. Those people are not the sorts of people you want hanging around your important crap.

See, when you make your way through some dungeon full of monstrous guards and pitiful prisoners, when you get to the top, there isn’t a room full of treasure. The treasure rooms are kept in the keep, in a vault, with the rest of the important crap. When you get to the top of a dungeon (because they’re towers, remember), there’s just more prisoners. Sometimes those prisoners are important, sure. They could be a sack of princes waiting for a pack of heroic babes in chainmail to come rescue them, but it’s quite a bit more likely that they’re a bunch of whiny nobles that the king doesn’t really like anymore, but they’re too important to just kill outright.
So I think we’re using dungeons all wrong. Doing a dungeon crawl is ridiculous. There’s nothing there but prisoners, guards, and maybe some kick-ass torture tools that you shouldn’t be using because you’re a fucking hero. I think if you’re going to bust into a dungeon, you should be looking to scale a tower. I think if you’re looking for treasure from a dungeon, it should be in the form of a ransom for some pretty-boy whining ducal heir or something. I think that whenever you’re running around some subterranean maze, it should be called exactly what it is: a labyrinth.

See, labyrinths are the sorts of things people hide important crap (and people, and monsters) in. They’re these huge underground (or above-ground, or flying) constructions built specifically to house some important thing or other, and that means that they are uniquely designed to be plundered by adventurers and their important crap stolen.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Of Dungeons and Travel

There was a girl who came to Amsterdam with Zak by the name of Katrine. We met briefly on platform 11a, and she seemed sweet. Then she remembered that she had forgotten her phone on the train and ran back in to retrieve it. When the train doors closed, there was some concern, but we figured since the train wasn’t moving she had time. Except, the doors didn’t open when she tried them, and the train left with her on it, and us left standing on the platform with her bags.

There wasn’t really anything for us to do but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and wait for her at the station. We met her mother a short time later, and I dare say she thought us a group of ruffians and punks; she insisted on taking the bags herself, despite our offers for help. I think she may have believed we’d somehow hurt her daughter, and were planning to hurt her. We never did find out what happened to her.

On Saturday, we discovered that, though our last night in the Hostel was the seventh of June, and our first night in Paris was the eighth of June, our train did not leave for Paris until the ninth of June. Obviously, this had us somewhat concerned. We went to the train station to clear the matter up, and the man at the help desk informed us we’d need to take care of it on the interwebs. Our access to the internet has been spotty at best in Amsterdam, with us camping at McDonalds to take advantage of their free WiFi while eating fries and McFlurries. There’s internet access at the hostel, but it costs two Euro and hour, and you don’t get fries.

So we sat down at the little internet kiosk thing they had at the train station and tried to figure out how to change our tickets. They gave us a phone number to try, which I did. It turns out that the service closed at 4:30pm on Saturdays, and I had tried calling at 4:40, and would have to wait until the next day. The problem with “the next day” was that it was the day before we planned to leave, and we weren’t sure we’d be able to exchange our tickets on that short of notice; there was some clause in the contract thing that said we could exchange until the day before our scheduled departure, but we weren’t sure if that meant the old departure date or the new departure date.

I woke up at eight in the morning to wait on a phone for twenty minutes, charging us €0.30 per minute, to talk to a guy for another five minutes and pay another €63 to get the ticket changed for tomorrow. Then we went to the Amsterdam Dungeon.

The Amsterdam Dungeon is a strange sort of experience. Having been to a real dungeon (the first tower we visited at Muiderslot), we were sort of expecting something similar, with actors playing out the parts of the people being tortured. I mean, there’s a long, bloody history of torture and violence in Europe, and it would be interesting to learn something more about that. I guess I’ll have to wait for the Tower of London, when we’re there.

The Amsterdam Dungeon is like nothing so much as a haunted house tour. We were dragged from room to room by actors in cute make-up and costumes, talking about various horrible things in a strange combination of English and Dutch. I still don’t speak Dutch, so about half of the experience was lost on me, though the first room provided me a bit more a thrill than some of the people who came with us. Having someone threaten you in a language you don’t speak is quite a bit more intimidating than having someone threaten you in your native tongue. You don’t have to imagine quite as much about what the person speaking your native language is offering to harm you with.

This first room promised what I had been hoping, a discussion of the torture methods and techniques used in Amsterdam and beyond in a dungeon-like setting. The actor presented us with tongue rippers and a hook, and gruesomely described what each was for. That much was fucking amazing, and I was hoping the tour would continue with the like.

Instead, we were given a brief history of the Soul Merchant trade, then treated with a discussion of the Black Plague that promised “you will be its next victim,” except that I’m pretty sure I’ve been immunized for the Black Plague and I’m less that concerned. There was also a roller-coaster. The whole thing was kitsch at its finest, but I was hoping for kitsch in a different direction. It probably would have been a bit more enjoyable had I understood the whole of what we were talking about, as well, but my inability to understand the Dutch language is a failing of mine, not of the Dungeon.

Then, we took a nap.

Game Stuff

You’ll notice, I’m sure, that my blog about Anne Frank did not have a Game Stuff section. That’s mostly because it’s tough to take an experience like that and make it spring out into the Shared Imagined Space. Anything a Game Master is going to create for his or her game, regardless of how well crafted, is going to sound hollow and thin next to Ms. Frank’s diaries.

Today, though, I want to talk about travel. It’s an integral part of any campaign; you cannot have an adventure in one place. You have to traverse the city, or the county, or the country or the continent to find the things you seek. The Lord of the Rings is a book about walking, and the fucked up things that happened while the protagonists walked. The Dragonlance books are mostly about going from place to place and talking to strange people. A Song of Ice and Fire is not an adventure, simply because there is not enough running around (with the exception of Dany, who is actually on an adventure).

Travel in role-playing games almost always goes the way that it’s supposed to. In much fiction, this is also true. It’s really not all that exciting to have to haggle with the camel guy because he wants more money for his camels than you originally thought he’d want. When it starts to get a little more intense is when you need to use his camels a day early, you don’t have any more money and you’re running out of time to deal with camel merchants and their stupidity.

Travel in real life almost never goes as planned. There are constantly complications. Either you’re too early or too late or your paperwork isn’t quite right or you’ve got the wrong paperwork entirely or you need to renew your identification papers because the new ones are different than these ones (“in six very small, but very significant ways…”). Travel is often a huge hassle, and making it run smoothly, while certainly not an adventure in itself, is a fantastic way to spice up an otherwise dull social encounter.

Roll 1d20

1) The mode of transportation is no longer available. The train blew up, or the camels all died.

2) The mode of transportation is going to be 1d6 days late. There’s a dust storm or a thing with a whale.

3) The mode of transportation stops working 1d4 days into travelling. Just enough camels die to make it impossible to continue.

4) The mode of transportation goes missing. The camels wander off, or the train leaves without you.

5) You go missing. The camel wanders off with you on it, or the train leaves while you’re getting your cell phone.

6) Your baggage has been misplaced. It’s been stolen by bandits, or mixed up with someone else’s bags, or replaced by a badger in a sack by some malevolent god.

7) Your baggage is exactly where it’s supposed to be, it’s just broke to shit.

8) The mode of transportation is going to cost 1.x times the amount previously quoted, where x is the result of a ten sided die. You have a history of dead camels, the merchant cannot trust you.

9) The mode of transportation is going to cost X times the amount previously quoted, where X is the result of a ten sided die. The merchant has mostly just decided he hates you.

10) The mode of transportation is ridiculously slow. It will take X more days to reach your destination, where X is the result of a six sided die. There are no more camels: I have turtles for you.

11) The mode of transportation is unreliable. It will take 1.X times as long to reach your destination. Donkeys are cantankerous little bastards who hate everyone.

12) The mode of transportation actively hates you. At the end of each extended rest you take while using this form of transportation, lose two healing surges.

13) You cannot sleep so long as you are using this mode of transportation. At the end of each extended rest you take while using this form of transportation, lose one healing surge. You are dazed at the beginning of each combat encounter (save ends).

14) You are sickened by the mode of transportation. Either motion sickness or the mode of travel itself is terrifying and ugly and evil and smells bad. Roll an Endurance check at the end of every extended rest. If you fail this check, you are weakened at the beginning of the next combat encounter (save ends).

15) Your paperwork is all wrong. Your friends can go, but you need to fill out these forms. It could take a few days before you catch up.

16) Your identification papers are fine, but they’re out of date. You will need to get new identification papers, which could take as long as two weeks.

17) Your identification papers are wrong. They say you’re from a place that doesn’t exist. Somewhere called a feywild? Huh... Anyway, this’ll need some clearing up.

18) The guards of the city/county/country would like to search your bags for contraband. Any magic items, potions and the like will be confiscated. Or, any non-magical weapons will be confiscated (as the city/county/country has some sort of protection against magic weapons).

19) The guards of the city/county/country would like to search your bags for contraband. They find a baby in one of your bags. It is going to be a strange day.

20) The mode of transportation is not actually going to the place you wanted to go. Instead, you are very lost, in a dark wood, when the mode of transportation suddenly stops. If it’s live, it dies. If it’s not, it breaks down irreparably. Now you have no idea where you are, and you’re stranded on the side of the rails, road, path.

Travellers Sometimes Travelling Together

We picked up an extra traveler yesterday, in the form of Zachary Selman-Palmer, who is a good friend of ours from Canada. He’s going to be doing some work with the UN out of Latvia, and on his way, he managed to stop in Amsterdam for a day while travelling from Brussels. It was lovely to have him with us, and seeing a familiar face in the crowd was more than amazing. Mostly, it made me feel a little more a part of the city, and a little less apart from it.

We started off with a trip to a cute little comic shop on Zeedijk, which was a tiny thing. They had comics on a shelf behind a rope, and a bunch of manga along the wall. The only really impressive thing in the store was the back-issue bin layout, which I found better organized and set up for browsing than those at Warp One. The store utterly lacked role-playing games of any sort. We’d scouted the place out before-hand, so we knew exactly where it was, and we also planned to go to the American Book Store near Kalverstraat. We hadn’t been there yet, but it was apparently the only place in Centrum holding D&D: Encounters.

That book store was fucking amazing. It made a Chapters or an Indigo look like kid’s stuff: three floors of books, no coffee shop; just wall-to-wall paper. There was a small selection of role-playing games to be had there, mostly Wizards of the Coast and some Fantasy Flight books, but the selection involved a few books I’ve never seen in a Canadian book store, including my own. I’m working on getting them, either from a Canadian distributor or from the ABS here.
Then we hit a museum, where we saw some pretty kick-ass pictures of a guy who looked a lot like Zak. We took pictures, and the guard laughed at us.

Then we went partying in the Red Light District a bit. We’d been invited by the wonderful young lady at the coffee shop to come to her vodka bar on Saturday, an invitation we readily took up. It was only ten or so in the evening, and things in Amsterdam only really start to heat up around midnight. Still, getting drunk and a little high on the canals was a fun experience for everyone but Zak (who doesn’t want to get drunk or high, and finds the whole idea of the Red Light District a little distasteful).

Zak took a plane to Latvia today, and we will miss him sorely. We wanted to go to the Nazi Death Camp that Holly’s great grandfather was kept at until the end of the War, but we were sad to discover that it’s nowhere near Amsterdam. It’s in Hamburg. For us to get to Hamburg, we would have had to have booked our train a month in advance, which is something we did not do. Sadly, we won’t be able to go. We are, however, going to the Anne Frank museum and the Homomonument today, both of which should be amazing.

Game Stuff

Four sessions or so ago, there was this non-player character you really liked. Maybe she was an adventurer, or maybe just a source of information. She was fun to play, the players enjoyed interacting with her, and things went pretty well. She was only supposed to be a quest-giver, though, and once the quest was done, there was no reason to have her come back.
Well, fuck that noise. When you’re out travelling around, sometimes you run into some people you never expected to see there. It doesn’t happen often, once in a blue moon, but you’ll be kicking around Tatooine (a real place in Tunisia) and just happen across your ex-boyfriend of six years ago and wonder how in the fuck you both ended up in the same place at the same time. The world is far smaller than we tend to think it is, and people will crop up in the strangest places when you’re not looking for them.
So that non-player character is back, and she’s doing something completely different this time around. She may not even have a quest for you. She might just be hanging out on a mission of her own, and when she makes contact with the player characters, she uses them, or doesn’t, as she sees fit.

Roll 1d10

1) “Hey guys, you think you could deliver this thing to a guy for me?”
2) “Oh, hey, love to talk, but I’m battling Minister Angus von Wyvern’s minions. Coffee later?”
3) “Here, have a sword. It’s magic. Don’t let anyone else have it. Don’t ask questions, just run.”
4) “So we meet again, . This time, you die…”
5) “Help! Save me! Oh thank the gods, it’s you!”

6) “So I’m supposed to meet a guy about a thing here. You guys here for the same thing?”

7) “I’m actually on my way to but had to stop here to resupply. What do you guys have going on? I’ve got a few days here, I’d love to help.”

8) “Some bastard stole my family’s fortune. I’m here to get it back. I’d be willing to cut you a percentage if you’re willing to help.”

9) No dialogue. Just roll initiative. begins combat dominated by an unseen foe who has: Standard; At will; vs Will, target is dominated until the end of your next turn.

0) “I’ve been looking for you guys everywhere. [CHARACTERNAME], I love you. I’ve come to ask your hand in marriage. I won’t be taking no for an answer.” Even more fun when the non-player character is of a gender not preferred by the player character in question…

Anne Frank had Small Handwriting

For those of you who do not know me personally, I take human rights pretty seriously. I have a deep-seated belief that all people should have equal rights and responsibilities under the law, regardless of silly differences such as religion or family origin or color of skin or language. I also firmly believe that homosexuals are people, so when it comes to the issue of gay rights, I’m pretty set in my opinion that they should stand in accordance with the rights given everyone else.
For the record, that means I’m for gay marriage.
So I visited the Homomonument today, which is a plaza dedicated to the men and women who have faced persecution for their sexual orientation. It is the first of its kind, though there are many more like it now. There are three triangles arranged at different levels; one is at ground-level, one is slightly raised, and the last is resting beside the canal, lower than the others. It was a nice place, if a little underwhelming. When we got there at first, nothing was going on. Later, there was a marching band, and that basically made my day.
We visited the Anne Frank museum today. For me, that’s a big deal. When I was in high school, I was in the play based on her diaries, and played Mr. van Dan, who was actually Hermann van Pels (I could never understand why anyone felt the need to change any of the names of an historical play). The play itself was pretty intense, but I went on a bit of an obsessive run with the thing, to the point that my parents were worried about my fascination with Ms. Frank’s life. I read her diaries; I set out to learn everything I could about her, her life, the people who lived with her, the circumstances of their hiding, their final fates. I spent months dedicated to studying the Second World War in an attempt to better understand the person I was reading about, and the person I was portraying on stage.
See, there was something about Anne Frank that really resonated with me, something I had never seen anywhere else. She gave this huge horrible atrocity, this enormous, unknowable event, a human face. She gave me someone to care about within the context of this… thing, this crazy, huge, unbearable thing. And that made it real in a way that nothing ever had or has since. I know a fair bit about the Second World War, because of my studies into Ms. Frank’s life, and my studies in school, but I would never have cared in the least about it until I had someone I could point at and say “This right here, this is a victim. This is a person, and I care about her, and she is a victim of this horrible thing.”
And I do care quite a bit about Anne Frank. Now, it is more in detached sort of way, a distant feeling of personal connection with someone who was a part of my life a long time ago. It’s the sort of distant pang one gets from thinking about an old friend one hasn’t seen in a long time; there’s still caring, but it’s dulled around the edges a bit. For me, I care about Anne Frank like I care about Landon Pitts, the person who first introduced me to role-playing games. I haven’t really thought about them in a really personal way for quite a while.
Landon Pitts doesn’t have a museum dedicated to him. He probably should, but he doesn’t.
We waited in a ridiculously long line to get in, and my bag was searched upon entering. The rooms of the museum are mostly open and barren, with small displays showing items that belonged in the room long ago. Mr. Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, personally requested that the rooms remain unfurnished. I don’t really understand the request, but it has left the museum feeling empty and lonely and open. Each room focuses on some aspect of life in the Secret Annex, and you can find plaques on the walls that tell you things about the room. Painted on at least one wall of every room is a quotation from Ms. Frank or her father, speaking about the room, or about some emotional response to the room or its purpose.
Most of these have been stripped bare of their humanity, which I think is a real pity. If reading Ms. Frank’s diary could be compared to a museum in which the details of her life were fully on display, the museum at present is much like a textbook of the Second World War.
There were some very powerful moments, though. In some rooms, videos were displayed on the walls, talking about the Annex or its inhabitants. Some of these spoke to the personal nature of the experience more than the blank antiseptic rooms. Ms. Frank’s bedroom, which she shared with an associate of her fathers, was pasted with pictures of movie stars and little clippings from magazines. The wallpaper here was painstakingly preserved when the house was renovated. There was something deeply moving about seeing something placed by Ms. Frank’s own hands, lovingly set with a brush and glue, to make her experience in this place bearable. More, though, was seeing the diaries themselves, the yellowed pages marked top to bottom in Ms. Frank’s tiny cursive.
Anne Frank had small handwriting. It’s neat and easy to make out the letters. It was written in Dutch, a language I cannot speak or read, and so I could not make out what was written on the pages in front of me, but the quality of her handwriting spoke volumes about her as a person. Handwriting says a lot about you. My own writing is neat and small and sharp. I don’t actually write in cursive, preferring to print. My seventh-grade English teacher once told me that I write like a serial killer and insisted I print for the rest of my life.
Anne Frank’s cursive is as neat and easily read as my own printing. I mean, I’ve seen pictures of the diary before, but those pictures never gave an idea of scale. The books are small, well-worn, every inch of space in them covered with tiny script to contain all of the huge ideas and feelings of a teenage girl.
There was crying, I’m not ashamed to admit.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Waking up in Amsterdam; Also: Castles

When I woke up this morning, I was in Amsterdam, which was a little disconcerting since I’d been having a dream about losing my passport in Canada. In that dream, I didn’t live in my apartment, but instead in some strange house made almost entirely of picture windows. Dreams are entirely fucked.

We tottled about the city for a while, looking for some place called Bever Somethingorother, an outfitter in the city that might be able to get us a converter for the laptop. We never did find the place, and while we were waiting outside a McDonalds for a coffee and the use of their free WiFi, we noticed an electronics shop that sold exactly the sort of thing we were looking for. Of particular interest in that shop was the storekeeper, a surly British man of about thirty who treated us exactly like I treat customers in my store: with expertise and a side of derision. He told us not to buy the thing we didn’t need, asked us for exactly what we did need, and sold it to us with an attitude that said we were entirely too stupid to be allowed to go outside unaided. I liked him, and if we need for electronic doo-dads while in Amsterdam, he’ll be the first person we go to.

With our prize in hand, we began to plan a trip to Muiderslot. Nestled in the adorable Dutch town of Muiden, Muiderslot is a 13th century castle and a pretty kick-ass place to eat lunch. Being from North America, and more specifically from the Canadian West, I’ve never actually had the opportunity to see a castle in person, and it was a pretty intense experience for me. Muiderslot looks very much like the stereotypical Disney castle, complete with drawbridge, towers, crenellated walls and a keep.

The courtyard had a large tarp providing shade in the harsh noon sun, and along the walls were strewn the backpacks of some fifty small children here for the tour. A few of them were playing on the battlements without the supervision of an adult. (This is something I deeply appreciate in this country; there are canals without guardrails; in Canada, someone would get sued because someone else would be too fucking dumb to survive a canal without a guardrail. Amsterdam is a city that believes in natural selection). We go up one tower, stopping at every room that we pass. There are little plaques that tell us what the rooms were for; traditionally, the tower was a dungeon. We notice this in the first room meant to keep prisoners. It’s quite a bit bigger than I would have expected for a room of its ilk.

The tower led to a battlement that had been a dead-end when the castle was still occupied. They had decided that certain parts of the castle should be inaccessible to attackers who managed to sack other parts. If you wanted the western battlement, you’d have to take the tower; if you wanted to take the tower, you’d need to deal with the people on the Western battlement shooting arrows and shit at you.
The second tower we hit is less substantial in my mind. I remember a table with swords that controlled a video game. Not exactly inspiring of my mind’s memory space. ^_^

We hit the Riddertower, the Knight’s Tower, and went up some eighty stairs to the top. There were a couple of bare rooms on the way up, but some of the things in them (treasure chests and the like) were totally worth the long climb. I have a soft spot in my heart for treasure chests. I’m pretty sure that’s my inner adventurer.
Then we hit the keep, where there were the Lady’s rooms, and an amazing display of medieval weaponry, and a jousting pit – where Holly totally kicked my butt at fake-jousting – and a place to try your aim with a crossbow. The whole of the experience was a little overwhelming for me. ^_^ Many pictures were taken.

We took a break in the “tavern” where I partook of some apple juice. I’m sure they had beer, and to be honest, a beer would have been great. It was blazing hot outside, some thirty degrees centigrade, and the shade and drink were amazing. From there, we saw the gardens which had a couple of totally awesome statues in it and the falconry, where we got to meet some birds that totally put mine to shame (sorry Merry and Pippen!). We ate some lunch on the non-castle side of the moat, and headed home.

Game Stuff

This is, ostensibly, a blog about role-playing games. So I try, in my writing, to make it as much about role-playing games as I can. In the course of the next few weeks (as I write my blogs in Microsoft Word without the aid of the Internet), I’ll be writing mostly about my travels through Europe, and putting a bit of a gamer’s spin on them.

Today, I’m going to talk about castles.

A lot of the time, we try to make castles seem somehow more bad-ass than they actually were. We all know the cheesy history lessons with the bad art that say that castles were actually rather silly places, and we try to ignore the silly and rock the huge stone fortress angle instead.
Except that castles are actually both. Muiderslot (pronounced Moe-der-s[ch]lot) is a huge square of stone with tall towers and crenellated walls from which you could fire on invading armies. It’s pretty fucking bad-ass. Its name sounds like some sort of tool you would use to kill a man: “Oh, that? That’s my Murder-slot. The slot I use to kill people.” Its most famous owner, though, was a poet. It has doors and window covers that are orange and yellow diagonal stripes. There are EIGHTY SMALL NARROW STAIRS to get to the top of one of the towers and some thirty wide-and-tall to get to the ground floor. It is, in short, a deeply silly place.

Not to mention, there are tunics and silly conical hats, and a musket so large I couldn’t fit the whole thing into a picture frame from five feet away. It is everything you might expect to see from Monty Python. Worse, Muiderslot takes itself pretty seriously.

Don’t shy away from the silly elements of your games. Sometimes things that are historically accurate are going to seem strange and funny to our unaccustomed imaginations, and that’s fine. Let them be silly, because the silly is just a part of the whole thing. It doesn’t need to be completely bad-ass all the time. Mix it up.

Notes on Travelling

As I write this, I’m somewhere over a snow-covered Greenland. I think. The little TV that tells me where I am won’t turn on again, which is mildly troubling. I didn’t realize how much I liked knowing exactly where I was until I wasn’t able to know exactly where I was anymore. I’m wishing, rather desperately, that I was the sort of person who could sleep on airplanes.
If I were to believe that sleeping in a moving vehicle were something more than an innate ability, I would consider myself terribly unskilled in it. I don’t believe it’s a skill, though. You put some people in a car, and they’re almost immediately unconscious. Others, like myself, are completely incapable. Put me on some good drugs, and I’m down for the count. Send me un-hindered by the marvels of modern pharmaceuticals, and I’m a complete insomniac. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that I’m not normally inclined to sleeping, moving or not. I sleep, on average, five hours a night, with many of them being far worse off. I think it’s a geek thing.
Not sleeping means that I have the distinct pleasure of trying to find things to fill my extra hours. I’m usually up far later than anyone who is sharing my bed, leaving me a good three or four hours of time each night to muse and muster, playing video games or writing or reading a good book. On an airplane, my resources are a touch more limited. I cannot, for instance, devour the entire flight by leveling up my space ship in Star Trek Online. Despite flying on a state of the art airline with a state of the art navigations system, made to the specs of some of the most impressive engineers in the world, they’re still convinced that a $600 laptop has enough juice to fuck over the whole operation.
So I’m reading. And writing. Which led me to thinking, which is probably the most dangerous of my pastimes.
What do your characters do while they travel? I mean, we all know the standard trope, singing songs and telling tales, but when I’m travelling for ten hours I run out of shit to talk about. I don’t even know what I’d do with three weeks of solid horse-back riding. I’d very likely know a lot of kick-ass stories after the first bout, but I don’t think that characters start out rocking a prodigious knowledge of travelling tales. Also, this gives an unfair advantage to bards.
Personally, I like to read. You can only bring so many books with you when you travel by air, but most of our characters, especially at heroic tier, aren’t going to be flying to their destinations as often as they’re going to be walking or riding.(Teleporting means you can basically whistle a jaunty tune and you’re where you want to be). I can devour a book in the course of a few hours (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norril is quite lovely, by the way; thanks to Erin for that). So when I’m done with that, or I can’t read anymore, I’m left looking for something else to do.
I watched Alice in Wonderland. It was pretty alright. I especially liked the bit about six impossible things before breakfast. Also, vorpal swords. Also, David Elsewhere does Johnny Depp’s dance at the end, of which I wholeheartedly approve.
In a few hours, I’ll be in Frankfurt. Then I’m on to Amsterdam. Then, maybe, I’ll be able to sleep.