Monday, March 19, 2018

Would you Play D&D with E.L. James?

Noisms pokes at the latest of the culture-war’s tempests-in-teapot moments which distract from the really cool things going on.

For instance, if we take at face value the numbers from WotC and believe that “8.6 million Americans have played D&D in the last twelve months” and that we can apply the 38% of people playing D&D are female, then that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.27 million American women played D&D in the last twelve months.

3.27 million.

Let that number sink in for a moment.

Even if the real number is half that, and its only 1.6 million, that’s still one-freakin’-point-six million. If you think that only one-in-six folks playing D&D are female, that’s still 1.43 million.

There are, today, literally millions of women playing D&D. Think that’s going to have an effect on the hobby moving forward?

Those of you who’ve read me for a while are probably rolling your eyes already. Yeah, yeah, I’m a broken record. And yes, “gaming fantasy” is now a thing that most folks are exposed to before they begin playing D&D. But as Noisms points out, there’s been nothing stopping you from having gender-fluid elves in D&D before now. Hell, it’s been a running gag in Order of the Stick for the last 15 years. On the flip side, there’s nothing stopping you from having gender-determinist elves now. But I’ve had bisexual elves in my games since ’91 largely due to the women I was playing with at the time being fans of Mercedes Lackey and Marion Zimmer Bradley. There’s nothing more important, or influential, than the expectations and interests of the people at your table right now. And the number of potential players for your games has exploded.

Think any of these women are among those who’ve read the Fifty Shades books (35 million copies sold in the US)? How about a little Pride and Prejudice or, maybe more apropos, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series?

How many of the folks you played with five years ago had read those books? How many of the folks you play with today have read them?

It doesn’t stop there; WotC also claims 40% of folks playing D&D are college age or younger. Working from our 8.6 million number gives us 3.44 million. Think they’ve read Harry Potter? How many of them saw the LotR movies before they read the books? How many of them have any idea who Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are? Hell, how many of them, of any gender, have any idea who Mercedes Lacky or Marion Zimmer Bradley are?

Want to do something really fun and cool? Play D&D with someone whose experience of fantasy is shaped more by JK Rowling and Peter Jackson than Tolkien and Moorcock. Find a DM who wants to build a campaign world that’s “a little bit Throne of Glass mixed with GoT and Evans’ Brimstone Angels novels.” In short, find someone whose expectations of fantasy are different from yours and let them influence your play and rediscover these games all over again.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Golden Age Goes to 11

On Tuesday, March 13th, at the GAMA Trade Show, WotC announced that D&D 6e won’t be coming out any time soon.

Ok, that was not an official announcement. What they officially said was that 2017 was the biggest year for D&D ever. That they sold more copies of the 5e PHB in 2017 than they did the year it came out. That Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was the fastest selling product (I believe the word was “product” and not “book”) in D&D history.

In short, they’ve no reason right now to invest in a new edition. Everything is coming up roses (or, at least, as close to roses as things get for the publisher of D&D).

They also mentioned that Hoard of the Dragon Queen has been printed seven times (or was that seven reprints?). Reprints can be a mark of how badly a publisher predicts the popularity of a book as much as its popularity, but seven seems pretty large regardless.

Some other numbers they tossed out: 38% of all D&D players identify as female. 40% of all D&D players are college age or younger.

I don’t trust those percentages because I’m pretty sure they come from those polls they link to on their web site, so it’s very much a not-scientific poll. That said, it doesn’t appear they need to retool the game to appeal to a broader audience.

They blame live-streaming games like Acquisitions Incorporated and people publishing videos of themselves playing on Twitch. (More numbers they tossed out: over half of new players were inspired to play the game because they saw a live-streamed game.) Again, not entirely sure I buy it, but I also don’t have a more likely suggestion. (It would mean that another piece of conventional wisdom, that there’s nothing more boring than watching other people play D&D, has just been gored to death by reality. So that’s amusing to me.)

Now, admittedly, the GAMA Trade Show is where manufacturers and distributers are wooing stores to carry their product. Everyone’s going to paint as rosy a picture as they can. But everyone’s talking the same thing. The folks at Gale Force Nine talk about how spell cards are flying off the shelf. Folks at Monte Cook Games talk about how sales for Numenera and No Thank You Evil are rising. Numenera is a 5 year old game. That’s ancient for an RPG. It should be deep into its shrinking long-tail assuming it has one. Instead, they’re doing everything they can to reassure everyone that Numenera Discovery and Destiny are not a new edition. In normal times, they’d be at the point in the lifecycle where a new edition would make a lot of sense, assuming they wanted to keep the IP alive. Outfits that haven’t published RPGs before, like Renegade Game Studios, are getting into the market. Renegade is mostly known for family-style games like Clank! and The Fox in the Forest. This year they’re releasing three RPGs: the second edition of Outbreak: Undead, the Stranger Things inspired Kids on Bikes, and the high-concept Overlight.

But it’s the attitudes and interests of the retailers that is really telling. One couple told me their store went from sometimes having a Wednesday RPG group to having at least one group nearly every night. I saw another get excited when he learned that Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle Earth was written for 5e. If it’s compatible with D&D 5e, he wants it in his store.

Are we about to kill another bit of long-held conventional wisdom: that the boom days of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s are never to return? I don’t think it’s going to be that good, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong. We keep talking about it being a Golden Age for RPGers. Maybe we’ll soon need to be talking about a Platinum Age?

Friday, March 09, 2018

10 More Things

I’ve done this before but I’m happy to do it again. Besides, that was a number of campaigns ago.

The new campaign is called Ravished and Conquered Kingdoms. (Yes, the acronym is totally on purpose.) The elevator speech is:

There was a golden age when the arcane arts rose to such heights that everyone enjoyed lives of ease and luxury, their every whim catered to by magical constructs and enslaved magical beings. When those arts were repurposed for internecine war, the world was warped and nature corrupted. Now, the safest places to live are pockets carved out of the madness by genie folk and demons. Mortals must bow to their new overlords or scratch out an impoverished existence under constant threat by the sequela of the Wizards’ War.
As per Mr. Chenier's request, here are 10 Random Facts (that make the Ravished and Conquered Kingdoms setting totally unique):

The Stone Worm: during the Wizads’ War, the Stone Worm was the most powerful and infamous of the siege beasts. It was a magically mutated purple worm over 15 miles long and a mile wide. It was able to swallow entire villages whole and devastate armies. Romantic legend says an enslaved medusa defeated the Stone Worm by petrifying it with her gaze, risking her life to save her lover.

Those wise in the anatomy of both medusae and purple worms doubt the veracity of the popular legend. What is beyond dispute is that the Stone Worm was, in fact, turned to stone. The petrified guts of the worm now serve as passages beneath the massive chain of mountains known as the Pillars of the Sky. A cabal of dao princes claim most of the Stone Worm as their domain and use an army of enslaved dwarves to mine gems and precious metals from the beast. They’ve carved an entire city out of the upper portion, now inhabited by humans and the ogres the dao use to control their slaves. The lower portions of the worm serve as a crossroads for underground races, and it’s not unusual to find duergar, svirfneblin, and drow merchants trading the riches of the deepest parts of the world for resources from the surface. The tunnels the worm was eating out have been expanded as well, allowing for passage beneath the Pillars to the jungle empire of Asurali beyond.

Asurali: this realm of thick jungles is ruled by rakshasas and populated by humans, orcs, and goblins. While the maharaja of the port city of Kanlas is thought to be the richest person in the world, he is not the most powerful rakshasa in Asurali; that distinction goes to the mysterious emperor of Asurali, Asurak. Asurak is said to be a nine-headed rakshasa who rules from a mysterious palace hidden deep in the jungles. Some claim Asurak doesn’t really exist and is instead used as a focus for the anger of the peoples abused by the tyrannical rule of the rakshasa.

Cults of Juiblex: the land now covered by the Fungal Forest was once fertile fields that were the breadbasket for the world. The massive fungus, smuts, and molds that make up the forest constantly fill the air with spores that have strange and sometimes lethal effects on those who breath them. The Fungal Forest hosts an ongoing war between the cults of Juiblex and the cults of Zuggtmoy. The cults of Juiblex currently have the upper hand thanks to two innovations. The first is a suit of living slime that coats the wearer entirely and does a far better job of protecting them against the spores than the bulky protective gear worn by most others. The Juiblex cultists also mastered a spell that allows them to implant deadly slimes and puddings inside their agents. Should those agents be found out or turn traitor, the implanted slime or pudding is released, quickly devouring the agent from the inside out.

Speedy Sebat: the ruling genie-folk often use flying ships to travel over the magically ravaged lands. Among the fastest is the airship Sebat. Unlike most airships, Sebat is actually a giant magnolia tree, its woven roots forming the hull of the teardrop-shaped ship. Sebat’s dryad is a concubine of the ship’s owner, the dao prince Rashdan ibn Qabis.

Inhuman Justice: Rashdan’s father, Qabis ibn Rachim, is one of the nine archons who rule Hesep, perhaps the largest city in the world. Qabis considers himself a philosopher prince and his bailiwick in the city’s government is justice. While humans make up most of the nearly one million living inhabitants of Hesep, they have almost no part to play in its justice system. The rule of law is enforced by an army of hobgoblin mamluks loyal to Qabis. Judgement is passed down by altered spectators, the hideous beholder-kin a dangerous vestige of the Wizards’ War repurposed for service as impartial and incorruptible judges. The spectator judges are overseen by an androsphinx who serves as chief justice for the city-state. Qabis himself does not act as a judge himself, but spends his time tweaking the system of justice he’s created, studying old scrolls of philosophy, and partaking in the domestic joys of his extensive harem.

There Used to be Two Moons: before the Wizards’ War, there was a larger, green moon sister to the silver moon that still remains. The Wizards’ War was nearly won by a woman who called herself Moonglory. Her nastiest secret was a spell that allowed her to break the enchantments that enslaved genies, demons, and other creatures to the wills of her enemies. She was frequently hailed as a champion of the oppressed (though others contend that reputation was not deserved and she only fostered it for her own self-serving ends). When it was discovered that much of Moonglory’s magic was powered by the green moon, a cabal of her enemies performed an unprecedented ritual to destroy it. Moonglory was slain shortly afterwards. Today, all that remains of the green moon is a band of emerald dust arching across the night sky. The world’s calendar counts from the day the green moon was destroyed, the current year being 182 After Moon (AM).

The Dry Land: Near the end of the Siege of Port Entldon, terrible magics were unleashed that boiled away part of the sea and lifted the seabed. The combined magics pushed the shoreline 42 miles away from the port, exposing vast tracts of the seabed to the open air and destroying the merfolk city of Triaina. It’s said the stench ended the siege as much as the sudden loss of the port city’s strategic importance. The commanders of both sides involved went to their graves blaming the other for the tragedy. The major terrain feature of the Dry Land is a maze of dead coral that had once been an extensive reef.

The Ravenous Furze:
This is a giant forest-hedge of brambles. Tunnels, both natural and shaped, are the only way through it. It’s said that the Furze hungers for the flesh and blood of living creatures. What is known is that the brambles are spreading in all directions at the rate of a foot a year.

Swordsfall: during the Wizards’ War, the city of Tumpult was bombarded by a rain of giant glass-steel swords. Most of those swords shattered on impact, seeding the land with glass-steel shards and making it impossible to cultivate. Some of those giant swords still tower over the ruins.

I Love You (in Chains): among genie-kind, marriage is a matter of politics, used to build alliances, cement treaties, and create bonds and lines of communication between the powerful elementals. Love has no place in marriage. If you love someone, you kidnap them and make them a concubine (or concubinus if the kidnapee is male) in your harem. Genie culture is full of ballads, plays, and poems celebrating famous couples who forged their relationship via the tradition of kidnapping. Some of the most famous involve cat-and-mouse games of mutual attraction, with both seeking to gain the upper hand over, and the enslavement of, the other.

The Incredibly Talented K Yani is Doing Maps for Me:
and not only do they look amazing, they've also been the source of all sorts of new coolness, including the above-mentioned Swordsfall.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Diversity in the Dungeon

Guess what’s back? Quantum ogres! Only the folks talking about them may not know that term. And hey, straight up, I understand the appeal. Well, ok, I understand the heartbreak of pouring your soul into a thing only to have the PCs bypass it.

What I don’t understand is the notion that railroads save the DM time. Sure, you only have to prep stuff that will actually show up in the game, instead of all the different possibilities. But look at all the work that has to go in to that prep:

  • You have to accurately guess what the players are going to want to do at game time, often days or weeks in advance.
  • You have to make sure it’s balanced to the abilities of the PCs and the players (and, again, often days or weeks in advance).
  • And it needs to be entertaining because if it falls flat, you’ve got no Plan B.

Conversely, if you give players actual choices, you take a lot of the stress out of DMing. For instance, let’s suppose the PCs need to cross a massive chasm deep in the Underdark. Their options might include:

  1. A bridge guarded by duergar raiders.
  2. The magically labyrinthine alleys and shops of the Goblin Market.
  3. A trolls’ tea-party on a flying carpet.

Right there we’ve got all three pillars of 5e D&D. If the PCs want to fight, they can attack the duergar. If they’re more in the mood for exploration, the Goblin Market’s got them covered. And, finally, tea-parties with trolls are available if the players are in more of a social mood.

Instead of trying to guess what the players are going to want to do on a particular day, I give them options. Instead of trying to balance the encounters, I let the players decide how much risk they’re willing to take on. And if the option they pick turns out to not be as fun as expected, they can always go back and try one of the other paths.

Most importantly, instead of being the players’ dancing monkey, we’re all involved in creating a good time together. The DM is not the sole point of failure at which the whole thing falls apart or succeeds. Everybody at the table is invited to lift some of that weight and be responsible for their own good time.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Joy of the Impossible

Over at The Disoriented Ranger, Jens is talking about maps. I don’t want to get too deep into those articles yet because there’s a Part 3 coming and I want to be sure I understand what’s being said before I weigh in.

But there was a link to this terrible article at Tor about how Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth are “wrong.”

Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. I’ve heard the reasoning before that suggests Sauron has made those mountains somehow, and I suppose right angles are a metaphor for the evil march of progress, but I don’t recall that being in the books I read. And ultimately, this feels a lot like defending the cake in the song MacArthur Park as a metaphor—okay fine, maybe it’s a metaphor…but it’s a silly metaphor that makes my geologist heart cry tears of hematite.

I imagine most geologists who read Tolkien can get over themselves enough to understand that the geography of Middle Earth has jack-all to do with geology. Or did they have fits when Sauroman stoked a mountain to anger? Or when a river was coerced into swelling its banks? Or the fact that rivers have daughters who sing and dance and marry men in yellow boots?

Even if you stick your fingers in your ears and go “LA-LA-LA!!!” whenever the War of Wrath is mentioned (like Alex Acks apparently does), there’s more than enough going on in just Fellowship to let you know that Middle Earth (like Narnia) is an animist world where geographical features are not just anthropomorphized but have actual spirits, personalities, and can take action in the world around them. Even individual trees can turn evil and carnivorous and devour unwary passers-by!

Your first reaction to the right-angle mountains of Middle Earth should not be, “THAT’S WRONG!1!!ELEVEN!!” It should be, “Whoa, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The rules that govern geology like plate tectonics and all that don’t apply here. I wonder what does?” Otherwise, you probably shouldn’t even start reading The Hobbit because you’ll never get past the part with the giant fire-breathing reptile that flies.

Reading fantasy (and most sci-fi that’s not diamond-hard like The Martian) is playing a game with the author. “This place I describe is just like the real world,” the author says, “except…” Everything that comes after the “except” is where the magic happens, the reason we read sci-fi and fantasy rather than mysteries or historical fiction. That’s where the game starts, where the author reveals the rules of the fantastical world to us and then use those rules as a lattice upon which to weave their story in entertaining and surprising ways. The only way to get things “wrong” is to contradict yourself; if you’ve already established that an angry mountain can be lulled back to sleep with lullabies, you need a good reason why this particular angry mountain isn’t lulled back to sleep with lullabies (like Sauroman keeps goading it to anger).

This is why things like magic need rules. We need to understand when the heroes can rely on magic and when they can’t. While you don’t need to explain every crossed-t and dotted-i, you do need to be consistent; if magic could put out a fire at the beginning of your story, you need to explain why it can’t at the end of the story (and a good author will give you that explanation far in advance of introducing the fire that magic can’t put out). And the underlying rules don’t really need to be delved too deeply into. The fairy-tale logic that says vampires are destroyed by sunlight doesn’t really need detailed explanation. But a vampire walking about in broad daylight does.

So when an author (or a DM) gives you something that’s impossible, that’s a sign that Something is Up and Needs Investigating. If you’re the DM in this case, feel free to point out, “Hey, this thing I just described, you’ve never seen anything like it before. In fact, it’s impossible because blah-blah-blah. It shouldn’t be there, but there it is!” so the players can be intrigued by it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Creepiest Spells in 5e D&D

I’ve grinched before about the lack of magic in 5e’s magic system. The spells themselves blow hot-and-cold. Too many simply do damage with only the thinnest veneer of flavor or, a favorite trick of 5e’s, do damage and have a secondary mechanical effect; Guiding Bolt, for instance, which does damage and gives the next attack on the target advantage.

But then you’ve got gems like Hunger of Hadar or Crown of Madness which are full of creepy atmosphere. In Hunger’s case it’s largely cosmetic (at the end of the day it’s largely just plopping dangerous terrain that is impossible to see through, another favorite trick of 5e’s).

While none of these rise to the level of Raggian twistedness, there are still times when a little extra creepiness fits the tone of an encounter or an adventure. Collected here are the spells I consider the creepiest from 5e.

Do note that this is a very personal list. It’s based on my own preferences and on how I normally see D&D run. For instance, flame spells ought to be horrifying. Even the lowly Flaming Hands spell is, in effect, getting hit in the face with a flamethrower. But burns in D&D land don’t work like burns in the real world, to the point that meeting someone who’s actually badly scarred from getting 3rd degree burns just yanks you out of story; burns don’t cause permanent scarring in D&D, certainly not if they’re healed via magic. No matter how many times the red dragon breathes on you, an eight-hour nap is all it takes to shake off the worst effects.

Likewise, just doing necrotic damage isn’t enough to warrant a spot on this list. Nor is acid or poison damage, as horrifying as that ought to be. Repeatedly going to those wells has reduced all of that to mere lost hit points, easily regained.

I’m also ignoring charm spells for the most part. Sure, those are creepy if you really think about it, but most players don’t when they’re at the table. They’re difficult to adjudicate and their potential for creating drama at the table (rather than in the world) is high, so they deserve their own discussion.

Still, that does leave us with a number of spells creepy enough to fit an already disturbing atmosphere you may be trying to maintain and deepen. Let’s take a look:


You’re going to be seeing numerous mentions of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything because that book punches above its weight when it comes to atmospheric spells. Among them is the cantrip Infestation. Yeah, mechanically, it’s just some poison damage and a forced move (that doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks), but if you’ve already talked up all the creepy-crawlies in the dungeon, this one is sure to get a reaction from bug-phobic players.


Armor of Agathys and Hellish Rebuke both have a nice write-up and both fall into the school of stop-hitting-yourself spells. I’ll admit, the write-ups for these spells are ok but not terribly creepy; they’re mostly on this list for their power to make players stop and re-evaluate their tactics which, I think, magnifies their otherwise meh-level creepiness.

Crown of Madness goes beyond most charm spells. It’s not just mucking about with someone’s impressions, but full on, “You are my puppet! Now kill your friends!” The FX are just icing on the cake. If the barbarian fails his save on this one, sure, he won’t be raging, but the rest of the party will radically shift their priorities until this is no longer an issue.


Not much here. Melf’s Acid Arrow ought to be spooky, but it’s just more damage of the acid type rather than, “ARRRRGH! It’s burning through my face!”


Hunger of Hadar combines blindness (even for those pesky races with darkvision), difficult terrain, and nasty damage with some excellent FX. Even more effective if you add some panic by telling players they have no idea where the edge of the Hunger is, and they blindly stumble about trying to escape.


Blight is mostly here for its ability to kill plants. It’s a straight up “Look how toxic I am!” thing that makes the practical application also the cool FX.


Cloudkill is on the list because it invokes the horrors of mustard gas and the first World War. It’s the spell to use if you want your bad guys to prove just how vile they are by turning it on entire villages or mobs of protesters or the like.

Contact Other Plane
is a classic, and probably the only spell in D&D that reminds players that magic is something mysterious and dangerous. Really wish the game had more like it.

Danse Macabre and Negative Energy Flood are both from Xanathar’s and both here because they create undead. Negative Energy Flood is slightly creepier in my book because it animates PCs killed by the spell, pre-empting attempts to bring them back from the dead.


Create Undead does exactly what it says on the tin. That’s always great if you play it up right.

I love how Flesh to Stone in 5e is a slow, creeping process. Sure, it means you’re more likely to save out of the effect, but it’s also got this great, gradual body-horror thing going on that it didn’t have before.

Soul Cage
is from Xanathar’s and is another lovely baddie spell, allowing you to not just steal a soul (and possibly pre-empt resurrection) but then torture that soul in multiple useful ways. All your darkest baddies should have a soul in their pocket for use with this spell. Preferably the soul is connected in some way to the PCs.


Finger of Death is here because it turns those it slays into undead. That’s always a fun, creepy trick to pull on your PCs. Power Word Pain is all about the FX; be sure to cast it on the character of the hammiest player in your group, who will delight in acting out just how their character reacts to its tortures.


Like Hunger of Hadar, Maddening Darkness blinds even those elves and half-orcs and the like who have darkvision. Alas, it doesn’t actually cause madness, and for that it nearly got dropped from this list.

Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting, from Xanathar’s, is Blight turned up to 11. The FX on this one is to kill every non-creature plant in a 30’ cube, and that’s on top of whatever other damage you do to creatures. Again, the message is that whoever casts it is toxic as hell and doesn’t give a damn about collateral damage.


Xanathar’s Psychic Scream literally makes people’s heads explode. What’s not to love?

Weird probably works best for smaller, more intimate games, where you spend a lot of time in the heads of the PCs. You can have a lot of fun forcing the PCs to confront their deepest fears with this one.

So that’s my list of creepiest spells in D&D. It’s pulled almost exclusively from the warlock and wizard list, so I may have missed some gems from the druid and cleric lists. Let me know which I missed, please.

Painting by Pieter Claesz. Not sure who took the gas mask photo.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Murphy Bal is Dead. Again.

So last week on the G+, I said: Maximum drama happens when there's more at stake than hit points and life-or-death. Especially in a game where bog-standard 5th level clerics have the ability to return the dead to life.

Zak replied: First sentence: asserted but not proved.

Second: If that cleric is always available and able to resurrect someone, you're playing a very different game than me,

Fair enough. I’m not going to get into too much detail on that second part here. Suffice it to say, my experiences with 5e have been either the party suffers a few momentary casualties quickly resurrected by the cleric, or the cleric goes down and then everybody else follows, leading to a TPK.

Granted, this might say more about the way I run D&D than anything else. A similar pattern emerged in my 2nd edition college game. Basically, a few characters would die, but the rest would do what was necessary to resurrect them (amass the treasure and necessary body-parts depending on what level of bring-back-the-dead spell they could cast), or we’d get a TPK (happened thrice that I can recall, and one of those was due to the party splitting up and wandering off into the dungeon in twos or ones).

Where a 5e cleric of 5th level can bring you back from the dead if they get to you within a minute, 2e clerics need to be 9th level (though the body can be one-day dead for every level of the cleric, so over a week at least). But the campaign was purposefully high-magic, with lots of high-level clerics and wizards running about. If you could scrape up enough cash, you could purchase resurrections from a temple in any reasonably sized town. You had to be on good terms with the priests and the deities involved, but that generally wasn’t a problem for our heroes.

Which was good, because death happened a lot. Most often to the elven trouble-shooter thief, Murphy Bal, who couldn’t resist big, shiny buttons. The poor dear got mauled when she tried to listen at a door that was a mimic, ambushed by a purple dragon, and disintegrated when mucking about in a lich’s lab.

And yet, this remains one of the best campaigns I’ve ever run because the players cared about the world their heroes lived in.

Ok, first, off, yes, the threat of death can be thrilling (though in this case, I think the threat of being mauled in various ways was as great as the threat of death). And we all know that a countdown raises tensions even if we’ve got no idea what’s being counted down, or what happens when we reach zero.

But there’s more to drama than just tension. Conflict, hope, empathy, emotional investment, and giving a damn about the consequences are what really matter here. These are the things that make that countdown of hit points really matter. Sure, it bites losing a character, but it’s even worse when you realize that character never got the chance to tell the elf sorceress he was crushing on how he felt about her, or when the character’s death means the destruction of an in-game institution, a location the players and PCs built their imaginary lives around.

Now I’m going to take this a step further: the best drama happens when you’re not rolling dice, when there’s nothing between the player and their character, when the numbers and the bonuses fade away and there’s just immersion. When the story grips you like your favorite tug-at-the-heart-strings anime, when getting the medicine to your beloved’s sick granny, or two PCs are vying for the same love interest, or the fate of kingdoms hangs on the paladin’s devotion to honesty, or the only way the wizard is going to get her hands on that spell she’s wanted for so long is at the cost of a friend’s soul.

That’s where the best drama comes from. But don’t take my word for it; here’s Jeff Rients in Broodmother Skyfortress:
…for our purposes here you will really need five or six good campaign features ripe for demolition. Do yourself a favor and pick the places that make you ache when you contemplate their destruction. That genuine pain will carry through at the table and help you communicate the pathos of the loss of the Last Faerie Circle or the Blue Boar Inn or whatever. Ideally, your players will grok that this place wasn’t built specifically to be knocked down; rather, Grim Fate has come to rest upon something even you, the Referee, thought might stand for the rest of time.

That’s the best drama, and no dice-rolling or character-sheet tallying required. Granted, you probably can’t pull this off on day one. You need to lull your players into caring, seduce them into an emotional investment, the same way your favorite novels lure you in with empathetic characters who are then tortured for 200+ pages for your sadomasochistic amusement.

Luckily for you DM’s, the players have already done the heavy lifting by creating characters they like and care about. All you have to do is tug on those hooks they’ve given you and raise the s

Monday, January 01, 2018

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…

...where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal…

So Courtney Campbell wrote a piece on D&D as shamanic vision quest that I’m pretty sure I’m too stoned on flu meds to really understand just yet, but I do want to revisit when I’m lucid. Jacob “Swordfish Islands” Hurst was inspired by it to discuss the difficulties of PC death at the table. He’s got a serious point there, but I’m not going to address it directly. Instead, I’m going to discuss something that would seem to be a natural reaction to the issues Mr. Hurst raises but that we don’t see much of, except from the sorts of players I consider the best and most fun to play with.

The first of his “big potential post-death failure points” is:

The player has personally invested hours creating their character. The death has wasted that time.

Fully wasted that time? Depends on what that time was spent on.

Ok, sure, pretty much every number on the character sheet is gone. The other PCs can divide any unspent treasure and salvageable gear, but skills and stats and special abilities are, of course, gone.

That said, let me take an example from one of my games. The bard in the group is the daughter of a prostitute in a high-class pleasure house catering to the rich and powerful. This is far from the most original background I’ve received as a DM; I’m sure we’ve all seen variations on this theme, possibly many times before.

That said, the PCs have, as a group, met this mom. They’ve used her room (naturally warded against divinations and similar spying magics) to plot their moves, dropped her name to smooth their way through high society, and used her to verify what they’ve heard about the character of certain nobles. No matter what happens, Phoebe of the House of Thorns and Roses is now a fixture in the setting. If the bard should die, Phoebe and the House will still be there. They might be enemies of the PCs if she blames them for her daughter’s death, or she might manipulate them into securing vengeance against those she does blame. Or the relationship might be stronger and more stable for the loss.

In any event, the time spent by the player creating Phoebe and the House of Thorns and Roses was not wasted. Nor was the time spent in creating the bard’s mentor, the halfling troubadour Pyle Brandywine. The fact that the bard’s player and the sorceress’ player took the time to entangle their backstories means that these creations exist even more strongly in the setting because they now have links to two different PCs.

Now, I understand that, for some folks, this isn’t what the game is supposed to be about. This sort of working outside the rules feels like cheating to some, or a distraction from the real fun at best. I understand, but I don’t agree, and if this sort of thing is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

The thing that separates D&D from CRPGs, board games, and (most) war games is the ability to play with the entire setting, in all its many facets. This type of play brings the aspects of the character that are not quantifiable to the fore. And these aspects linger, their impact lasting long, long beyond the lifespan of any single character. The world is richer for it, and the game is more fun because a richer world creates more opportunities for entertainment.

Art by Gustave LĂ©onard de Jonghe.

Not the Heroine You're Looking For

There’s this way people say the word “powerful” when they’re referring to characters, especially female characters, that puts my teeth on edge. It’s far too often public ego masturbation, “Look at what a wonderful and good person I am!” I’ve come to associate it with people who talk a good game about “empowerment” but treat the actual women in their lives like disposable conveniences.

In the literary world, we had nearly a decade of “powerful female characters” who were… well, we get a great example in Last Jedi’s Vice Admiral Holdo.

Holdo looks like an important character in Last Jedi. She’s commanding the fleet, she’s calling Poe down on the carpet, she’s the lady with a plan. The survival of the Resistance is on her shoulders. And like Lea and Rose, she is a font of wisdom and insight. These women are correct and mature at a deep and important level where the men are still growing into their roles, half-formed and immature. Holdo is a far more important and powerful character than Poe.

From a certain point of view.

We’ve seen these kinds of characters before. The Hotshot, whether pilot or programmer or musician or whatever, is frequently challenged by the Voice of Experience. This tempers the hotshot, matures them, gives them the secret they need to raise their already amazing skills to the next level while learning to work as part of larger team. We’ve seen so many variations on this theme, from The Paper Chase to An Officer and a Gentleman to Top Gun to Harry Potter.

The thing about the Voice of Experience is that they’re one of many challenges thrown in front of the Hotshot. But the story is about the Hotshot.

Holdo is all about giving Poe an arc, maturing him from hero to leader. She makes him more interesting. Holdo herself, however, isn’t nearly as interesting as Poe is. She has no arc. She’s not a dynamic character. She gets some good lines, some interesting (if, frankly, bizarre) costuming, and the best special effect in the movie. But she’s the same character at the beginning and the end of the film. And, like the Voice of Experience, she’s removed at a critical point in the film to let the Hotshot take center stage.

From the point of view of the Star Wars universe, Holdo is a powerful, important character. She’s a war hero, a high-ranking military officer, and the one who rescues the Resistance from nearly certain annihilation.

From the point of view of story, she’s yet another in an ancient and long line of female characters who exist solely for male characters to bounce off of. Ditto Rose, though she (maybe?) goes from being an engineer to a warrior, so she at least gets a little arc. But story-wise, these characters can be replaced with challenging terrain features like mountains, or being diagnosed with cancer, or a demanding client.

I’ve seen this sort of bait-and-switch pulled too many times now. Characters billed as being “strong” and “independent” and “powerful” who, yeah, sure, might be all those things in the universe of the fiction, but in terms of story they’re more background than people. Typically, it’s a way to have your cake and eat it to; look, here’s a powerful female character, but don’t worry, the story’s still about the guy.

What makes Holdo (and to a lesser extent Rose) interesting is how in-your-face she is. Because Holdo is making many of the decisions, is (kinda-sorta) justified in her reasoning, and has only a sorta sideswipe reconciliation with Poe, she comes across as abrasive and overshadowing Poe as a character. There’s also a strong element of bait-and-switch; we know Poe is a hero, so we want to peg Holdo as a variation on JK Rowling’s Umbridge. But she’s not that sort of character, and her death robs us of the sort of reconciliation of mutual respect we expect from this character arc. (As an example of what I’m talking about, see the cigar-lighting scene near the end of the first Hellboy movie.)

So fans of Poe can feel miffed that this overbearing second-rate character seems to be stealing the spotlight. And fans of “strong” female characters can whoop about how this makes the Star Wars universe more inclusive.

Unfortunately, the whooping sounds hollow because, as I pointed out above, Holdo isn’t a main character and her existence in the movie is all about giving Poe something interesting to struggle against. So yeah, I suppose, her presence might create a more inclusive Star Wars universe, but at the end of the day, she’s there just to make Poe a more interesting character.

Her presence serves the needs of a male character.

So, “strong?” “Powerful?” “Independent?” Perhaps. But without expert handling, Holdo was bound to piss people off, both fans of Poe and those who want greater representation for female characters in the Star Wars universe.

Which, I suppose, is perfect, if your goal is to create controversy and buzz. But storytelling-wise, it turns poor Holdo into an idiot who withholds vital information to the point where the enemy knows more about her plans than her own bridge crew. She becomes yet one more female character who supposedly exists in a military chain of command who isn’t taken seriously by the men and women who serve under her.

In short, this is not the “strong, powerful” female character you ought to be looking for. Sci-fi and fantasy novelists moved past this tokenism back in the ‘80s, in no small part thanks to authors like Anne McAffery and Elizabeth Moon. Hell, Last Jedi gives us a legit female hero in Lea (and, kinda-sorta if you’re willing to look past the androgyny, Rey).

So that all said, and at risk of beating a dead horse, let’s look at Poe. He gets the classic Hotshot arc: reckless and cocky competence. It looks flashy but it fails to further the actual aims of those he claims to support and serve. It gets people killed. He gets demoted, he rails against authority in classic angry-young-man style, he struggles to prove himself.

There are echoes of the classic hero’s journey here as well. Lea calls on him to be a more than the hero he is but he refuses that call at first. Holdo serves as his threshold guardian, the monster that must be overcome by recognizing how it is a part of himself, which Poe does when he points out that Holdo wasn’t running away. He “dies” (gets stunned by Lea) and then buried in the vast tomb of the old hidden Rebel base. When he sallies forth with his team to slay the drag- er, I mean, battering laser, he recognizes the poor trade-off between certain self-sacrifice of his entire squad and questionable damage to the laser, and calls off the attack. He then recognizes that Luke is buying them time. By this point, Poe’s proven his transformation of death and resurrection and Lea literally tells the others, “Don’t look at me; follow him!” thus reconciling the hero with his father figure/goddess. Finally, Rey literally rolls stones out of a cave mouth to complete his resurrection.

It’s a lot clumsy in the writing and execution, but Poe gets a classic protagonist’s arc and hero’s journey in this film. Poe fans have some legit gripes about the clumsy, but he gets the goods storywise. Fans of Holdo probably need to raise their standards.