Ah, variety is truly a wonderful spice #Malazan #WoT #Furies

After finishing the Star Wars Battlefront book last week I dived into my library. Here’s the thing, I obtained some time ago a file that had a lot of ebooks, and most of them were fantasy and sci fi. So when I reach a point where I do not have a library book to read and am not actively working on a series I will go to that file. And last week, when I got my new iPad, I loaded a number of books on it from that library.

Some of them are books I have read one time (or more.) For instance I had been on my way of working through the Wheel of Time yet again. I really like that series, it is still probably my favorite of all time. And yet, oddly enough, it is probably one with the least amount of reference to traditional role playing worlds. Everyone is a human, with very little deviation even for geographic location. But slipping back into the series is like a good pair of jeans, it just fits right, is comfortable, and I know what to expect. And yet it is complex enough that I can still pick up on the occasional new piece or clue when I read it again.

I also loaded some books I had not read, from a writer I knew and respected. And after finishing the Star Wars book I gave on them a try. I read the book Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. I came away impressed. It did drag a little at pieces, maybe a little too complex for its own good. But it is a fascinating world that he created. I always like stuff with Roman influence, and this book has just enough of that to make it interesting. And there were enough surprises that it kept me on my toes. So yeah, a good read, and I do look forward to continuing the series. But not just yet. Because I decided that it was instead time to dive back into another familiar series.

That is the Book of Malazan. Perhaps one of the most complex and rich fantasy worlds I have ever encountered. Like Wheel of Time, it is not traditional RPG fantasy. There are no Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, etc. And so much of the series is about a terribly complex set of political and magical webs that it can be terribly confusing and easy to get lost. So it is not the easiest read. But man, is it good if you do get into it. The world building in this series puts pretty much everything else I have ever read to shame. There are layers, and layers and layers of stories woven together. An incredibly complex history. And a monstrously huge cast of characters, many of whom die (but not before telling a deep story first), or disappear for a book or two.

The point of all this is that I love variety in my books. Even if I am reading a lengthy series (trilogies are passe), I am willing to take a break from one and move over to another. And then of course I will gladly borrow from all of them when I need inspiration. Inspiration for a character, a story arc, or even campaign. They are all worth my time and attention. And it is a great life when I have all of these choices to work from.

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Role playing needs a shared vision #DnD #RPG

The best role playing sessions occur when everyone in the group has a shared vision of what they are seeing and where they are. Trying to force a campaign idea on people who have no idea what they should be seeing can create a real problem. Which is one of the problems I have run into the most when trying to GM games in the past.

One of the most vivid role playing experiences I ever had was also one of the oddest. A friend of mine, who is also one of the best GM’s I know, decided to do a one shot of this role playing game and campaign he came up with, called ‘Redneck: the Reckoning’. I won’t bother trying to describe what happened, or the game itself. All I can say is that what ensued was almost a shared hallucination. Those of us who played that night often used words like a weird trip to describe it. It was both bizarre and memorable. But the biggest take away was that everyone who played that night had a shared idea of what we were playing, we all knew what was going on.

And a good game or campaign is like that. The players buy into the core concepts of the world. Like the world of the Undead that my Pathfinder game I am in. We all have a good, common view of what sort of world it is, and what we will see and run into. So we do not have to cope with any serious anachronisms, because we all have bought into the GM’s vision of his world.

Some games are like that on their own. If you play Shadowrun for example, you know exactly what sort of world to expect. Your campaign might differ from another, but you can all share certain things: what guns suck, what spells are overpowered. Or Deadlands, everyone knows what a Western look like, just add some weirdness and undead and voila everyone pretty much understands and agrees on what Deadlands is like.

In the past, even in the first game for the boys, I ran into this problem. So when you mention Waterdeep or Cormyr to the players, you get blank faces. And when I tried to run my own games in the past things just didn’t quite work. Like my SavageRun game, or various GURPS worlds that I tried to run.

The trouble is I have my own vision of these worlds, and my flavor is very much informed by my inspirations. Inspirations that not everyone may share. For example I was surprised today when I found out someone had not read or watched Game of Thrones, and didn’t care for Conan.

Last weekend I watched a good chunk of the Magnificent Seven, which is a great movie (yeah I know it is based on 7 Samurai, which is probably better.) And I started thinking about how to craft a scenario based on that story. Then it hit me, the boys don’t know that movie from the original. So I could not reference the movie and expect them to get any of what I was doing.

We all have different experiences and interests and bring them to our games. And as a GM we cannot expect everyone to ‘get it’. But what we can do is create stories, campaigns, that pull the players in, so they begin to ‘get it’.

There are a couple different ways to do that. Run something familiar to the players (Deadlands, 7th Seas are good examples.) Ask, demand, cajole your players to introduce themselves to the material beforehand. You can do the sudden dump, like dropping the players from one world they understand into one they don’t (which still has the obstacle of trying to explain it.)

But what I think works best is to ask the players to start in a common, small location, and then use their own adventures as a way to learn about the big wide world around them. This works best in a fantasy style game, where technology limits the players experience. Kind of hard to ask the players to know nothing about the world around them in an advanced society like Shadowrun for example.

The biggest thing though is that the players at some point begin to ‘get it’. That they begin to talk about the world around them. Towns where they adventured, naming the Gods of the world. When they begin to do that you know you have them, they have bought in. It isn’t always easy, or even possible, but when it happens it is a great feeling.

Thinking about inspiration, rules, and alignment #DnD #RPG #Books @TheAngryGM

Once again @TheAngryGM has done it, written a post that I feel compelled to link to, Alignment in D&D 5E: S$&% or Get Off the Pot, and then talk about how I deal with the subject and why. Because this is a very interesting topic, and an interesting follow up to my talk about D&D and symbolism.

First of all, some background. D&D 5E is for me an extension of story telling. And it is inspired by the books I have read. In some ways I wonder if I would have been as ready or excited about D&D had a couple of things not happened when I was young. First, I had the Hobbit read out loud to me when I was in 1st or 2nd grade by a talented actor who taught at the hippy school I attended. And my older brother, who was in many ways an idol, got me into reading the books myself. And he had posters and calendars that were prints of the Brothers Hildebrandt illustrations of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. So I was about as in deep with Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings as I could get at an early age. Second, I found when I first started playing D&D, that reading certain books enhanced the games, this was well before there was ‘official’ D&D fiction, so I was reading Lloyd Alexander, Conan, Roger Zelazny, Andre Norton, etc.

But there were two series and writers that probably had the biggest inspiration for my D&D. First, Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, and other similar books like the Chronicles of Corum. The concept of a vast battle between Law and Chaos was the essential element in those books. And how Gods played an almost every day part in this battle on the mortal plane. Second, was the Thieves World series, which was a terrific fantasy series that if you can get a hold of I strongly encourage reading. Again, one of the essential elements of that series was Gods using mortals as proxies in their battles for supremacy.

So, books are by far my biggest source of inspiration for D&D. I get ideas from the books. And I draw general concepts from the worlds that the books are set in. And most of my fantasy reading was done well before the branded D&D novels came out. So certain concepts like Alignment were just not that big of a deal. It was either a case of being the Heroic good guys, a la Tolkien. Or amoral figures just trying to get by in a world where Gods toyed with mortals, a la Conan and Thieves World.

Given those sources of inspiration, is it any wonder that I have no problem following the first of Angry’s pieces of advice? Just toss out Alignment altogether. I admit I am also influenced by having spent a lot more time playing games without alignment like GURPS, Shadowrun, Deadlands. And that leads me to the last point (and the central one.)

If I were to reorder the Player’s Handbook for 5E I would make one big change. I would move the section on Personality and Background between Races and Classes. Because I think that you should pick out (or randomly roll) things like that before choosing your character class. I think that if you have all of that on your sheet, and stick to it, it can do a better job than the Alignment stick of dictating your characters actions.

Here is an example from the boy’s campaign. One of the boys rolled the following characteristics after choosing the Urchin background, and they are doing a much better job of shaping his character than just saying that he is Neutral, Chaotic, Lawful, Good or Evil.

Personality Trait: I bluntly state what other people are hinting at or hiding

Ideals: Retribution, the rich need to be shown what life and death are like in the gutters

Bonds: I escaped my life of poverty by robbing an important person and now I am wanted for it.

Flaws: I’d rather kill someone in their sleep than fight fair

Now that is far more interesting than just saying that someone is Neutral Good, don’t you think? In many ways that is almost like reading the ideals of Conan, especially the Conan from the books, this Conan:

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Now we all know that Conan can be a hero, kill the bad guys, rescue the weak etc. But that doesn’t mean that he has to be of the purest intentions. That is your essential ‘Anti-hero’. And I think it makes the game more interesting using things like this to shape your character than generic labels like alignment. That set of characteristics would definitely result in someone being labeled ‘Evil’ in an alignment system, but few people (other than his enemies) would call Conan evil. Which is my point, alignment is far too broad and generic in my view.

Now the big question, that Angry pointed out, is what to do with the Priests, Paladins and Warlocks without alignment. Simple: they will be forced to follow a code or approach based on their deity or patron. One could be a Paladin of the Death God (although not much fun to hang around with) or a Warlock of the Fairy Queen, and have to follow certain rules laid down by the Deity. It doesn’t mean your deity is Good or Evil, they just are, and have their preferences. I think that makes for a more interesting campaign, not relying on broad alignments for the Gods and their followers.

In essence, I am writing this as a support for those who want to do what Angry suggests as an option: trash alignment. Toss it out for the players. And really only use it as a tool for the ‘monsters’ to determine which ones are ‘bad guys’.

Just overflowing with inspiration these days #DnD #Roleplaying #inspiration @TheAngryGM

Some times as a GM you have to search for inspiration. Where do your stories come from? What kind of game to I want to run? How can I describe the events I want the players to experience? And some times that inspiration is not there, you run into a brick wall when trying to come up with a game.

But now is not one of those times for me. My cup is overflowing with inspiration for the games I am running and playing. Here are just a couple of these sources, and how they inspire me.

Books

I am currently engaged in the long term re-reading of the Wheel of Time novels. Not strictly a high fantasy genre book (no elves, dwarves, dragons etc.) it is still a good source of ideas and concepts. I will be modeling the Elves in the boys campaign on the Aiel of that series.

But I have taken a break from that as a few books have made it to me after long holds at the library. The latest R.A. Salvatore book, Archmage, about as traditional a high fantasy book as there is. Always good for D&D ideas. And Half a War by Joe Abercrombie, the last book in a trilogy set in a medieval world with lots of Viking overtones, but no magic. Lots of good ideas as far as settings.

TV

Speaking of Vikings, I finally got around to watching the first season of Vikings. Which was a really excellent show, and left me wishing for ways to watch the next two seasons. This also gives me ideas, and thoughts on how a truly medieval culture might work, instead of the ‘clean’ looks one gets from high fantasy sources.

And lately I have been working my through the television series of From Dusk till Dawn. Yes, it is not a fantasy series, or historical or medieval. But it is full of lots of cool ideas. Ideas for antagonists for the boys to eventually come across. And ideas for my Snake Shaman character in my Denver game (except he is a Good guy.)

And that is just the things I have been doing in the past couple of weeks. As you can see I have no shortage of sources to go to when it comes to inspiration for the games. Really the only problems is reining in my imagination and not letting all these diverse sources lead to a game that is inconsistent.

That is where I have relying the writings of the @TheAngryGM for help in keeping myself straight. Guiding a successful game, and using the tools I have gained from reading his articles. It helps me keep things straight.

And knowing that the boys are more relaxed and accepting now, looking beyond the fights, also helps. Because I can start to do more with the game if they pay attention to that sort of thing. It all distills together eventually.