Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dark Tower and the Three Fights You'll See in Every Damn Thing

I find myself still thinking about how cruddy a movie The Dark Tower was. What a missed opportunity. The movie was so bland that at a point early on in its (blissfully short) run time I found myself thinking more about the "action structure" that it shares with most fantasy films. When it comes to fight scenes and the way they are used to propel both narrative and theme, there is a commonality shared by most action-fantasy films: they all have versions of the same three fights:

  • The protagonist fights a big monster. This illustrates that good triumphs even against overwhelming force. The Dark Tower had this in the scene where Roland kills the demon. 
  • The protagonist fights a lot of evil minions. This illustrates that good triumphs over the amassed efforts of villainy. The Dark Tower had this in the fight against the Man in Black's minions in the village. 
  • The protagonist fights the film's avatar of evil, and wins. This illustrates that good inevitably carries the day against evil. It isn't much of a spoiler to tell you that Roland kills the Man in Black, right? Anyway, I'm doing you a favor so you don't have to watch this movie.

Bonus fourth convention:

  • If the film features a naive, young protagonist there will be a scene in which they narrowly escape the clutches of corrupt agents of the greater evil. This illustrates plucky resolve in the face of depravity, or some such thing. The Dark Tower had this in the scene where Jake runs away from the fake boarding school employees.

Think about that formula, the narrative structure it serves, and where you find it in any number of action-fantasy films--both good and bad. Of course, the difference between The Dark Tower and any number of better movies that use the same structuring conventions is that the better films have the decency to obscure their generic conventions with interesting characters, plot development, and non-wooden dialog.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Five Items, No More

WotC used an interesting format to express the basics of some of their settings in the campaign books they published in the 3e and 4e eras; they had lists upfront that briefly detailed the elements that set each of those worlds apart. For example, the Eberron Campaign Setting had "Ten Things You Need to Know" (the 4e version of that list is here) and the Dark Sun Campaign Setting had "Eight Characteristics of Athas."

Think of it like an elevator pitch; if you can express what your game is like, what it's about, and what characters are likely to do in the game, the better your chances of attracting players who will be interested in what you're throwing down. The keys to doing this well are threefold: present something that will be intriguing, memorable, and succinct. But I'm going to make it tougher: you don't get ten or eight items for your list. You only get five.

A useful exercise: can you express what your D&D campaign is about in only five lines?

Since I'm currently running two separate campaigns in two separate settings, I'm doing this twice:

  • Gothic horror. Once a country of picturesque villages, deep forests, and sublime mountain ranges, Krevborna is now preyed upon by werebeasts, witches, malicious fey, fiends, and the undead. 
  • A hunter must hunt. As a player, your goal is to hunt monsters and fight back against the darkness that taints the land. 
  • A fallen monarchy. The hereditary royalty was overthrown generations ago. Farmsteads, villages, and towns are now independently governed. Chancel and Piskaro, the largest cities, are under the Church's control. There is no monarch, no standing army, no dominant power to protect the land and its people. 
  • The mark of evil. The mining town of Hemlock is ruled by a coven of Graymalk witches; in the cold, northern realm of Lamashtu, the populace pays a tithe of blood to the vampiric Countess Alcesta von Karlok. Fell influences tighten their grip across Krevborna. 
  • Blood-red religion. The Church of Saintly Blood venerates a cult of martyrs through rites that involve the imbibing of sanctified blood. It is the last bastion of authority in Krevborna, yet the Church is internally divided by factions, intrigue, and corruption.
  • A megalodungeon. Scarabae is a city that spans five islands in the Ink Sea. It is so massive and complex that no accurate map exists of its entirety. Slithian Vor, a devil from the lower planes, is Lord Mayor; she receives council from the Courts of Swords, Coins, Cups, and Wands. (They oversee military, economic, religious, and magical affairs, respectively.) 
  • Cosmopolitan fantasy. The city's populace is an anarchic mix; the usual fantasy races—such as humans, elves, goblins, etc.—rub shoulders with otterfolk, minotaurs, genasi, and even stranger folk. 
  • Picaresque adventure. As a player, your goal is to explore the city's strange locales, acquire its valuable artifacts, interact with the intrigues and schemes of its odd denizens, and defeat ne'er-do-wells and monsters alike. 
  • A magical-industrial society. Magic is commonplace in Scarabae and often used to achieve marvels such as ethergram communication, mechanized factories, automatons, and conveyances such as worm trains, airships, and submarines. 
  • The Major Arcana. “Gods” are thought to be aspects or guises of the tarot's Major Arcana. It is believed that each Major Arcana represents a cosmic principle that shapes existence. The Major Arcana are opposed by the fiendish Maraphim. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Games (of mine) People Play

People say nice things about the games I run, so consider this my thank you! I wouldn't run these games if I didn't have great players coming to the "table."

Anne at DIY & Dragons has done two great write-ups of the Scarabae games of mine that she's played in. The first one, House Cleaning a Memory Palace, is here. I especially liked reading more about her character; Traviata is a really interesting character, so the deeper dive into the inspirations behind her was illuminating. The second one, Iditarod & Medvac in Scarabae is here. That one is a really good window for me into seeing how players perceive the setting and what they get out of it. It also sheds some light on my own unconscious influences. When she writes "This reminds me of what an abortion clinic looks like when it's being besieged by anti-rights activists," I don't think she's wrong at all--even if that isn't what I had immediately in mind. I find that things like that happen all the time with Scarabae; there seems to be a lot of channeling of contemporary, real world influences that sneak into the adventures without me noticing them. For example, the adventure in which the players explored a warped pizzeria seemed like the specter of Comet Ping Pong in retrospect.

Trey has a post over at his blog From the Sorcerer's Skull talking about the G+ Hangouts games he's been playing in, and he has some kind words for my ongoing campaign set in Krevborna. He also talks about the GRIDSHOCK playtest that Paul V's been running; since I also play in that one, I can verify Trey's claim that it's a good time. I would tell you that Trey's blog is great, but you probably already read it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Agents of S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O.

I've been watching a lot of films and television from the action-spy genre lately: Atomic Blonde, Casino Royale, Jessica Jones, Salt, and even the noir-ish parts of The Expanse probably count. Between watching all those and talking about how to translate the genre into gaming terms on G+, I was inspired to write up the following 5e D&D hack to do something similar in my Scarabae setting:

S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. is a secretive intelligence operation within the Court of Swords. S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. recruits the best and the brightest to spy upon the other Courts and advance the causes of the Court of Swords; agents are trained in hand-to-hand combat, physical skill, investigative acuity, and general skulduggery. Agents of S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. engage in acts such as the prevention of terrorism within Scarabae and abroad, the securing of counterintelligence assets, sabotage of subversive forces, and espionage against the other three Courts and the Lord Mayor's Office.

S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. most often tangles with criminal organizations, overreaching thieves' guilds, and villainous masterminds. The agency both competes against and shares aims with the intelligence arms of the other Courts, such as the Court of Wand's C.A.U.L.D.R.O.N. Alliances are ever shifting and it is best to keep your enemies closer than your friends.

Officially, S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. does not exist.

* * *

Character Creation
Ability Scores: Arrange 16, 16, 14, 12, 12, 10 to taste.

Level: 4. Instead of increasing an ability score at 4th level, please pick a feat from this list instead: Alert, Athlete, Actor, Crossbow Expert, Dungeon Delver, Firearms Expert (as Crossbow Expert, but applies to firearms), Grappler, Martial Adept, Mobile, Observant, Sharpshooter, Skilled, Skulker, Tough.

Race: Any.

Class: Monk or Rogue only. Available monastic traditions include Way of the Open Hand (PHB), Way of Shadow (PHB), Way of the Four Elements (PHB), Way of the Long Death (SCAG), Way of the Sun Soul (SCAG), Way of the Cobalt Soul (Tal'Dorei). Available rogue archetypes include Thief (PHB), Assassin (PHB), Arcane Trickster (PHB), Mastermind (SCAG), Swashbuckler (SCAG).

Background: Any, but you might want to keep an eye out for ones that will open-up access to useful skills for a spy such as: Charlatan, Courtier (SCAG), Criminal, Faction Agent (SCAG), Knight of the Order (SCAG), Mercenary Veteran (SCAG), Noble, Sailor, Soldier, Urban Bounty Hunter (SCAG), Urchin.

Equipment: Fine clothing, two daggers or a dagger and a collapsible baton (club), a pistol with twenty shots, a mark of credit accepted at most establishments. Most other adventuring goods should be available from your headquarters.

Characters may spend hit dice after resting for 5 minutes. 

Abilities that recharge during a short rest still require an hour of inactivity. 

Also, during a short rest a character regains up to half their hit dice if the rest involves the consumption of alcohol, particularly in the form of cocktails or fine wine. 

Long rests remain unchanged, but are best spent in expensive hotels.

Mooks, Chumps, and Lackeys
Combat uses an asymmetrical set of rules when characters face off against mooks, chumps, and lackeys:

Roll to hit as normal for your attacks, but when determining damage only roll the dice associated with your attacks--do not add a bonus to the damage based on ability score modifiers, etc. This goes for both characters and mooks.

Player characters take hit point damage from attacks as normal.
DM-controlled enemies do not have hit points; instead, they can take damage equal to their hit dice before being taken out of a fight.

Example: An Agent of Stiletto with 18 hit points is facing off against an enemy Thug with 5 hit dice (normally that would be 32 hit points, but we only care about the hit dice in the Thug's stat block). The Thug gets the drop on our Agent and deals 3 points of damage, bringing the Agent's hit points down to 13. On her turn, the Agent hits the Thug twice; the total damage from these attacks is 6, which is more than enough to take out the Thug's 5 Hit Dice--the Thug is knocked out.

Cleaving: When an Agent's melee attack reduces an undamaged creature to 0 hit dice, any excess damage from that attack carries over to another nearby mook. The attacker targets another creature within reach and applies any remaining damage to it. If that creature was undamaged and is likewise reduced to 0 hit dice, repeat this process, carrying over the remaining damage until there are no valid targets, or until the damage carried over fails to reduce an undamaged creature to 0 hit dice.

Example: Let's continue the previous example, but this time that Thug had a buddy. Since the Agent did 6 hit dice worth of damage and 5 of that took out Thug 1, Thug 2 is taking a hit die of damage from the leftover damage; Thug 2 ends this exchange with 4 hit dice left of its original 5.

Duel of Wits
To handle social maneuvering, interrogations, high-stakes poker games, etc. and with important NPCs, we'll use Skill Challenges; the PCs will need to roll their relevant skill versus the NPC's passive Insight score after each verbal exchange, in most cases.

Before beginning the Skill Challenge, make the stakes clear at the outset: use the player's intentions to set the number of successes needed depending on how resistant the NPC would be to that outcome. 

Similarly, state what will likely happen if the character does not succeed in the Skill Challenge. Let them know the potential fallout in advance.

A verbal exchange needs to be substantial and advance a meaningful point to merit a chance to roll an ability check toward completing the Skill Challenge.

Hardcore Parkour
Genre-wise, it's best to let the players have a little authority to make declarations about the environment to include objects their characters can exploit.

Example: The answer to "Is there a canister of kraken oil in this refinery that I can shoot to cause an explosion behind the thugs?" should probably be "Yes."

Characters making use of the environment in dramatic scenes such as chases, evasions, infiltrations, etc. get advantage on the relevant ability check.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Made to Suffer

Finally, that long-awaited siege right? The pay-off for the previous collection's slow burn, yeah? Well, no, actually.

It turns out that The Walking Dead isn't particularly good at delivering big action set pieces. It wants to have the cadence of an action film at times, but I'm not convinced it really captures motion or moment-to-moment tension very well in the way its panels are composed. But there is a lot of carnage in this collection, so we can still pick through the bones:

One thing I like about Made to Suffer is that it shows Andrea being a badass, raining death from above like some kind of law clerk-turned-Valkyrie. I might actually be sad when Andrea dies, as I have no doubt she will at some point. I'm also glad that the tank we saw in the previous collection gets used during the siege. I guess it was Chekov's Tank after all.

When Michonne goes after the fleeing Woodbury crew with Tyreese, is she really trying to winnow their ranks or does she just want another shot at the Governor? The Walking Dead plays literary notions of revenge pretty straight; revenge is a bad impulse because it is over-reaching and always consumes the person who wants vengeance. Michonne's desire for further revenge against the Governor gets Tyreese captured and killed. The Governor's need to be revenged on Rick and Michonne leads him to endanger his people and put himself in a situation where his contagious violence ultimately turns back on him.

Tyreese's beheading at the hands of the Governor is intense and disturbing, which is the point, but it's somewhat uncomfortable that the most gratuitous scenes of violence in the comic all make the bodies of people of color the occasion of torture and degradation. Michonne's violation by the governor, the Governor's torture at the hands of Michonne, Tyreese's decapitation with Michonne's katana as wielded by the Governor are all scenes in which the extremity of violence is a thing visited by one person of color on another. I'm not sure what to make of that--it could be coincidental--but I also kinda think it isn't. 

Speaking of violence, the comic uses the two-part siege as an opportunity to divest itself of some minor characters we probably aren't going to miss anyway: goodnight and thank you, Axel, Patricia, Billy, Hershel, and Alice. The sloppiest death here is Alice's because it just seems like her purpose in the narrative was to delivery Lori's baby and then die.

Speaking of Lori and her baby...okay, I can't imagine being a reader of this comic and not seeing their deaths coming. Once the minor characters are cleared off the board, you gotta kill someone important to give the reader that gut-punch feeling, right? Unfortunately, their deaths feel as cheap as Alice's death--as if the baby was introduced just so we'd be shocked when she gets caught in the crossfire with her mother. 

And we have every indication that it is supposed to be an outrage that we feel personally affronted by because that's exactly how Lilly, one of the Woodbury crew, reacts to it in our place as a fictional proxy for the read. Her reaction is at once didactic and intended as catharsis; even though she's on the Governor's side, and the one who pulled the trigger on mother and daughter, the deaths of Lori and Judith spur her to shoot the Governor and toss him to the zombies.

From the hip:

  • Lots of rhetoric used on both sides of the siege that sits uncomfortably with our modern political moment. Lots of talk about the safety of fences, lots of pleas to "think of the children," plenty of "the other side are evil savages and they are the ones responsible for the existence of crime in the world."
  • Oh hey, Rick gets wounded again. 
  • Oh hey, I guess the Governor makes out with his zombiefied niece? Like we didn't realize he was the bad guy or something, this had to be thrown in there?
  • Hah, Michonne and Tyreese ambush a guy when he's peeing. This is such a modern trope: you can tell when a drama, particularly a "prestige format" television show is trying to convince you that it is GRITTY and REAL when it includes somebody taking a piss.
  • Also, it's comical that Michonne can slice through anything in one swing with her sword, but the Governor takes forever to behead Tyreese.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Incursion at the Heigelman Clinic

Campaign: Scarabae Open-Table (5e D&D)

Characters: Traviata Manu, human alchemist artificer; Tobias Rune, human chain pact warlock; Mortimer Queensberry, human open hand monk; Erron, half-elf bard.

Objective: To deliver medicine to Alphonse Damajin, a patient at the Heigelman Clinic.

Events: The party was hired by Koska, a local quest giver in Redgutter, to enter the Heigelman Clinic and deliver necessary medication for Alphonse Damajin, a patient at the clinic. Adventurers were being hired for the task because the Heigelman Clinic was currently surrounded by fifty white-shrouded figures bearing axes and knives who were not letting anyone into or out of the clinic. Previous attempts to enter the clinic had been met with violence from the robed and mysterious figures.

The Heigelman Clinic was nestled between two multi-story towers with bridges and catwalks connecting them high above. The clinic itself was a two-story building consisting of a rounded tower on the left attached to a square central building with a rectangular wing attached to the right. The facade was comprised of sheets of scrap metal interrupted by the occasional oddly placed window. The shrouded figures surrounding the clinic were absolutely still and uncannily silent. There were patches of blood on the cobblestones from previous attempts to breach their perimeter.

Instead of approaching the clinic directly, the party decided to enter one of the towers next to it and descend by rope from one of the catwalks above it. Traviata went down first, Mission Impossible-style, ascertaining that the clinic's skylight could be melted open with her corrosive acid. Dropping down into the second floor of the clinic, the party found two hallways--one running above the building's central structure, the other running above the extension wing--and a door to the building's tower. Both hallways featured a number of open doors, but both had a single door that was currently closed. There was also a staircase and mechanical elevator leading down to the first floor.

The tower was attempted first. An extra-wide bed took up much of the circular room. The room was decorated with a family crest depicting a scalpel being forged on an anvil and a portrait of a dwarf family in oil paints--all are wearing lab coats and holding scalpels like they’re swords--in a gilded Art Deco frame. The bookcases held a mix of medical treatises, histories of medicine, and also occult books written in Deep Speech. The side table was looted, the coin and pocket watch within taken into protective custody by the adventurers. The wardrobe contained dwarf-sized garb, mostly basic clothing, white lab coats, leather aprons and gloves worn during surgeries. There was also a spiral staircase in the chamber leading down to the first floor.

The party used Tobias's imp, Malphas, to scout the open doors in both hallways. The rooms were nearly identical and clearly intended for convalescing patients; each room had a iron-frame bed with heavily starched white sheets, a metal rack with hangers for the patient’s clothes, and a single worn chair for visitors. The first of the closed doors they opened exposed them to a horrific sight: a halfling patient lay on the bed, his head burst open with a corona of blood splattered on the wall behind him. A creature sat on his chest, pecking at the body. The monster was apparently comprised of the halfling's own brain, which had grown tentacles and a beak before erupting from the poor man's skull.

Erron attempted to slam the door shut on this disturbing scene, but unfortunately wasn't quick enough and the thing leaped at the adventurers. In the ensuing battle, the creature attempted to pierce the flesh of its foes with barb-tipped tentacles while entrapping their limbs in its writhing appendages; both Traviata and Erron were left with scars from its attacks. Ultimately, Mortimer grappled the creature while Tobias blasted it into oblivion. After this vicious fight, the party took refuge in an unoccupied room to patch their wounds and catch their breath.

The other closed room also had a patient inside, but the tiefling man in this room was still alive--but clearly in pain. He proved to be Alphonse, the man that had been sent to deliver medicine to. They injected him with his medication, and he told them that he was being treated for a degenerative disease that rendered him unable to walk. He also revealed that he had been attacked by the brain-thing the party had killed, but it had wounded him; his wound was deep and still open. The party considered leaving the way they came in now that their job had been technically fulfilled, but Alphonse pleaded with them to find anyone else who was still alive in the clinic. He was especially interested in the welfare of Akiko Arthmore, one of Heigelman's apprentices who had been particularly kind to him.

The party went back to the tower chamber and sent Malphas down the stairs to discover what was in the room below. The first floor of the tower was the clinic's kitchen. A small, wooden table sat in the center of the room with four unmatched chairs surrounding it. There was a small black iron stove with a scuttle of coal beside it. On top of the stove was a large pot of oat porridge and two small pans in which surgical implements were being boiled--all cold now that the fire had died out. A rack near the stove held tin dinner trays and a can full of spoons, forks, and knives. The party went down the spiral stairs, crossed through this room and exited into the clinic's central building.

They crossed into the clinic's waiting room. It smelled of antiseptic cleaning products. Six rickety wooden chairs, a table piled with penny dreadfuls and old broadsheets, and a wooden counter serving as the reception desk made up the room's furnishings. The walls were decorated prints reminiscent of DaVinci’s Vetruvian Man, but they covered a range of physiognomies from human to orc, gnome, kenku, and lizardfolk. A door to the right led to the building’s extension wing, and there was an entrance to the staircase leading to the second floor.

The adventurers entered the extension wing and found themselves in the clinic's surgery. The walls were decorated with pages torn from anatomy text books--but again, non-human anatomy was heavily represented. The room also featured three rickety wooden chairs similar to the ones in the waiting room, a sink, cabinets containing medical supplies and drawers of medical implements, the door to a mechanical elevator, and a door with a glass pane set into it on the right.

The most noteworthy thing in the room was an old, iron-and-wood examination table upon which was the body of a trollkin male, his chested riddled with inch-diameter puncture wounds. The trollkin was clearly deceased; the party debated setting his corpse on fire just in case, but fear of causing a conflagration stopped them. There was also a wheelchair in the room, which the adventurers moved to the waiting room so they would have an easier time transporting Alphonse later. Peering through the glass pane set into the door revealed that there was a storage room beyond.

Deciding to leave the corpse on the operating table as they found it, the party explored the supply room. Racks and shelves cluttered the room. On them was a haphazard combination of glass vials, cardboard cases of syringes, surgical implements, and prosthetic limbs. A wooden door at the back of the room was open about two inches. Pushing the door open disclosed another storage room piled with debris such as waxen anatomical Venuses, stacks of old textbooks, and surgical reference charts. At the back of the room cowered a young water genasi woman wearing a white lab coat. She was shaking and clutched a scalpel in both hands. The party had found Akiko, apprentice to Dr. Heigelman, who kept insisting “We’re all gonna die in here!”

The party had no intention of dying in the clinic, of course. With Akiko in tow, they returned to the surgery, only to find that three large spider-like creatures with their eyes at the ends of articulated stalks had emerged from the trollkin's wounds. Erron's sleep spell took out one of the spiders immediately, but the other two proved to be difficult to handle; the spiders' poisonous bites were taking their toll on the party, but they pushed on in this desperate situation. The spiders disconcertingly cried out in the voices of children as the adventurers wounded them. This battle ended in much the same fashion as the previous one: Mortimer grappled a spider-thing while Tobias ended its wretched life with a bolt of magical force.

Having cleared the first floor, the part set foot in the basement of the clinic, where Akiko said that Dr. Heigelman had a private office. There was a large desk, carved with dwarven runes and kingly dwarven figures, down there. The dwarfs carved into the desk had been defaced with a sharp object. The paperwork from the desk's drawers had been reduced to ashes on the desk's surface. Worryingly, a trail of discarded clothes--pants, shirt, lab coat, shoes, cravat--lead to the back of the room, where a jagged hole rimmed in greenish, luminescent slime had been broken through the wall.

In their wounded and weary state after the melee with the spider-things, the party decided that whatever was beyond the wall was more than they wanted to deal with. They instead returned to Alphonse. Akiko pulled a wriggling green grub with a face full of tentacles from his wound; the grub was taken as evidence of what had befallen the clinic, along with the crushed body of a spider-thing and some tentacles from the brain-monster. The party, Akiko, and Alphonse ascended through the skylight and made their way back to the catwalk above the clinic. Glancing downward, they observed the white shrouded figures that had encircled the clinic now began to enter the clinic through the front door, single-file, until they had all disappeared inside.

Alphonse was handed over to Koska so that he might be returned to his family; clearly, he was going to need to seek treatment at a different institution. The monstrous remnants the party had collected were turned over to clerks from the Court of Wands, but given that all the Courts in Scarabae are burdened by bureaucracy and red tape the party got the sense that the Court of Wands was not particularly concerned about whatever had gone down inside the walls of the Heigelman Clinic.

XP: 387 each.

Coin: 148 gp each.

Items: Gold pocket watch with inset rubies (worth 40 gp).

Magic Items: 2 bottles of Dr. Mysterio's Invigorating Tonic (potions of greater healing); 1 jar (2 uses) of Keoghtom's ointment.

Lingering Injuries: Both Erron and Traviata have scars from the fight the brain-thing that will only disappear if they get healed by 6th level magic.