Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Legacy of a Name in a RPG

All memorable roleplaying stories need unforgettable antagonists. The characters will be nothing but hack n’ slashers if they aren’t opposed by vivid, convincing, multidimensional non-player characters. Every single RPG book highlights the importance of recurring villains, and how much flavor they can add to a story if their goals are a little more inventive than simply “I’m evil and I want to destroy everything for no specific reason”. Having the deceiving antagonist moving in the shadows, using his minions to thwart the characters’ actions, allowing him to escape a direct assault, to return later with additional power, is paramount in most long running games.
But what if the antagonist dies before the game master planned? We can simply shrug and make the next villain enter the scene, or we can grasp the opportunity to give birth to an enduring legacy.
Esra Nacros Logos was the name of a dwarf wizard. Notice how the phrase mentions was. Esra was killed in a mid-campaign battle with the heroes in a rather spectacular way. He had first encountered the group in the beginning of the campaign, when he was part of an invading force that had conquered the heroes’ city. When the players liberated the city they had a brief battle with Esra, from which both he and another dwarf escaped when defeat was obvious. The other dwarf was the typical brutish “I destroy everything with flames while spitting and cursing”. He wasn’t particularly impressive. Regarding Esra, he was a mage specialized in the school of Enchantment. Very polite, easily excitable when placed before new things or recent discoveries, and actually admiring some of the heroes despite their differences.
When Esra and the heroes met in battle again, thirteen game sessions later, he surprised them. Protected by an invisibility spell, he approached the group’s magician and tried to perform a feeblemind in him (a potent spell that reduces a character’s intelligence and charisma scores to the minimum, thus making spellcasters unable to cast spells). Esra actually whispered to his opponent “I deeply apologize for using such malevolent techniques in an esteemed arcane colleague”. But the hand of fate decided that such was not to be the flow of events. The hero saved against the spell, and having that exact same spell memorized, made Esra taste his own venom. At that exact same moment, having his invisibility compromised, and unable to communicate coherently, the dwarf mage was struck by a charging paladin, mounted in his pegasus. Completely helpless, Esra’s death arrived swiftly.
Now, I could simply say “That isn’t much of a problem. In a world with access to magic I can easily resurrect him.” Well, I did so once, and the players almost severed my head. Players hate to be deprived of their ultimate victories. I was disappointed with Esra’s premature death, but his fate was sealed.
Then, lightning struck! Although the character was dead, his name need not be discarded into the pile of “victims of the heroes’ cleaver”. Esra was a cherished hero for his people. Why not put his corpse to rest in a mausoleum? In ancient times, monuments like mausoleums would take years, sometimes a lifetime, to be built. But in an adventuring world with access to magic, they can be constructed in a matter of hours. And the mausoleum can be a point of interest for countless things. It can be a landmark, a place of holy pilgrimage, a future dungeon filled with the undead to be explored by a new party of adventurers in a generation to come.
What about Esra’s spellbook? It was taken by the party magician when the enchanter died. Can it be understood as a kind of Holy Grail from the dwarves’ perspective? Will it draw countless hordes of young adventuring dwarves willing to go on a crusade to recover the artifact?
Let us not forget about Esra’s family. They will most likely want revenge. He may be dead, but his siblings, apprentices, kinsmen, live on.
Names in a story play a larger-than-life role. They can be the foundation of lore and legends. The most rewarding aspect in a roleplaying game is the continuing collective story building. It falls in the hands of each group member (both game master and players) to give meaning to the key elements. Won’t it be astonishingly breathtaking if some years from now a new player looks to the map and asks: “What is this Esra’s Mausoleum signaled in the map?” And suddenly the other players’ eyes start glimmering…

Note: the image above is a portrayal of Drizzt Do’Urden and his black panther by artist Jeff Easley. It depicts one of the most iconic names/characters in fantasy roleplaying games, created by author R. A. Salvatore for a series of novels in the “Forgotten Realms” setting (part of Dungeons & Dragons).

Monday, 27 October 2014

Session II.17 – I killed a dragon with a crit, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

Although last session was very good, it was also an example of everything that can be wrong with D&D. Especially at high level.
The party had an unexpected encounter with an adult white dragon, mounted by a necromancer. Just the phrase itself transpires of “awesome”, but mechanically I have to say it was far from that. First and foremost, when you reach a level where you can have fast paced air battles, it means the grid becomes useless. It’s a big headache for a DM to keep track of “who is where”. With a dragon flying at 200 ft per round, and a pegasus at 120 ft, even if the mage wasn’t knocked out at the beginning of the combat, there wouldn’t be much the other members could do.
But “the mage being knocked out” is actually the real problem in all of this. As a DM I hate to use resources (spells, abilities, whatever) that throw the characters away from the game. I always disliked “save or die” spells, as well as “lock and don’t blink”. And the problem with most D&D magic is exactly that. Either you:
a) just cast fireball after fireball;
b) use something you know is harmless, and therefore pointless;
c) drop an A-bomb that automatically calls for “Strike! You’re out of the game”.
It’s not possible to house rule this reality, because it would mean having to change all the spells one by one, probably rending most of them useless.

Philosophical problems aside, I’m having a blast portraying the changes in behavior of the pegasus while roaming in draconic territory. “Let me eat this. Let me eat that. What does it taste like?” MOST. EPIC. ANIMAL. COMPANION. EVER! =D

Session Chronicle: link

Monday, 20 October 2014

Session II.16 – Feeblemind me once, shame on you! Feeblemind me twice…

Alas, this poor dungeon master is sad, for the gentle Esra lies dead! :’(
Oh treachery! Oh villainy!
Esra was the only NPC I actually thought somewhat decently developed in the current campaign, since most others tend toward linearity. And now he’s dead. I haven’t had the opportunity so far to make good NPCs in the present story, and Esra was my “champion”. The lawful neutral enchanter always puzzled by all the interesting things around him, extremely polite, and with a sincere respect for his arcane colleague - albeit enemy - Thorkron. My intention was to keep him hidden, only to perform Feeblemind in Thorkron and fade away, thus complicating the escape from the pyramid. At least his dismissal was, storywise, magnificent! Thorkron saved twice against Feeblemind, and then Esra succumbed to Thorkron’s own Feeblemind. He died on his knees, drooling, asking mercy from an all-evil dracopegasus that tore his head apart. And that’s how you kill the PC’s antagonist. ;)
Regarding the rest of the session, I’m rediscovering why I hate playing D&D at higher levels. When an entire party is able to become invisible and roam freely, being able to teleport away if anything goes bad, roleplay is over. Combining those actions simply kills any chances to use any kind of skills, planning, etc. Either the DM has to metagame and have most enemies be ready with “all the spells” that render those actions useless (which is something I don’t enjoy doing), or the rest of the game bogs down to simply not challenging. High level magic in D&D pretty much tears “role” away from “play”. Being able to dominate person and have a mid-level paladin become a by-your-command toy for ELEVEN DAYS is excessive and ridiculous. Also, you can give the orders telepathically, without the need to actually talk to the victim as we were doing. And to make things even more idiotic: Once control is established, the range at which it can be exercised is unlimited, as long as you and the subject are on the same plane. You need not see the subject to control it. So, basically, anyone can stay at home drinking tea and have any target wreak havoc anywhere “just because”… I can’t even begin to understand how the game authors thought this was “fun” for a story-building game.
Just to be clear: I’m not criticizing Emanuel’s playing. He simply used the tools his character had, and I even think this opportunity in particular can be quite interesting for our story. But what exactly stops him from teleporting back to dwarven territory and keep dominating key-NPCs to disrupt everything he wishes, while remaining at Castro Quimera having tea with his dearest friend McGuinness? And what prevents the DM to make the exact same things to counter all the game-changing actions performed by the characters? The description of the spell is so vague that any smart player can make anything happen. “Just sit on that rock and wait for my return”. Ooops, I’m not planning to return, so let’s just see you sitting motionless for 10 days, and watch you die from thirst or starvation. “Hey! I’m not telling the NPC to do anything AGAINST his nature!”
Just out of curiosity, I took the time to see how the spell had been inserted in D&D 5th edition. The difference? It lasts ONE minute. At the highest possible casting level you can control a creature for 8 hours. It’s slightly different from 11 days… I guess WotC learned the lesson.

Session Chronicle: link

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Lost Mine of Phandelver

WARNING: The following article contains material from “The Lost Mine of Phandelver”, which is an official module from D&D 5th edition. If you’re planning on playing it, stop reading NOW! Otherwise, the nice fellow below will eat you.

So we played one more session of D&D 5. This time I went with a gnome Wizard, charlatan extraordinaire, named Baccardi Riga The Third, supposedly the grandnephew of an important archduke. I spent most of the session lying with every tooth in my mouth, which is basically what I regularly do as a DM…
The game was very nice, with the DM allowing us to roam freely and do everything we wanted, without restraints. We even got a round of ale paid by dwarven miners! We were lucky and followed the most direct route to the Big Bad Evil Guy, which wasn’t that bad, or big, or evil, after all. The party was branded “Masters of the Divine Fire”, because the dwarven cleric kept praying to help our rolls, and both I and the druid played with fire spells (although my gnome uses mainly non-aggressive spells, but how can you resist a cantrip that does 1d10 fire damage?). Besides, there is another party member which is a paladin of Sune, the goddess commonly known as “Lady Firehair”. Therefore, it is impossible to gather more divine fire in a single party. As to the “Masters”… Well, like I said, I lie with every tooth…
I secretly believe the druid is chaotic evil – he caught a rat and tried to roast it with a flame from his hand. I secretly also believe the cleric is chaotic evil – he wanted to allow the nothic (the nice guy pictured above) to eat the big bad evil guy alive. Sooooo, yeah… the paladin is going to have a great time, surrounded by a deceptive, lying, lunatic, flamboyant gnome, and those two nice fellows.

 (click to enlarge)