Capturing Villains

Sorry for the late post this week. I was out on Isle Royale with no phone or internet service. Hopefully I’ll have some good gaming stories for that soon.

In my game, we joke that the party is basically a murdering machine… we roam the countryside and massacre evil-doers. In the real world, vigilantes can’t just go around executing people. Even in movies and books, there are generally few lethal fights. Sometimes the bad guys go scurrying off, permanently defeated. Othertimes the villains are tied up and left for the nearby and incorruptible authorities to pick up.

When my group feels sympathetic towards the last standing enemy, instead of killing him, we tend to make them forswear villainy and set them up to be a reformed community member. But generally we choose to kill him to save the hassle.

What I want to try is next time we know we’re going after the bad guys, is to notify the good and trustworthy constable so we have backup to arrest and cart away the bad guys after we’re done. That way we can be heroic without having to deal with the logistics of prisoners.

We actually did this once during Keep On The Shadowfell and it worked out pretty well, although I think the DM was annoyed that we brought along a half dozen NPCs into the dungeon.

Another neat thing would be to create an item or ritual that we can use on defeat bad guys to transport them directly to our campaign’s Azkaban or Arkham Asylum. We don’t know about such a place yet, but it sounds like a great adventure location.

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Deepest, Darkest Fears

Sarah Darkmagic just got back from Gen Con with a crate of swag.  When your DM gets new material, it is an occasion of concern for any player. This event combined dangerously with a simple innocuous email she sent out my fellow players: “Can you please send me your characters worst nightmares?” Now I’m suspicious about what she has planned. My guess is our campaign is headed for some sort of abyssal/madness encounters with sanity-eating monsters. Or maybe just some heavy shadowfell and fear themes. Or maybe these questions are just about adding depth to characters. (Yeah, I don’t buy it either).

This question isn’t one I’ve previously answered for my character. There are two interpretations of “worst nightmare” that could answer her question; its usefulness depending on which direction the campaign is going. The first is a literal nightmare. I’m talking about scary dreams that might involve being chased, falling, being trapped, etc. Nightmares tend to have common themes for people, but vary in specifics. In particular it’s common for fantasy characters to have reoccurring nightmares. These can vary from being chased and captured by a blue dragon out in the Misty Mountains, or seeing your homeland ravaged by savage orcs.

Since my character is a Tiefling, I imagine his nightmare are more demonic in nature. He probably dreams of being captured and tortured by Dispater for not being evil enough and failing to terrorize the material plane.

A more colloquial interpretation of “worst nightmare” is an intellectual fear. These could be being trapped in an elevator with an annoying coworker, being asked to campaign for a political rival, or having your spouse find out you’ve been lying about your identity all this time. These aren’t nightmares per se, but this kind of very personalized anxiety can be just as powerful in a role playing situation.

My character is a Psion and his identity and source of power comes from his incredible intelligence and telepathic abilities. Being stripped of his mental faculties is a big fear of his, and he’d probably turn tail and flee from a mind flayer when he might stand up to a powerful dragon or devil. He’s also a little egotistical so a worse fate than being rendered stupid (which he might then be too dumb to realize) is being treated as if he were. A big irrational fear of his is being trapped by some kind of playground conspiracy where everyone pretends like he’s an idiot and won’t admit to it. That’d drive anyone nuts.

Fears may not be a traditional aspect of character generation, but a good one to think about when fleshing out a well-developed person to be your PC. Any good suggestions for nightmares for my Tiefling Psion or for your own characters?

5 Cards to a Deeper Character

I heard an idea a long time ago and I’m wondering if anyone has every tried something similar.  Take 5 random images, magic cards, quotes, book titles, etc and use those as inspiration for a character’s back story. For the next campaign I want to run, I was thinking of providing 5 random magic cards to each of the players to help them with a back-story. For instance, if the card is a soldier, the character could have a military background, been an army brat, could come from a land under occupation, always wanted to be a soldier but didn’t have the health or discipline, etc.

For an example, here are five magic cards randomly selected from a box in my attic. The nice thing about these cards is that in addition to an evocative name, it also has artwork and usually flavor text that can contribute ideas. Before I start, my initial character concept is a Halfling Monk that was adopted by the monastic order and is adventuring to find his true parents.

  • Sea Serpent. Since I’m building a Monk, I think I’ll equip him with a Cobra Strike Ki Focus [DDI] item. I’ll “reskin” it to be a Sea-Serpent Strike Focus. Instead of being made from clay, it’ll be made from the bones a Sea Serpent he helped hunt in his training.
  • Island. This is fortuitously combined with the last card. The monastery where  was raised was on an Island. Dealing with sea creatures was part and parcel of their order.
  • Unsummon. What’s with all the blue cards? I don’t feel like adding some sort of summoner to my character’s past, but the picture on the card looks like a guy in a dark cloak being surprised by an armored demon appearing before him (I think it’s actually supposed to be disappearing). So I’m adding to the Monk’s past an apparition of a demon army. Even though his quest is to find out who his parents are, in the back of his mind he’s worried about when this army might appear and how he might help prepare the world for this event.
  • Mons’s Goblin Raiders. Goblin raiders are pretty easy to work with. For my character I might add that the Monastery was attacked and destroyed by goblin raiders; the loss of the home is what set him journeying. Unfortunately this feels like too many items for a backstory, so I’m not actually going to include it.
  • Dwarven Warriors. This a great card, although with a high mana cost for a 1/1. Anyway… the first adventure my halfling ran into was with a group of Dwarfs. He helped them with a few battles, but couldn’t stop helping himself to more than his fair share of the treasure and so had to leave quickly…

As you can see, this is a great way to come up with some character inspiration, and is especially good if you get “Adventurer’s Block” or feel like everything has been tried too many times. This is probably also a good way to come up with adventurer’s hooks.  Any other good ideas for random inspiration?

Over-Outsmarting the Villians

This week I wrote a post on RPG Musings on how to set up an “outsmart the villains” scenario. If I carry my own thoughts to next level, then presumably a smart enough villain should be able to out-out-smart the heroes. This means the players would want to out-out-out-smart the bad guy, and so on. We could wind up with dizzying logic only Vizzini (from The Princess Bride) could follow:

But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Basically, what I want to know is: “what happens when metagaming leads to paranoia?”

Let’s say you tried out to outsmart some villians you’re chasing with an ambush, but they did not arrive at the prescribed time. Did you get the time wrong and they haven’t arrived yet, or did they arrive too early? Or, did they find out about your plans and have gone around you? Or do they have an even more sinister ambush planned for you?

This kind of thinking can be detrimental in real life and causes analysis paralysis in-game (for a good article on that, see Sarah Darkmagic’s Like a Deer in the Headlights). Basically, you can make yourself nuts trying to anticipate every move of your opponents or by trying to counter moves that may or may not be real.

What are the players supposed to do with an uncertain escalation? I always recommend using two principles: Occam’s Razor and KISS (the principle, not the band). That is keep your assumptions and plans as simple and flexible as possible.  Unless you have evidence to the contrary, don’t assume that the bad guys have you trapped in some kind of meta-puzzle of outmaneuvers, instead just track him down and beat him up. Problem solved.

…by the way, if you have KISS (the band) on your side, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a win.

The 3rd Amendment and Your Character

The 3rd Amendment to the US Constitution states:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

It makes me wonder what the conditions must have been like in colonial America that this protection was important enough to be third on the Bill of Rights. And more importantly, I wonder how those conditions relate to our fantasy worlds. Since the standard D&D world draws a lot from the Middle Ages, it’s plausible that quartering troops in people’s homes is a regular practice.

Since D&D characters often act as mercenaries or direct agents of a lawful authority (church, king, baron, etc), they might be the “Soliders” discussed in the amendemnt. To me, that implies in a pre-3rd Amendement world, when acting as lawful agents, PCs can demand food and shelter from citizens. That is a great way for PCs  to save the 5sp for a night in an inn’s common room and get a hot meal to boot.

As a bonus to the characters, if a homeowner is going to let you sleep in his barn or guest room, he’ll probably roll over if you requisition his horse, weapons, or other goods needed in pursuit of your service. After all, who is he going to complain to? You’re working for the authorities. (It might be interesting to try this in a land where your organization is not recognized or treated with hostility).

On the flip-side, PCs may be asked (or required) to provide accommodation for NPCs, especially for those higher ranking in the characters’ organizations. This could mean giving up their rooms at the inn all the way to turning over magical gear! When that happens, your characters should begrudgingly give them over and then you should remind your DM at every opportunity that he owes you one!

How Do You Know Each Other?

Getting a campaign underway can be tricky. A party that doesn’t use a group template, is prone to the awkward moment where the characters all have to describe themselves and the players have to manufacture reasons why all the characters are going to immediately start trusting each other with their lives. In a recent game, the GM (Quinn from at-will)  started the game using a compromise between hand-waving the introduction and making us create the characters together with a common background. In our game he paired up the players and declared that each pair of characters comes into the game already working with each other. From here, the GM asked us to answer the question “How do you know each other?”

This was tricky for me because I was caught off-guard by exercise at I did not know the other player or anything about his character. Because I was playing a Paladin that hated city folk and my partner’s character was a Druid, we came up with a common story that the two had teamed up to save some forests and were now looking for a new challenge. Unfortunately it turned into a veneer of a backstory; after playing for awhile, we found the two characters at opposite ends of every discussion, but not in a cute odd-couple kind of way. Despite it not working out too well for me (it did for some of the other pairs), the question still sticks out for me as a good way to think about party development.

I think it’s worth it to start a campaign considering that some or all of the characters know each other. In particular if you haven’t all constructed elaborate individual histories, this is a great way to communally fill in back story and provide a starting point if you have player’s block and can’t think of something. It’s also worthwhile to work with your GM on how you might already know some NPCs. I’ve played in campaigns where the GM told everyone to come up with two or three “contacts” that the character knows and can go to for information, advice, or patronage.

To summarize, Mike’s Advice:

  • Ask yourself and one or more players: “How do your characters know each other?”

What Do You Do? – Keywords

“What do you do?” I am often caught off-guard when I get asked this question, mostly because I play in games that are heavier in action than role playing. When I have to quickly answer, I come up with something like “I smack the goblin upside the head with my staff for 14 damage,” or “peering into the wisp’s soul, I send it visions of its worst nightmares for 14 damage.” After this action is resolved, I spend the next few moments thinking that my response was good enough for the level of role-play, it was not satisfying to my inner thespian. If only I had some more time to come up with something better…

I’m going to use this out of game time to come up with some ideas of what I can describe in the moment, or at least how to modify my attack description to make it more colorful. For the sake of applicability, these suggestions are going to be pretty general, and may be obvious, but it’ll be good for me (and hopefully you) to have it all in one place.

The first way I am going to tackle this problem is coming up with some quick description for damage keywords. Many of my attacks have some kind of keyword associated with the damage. Here are some of the iconic things about the damage types that come to my mind, and how it might be used in combat description:

  • Acid. When I think of an acid attack, I think of those spitting dinosaurs from Jurrasic Park. Acid attacks evoke some kind of sizzling, hissing ooze. When an acid attack hits, I’d describe it as “[attack] sizzles through the [target]’s armor, staining the hole brown, and causing his skin to blister and bubble.” Pretty gruesome to be sure, but it’s a freakin’ acid attack! When the attack misses, I could imagine describing the acid landing on the stones, causing it to hiss and give off an acrid smoke.
  • Cold. I imagine cold attacks to cover the delivery device and the target in frost, freezing liquids, and turning appendages blue or white. For descriptive purposes, the area around the target could become slippery (non-game effect) with ice.
  • Fire. Fire attacks are among the most iconic and most frequent in previous editions. These are your flaming swords and fireballs. I describe ranged fire attacks as jets of flame, and targets that can combust, blacken, and smoke. Nearby objects might turn to cinders. In addition to the heat, there’s likely to be light given off as well. For example, when using a wand of fireballs: “The tip of the wand turns bright white, looking at it is like staring into a forge, with the air around it shimmering with heat. Once it reaches critical temperature, flames shoot forth and land 5 squares away in an explosion of rolling heat and smoke for fifty points of fire damage.”
  • Force. I like to visualize force attacks as invisible walls or giant hammers knocking into things. Although forced movement can be described as a linear push, I sometimes mix it up with some Magneto-like flinging people through the air. Force attacks not only push and throw, but can also crush, grind, or rip enemies and objects.
  • Lighting. Lighting/electrical is my second favorite damage keyword. These attacks focus the power of storms. In fact when visualize a lightning attack, I think of Storm from X-Men: “the air grows cold and dark, the wind picks up from nowhere, and lighting gathers from the suddenly formed clouds and streaks down….”
  • Necrotic. Necrotic attacks are attacks of death and decay. These cause flesh to blacken and puss, and other living things to wither and melt. I like to visualize necrotic attacks as black wispy tendrils that leave destruction in their wake.
  • Poison. Poison is generally heaped on top of a physical attack and its hard to describe. For a poison indicator, you can describe a wound as one that doesn’t clot, or that the target’s veins become large and green, like the old dude on last week’s Dr. Who.
  • Psychic. There’s not likely to be any physical sign of this attack, other than the expression on the target’s face. When describing psychic attacks I like to describe a physical attack occurring either in or to the target’s mind. As described in my opening, sometimes I describe psychic attacks, especially fear ones, as creating a horrific image or scary scenario in the target’s mind.
  • Radiant. Radiant are your holy light attacks. I like think of giant sunbursts or big ropey strings of light, like a proton pack from The Ghostbusters.
  • Thunder. Thunder seems a little extraneous with both lightning and force, but I understand that it’s its own thing. I want to imagine a bright yellow Guile-style Sonic Boom attack, but my guess is that these attacks come with a loud clap and perhaps rolling waves of air. I would think nearby objects, especially if glass or crystal, might shatter, and cracks could appear in armor or walls. A particularly powerful thunder attack would likely cause the target’s ears to bleed.

Did I miss any damage types? How do you describe the keywords used by your attacks? Have you had any memorable experiences with these keywords?