Friday, September 10, 2010

Evil Unnumbered

Pekka and Reesk, a couple of kobold Dragonshields, did not wake up this morning to die. They woke up this morning, like every morning, to live. To survive another day. They grew up in their den close to one another, brothers, and so watched over one another as best they could. They are not humans and so insight into their relationships with the rest of their clutch or clan or pod, and how they view the world, and what they think when one of their young dies, are all difficult to assess. But they did not grow up carefully following the Evil Handbook of Evil for Evil Doers to fulfill a role of being worth 25 XP apiece to someone. They have their own ambitions, their own wants, even if these seem limited and unimaginative to the civilized races. Most importantly to our purposes here: they do not act, smell, look, dress, move or talk the exact same way any more than cats, people or old cars do.

In short, they have no idea that they are a collection of numbers designed to be a temporary obstacle to the winning team.

Karl the evil cleric was once a little boy with his own family and his own dreams. Somewhere along the way – maybe at a young age, maybe recently – he turned to the world of necrotic energies and demons. But he has a history, a narrative. He has good days and bad ones. He has laughed without malice, cried for someone other than himself, felt the range of human emotion. He is intelligent, and like the brothers above does not want to die. He is also unaware that he is a collection of numbers from a grid.

Skaarna Elezinst Ssythindrir Atta’ask has been alive for centuries, has seen more from soaring above ice caps and forests, castles and fields, than most every creature on her world. An ancient white dragon, she exudes vast power to match her intellect, her lifespan, her unknowable ambitions. Yes, her overweening confidence has brought her low before, but she does not get herself killed because she is too smart for that. Like Karl and the kobolds*, she has a history, a name, a story.

They are the opponents our parties strive against when we unpack our dice. To some players, they are the groups of numbers that their characters’ numbers must defeat so that they can get a hold of better numbers. But this isn’t a video game, those closed worlds of pixels where everything is fixed – plot, monsters, NPCs, environments, even your own character – all static, all coded. Choices are there illusory and extremely limited. But the graphics are cool, the sounds are pretty, and occasionally the story – unalterable as it is – is compelling.

The worlds of FRPs are something else, though. They are living entities where anything can happen. Picture an encounter with, say, a pack of goblins. In a video game, they have assigned roles, hit points, programmed strategies. It is a throw-away fight for treasure and XP. Perhaps the battle is fun but it is the enjoyment of reflexes, not imagination. Six goblins up; six down, each with identical tactics, hit points, appearance, weapons and behavior.

But what if each one had a quirk, like facing north at all costs during a fight or listening to a bird claw he kept in his off hand for combat advice or had a peg leg or peed on the character while battling or just really really did not want to die? What if each goblin had a slightly different reason for being there? What if each one had a name?

Then you don't have a group of people fiddling with numbers all evening. What you have there is a story.

And that is, I think, what it’s all about.

Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom.

Cranky Druid, a.k.a.
Verdre Aspianne, CEO
Dead Stay Dead, Inc.

Stamp out mediocrity: DM intelligently.

* “Karl and the Kobolds” would make a GREAT band name.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Kobolds Don't Carry Cash

When was the last time a troll gave you change? Probably never. There are a lot of reasons for this: their inner child leans ungenerous, and they have a propensity for eating the flesh of their trading partners. But the main one is that trolls do not actually have any money. They do not roll off Benjamins or dispense euros from little purses. They do not have any use for the gold, silver, or copper coinage that are the backbone of human and human-like governments of fantasy worlds.

Coins are imprinted with a recognized insignia of a government or a merchant coalition or a guild. People use them not because they are inherently useful (they aren't) but because they represent fixed amounts concentrated in small, mobile, durable items. A big improvement over bartering, but to trade with coins, you must have trust in the group who issued them. This is very important.

(As an aside, we are talking coins here: gold and silver pieces are not tiny ingots of pure gold or silver, though even if they were, they would still be worthless to primitive humanoids as precious metals are mere adornments to swords, spears, shield and armor.)

The tribes of primitives roaming lands of fantasy share a bunch of traits: they are decentralized; they do not trade peacefully with the civilized folk (an orc will not show up in a city to buy produce with human money largely because she would be attacked or at least denied entry); they are cunning but not smart or organized in major, found-a-civilization ways. They are rather like homicidal cavemen.

And they do not recognize human-like governments’ worthless little scraps of metal coinage.

So when your party stumbles on a hobgoblin slave caravan or is ambushed by a clutch of ravening bugbears and you slay these bad boys, why are they invariably carrying human-issued government coinage? Do they have passports too? How about lines of credit?

Kobolds, orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, demons, lizardmen, dogmen, catmen, birdmen, boogeymen and all the other primitives DO NOT CARRY CASH. Maybe a gem or two because they are sparkly or bring “good luck” or whatever, but that's all, because they are already carrying food, weapons, tools, bits of metals that could be smelted into weapon-grade hard metals, talismans for luck, insignias for clan or deity loyalty, protective clothing and armor, and of course skulls and other trophies from successes. Don't make these poor creatures ferry around human money, too.

Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom.

Cranky Druid, a.k.a.
Verdre Aspianne, CEO
Dead Stay Dead, Inc.

Stamp out mediocrity: DM intelligently.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Dead Are Dead

Cranky Druid here with the first post of Dead Stay Dead, tackling some of the bad ideas in fantasy role-play gaming. There are a lot of ‘em out there, so let’s get started. In our sites today is zombies. Stop using them, because they make no sense.

What? But zombies are sacred to gaming! And there are zombie novels and movies and avoidance guides and muffins and . . . you speak heresy!

Try this on: in a world that expects zombies, there wouldn't be any. Zombies and their rotting kin in a fantasy world should bother a population exactly once and then never be seen again in any great number. Stupid, slow, smelly: their sole advantage is surprise. The day they crawl out of their graves is the last day anyone is burying dead people. Run into a walking corpse and every major culture incinerates its deceased starting that very morning. People do not want to parlay with their smelly and invariably hostile forefathers, so annihilating the body post-mortem becomes de rigour, incorporated into tradition overnight. That means no more ghouls, ghasts, skeletons or mummies troubling the living (who frankly have enough to worry about eking out a living in these overtly dangerous fantasy worlds). Spirits? OK, sure. An occasional chittering warrior awakened by a cult? No problem, we can be down with that. But randomly finding zombies attacking a town from its little cemetery or shuffling around dungeons is a big ‘ole FAIL, of both reason and imagination.

The worst case I’ve seen so far is the D&D 4e module Keep on the Shadowfel. According to that adventure’s history, when the place was still running as an active, populated citadel, a horde of clerics was employed to keep the corpses of their brethren down in the face of perpetual encouragement to the contrary from a nearby rift. When the clerics eventually went away, the corpses popped up and stayed up.

So who was paying these clerics? Who was buying their clothes, their food, their books, ritual supplies not to mention seeing to their defenses, maintenance of the grounds and everything else they would need to live in a remote keep? And all to keep corpses snoozing. Someone’s going to think, “Hey, there’s a low cost alternative available: harness people who can can start fires.” That’s unskilled labor right there: no pensions or insurance loads on the ‘ole payroll department.

Government money comes from taxes, and leaders are going to be receptive to saving gold and manpower in going with a cheap, perfect solution. This is not even mentioning lost tourism dollars from threat of zombie apocalypse. Also, not to pile on against a truly terrible idea, but these people built this fortress here because there was a rift to a plane whose mere proximity activates dead bodies. So they knew what to expect, and they buried the bodies of their kin, right there, anyway.

What I’m saying is: no, they didn’t.

Because even if there’s infinite money to station a major god’s full complement of clerics here to do this one stupid, everlasting, completely thankless task, the whole concept fails from a societal point of view. People die. Everyone knows this but it’s horrible anyway. The only thing worse than burying a beloved friend or relative, though, is fighting her again later. A few tussles with maggot-infested Grammy-grams and her zombified terrier Patches, and whatever misguided resistance any family might have put up at the thought of a blazing permanent solution will flit away like dandelion seeds on the wind. Burning the bodies will be not merely the preferred approach but the strictly required one.

So use the undead sparingly, and if there are walking corpses in whatever guise, there should be a real back story behind it, something clever or weird or exciting or even humorous. Don’t throw reanimated rotters in there without thought because people don’t behave this way.

Anyway, thanks for reading all the way to the bottom.

Cranky Druid, a.k.a.
Verdre Aspianne, CEO
Dead Stay Dead, Inc.

Stamp out mediocrity: DM intelligently.