Sunday 17 March 2013

I'm an Experiential Player

All this talk about PC death and how players take it got me thinking about a Role-Playing Game's endgame.  How a player relates to the death of their character is closely tied to what they see as their goal in the game.

Power-Accumulation Play

Many players see their main goal as being to amass power for their character.  This takes the form of game-mechanic bonuses, wealth, and political power within the game world.  Winning at DnD means powering-up your character.

To a player with this approach, character death is devastating.  When their PC dies, they must essentially start from scratch.  It's no wonder that so many rules(conveniently listed here) have been used to prevent PC death or at least soften the blow.

In this mode of play, the player doesn't concern himself with long term in-game goals(though the PC may, of course).  Instead the player's main focus is on the experience of the current session.  To wander Hyperborea like Conan, or survive by the seat of his pants like Cugel, for a few short hours.

To this player, PC death is, at worst, a minor setback.  A new character can be rolled-up and the fun can continue.  In some cases, character death can even be the ultimate victory(as was the case with Amaruq), more worthy than collecting some arbitrary number of experience points.

In fact, it's the very fact that the game allows him to play dice with death, that this player loves about RPGs.  The chance that the Rust Monster may eat his magic sword is terrifying, but that's part of the excitement of the game and even if it actually does eat his sword it's not going to ruin the player's day.

Why I'm an Experiential Player

As I mention in the title, I, for the most part, fall into the Experiential box. One could definitely argue that DnD takes the Power-Accumulation approach.  The most obvious proof of this is ODnD's Endgame, where the PC establishes their own Barony and becomes a petty lord(although Delta claims that it never really existed).  Another proof is the publication of rules for ever-higher levels, ending with the Immortal Rules.  The implicit goal is that players will want to keep levelling-up their character until they reach "Immortality".  That's fair enough.  I accept that DnD has a well established tradition of Power-Acquisition Play. But now, as I get older, having a character who reached level whatever just doesn't seem so important.  I don't play to gain a sense of accomplishment.  I play to have adventures, to solve puzzles, and to just plain have fun with my friends. One could argue that levels don't interest me that much because I don't play often enough to really advance a PC that far.  That may be true.  But I think it's more than that.  RPG's are different than traditional games.  They are, by nature, an open-ended sort of game--not having a defined goal or a natural end.  Maybe, as wargamers, Gygax and Arneson felt the need to define a winning-condition for the game.  For my part, I'm happy to live in the moment and enjoy each session in it's own right.

Thursday 14 March 2013

The Pool of Kalem-Ra

The following material was recently submitted to Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque contest.

Chapter XXV: Descent into the Purgatorial Pool of Kalem-Ra(Billy Billerson)

As Count Mircea fired-off his final pistol, the last of the creatures fell down sputtering blood, a fist-sized hole in its bony back.  The Count looked to his other companions.

Ludovico stood, languid as ever, near Cassandra's prone and lifeless body.  In his hand, the servant held a rather intricately inscribed war-axe, evidently borrowed from the Trophy Room.  He delicately extracted a handkerchief to clean the gore from the family heirloom.  A few days ago the man may have wiped it so to clean it of the accumulated dust of generations, the Count mused.

As for the two yokels hired as guides, the older was tending to his grandson's wound.  One of the monsters had apparently gotten past the youth's prodigious pitchfork and given him a nasty gash in the shoulder.

The Count sheathed his blade and began to reload his pistols one brace at a time.

"Tis but a wee bit further." stated the elder yokel, having finished, stuffing the leftover bandage into his pack.

And indeed it was.  Another minute's windings and the curious party entered a high-ceilinged cave with a pool at the center.  Encompassing the pool was a short stone border, an imperfect rectangle a bit larger than a coffin, and from its murky waters emanated a strange light which illuminated the whole cavern dimly.

"This is it, then?" asked the Count dubiously, examining the strange hieroglyphs along the pool's border.

"Aye.  What are ye waiting for?" said the old man, impatiently.  With that, the Count and Ludovico lowered sweet Cassandra's body, beautiful even in death, into the waters.  It sunk slowly into the cloudy depths, disappearing almost immediately.

"What now?" asked the Count, it being his turn for impatience.

"Now we must wait." replied the old man.  "But be on your guard.  Those who return from the pool are rarely unchanged, and rarely for the good."

"Yes, yes.  You have already warned me so.  I will welcome my dear Cassandra back in any guise." said the Count edgily.

To this the old man did not reply, though he tapped nervously with his shillelagh.

And so they waited.

Suddenly, the water stirred.  As the four stepped closer for a better look, a brow broke the surface, then a dripping head, and then Cassandra stepped silently from the pool.

"Changed indeed!" though the Count.  "If anything, she is more beautiful now than before her untimely death!" he thought.

He approached her cautiously as she stood there, as still as a statue.  But when she turned and smiled at him he couldn't hold back any more, moving to embrace her, a smile of joy on his face.  But, as their eyes met he stopped dead, as if struck by a thunderbolt!  No!  Something wasn't right!  This was NOT HIS CASSANDRA!

"Who or WHAT are you?" the Count asked warily, backing away, his voice trembling slightly.

She continued to smile, that same classic smile, worn of old by the Sphinx having just asked her riddle.

The Pool of Kalem-Ra

The Pool of Kalem-Ra is rumored to exist within the maze-like cave complex under Mount Takoho. The pool is know for its ability to return the dead to life. If the tales are true, many a bereaved loved one has sought out the pool. Few have found it, fewer still have been happy they did.

Roll 1d10 to determine the effect of the pool on a body.

  1. As Good as New- Character returns to life as they were before dying
  2. Something Different- Alignment changed(determine randomly)
  3. Not the Man I Used to Be- Lose 1d6 from random ability score
  4. A Shade of His Former Self- lose 1d3 from all ability scores
  5. Wisdom from Beyond the Grave- character returns  with Wisdom 20, but is emotionally detached from these "frail mortals".  Alignment true neutral.  No longer gains XP from acquired treasure, instead by acquiring esoteric knowledge.
  6. Reincarnated- Character returns in another body(1-Invertebrate, 2-Fish, 3-Bird, 4-Reptile, 5-Amphibian, 6-Mammal, 7-Random Humanoid, 8-Random Monster)
  7. Mix-Up at the Soul Factory- a different soul comes back in the body(roll-up random character characteristics or pick someone funny)
  8. Walking Corpse- Character returns to life but their body is just as decomposed as before.  For every week they were dead, CON is reduced by 1d3-1, CHR by 1d4(to a minimum of 1).  Body continues to decompose at same rate until CON reaches 0, when character dies.  When CON drops below 3, can no longer talk, can only make a wet slurping noise.  Normal healing and healing magic does not stop this decomposition.  On the plus-side, they are immune to pain and cannot bleed to death, so they can fight-on until -10HP.
  9. Pet Sematary- Character returns possessed by the spirit of a homicidal Wendigo
  10. Undead- Character returns as random type of undead(powerful characters should roll for powerful undead, weak characters should roll for weaker undead types)

Mother Hippolita

The following material was recently submitted to Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque contest

Chapter XXII: Strange Incidents Amidst the Broken Ossuary

At last they had arrived.  A compact stone vault with a heavy portal marked the entrance to the Mircea Family Mausoleum. The main body of the structure could be seen stretching out into the dark, protruding but a couple feet from the ground, like the hulk of some great reptile sprawled out across these funereal grounds.  In places the roof had collapsed, its slow but definitive decay mirroring that of its occupants' line. After a minute's work with the heavy prybar, Ludovico had the door open and the lantern lit.

The portal quickly swallowed the thin form of Count Mircea as he descended the stairs into the main body of the mausoleum, leaving his servant to await his return.  He soon found himself treading a path between the silent biers, working his way back further and further amidst his family's generations.  His father had not been buried here.  He had been an optimist, hoping to overcome the family's lot through pure will of character.  Well, for all his energetic enthusiasm, the inauguration of the new family burial plot had been the only change to leave any lasting mark.  The young Count was much more the pragmatist than his father.  You cannot change where you come from--best to reconcile yourself to it.  But then that's why he was here now, wasn't it?  Pragmatism.

Passing under a pointed archway, Count Mircea found himself staring down into the final vault of the mausoleum, into the Ossuary where the oldest of his ancestors lay.  The descending stair was in a bad way, and one side of the room had collapsed, but the center of the room was untouched, and there she sat.  Like the lich of some predatory bird, perched on a throne of granite, surrounded by the bones of her husbands and sons.  Countess Hippolita Mircea.  The Woman, or so she was called, who had both made and doomed the line of Mircea.

Making his way down proudly into the chamber, the young Count looked up at his family Matriarch.  Despite the great decay, this shrunken mummy didn't quite look right.  The Count had learned basic anatomy at the Academy--her bone structure, it wasn't exactly...Human.  As he surveyed her, the corpse's empty eye sockets seemed to stare back at her issue with a malignant evil that the grave could not quench.

"Countess!" he began with a tone of command.

"You no doubt know why I, Count Jander Mircea, am here and what information I need from you.  As your heir, you certainly would like to see my interests furthered.  Therefore I request that you activate your renowned ability as a provider of otherwise unattainable information."


The Count began again "Countess Hippolita, you are reputed among the superstition peasants for your ability to reveal the Unknown, from beyond the grave, to those who seek you out.  The tales are as abundant as they are fanciful, such that I cannot help but take them seriously enough to appear here and appeal for your help."

More silence.  The Count looked again at the parched skin, tight against the skull of the lich, its expression almost mocking--No. Definitely mocking.  She was mocking him!  Her own flesh and blood and she would leave him helpless in the clutches of those vicious mongrels!

"Mother Hippolita!" He ejaculated, addressing her by the name by which her household had known her when she was still alive, his voice cracking with desperation.  "I beseech you!" he cried, falling to his knees.  "I'd do anything, give anything, to know who..."

He stopped.  Had her expression changed?  To one of smug victory?  On an impulse, he reached into his pocket and pulled out...a ticket stub...for the train to Liverpool...dated November 3rd.  Reading it, the color returned to his face.  "Of course. It must be Fredrick!  I should have squelched that insolent whelp when he was but a puppy!"

Then his face paled again.  His Right hand--it was changing before his eyes!  What was happening?  Oh no!  Anything but that!

The Count awoke lying on the cold stone floor of the ossuary.  After a minute's groping he managed to find his overturned lantern and light it.  Glancing at his hand, or what had taken its place, he turned, looking up in both horror and gratitude at the grinning visage of the Countess.  Her skin was dry, but not quite as parched as before, and her teeth shone like the polished ivory crown a Sorcerer-King from distant Stygia.

Mother Hippolita

Mother Hippolita's withered corpse sits in her Ancestral Tomb.  It is known for its ability to reveal secrets to those who beseech it.  The revealing can be quite cryptic in its own right, as the Mummy never talks or moves.  Nevertheless, Mother Hippolita's secrets come with a price, and those who receive her aid are inevitably stricken with some unnatural malady or affliction.  As such, it is only the most desperate or most foolish who seek her advice.

If she is not treated with proper reverence, the Curse will be given without the help.

Turned as Lich, though she still cannot move or speak.  Only permanently harmed by Magic Weapons.

Random Clue Form Generator

The DM should come up with a clue in the form determined by this table.  This can demand some creativity on the DM's part.
  1. Diary Entry/Book/Scroll
  2. Telegram/Letter
  3. Business Card/Newspaper article/Advertisement
  4. Ticket Stub/Event Program/Playbill
  5. Riddle appearing in the air in glowing letters
  6. Map
  7. Photograph/Painting
  8. Sketch
  9. Statue
  10. Coin
  11. Key
  12. Article of clothing
  13. Body/Body-Part
  14. Message in Bodily fluid
  15. Familiar Smell
  16. Dead animal
  17. Disembodied Skull speaking in foreign language
  18. Disembodied whisper directly in character's ear
  19. Vision/Hallucination
  20. 1d6 minutes of Time-Travel as disembodied spirit

Random Malady Generator

  1. Mutant: Random limb mutation 1d6 to determine which
  2. Not So Special Now- Prime Requisite reduced by 1d6
  3. Blank Slate: all skills forgotten except for 1 language chosen randomly
  4. Unlucky: -1 to all skill checks/ability checks/luck checks
  5. Unlucky Partner: 10' aura effect of Curse
  6. Aura of the Grave: Smell of Cadaver follows him around perpetually
  7. Energy Drained: Total HP is reduced to 1HP per HD
  8. Rotting Sickness: Body is perpetually covered in leprous sores(-4 CHR, -3 CON, -2 STR)
  9. Lost Soul: all of character's acquaintances don't remember him, relate to him as a total stranger
  10. Not the Man I Used to Know- swap highest ability score with lowest, 2nd highest with 2nd lowest, etc. 

Tuesday 12 March 2013

PC Death and OOC Factors

Speaking of PC death, players generally don't want their characters to die.  But why is that?  I'd like to divide the reasons into two categories.

Immersive Reasons for Player Caution

Immersive reasons that I don't want my PC to die are due to the inherent nature of Role-Playing.  As a player in a RPG, I become emotionally invested in my character, an adventure, or the game-world.  Some examples of Immersive Reasons are:

  • I like this character
  • I identify with this character and his desire to survive
  • This character and I have been through a lot together
  • I want the mission to succeed, and PC death interferes with that

External Reasons for Player Caution

External reasons that I don't want my PC to die are not inherent to the act of Role-Playing.  These can be Systemic i.e. caused by the way a particular RPG system is set-up.  They can also be quite personal.  Some examples of External Reasons are:

  • It took me a lot of time/effort to create this character
  • It took me a long time/XP to make such a powerful character
  • If my PC dies, the other PCs will take his stuff and my new PC won't have cool stuff
  • If my PC dies then I feel like I'm "losing" relative to the other players

I would like to claim that Immersive Reasons are good for the game, while External reasons are bad for it.  Immersive Reasons draw players into the gameworld, while External Reasons draw them out.  If your game decisions/game-world is being shaped by External Reasons, then you are doing it wrong.

Systemic Solutions

So to a certain degree, you can reduce External Reasons for Player Caution with changes to the game system.  DCC reduces creation effort with it's host of PC generators.  The Polish Resistance game I ran had slow/limited character advancement.  However, the effect of these sorts of changes on player psychology is limited.  Also, there may be factors other than player caution that supersede these considerations, such as wanting to use a familiar system, or players who want room for considerable advancement.

Behavioural Solutions

So the more holistic solution to this problem is behavioural.  Players should try to focus on becoming immersed in the game and try not to consider External Reasons that they want their PCs to survive.  This may be difficult since it requires a certain degree of self-awareness.  At the same time, I'm not the first one to say "don't be a Powergamer" or "you're Metagaming".

So to all my fellow players out, don't forget: live in fear...That's what it is to be a slave...

Sunday 10 March 2013

Should Players Know the Rules?

So, last session, I had difficult GMing moment.  I stat up my own monsters, even ones which WFRP has stats for.  There are a number of reasons I do this:
  1. Anyway, the monster descriptions in WFRP are impractically long, so anyway I write my own shorter stat-block in my spreadsheet, so might as well tweak them
  2. Even veteran players won't know what to expect, which adds tension
  3. New Tilia is far from the Empire, so monsters tend to be a little different
  4. It's fun to make your own stuff

Anyway, last session I rolled up a random encounter with Giant Scorpions.  Now the Giant Scorpions I made kill with a successful tail-hit, as opposed to WFRP 1e's Giant Scorpions which take two doses.  I made this change because I think that PCs should be terrified to come within striking range of the things, and because I think that an occasional PC death adds a lot of excitement to the game.

Anyway, the character failed his poison save, despite being a tough Dwarf.  I gave the Herbalist a check to see if she could improvise an antidote on the spot, which she also failed.  So I said, "Sorry, you're dead--better use a Fate Point."

What followed was 10 minutes of rules debate, which concluded with the player looking up the WFRP stats for Giant Scorpion(which I wasn't using) and pointing out that it says the first dose doesn't kill.  I gave-in to this argument.

Now I think that's fair. I'm willing to be flexible, within-reason, about the rules.  Especially in a rotating-DM game such as this one.  But I still wasn't happy with the result, which detracts from the sort of atmosphere of tension and terror I'm trying to create.

At that moment, I suddenly felt that I understood noisms's recent lament about GM authority as an enabler for art.  Now I know why he likes to run homebrew systems like Pendragon-Mechwarrior, or WWII CP2020.  Because when the players don't know the rules, and by-definition can't look them up, since there is no authoritative text, then the GM has a greater freedom to craft a truly-unique game-world.

The Other Side

Anyway, having made that point, let's wrap this post up with a foil.  WFRP 2e gives 5 "Golden Rules of GMing".  Here are two relevant ones, which are often at odds with one another.  "Lay down the law" is about giving the GM the authority to do his job well.  "Give them a chance" is about giving players the freedom to experience real agency and thus feel invested in the game.

Friday 8 March 2013

New Tilia: Session 4

Session 4 picked up where Session 3 left-off: with the division of loot from the Beastman and Mutants.

The party then fortified an unused room on the second floor of the manse for a much needed rest, with The Trapper left on guard.  While up in the tower, he saw some many-legged creatures approaching the broken but barricaded back-door in the dark.  He shot an arrow at them, then woke-up the rest of the party.

What followed was a battle with a trio of Giant Scorpions in the narrow kitchen.  The party killed the monsters, but Grim got stung and there were some tense moments as he slumped to the ground and stopped breathing.  But the tough dwarf survived.

The next morning, the party searched the house systematically, declining to rob the owners, but breaking into any closed doors and finding an old rotting grimoire in the musty old library.

They then went on to explore the cellar, finding a path, apparently made by the feet of the "Metal Men", leading to a large trap door in the floor.

It was a short session via hangout, and we left-off there.