The Lich

The Lich

a small phylactery containing role-playing ideas and spirit

#RPGaDay 1 – Real Dice, Digi Dice, No Dice?

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Real dice have always captured my attention.

Even before I started gaming and retrieved my first multi-coloured collection of polyhedrals from the Dragonlance Campaign Setting box set, I was fascinated with Balut, a simple dice game conceived by an American soldier in the Philippines during World War 2. My Balut set came complete with a black leather, red velvet interior cup to vigorously roll the dice in, an extravagance, I realise, that none of my RPG dice have ever enjoyed.

Real dice, with their flaws and imperfections, create the illusion of “gamer luck.”

In high school and throughout college, I enjoyed above average luck with my polyhedrals. I had a blue dice dedicated to longsword damage that always rolled 7-8 when it mattered and a loyal green d20 linked to the many elven bladesingers I adored playing. Those dice are still in Canada because I came here with the notion that I’d not find much in the way of TRPGs in the Philippines and that I’d return soon to Ontario anyway. Obviously, however, I’m still here. Instead, I found quality D&D again, and now, with dice purchased here, I’ve discovered that my luck has absolutely evaporated — anything double digit on a d20 is a miracle now! I don’t own Chessex Dice; these are Cursex.

Real dice evolve and change with us.

When I was playing Warhammer Fantasy (as Skaven) and the dice quantities needed were high, I enjoyed having little d6s that, when rolled, didn’t take much real estate on the table. Later, when I took Houses of the Blooded and the dice pools were rarely above 5, I backed the Artisan Dice kickstarter to get a set of beautiful McDermitt Petrified Wood dice. Unfortunately, Charlie’s garage tech wasn’t up to the task of tackling stone dice yet, but after several botched attempts he did me a real solid and sent me the blank McDermitt cubes anyway as well as several compensatory sets (I also won some prototypes made from Australian wood in one of his contests!). Now, since Dungeon World has become my easy pick-up game, my games tuperware has a table’s worth of plastic black and red d6s — from tiny to fancy to strictly utilitarian.

Real dice can be cumbersome… but fun.

The most dice I’ve ever rolled at once was 47, Exalted 1e, Sidereal Martial Arts. Incidentally, that was also when my cover was blown. Those 47 dice opened up an arc in which my character had to earn back the trust of his eclectic circle. Rolling them was also very, very satisfying.

Real dice, for all my bellyaching about probability and curses, are how I “roll.”

Considerations for my Upcoming 5e Campaign(s)

Next month I’ll be trying my hand at running one of 5th Edition’s new adventure modules, Out of the Abyss, as a test for when Ravenloft appears on my shelf. In preparation for that, I’ve embarked upon reading Elaine Cunningham’s Daughter of the Drow (which I finished today) and considering the complaint of one of my players on the abrupt shift in paradigm combat has been for her. Nominally, my players find their ease in Fate and in Dungeon World, and this one in particular has never played any edition of D&D before, so the shift jarred. To be honest, it jarred me as well, and so we’ve embarked upon learning more about the new systems at play to find avenues through which narrative play can have a command over the mechanics, and how the mechanics inform the narration. I’m really not sure how long we’ll stay with 5e given how many other games there are out there these days, but nostalgia, familiarity, and the usefulness of the system as a gateway for new RPers means I’ll at least keep looking for ways to make it work for my table for a while yet. 

Here are some of my musings and decisions for how I’ll likely hack it.

 

Hit Points as Stress or Shock, not Measure of Wounds.

David McGrogan remarks upon the new way hit points are represented (compared to older editions) by highlighting how numerous they are and how quickly they replenish. The latter, in particular, makes it difficult to consider hit points as a measure of real wounds as then we’d have to accept deep wounds, like a knife in the gut, as naturally healing in a matter of hours. This just doesn’t make sense, so I’ve initially decided to view hit points as a measure of stress or system shock — one’s ability to withstand the fatigue of battle and continue fighting. However, this opens two major considerations:
 
1) How do I represent the inevitable wounding and death-by-combat that can occur mechanically if hit points are no longer a measure of wounds but 0 HP (or the negatives values) still represents a potential end to life?

On this, I’ve decided that a possible solution may be to assume that all combat produces the cuts, grazes, and bruises that comes with jostling in melee, and that 0 HP is the body finally succumbing, buckling under all the strain of bleeding and pounding hearts. It may be elegant to simply assume that, even at full HP, a character isn’t necessarily fully recovered or healed from the deeper cuts, that they are always bandaged somewhere in games of copious combat. Magical healing in this instance is primarily focused, then, on the regaining of one’s wind, with closure of those smaller cuts a happy side effect instead of the main effect. That may work.
 
2) If hit points are not wounds, how should I track actual wounds?

Let’s face it, players like to strike others in ways that last. For the player, the idea is to bypass ridiculous amounts of HP buffer; for the GM, it is to threaten something permanent, and thus valuable, on a character. Nary a combat session goes by wherein someone isn’t seeking to kneecap, hamstring, blind, or cripple someone forever, so how do we deal with that in 5e? Here I flounder a little because of the strange inclusion of Feats (the nominal human advantage) — particularly the presence of the Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter feats which stipulate that the feat owner can make a called shot to deal +10 additional damage at the cost of ~25% accuracy (-5 to hit). Even with those, bypassing the HP buffer still isn’t possible, and play still seems wrapped around the idea of striking the monster pinata until it goes down. The fair solution here without adding systems bloat seems to be to lock real wounds, and the idea of called shots, behind the luck of scoring a critical hit. My reasoning here is that the idea behind lasting wounds is skewed in that the most likely to suffer longest from them are the players, not the short-lived creatures the party encounters. This seems more a GM fiat/story issue, one I’ll have to be upfront about with my table to control expectations among my more zealous maimers.

 

Combat as More than Just a Race to 0HP.

This is where combat really sucks. There are many things you can do in combat, like help your friend land a hit, knock an enemy prone to make it easier to land a hit, move into a narrower space to make it harder for your enemy to land a hit, or land a hit. Everything, from gaining Advantage and inflicting Disadvantages, rolls back to a single mechanical conclusion — drive that opponent to 0 HP! This, coupled with how I’m already refusing to add called shots to the rules (I know my maimers well), will rankle at my narrative players if I choose to limit myself to mechanics alone, so how do we deal with this?

The Angry DM has my favourite viewpoints and workarounds on this in that he focuses on scenario design and intent as the true culprits in battles that bog. I highly recommend you read that, then come back as it says pretty much everything I have to say about letting the narrative override the need to even use the combat system. Especially because I’ll be running modules and settings which seek to highlight strangeness and alteration in atmospheres, it becomes all the more important to my purpose that I delineate the shift between role-playing and the separate mini-game that is combat. Eschewing the initiative order ala Dungeon World? I can do that until initiative is absolutely essential. Abstracting combat against lesser foes or because simulating it wouldn’t add to the story? More than pleased to.

The other really big requirement is to never stop thinking from the perspective of the NPCs or monsters. Always give them a reason, a goal. They, like the party, are only in battle because their goals are achievable or more expedient through murder. Combat and the resolution of combat should never be the goal of the scenario because that just doesn’t make sense. People and monsters need something to put their lives on the line for, particularly if they’re prepared to go all the way to 0 HP. If not, they should be open to other resolutions or, barring that, be able to make a judgment call on when it is time to boogie out or surrender. Do the odds look grim? Get out. Does it look like we can still win? Push! Same choices players make every round should go to the enemy. That’s nothing new for me as an NPC-focused GM, but worth codifying.

Other than this, it may be worth being more liberal with the Advantages and Disadvantages to keep everyone thinking about using the terrain and fiction. There’s a base list I found on reddit, but I think it is a little thin and can be expanded in play.

 

What’s up with Inspiration?

Inspiration is an odd duck. First of all, it’s divided into two categories: the inspiration you receive from Bards and the one you get from acting according to your ideals and bonds. Bard inspiration is toolkit and affects your next action because, hey, the Bard used brilliant pathos to convince you that this action is something you should be awesome at. Regular inspiration comes from doing what’s right by you, but rather than directly affect the action in which you fulfil the tenets of your personal beliefs, it pools on your sheet and is available for use on any action, any time, even ones unrelated to what inspired you.

Huh.

It can also be used by the GM to bribe a player into complicating their situation. This concept I know — I use it in Fate all the time! However, what’s different again is that the point can then be spent on any action, any time, even ones unrelated to any of your bonds or ideals, while in Fate, you can only use the bribe to support an action directly related to those aspects.

This just doesn’t jive with me.

Ideals, Bonds, and Inspiration are all tools meant to push the narrative aspect of the game, but they only seem to go half-way at supporting the fiction. Thankfully, this is the easiest fix so far, particularly for Fate players. I’ll keep the bribe, but I’ll stipulate that Inspiration can only be used when directly supporting an Ideal, Bond, or Flaw. What this means is that players can declare their actions and, on the side, point out to me that this action is in keeping with their character’s narrative matrix, in which case I can adjudicate if it earns the Advantage roll boost of an inspired action. This may be expanded to actions in which a character also plays directly into their niche. 

EDIT: Actually, I’ll have to think about this one some more. What is most likely to happen is that I will accept when players declare actions pointed out to directly relate to their ideals/bonds/flaws and boost those rolls while allowing the bribe point to only be spent on niche actions (their role in the party) or acts of digging themselves out of the trouble caused by the bribe (meaning I’ve paid them to get into trouble for the story, but give them a chip to get out). This sounds cleaner.

Bardic Inspiration is fine as is, so no changes necessary.

First Impressions on D&D 5e and Exalted 3rd Edition Combat

The two systems I’m learning at the moment are the new editions of D&D and Exalted. I don’t often have problems with the actual roleplaying parts of the game, so this declaration mostly means I’m figuring out what is involved in the murder portion of the game — combat.

I’ve skipped an edition for each system because of my move to Asia and the long time it took for me to pick up new groups to revisit these games with. (It took time to find people here with my hobbies.) As such, my impressions are based on older permutations of each game.

Exalted 3e:

  1. This is short since I only really have one observation. I really like withering and decisive attacks in that they suit my bias for battles that set up for big finishers. Each round of withering attack seems like Creating an Advantage in Fate — all leading up to the decisive attack that ends it all. Didn’t get the chance to test this with a true battle between equals, however, and the GM running the game isn’t really a combat-oriented one, so this observation may be inaccurate in the long run.

D&D 5e:

    1. So, apparently grids are a thing now. Apparently, they were even a thing back in AD&D!? What rock was I living under that I never noticed? From my perspective as a strictly theatre-of-the-mind player, the added tracking that comes from exact measurements and five-foot-squares seems to really bog down the game.
    2. I’m glad they removed the 3.5 wall of rules surrounding Attacks of Opportunity, for the most part. However, it’s still there through feats such as Sentinel, and actually still kind of annoying to track because it cuts into the tension and flow of combat by constantly interrupting it.
    3. Speaking of, what are hit points even supposed to represent now? They still bloat at higher levels to ridiculous levels (I’m a 2nd level warlock and have 23 hit points) and regenerate at extremely fast rates. I’m thinking it may be best to consider them as a measure of system shock, but what now tracks physical wounds and other consequences of deadly combat? Exhaustion?
    4. I’m embarrassed this took me all battle to realise, but it seems that it may be possible to play with the shiny-new Advantage/Disadvantage system in a way that emulates Fate’s Create an Advantage system. Maybe, like a full action to commit to an action like the Bard’s Inspiration move. This may be helpful as it was really sad to watch one of our best combatants whiff misses for ten consecutive rounds in a battle that lasted four hours. It’d also add a much needed narrative approach to combat that the current mechanically minded ruleset doesn’t outright reward.
    5. I like the new single-roll party initiative die, but it’s funny to see time-saving, party-focused innovations amidst the fossils of crunch. The streamlining effort feels a bit half-way in that respect.

I’ll be trying to keep it to what I’m used to when I run Ravenloft and Out of the Abyss later this year to see if it still works (and if anyone complains because I’m weird for not wanting grids), so I’ll form more concrete thoughts on all of this later.

Training Players to Create Advantages in Fate (with Gate)

I’m two years into running Fate now, but I still have trouble encouraging my players to use the Create an Advantage move as often as I think they should be. Like me, my players cut their teeth in games which initially trained us to use our “turns” to bash the enemy for direct damage. The idea of potentially wasting a round on a gambit (not a certainty) for advantage is not one most other systems teach.

However, well-stacked Advantages in Fate are the key to legendary feats. To illustrate that, I’ve chosen to highlight and dissect a key battle from a show everyone at my table watches — Gate: Jieitai Kano Chi nite, Kaku Tatakaeri.

(SPOILERS for the Red Dragon Arc to follow.)

To set the scene, the party is hunting a vicious red dragon that terrorises the land. Unlike with dragons in Dungeons & Dragons, nobody here can even conceive of defeating this ancient, brutal, and cunning beast, and so it has remained for thousands of years in a cycle of hibernation and slaughter… until the JSDF roll in. The party, armed with modern military weapons, attempts to do so for the sake of a comrade. Traveling with them is a small cadre of young, hot-blooded dark elf warriors, who have been poorly trained to use rocket launchers.

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The anime even skips the part where they have to pull out the pin from the explosive before firing.

Incidental aspects so far (we aren’t using all of them, but I like pointing them out): “Ancient, Brutal, and Cunning” (for the dragon) – “Modern Military Weapons” – “For the Sake of a Comrade” – “Young, Hot-Blooded Dark Elf Warriors” – “Poorly Trained”

Poorly Trained is probably the result of a Create an Advantage failure, but those happen when giving fantasy races modern weaponry.

The dragon’s den is inside of a crater in a mountain, and the only access in is through a cave. Immediately, the strongest member of the party can’t join the fight because, despite being a demi-goddess, she’s terrified of being underground. She gets paid a fate point to stay outside, and tries to Create an Advantage by using the walkie-talkie to tell the party when the dragon is approaching. Sadly, another failure means the mountain blocks the communication, and the dragon will get an advantage later on.

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Inside, the party gets to work setting up their trap while the dragon is out hunting. Using their “Modern Military Weapons,” which may actually be a stunt now that I think of it, they get to work kneading out a ridiculous amount of C4 and creating the bomb. They also notice all the magical swords from dead heroes as a Situational Advantage they can use later, so they keep a fate point in reserve.

Advantages now available: “Ridiculous Amount of C4” and “Magic Sword Graveyard”

The red dragon comes back, and the GM uses both free tags from earlier — “The Rock Face is Cutting Off the Signal?” to negate the look-out’s warnings and “Poorly Trained” to avoid the worst of the damage from the rocket launchers. It probably also uses an Overcome to temporarily negate the “Ridiculous Amount of C4” by cutting the wires to the manual detonator — or the players decide that on their own to make the fight more dramatic. Then the dragon does what it does best – slaughter and breathe fire.

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I can see why nobody wanted to fight this thing without fighter jets and guided missiles.

The party is up against the wall in this fight. The dark elves engage in trying to damage it directly, but their training is insufficient to fight back their fear, so they just die brutally. The soldier is trying to reconnect the detonator, but the dragon is focusing its attention on him. The mage steps forward and uses the existing “Magic Sword Graveyard” and her “Desire for Revenge” (it also destroyed her village) to make a big 2-invoke advantage by levitating and propelling the swords in all directions to pincushion the dragon. It may sting for the dragon, but the mage’s player wants this to be an Advantage, not an attack, because the elf is moving next.

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A testament to how much the Gate author really loves that other Fate.

The elf to this point has been battling her emotional state to deal with the Severe Consequence of having lost her father to this dragon. This is her arc to overcome that, her story, so the moment of triumph really has to be hers. To that end, she’s created her own mega 2-box advantage (by invoking that earlier aspect about how everyone is doing this for her), “You won’t take anyone else from me!” Everyone also gives her their accumulated free invocations because they know this is what the story was leading up to — or at least because they want it to be awesome. So, now, the stack looks like this.

“Ridiculous Amount of C4” [ ]
“Pincushioned with Magic Swords” [ ] [ ]
“You won’t take anyone else from me!” [ ] [ ]

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KAMEHAMEEEEEE——

She’s an elf with elemental magic, so she uses it to call forth the lightning. She spends her one allowed fate point to boost that to +2 (because elf), then uses the lightning to trigger all the freebies — +2 from the C4, +4 from the metal magic sword lightning rods, and +4 from her determination to win. Even before dice and skill, that’s a devastating +14 to the dragon. It’s just dead. Hurrah! Team effort!

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——HAAAAAAAAAA bzzzzzt

This really is a session I’d have loved to run.

Now, I probably mangled the rules on CoA and invocation somewhere in all that, but the point remains — Advantages are killer! They also can come in a variety of flavours because of fictional focus:

  • The pincushion could have been a direct attack, and probably would have been in most other games, but it doesn’t have to be in Fate.
  • Old advantages can be used to create bigger, more direct-to-the-situation advantages.
  • Not all advantages need to be physical ones. Resolve and focus are legitimate forces in Fate combat.
  • Sometimes one really big hit makes for maximum drama and satisfaction.

Fate really does have a lot of fiddly bits for people like me who were trained on other styles of gaming, but these are the bits I actually miss most now when playing other games. These’re also the bits I’m actively trying to influence my players to pick up on. Hopefully, by dissecting shared media, I can manage that — that’s how I learned aspects, after all, from seeing Sparks Nevada’s aspects laid out. So if you’re like my players (and enjoy Gate), I hope this helped. If you’re like me, maybe dig into something you know your table likes and break it down into a fake actual play to highlight what you’d like to see more from your table. May we both find (dramatic) success!

 

 

The War of Ashes slated for Open-License

Last night, I stayed up just long enough to watch the Evil Hat “Fate More” Kickstarter project edge its way past $70,000 in the final two hours, a huge triumph. Mid-way through the campaign, you see, Fred Hicks filled in the voluminous gaps between books with more community-oriented stretch goals, which included what is likely Fate’s greatest strength — open content.

Here is where I became really excited:
warofashesopen

Now, I don’t know much about licenses as they apply to system hacks — anything I know is bundled in with the D&D 3rd Edition OGL and the newer Creative Commons — so this graphic delivered two realisations: (1) that the War of Ashes mechanics weren’t open for use or reprinting, and (2) that they could be.

I should rewind a little here and talk briefly about War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus. War of Ashes dwells firmly in the impulse-buy section of my collection, the part I can’t explain. I have no idea why I purchased it — worse! why I pre-purchased it! — but I know precisely why I keep it and continue to re-read it. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous book with light-hearted fun blended in with the serious issues of war, ethnicity, and geopolitics. It is also the latest “core” book for Fate out in publication (as of now), so it benefits from a currently-running hypothesis of mine in which the following is true: Evil Hat gets more canny at explaining how Fate works with every book they put out there. As such, War of Ashes is actually a great place to begin playing Fate too.

This isn’t meant to be taken as a review; I just love this book.

Anyway, so at $70k, the systems inside War of Ashes got put on Evil Hat’s workflow for open-license, which is fantastic news for me and for everybody because that means Weight is most likely chief on that list! Weight is the single most elegant manner for tracking size or scale differences in opposing forces in Fate. Weight gives, well, weight to the idea that it is dangerous to be outnumbered or outclassed. In my own game, which mimics MMORPG genre fiction, I use Weight to reflect the differences between PCs and Boss Monsters and to encourage players to engage in the social aspects of the game by gathering enough friends and allies to negate that Weight advantage. Basically, Weight allows for a mechanical enforcement of party requirements, and it’s an absolutely invaluable tool that I could not imagine the setting or genre without.

And now I don’t have to.

Yes, it’ll take a few months for the open-license to appear, but those are months in which I can get to work writing out the setting I’ve been wanting to share with others. $70k is allowing me to look forward to doing that without sacrificing even the tiniest mote. (I begin earnest planning on Monday.) It’s allowing me to look forward to what other people do with the mechanic — and all the other mechanics unlocked by Fate More — as well. It’s an exciting time, but then again, open-licenses always are in this hobby.

Next time, I’ll talk some about that setting and game I mentioned, as well as my plans for sharing it as a book. Please look forward to it!

Number of Players from the Player’s Perspective

So how many players is “too many”?

There’s a lot of literature out there for gamemasters on how to deal with player count, which is important because player count can influence all manner of system measures, from monster and reward scaling to niche protection. Usually, the GM is who sets player count for the table, either because of personal comfort levels and limits or as a side benefit of also being the designated group “wrangler,” the person who strong-arms friends or LGS folk into trying that newly purchased $50 book. I’ve read detailed anecdotes on what it is like running games for all number of players, published to help other GMs find their magic number, but what about the examination of player count from the players’ side of the table?

Here are my experiences and thresholds as a player:

1-player tables:

  • The most awkward arrangement. Lots of spotlight, but lots of expectations and only one person to banter with or rely on to carry the moments in which you need to think — except that one person is the GM.  Too stressful for me to find fun.
  • Anecdotally, this seems a popular arrangement for couples who live in isolated winter landscapes.

2-player tables:

  • I’ve played at this setting twice, both out of necessity for lack of players. Relies heavily on personal dynamic between the three people present, and a little on GM ingenuity.
  • More pressure to play a toolkit character over a deeply specialised one. Difficult if your partner is a wallflower.
  • To fill out the party, my GM in Toronto routinely introduced a rotating cast of NPCs who could usually be called upon to help when they didn’t have personal issues to deal with. Lifted directly from Suikoden, this list ballooned to nearly twenty persons, all interesting, which really helped keep the game fresh despite only having one other party member to bounce off of.

3-player tables:

  • The easiest to schedule post-college, pre-retirement!
  • My comfort zone begins here. You have two different party perspectives here to add to your own and more freedom to specialise rather than toolkit. The spotlight passes more smoothly here, and you don’t have to fight for it yet like what happens in higher player-count tables. Easier to share with one wallflower player so long as two of you are the type to push your own agendas and propel the party.
  • Great for exploring the nuances of character development and your place in a team.
  • One person can be late, but there is no room for absences.

4-player tables:

  • Similar to the 3-player tables, but more able to accommodate more than one quiet player.
  • The most important feature of the 4-player table is that it becomes possible to continue playing even if one person is absent. This is not the case with the last three tables.

5-player tables:

  • I personally find this to be too many already. Your GM has to be a wizard to mitigate the problems that begin at this stage.
  • Niche-protection begins to erode at this level, so a greater focus on personal narrative to differentiate becomes necessary, except there is less room for that also. As a player who sits at more socially-oriented tables, I find that party banter and the GM’s desire to move forward the plot more are often at odds here as well. It becomes more difficult to engage with other people’s characters, or at least everyone’s characters, and easier to get lost if you have a table of very strong personalities or people who want to be noticed.
  • Conflicting play-style issues will begin to emerge here as well. More difficult on shy players.

6-player tables:

  • I drown here, and have only met a single GM capable of handling it; his sessions also ran for 16 hours apiece, so time allotment was a factor there as well. On a timetable where you only have 4-6 hours? It is likely I will bow out of a game if it bloats to this density.
  • Less party cohesion, more problems of conflicting play-styles. Shy players might spend a whole session saying nothing in character.
  •  To drag the spotlight to myself, I find that I sacrifice character nuance and integrity. There is more “defaulting” going on for me here in that I fall back on familiar character habits rather than accurate character habits, or end up altering the character to suit what will get me noticed when I need to in order to contribute at all. Everything here feels procedural rather than narrative, and it is a challenge to have fun with a character as a character. Perhaps if I thought about it as a board game, but there are board games for that kind of play.

Infinity and beyond:

  • Please roll on the Insanity chart.
  • Thank you for the invitation, but I must decline.

A recent observation of mine that I feel needs to be appended to a discussion on player count is that a single player is capable of occupying more than one space. Maybe you’ve encountered them: players with such great presence that they can fill a room… or smother others. This additional space can manifest in-game as the character who always butts into the conversation or steals the spotlight from others, but it can also manifest on the table as the person always talking about work or, for a seminal example, that player who is always quoting the rules and questioning the GM. Yes, rules lawyers count as those players who take up more than one slot at the table. Sometimes, GMs do too.

In most cases, these are the players whom I believe make 1-player and 2-player tables even possible, and can make a 3-player table interesting. However, they are difficult to play with (or sometimes run for) at higher player counts because they force the problems of pacing, play-style, and narrower spotlight on all the other players. They make the table a little less viable for your shy players or those who are still working out their characters, trying their best to stay true to that character. (This is usually me.)

I often notice that my personal thresholds for player count do not match the GMs’, perhaps because we were trained early in hobby literature to view 6 as the “complete table,” an ideal to work toward. For example, many discussions on player count come with suggestions to split the table after 6-players as the default magic number. The anecdotes pop up in conversation also: published adventure balance supposedly skews after 6-players, it’s more difficult to have all the necessary skills covered with less than 6-players, you might accidentally kill the party with that dragon unless there are 6-players, and so on.

It’s easy to be influenced, especially if your game is D&D. But perhaps before just arbitrarily adhering to a traditional number or being afraid of admitting difficulty in handling the “full 6,” when we take our turns to occupy the GM-seat, we should maybe ask our players also — “so, how many is too many?”

On Scarcity

Scarcity is likely a topic all bloggers from the Philippines, or South East Asia, premise early. Many of us grew up in a time when finding an RPG book, much less a local source of polyhedral dice and (worse) Fudge dice, was a rare and significant event. I remember my first find — a 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook on the lowest shelf of a first floor magazine store in Shopsville. Ask me why I was visiting the country, which store I was in, or who I was with and I won’t recall. All I remember is that book, and I didn’t even get to buy it.

Before PDFs hit, we really were simply at the mercy of such chance encounters. Move forward later to when Borders opened up its Singapore flagship at Wheelock Place. By this time, I had already been playing AD&D with classmates (and a math teacher from Connecticut who always wore cowboy boots), so when Borders brought in a complete range of AD&D products? My wallet was devastated. But that wasn’t the problem; the problem was in the other gaming line Borders imported to Asia: World of Darkness. Suddenly, I had all these books about modern supernatural creatures with great swaths of fiction to really dig into, but only two d10s. Just two, for percentiles. I didn’t get to play World of Darkness, except for on the internet, until I moved to Canada.

And wow, Canada. In Canada, the narrative changed. First of all, there was dice. And if there wasn’t dice, you could get dice mailed to you. d10 acquisition happened. I got into 3-and-3.5 in Canada, because I could buy it from the local Chapters. An anime retailer had the Fuzion Bubblegum Crisis books, so my housemates and I enjoyed a year-and-a-half-long campaign of that. Exalted and Eberron was only a next-day-shipping Amazon.ca click away. And I got to do something South East Asia never let me do before — own a limited edition! Arthaus’ Ravenloft with the leather cover and the red strip bookmark? I own that. I splurged. My physical collection there still dwarfs mine here in the Philippines.

We have a long history of treasure hunting for our games here in the Philippines, which is why I’m certain it’s an oft-presented topic. What I feel should be highlighted, though, is that it is getting better.

How?

Today, thanks to ebooks and a prolific online TRPG community, I can no longer say that every game I own has seen play. There are just too many, and my digital bookshelf, that bypass for physical scarcity, won’t even fit in my 5.9GB Dropbox storage. It’s not all digital acquisitions either – lately, more and more hobby retailers have been bringing in what books Customs doesn’t gouge them for. You want Fate and Dungeon World? You can buy those here (and dice! FUDGE DICE). 5th Ed D&D? At least three retailers carry it. Cubicle 7 and Monte Cook Games? We have a distributor. Paizo products with the included promos? That’s here too. Stocks and quantity are sometimes kind of funny, but we finally have books! (In Manila, I really should specify as that is the limit of my knowledge, but still closer to the rest of the Philippines than, say, the UK.) And for the books we don’t have, we gained a 2011 declaration, which I had once printed out and laminated for trips to the post office, denoting the taxation on importation of books enough for a tabletop session (i.e. personal quantities) to be illegal! (Check out Department of Finance Order 57-2011.)

Now, Monday’s USPS price hike may threaten it, but for now, we are well past scarcity. Not yet at Amazon.ca next-day-on-my-doorstep level, but better than what many of us likely thought possible. And by that I mean we have fudge dice. FUDGE DICE.

Does it sound accurate to my Philippine readers to say, “Scarcity is over”? (We have fudge dice.) Anyone else want to share their stories about the treasure hunt that is TRPG materials? Even if you get here a year late, feel free to leave your tale below.

My last GMed game of 2015:

Reposted from my G+

My last night of GMing this year was my grand experiment with running one-shots, a skill I’ve always struggled with. It was also a test of my abilities to run in a public space, with new role-players and ostensibly strangers, and given a hard time limit — 4 hours. Four strikes out of my comfort zone already, but that didn’t matter because I was armed with John Aegard‘s Dragonslaying on a Timetable!

Much of the game was informed by my sister’s early choice to play a Druid. When sheets went around, she knew precisely what to reach for, and her co-conspirator (they had planned this for a week!) took Ranger. The Bard and the Wizard angled their concepts to match my sister’s, so immediately the game became one centred around naturalism and the tenuous balance of the world.

Stacey Lichnock played Thistle, Halfling Druid.
Rachel Teng played Wellby, Halfling Ranger.
Mahar Mangahas played Aeaea, Elf Bard.
and Jay Mata played Vorador, Human Wizard.

The setting was generated first by asking each about their peoples. The halflings established themselves as part of a nomadic culture that only set roots as a form of retirement. Thistle is an outlier because of her tie to the land as a Druid. The elves, long ago, were forced to default on the mortgage on their homeland and initially went on a diaspora to earn enough coin to purchase it back; however, after several thousand years as merchants, the elves discovered it was more fun to spend money, and so they never reclaimed their homeland due to a lack of thriftiness. Humans, the closest allies of the Dwarves, are on the cusp of an industrial age and were beginning to eschew magic in favour of technological marvels that anyone could use. Kingdoms were also falling out of style, and so nations became corporations instead, seeking greater profit and gains at the expense of the world.

Thistle laid down the Ancient Forest, her former home, which was burned down in a great calamity (of which she was the sole survivor). The bard said that the forest gets razed every 100 years or so by dragons, but I interjected that this time broke that pattern — the world was out of balance, after all. Wellby escaped the calamity by being somewhere else, doing his job and guiding people through great wilderness spaces such as the Shifting Sands. He’s a whiz at the Shifting Sands, in fact! The halflings also establish that Quarrytown, an industrial human hub, is next to their forest. The bard remembers it as a quant hamlet in her “youth,” and is surprised now to find it so developed. In Quarrytown, the wizard teaches and studies at the Alabaster Academy, one of the last hipster holdouts of magic; they actually view themselves as stubborn hipsters as well, as they’ve been casting magic since before it was fashionable to view it as retro. As the scholar of the group, Vorador also sometimes contracts the party to go out to dangerous places, such as “Meat’s Nest,” a livestock range used by orc tribes to breed their exceedingly dangerous Murder Cows; even orcs don’t want to live there.

The situation at hand is that the world is out of balance, and they are researching why. The druid has some roasted acorns from her forest that she’s trying to revive. The bard, whose speciality is the bestiary of the world, has heard that bathing the acorns in the blood of a Chimera-Hydra will do the trick; she’s also heard that Alicorns, flying unicorns, have the ability to remove magical corruption from the land. Unfortunately, they also are rumoured to restore youth to those who eat their meat, and were chased far from civilised lands. The ranger believes some were sighted somewhere in the Shifting Sands, so the wizard brings the party together for a meeting with the Dean of the Alabaster Academy to begin the mission.

Leaving the manicured lawns of the Academy and traversing the narrow alleys of the dense worker long houses surrounding Quarrytown, the party bumps into a group of teamsters wearing strange equipment strapped to their backs. Claiming to represent the interest of House Boris, the thugs bar the street and tell Vorador and his company that it’d be better for them to “return to yer Acadewhatsit and stay there, eh.” Aeaea makes protest while Vorador fidgets about “not wanting to make trouble.” Negotiations, which weren’t going that well anyway, broke down when the elf pulls out her short sword to make a point — one of the goons panics and accidentally fires his pistol, and the explosion signals several thugs to take to the sky as the metal boxes on their back spring out to reveal wings. The head thug, Voraxe, bullrushes Vorador, who panics and turns invisible in the tackle. Overzealously, Wellby sticks his spear into Voraxe… and punctures the burly man’s lung. The goons panic and flee; the party panics and hides the body and quickly, very quickly, hustles their way elsewhere before the local guards can make an appearance.

Presented with three possible paths — one cutting through Quarrytown-proper, one hurrying along the Industrial Highway, and one taking chances in Meat’s Nest, the party inexplicably chose to go through the hunting range of Meat’s Nest, a decision they questioned immediately upon entering the corrupted blood-soaked mudflats. When the bard cheerfully informed everyone that it was the most dangerous time of year — mating season (murder cows will mate with ANYTHING) — the party was even more convinced that this was a poor idea, and annoyed that the elf chose only the final moment to say anything at all. They scout carefully forward, but rather than murder cows, they find statues of murder cows littered around. At the end of the day, not wishing to risk a chance encounter in the fields, the group blundered into a nest of cockatrice — losing the ranger’s wolf and Vorador’s hand to petrification. They regroup, and a ritual makes the Ranger immune to petrification, but accidentally sees the Bard possessed by a rage-fueled murder cow. They truss up the foaming Bard to a tree and make a return to the cave to retrieve cockatrice eggs, which are known to reverse the effects of petrification. Not wanting to slay the cockatrice, whose petrification of the murder cows is actually helping lessen the corruption of Meat’s Nest, they hatch a plan. Antagonising the cockatrice, Wellby draws them out of the cave while Thistle and Vorador sneak in to get only a couple of eggs. At camp, they apply the egg whites on Wellby’s wolf, which keeps a permanent coat of rockfur, effectively evolving it into a rockwolf.

Here we levelled up and took our break. Almost everyone in the party took a move that helped them perceive/discern realities. Aeaea gained an ability that helped her transfer the rage of the murder cow partially possessing her onto others — It Goes To Eleven.

Finally at the Shifting Sands, they undergo a Perilous Journey through its treacherous terrain with the end goal of “sighting an Alicorn.” After a week of travel, with careful management of their rations, they make it to an ancient open-air temple to the winged goddess of magic in the middle of the desert. At the centre, a garden houses the frolicking Alicorns; surrounding the garden, a sunken ring houses a creature with a cacophonous, unnatural roar; camped outside of the ring are more representatives of House Boris. Thistle sneaks in as a mouse to overhear that the nobles are being kept from entering the garden by the beast in the pit — a Chimera-Hydra, the one she needs to restore her seeds! Meanwhile, some flying goons outside approach the party, and are cut down by an overeager Bard rallying the party. When the Wizard casts Speak to Dead, the dead goon cusses them out — they were only coming to greet them and ask for their aid! Oops. It makes approaching the camp later and offering their aid an impossible battle; the party is on their own.

Thistle tries to negotiate with the Alicorn instead, but the flighty creatures are so contented with their garden and “The Protector” that they have no interest in leaving. The Druid decides to check out the Protector, the Chimera-Hydra, on her own, and the great beast watches her, but makes no move until she, as an elk, rams at it with her antlers. A ram head retaliates with a headbutt that sends her flying, and chases her — toward the encampment of House Boris. The nobles, hearing and seeing the abomination long before it reaches their camp, take to the sky and try to fly into the Alicorn garden. Thistle becomes a bird and follows them, as does the Chimera-Hydra. The rest of the party rush to the garden also to defend the Alicorns, who are being slaughtered by the humans who have no interest in sharing their prize with anyone else. The Chimera-Hydra attacks everyone in the garden except for the Alicorn. One of the lion heads catches the Druid, shakes her, and kills her… she’s thrown near the edge of the ring, feeling the world ebb away. There, in the middle of the temple, she sees the Goddess of Magic, a bat-winged deity with six faces on her one head, but before the Goddess can speak, Thistle returns to the world of the living. Still, she connects the Goddess to the Chimera-Hydra. The Wizard, trying to lead the Alicorns away from the slaughter, creates an illusion of a Chimera-Hydra outside of the temple. Several Alicorn fly in that direction to safety. The Ranger and the Bard fight as best they can, but it is a losing battle. Aeaea is nearly caught in a gout of flame, but her Songbook ignites. She screams, and then calls out to the goddess, “Take my knowledge as my sacrifice!”

The garden, the centre of the temple, goes white. The Ranger and the Druid crawl out, but the Bard stays behind. Hexagons begin to form a shield around the white pillar of light — the Druid throws in one of her seeds, regenerating it. The Wizard, worried about the Alicorn now flying toward the phenomenon, stares at it before realising it to be a great fount of knowledge. He runs towards it, puts his hand to its side, and is infused with the knowledge of how magic, and balance, work in the world. The Bard is within, and when the light dissipates, Alicorns in flocks emerge and scatter in all directions. The Chimera-Hydra is gone, and the Bard, at the centre, has no memory, no possessing cow spirit, no knowledge — a complete sacrifice.

In the epilogues, the Druid returns to her home and plants her seed, beginning the revival of her forest. The Ranger stays with her to learn the forest again and to guide other nomadic halflings to it. The Druid trains those halflings in the way of druidic lore, teaching them to tend to the world. The Wizard continues teaching at the Academy, but makes more and more brave trips out into the world to gather data to prove what he now knows. He eventually makes Dean and is a prolific scholar and field researcher to the day he dies. The Bard lives on for many thousands of years after all others, never truly learning what happened to her at that temple, wandering the land and spreading magic to the far reaches of the world. Even as the world diversifies with industry and technology, magic never dies.

It took five hours to run the game, from character creation, game and adventure creation, to finish. One hour too long, but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and I liked how it all tied together in the end and all the unusual choices that had to be made because of the monsters they needed to protect —such as the cockatrice— in the best interests of the world. The Chimera-Hydra as a guardian and symbol of the goddess, also, was an unexpected twist, even to me. In retrospect, I maybe should have asked the Bard that epic question, “So how do you survive this?” but I feel the sacrifice was her answer to that.

I still have to think further about if I can run this for a full group of strangers, but it was a positive experience. Getting closer, I guess?

Thanks John and all my players!

New Beginnings

This site exists as a consequence of my sister’s need for a webhost for her portfolio and my falling in with a crowd of tabletop nerds and enthusiasts.

Having grown up in Asia, I often found myself the group instigator for gaming activities. I provided the books, the dice, and often the world. I joined an amazing multinational group in high school, held together a fracturing community in college, and hit a wall when I moved to the Philippines. At the time, I thought my gaming days were over.

8 years later, an unexpected revival! I can now unequivocally declare that I am surrounded by some of the most passionate and supportive gamers, designers, and content creators I’ve ever known. Little by little, as their enthusiasm infects me, I’ve been shaking off the dust and shrouds I’ve wrapped myself in, pushing boundaries of comfort: trying con-style one-shot games, writing out and playtesting game settings and designs, blogging again, and creating reviews. It’s wild and it’s scary, but with so many wonderful people at my back, it’s also time.