Lone Wolf

All through my childhood, I was a bit of a lone wolf. It's not that I didn't have friends, because I did. I loved my friends and I thought they were intelligent, funny and creative. But I was also cocky and self-assured. I spent long hours reading books, fiction books, non-fiction books, books about books and how to write them. I dedicated myself to learning every possible fact, to reading the great literature, and so on and so forth. In other words, even as I played sports and had other hobbies, I was a hyper-nerd. I thought because I had read all of these things, I knew all I could possibly know.

My dad would get upset at me overtimes over this. "Yes, yes," he would say. "I know you read about the Vietnam War, but I lived it. Those books are a bunch of hogwash." Of course, I didn't have enough years in the world to understand this. I mean, how can you argue with facts?

So what in the world does this have to do with D&D or RPGs in general? As I grew older, I realized the need to have a diverse group of people around me. People who are older, and those who are younger. City people, country people, rich people and poor people. Their experiences challenge my own in new and interesting ways and enrich them in ways I often can't imagine beforehand. They help me make better stories and adventures and see things from a different point of view. Those different angles fuel my imagination.

And I think that's what turns me off to a lot of lone wolf design. Holing myself up in my office or sitting in a tea shop interacting only with my computer doesn't help me become a better designer. I love the interactions with people. It's part of the reason I love hanging out in the 4e chat room on the at-will blog, doing Open Design, co-hosting podcasts and hanging out in twitter. It's what I like about group collaboration projects (something young me always despised). Some people are really good at lone wolf design. I can work through it, but I'm happier when I can bounce ideas off of people.

What about you? Do you prefer to be work on your own or as part of a team? How do you develop your ideas?

Lost City: Malsalix

One of my favorite things to design in Lost City was the malsalix. It started life as a humble shambling mound in the oppulent bathhouse scene. As I sat down to write the adventure, however, it became clear that I needed to combine the spores that caused the original madness with the shambling mound and create a new, even more dangerous plant in its stead. Hence, the malsalix was born.

While the plant is integral to the story of the Kradalhu, there's no reason it can't be used elsewhere. In fact, story has it that the plant was bred by dark druids to protect their dark, humid caves deep in the forests of the feywild. Provide some humidity and a few sources of lightning, especially traps, and the plant will be more than happy to wander the halls of your dungeon. It's particularly good at stealing powers from creatures, making it a good partner for less intelligent guardians or highly intelligent but also highly squishy ones.

The plant is reminiscent of a weeping willow, with long, rope like branches that sway to and fro. It starts life as a spore, released by an elder plant. It lies dormant until it finds its way into a moist, humid environment such as a swamp, pond, or a cave pool. From there, it grows into a slime, with thin threads of cells weaving themselves together. As the weave grows stronger, it takes the shape of a small seedling. The threads become larger and more wood-like in appearance and the malsalix becomes a mature plant. A rare few will keep growing like this and become elder plants.

If you have the patience or luck to find and capture one, and elder plant is particularly useful for protecting a room or area. Just provide it a sturdy structure for its central stalk to climb. When it senses invaders, the plant will go on the defensive, filling the area with spores  and poisoning those within the cloud. When the area is full, it lets off its lightning attack, bouncing the energy off of the spores and burning them up in the process. Anyone within the cloud at this time contracts tainted water madness, the disease caused by the plant.

In addition to this spore cloud, the elder plant has the ability to call seedlings to its defense. The immature plants often come up from behind the group, whipping the invaders with their tendrils.

If the combination of these two defenses is not enough to scare away the attackers, the elder plant goes into stage 2 of its defenses. It breaks apart into 5 plants. The central stalk remains, continuing with its spore cloud although no longer able to call seedlings. The other four, the runners, move away, teleporting behind the enemies if possible. These plants remain connected to one another and don't die until they are all defeated.

In addition to its defenses, the malsalix is a component of a number of magic items. Two found in the Lost City are memory pots and paralyzing nets. The former provides a way to steal the powers of an enemy by hitting them with a pot of spores you've attuned yourself to. The other is a net you can throw at an enemy. Not only does it immobilize the enemy on a hit, but while they are in this state, they cannot use anything other than basic attacks.

Personally, I have a certain cave in Newhamshire that is perfect for the malsalix. The local town has been experiencing nightmares for over a year now and they live right near a swamp. I'd love to see some of these plants rise out of the swamp water to ambush the PCs. If you were to use the Malsalix in your game, how might you do it?

Lost City: Jury of Your Peers

Generally when I pitch, one of three things happens. Most often, I hear nothing at all, what we often refer to as the black hole. With some companies, I'll get a thanks but no thanks response. A few times I'll get a "yes, please write that for us" response. The problem for me is that none of these answers tell me what I did right or wrong in the pitch. It's totally possible that I wrote a poor pitch but had a truly awesome idea or that the pitch was solid but the idea itself was weak.

With Open Design, it's a bit different. In my last post, I mentioned the steps I went through to create my first pitch, The Waterworks of Kradalhu. What came after was a bit nerve-wracking but well worth it. Since Open Design projects follow the patron model, patrons often get to vote on the options available and, in that way, help decide what ends up in the final project. Often we use polls to do this and discuss in forums before, during and after the vote. So in the case of the adventure pitches, Logan gathered all of the pitches and put them in one post with an accompanying poll. He stripped identifying information from the pitches. Then, people were encouraged to discuss what they liked or didn't like about the pitches.

If you think sending pitches into a black hole is scary, then you haven't had your work critiqued in a forum. Yeah, I was nervous as heck about it, but I knew that this was the best way for me to learn a few things. First, sometimes I feel a bit like an imposter when it comes to game design. It's my own brain, but because I gained popularity with this blog and on twitter before I did any formal design, I sometimes worry that while my words are good, my design is not. By taking my name off of the pitch, I didn't have to worry that people were going to vote for it because I wrote it. It may sound silly, but it is what it is.

Another lesson the exercise reinforced is that we are all there to make the best product we can. What I mean is that I had to remind myself not to take any of the criticism or questions personally. It's really hard sometimes too. It's easy to focus just on the time or energy you spent on what you wrote and dismiss others' criticism or requests as the product of jealousy or that they just don't get your vision. The truth is, they don't have to get it. It's possible that your vision is wrong for the book, wrong for the market, or just poorly explained. But at the end of the day, it's not about you, it's about the product.

In addition, since the pitches were supposed to remain anonymous during the voting period, I couldn't respond to any comments about my pitch, whether they were good or bad. Reading others talk about something you wrote is an invaluable experience, made all the more so by the inability to reply. If you can stomach it, it means you actually have to listen to what other people are saying about it. It gives you the chance to look at what you created from a different point of view. You don't always have to agree with their view, but if you can understand where they are coming from, there's a good chance it will make the product even better. Once I let my natural defensiveness go, it was one of the best experiences ever and definitely helped me later on when we got to the writing phase.

Finally, Logan gave a short critique on each submission. Getting that sort of feedback from someone who does this is well worth the price of admission. Also, we got to see his critiques on everyone's work, which means I can go through each one, see what the author did and see what Logan thought.

So that was the voting phase and much of what I learned from it. I also learned that I will totally hit that refresh button every 15 minutes for days on end to see how many votes I had. But that's another story. :)

Lost City: Learning to Pitch

Last night I got wonderful news. My first ever RPG project, Lost City, is finally finished and out the door. This means quite a few things. People other than patrons can finally view it, comment on it, and hopefully play it. I also feel better about writing about it because I know that what I write about will be what everyone else sees.

So what is Lost City? It's a 4e adventure sourcebook for levels 14-17 published by Open Design. A crack team of designers and patrons (ok, I might be biased) took on the challenge, led by Logan Bonner. It centers on Kadralhu, a once-great city lost beneath the shifting sands. One of my favorite things about it is it's a sandbox adventure. We provide some structure if you want to use it, but PCs have a lot of choice in what they do and how they do it. In addition to providing a city and some locations within it, we provide some new creatures, some interesting twists on old ones, encounters, skill challenges, magic items and more. If you want more info, check out the Kobold Quarterly blog post, the store pages for the product (pdf, print), or the previews (The Forbidden Archive, Trignotarbs, Oklu Roles and Themes, Malsalix)

My main contribution to the project is the waterworks. It might seem like a strange thing to focus on in for a city buried under tons of sand in the middle of a desert. But, when we wrote our initial round of pitches, we didn't have a clear idea of what the city looked like, either currently or in its glory. In part, the pitches were meant to decide what shape the city would take.

I tend to work better when I can take a small nugget of something tangible and build out from there. So I had to figure out something that was tangible to me, gave some flavor to the city we built, while still being flexible to work with whatever everyone else brought to the table. After some brainstorming, the idea for the waterworks was born. Most cities, even in fantasy settings need water. Whatever carried the water around the city, whether it's pipes, channels or portals, could help the PCs get around a city overrun with sand, providing a practical benefit.

Next came the fun part, populating it with creepy crawlies. I spent hours pouring through the monster manuals I owned trying to find creatures of the right level that made sense in the city. I didn't see a ton there that struck me as perfect for this project. The two that I most liked were the Shambling Mound (mainly for the opulent bathhouse scene) and the Chuul (because they are just awesome), so I added them into the pitch.

Finally, I wanted to make the waterworks more important to the city. Much of the history of the city was still a blank canvas. I remembered the stories I had heard as a kid about people trying to put LSD in the NYC reservoirs. Knowing that we had the Oklu, a race who acted as servants for the original inhabitants of the city, I wondered what would happen if a few of them had poisoned the water supply to gain the upper hand on their masters. What if the waterworks master was blamed for the downfall and thrown into the waterworks, never to be seen again?

I worked on refining and expanding these ideas for two weekends. I asked trusted friends to give me feedback on it and I worked and reworked the language. For a first real pitch, I'm still pretty proud of it. And yes, I think it's hilarious that I was pitching a dungeon of sorts at the same time I wrote posts against some types of them on my blog.

So what did all of this teach me about ptiching?

  • Rarely does the idea come all at once. Heck, some of the best stuff from the section had seeds in the pitch but it wasn't until I spent more time playing with the ideas that they became awesome.
  • Getting a group of friends to brainstorm with helps a ton. It's great if you can find people who don't have the same exact tastes as you do but who understand that some things are a difference of style rather than being inherently good or bad. Not everyone in your group has to like every idea, but if most of them don't like it, you might want to rethink your idea.
  • The scariest part is often the fear of rejection. If you let that get to you, you've lost the game from the start.

Crafting Items

In my last post, "Waste Not, Want Not," I gave some guidelines for harvesting parts from fallen beasts. In that article, I didn't include information for adjudicating a PC creating their own equipment from those parts. Instead, it suggests they find an NPC crafter to do it instead, giving them a discount on the new magic item. One reason for this is that I was, and still am, in love with Mike Mearl's article, "Who You Know, What You Know." By asking PCs to rely on others in the world, it gives me more opportunities to add richness and diversity. If they can go out and do everything themselves, I'm forced to do more work.

However, maybe you have a player in your group who loves to do this stuff. They are a weapon and armor history buff and want to provide some historical detail to the game or they enjoy finding new ways to use items. So what should you do in these situations?

The exact answer will depend a lot on what type of game you all want. Does your group like to get detailed with their actions or would they rather handwave certain details? Also, do they find trying and failing fun? Some groups like getting into the nitty-gritty of their characters lives and prefer a higher rate of failure than other groups.

Steps to Crafting an Item

  • Gather the components
  • Create a mundane version of the item, e.g. a set of bracers, hide armor
  • Enchant the item

Is crafting the item interesting?

Each group is likely to have their own answer to this. Personally, I'm not a fan of restriction-heavy games so I tend to be much more lenient with what I let my players do and like to do the same as a player. This doesn't mean I think my half-elf rogue with a +0 strength modifier is going to be forging swords any time soon. For my group, I'd probably just ask the player if he or she thought this was something her character would be able to do. If the response is yes, then I'd ask him or her to note it on the character sheet and viola a mundane sword is created.

If you want to make them roll, try to make it interesting. Failing to make a mundane item after gathering the resources for it should be pretty infrequent. One way to handle it would be to have them roll a check and how well they do determines the quality of the item they can make. So if they are making a weapon, perhaps beating a hard DC means they can make up to a superior weapon, medium means up to military, easy means simple only. Anything below that is akin to an improvised weapon. I would set the DC equal to the level of the creature killed although I can see an argument that it should just be the level 1 DCs regardless of the PCs' level. Another way to handle it would be to set the DC for the exact item they want to create. You can use DCs similar to the above method but feel free to add to them if they want to do something really fancy. If they fail at the check, still let them create the item. If they are going to turn it into a magic item later, perhaps they can enchant it only to 2 levels below them.

As for what skill to use, well that would depend on the item being crafted. For a carved, wooden holy symbol, I could see thievery, nature or religion working well. Athletics and dungeoneering seem to be decent fits for anything forged from metal. In my games, I would concentrate on making a check for whatever addition to the item makes it interesting. For instance, if a player wanted his PC to make a chest with a false bottom, I wouldn't ask for a check to create the chest. Instead, the only check would be on how well hidden the secret area was. For this, I'd probably use Stealth although I'd be open to thievery and bluff as well, at a much higher DC. I would also note the result in my notes and ask the player to add it to his character sheet.

Making it Magical

At the end of this process, the group should have a mundane item of some sort. Now comes the less-interesting part, making it magical. Why did I call it less interesting? Well a rule already exists for this in a way. The 4th level enchant magic item is the standard way of giving ordinary items something cool. Truth is, I don't like it. It sidesteps the DM's desire to control access to certain items and doesn't add anything to the story. It doesn't even require a check and its use of arcana seems strange to me if what I'm doing is making a holy symbol. I mean, it's not necessarily a bad way to handle it, especially given the limits of the 4e system, but it's not a great way either. It feels like one of those things added for legacy reasons.

In my game, I would limit enchant magic item to common items, not uncommon or rare. This fits with the information given about the item tiers as well. Anything else would be truly bespoke. As a DM, I would work closely with the player and the group to figure out what they wanted from the item and a fair way for them to get it. Perhaps they have to travel to a crafting expert and work under that person's supervision for a week or a month. Another option would be to require a special component or for it to be forged in a special place, perhaps even giving them a discount on the overall cost.

Item Breakage

While my world tends to have a fair degree of magic, something tells me that these items should have a degree of uncertainty to them. I might suggest to my players a variation of the Dark Sun breakage rules. Here's a rough draft of what I'd tweak.

  • On a critical miss, they can decide to press forward with their attack (giving them a reroll), but a mundane crafted weapon automatically breaks and a crafted magic one breaks on a natural roll of 1-5.
  • When you are the recipient of a critical hit, you can reduce the damage of the hit by 1/2 if you sacrifice a crafted item, to 0 if the item is irrecoverably destroyed. Repairs can be handled similar to the original creation for sacrificed items.

    Those are some of my thoughts on item crafting. What are yours?

Waste Not, Want Not

Adventurers love their gear and for good reason. Not only is it integral to what they do, but each item represents a part of their life story. For this reason, few items are as unique or as treasured as those crafted from parts of monsters slain by the adventurer himself. Anyone with enough coin can own a +2 suit of steel plate armor. A custom-made one crafted from the scales of an iron gorgon, however, tells the world that the wearer is an individual capable of defeating such a beast. All that is required to own these items is a little luck and skill on the part of the adventurer to harvest the parts from the fallen beast, find a skilled craftsmen and commission the new magic item.

Finding and Working with Craftsmen

To commission these items, the adventurers need to find a master craftsman. Not every weaponmaker can craft a mace from a manticore’s tail just as not every leatherworker knows the secrets of a destrachan’s hide. One way to convey this information in the game world is to have a custom-crafted item be part of or the purpose of a quest. Perhaps a pack of shadow hounds is harassing a local town and the head of its guard mentions a nearby tanner who can preserve the hounds’ hides and a seamstress who can turn them into a fine cloak.

Another way to inform the PCs is to make this information available as part of a streetwise check (easy DC). For instance, if the characters need to perform a complicated ritual in an area frequently hit by lightning, the wizard may recall the story of a similar situation (history or arcana, moderate DC) where the caster used a staff made from the appendages of a shambling mound to protect him against the hazard. Through a streetwise check, the party learns of a nearby craftsman who is capable of making such a weapon.

Once they find a master craftsman, the characters negotiate the manufacture of their item. Many craftsman desire these jobs as they show off their skills and fine workmanship. In addition, this work is often a welcomed respite from the more mundane items they are asked to produce.

The items created are one level lower than the originating creature. By providing the raw materials, the character receives a 20% discount on the cost of the item. Many vendors barter for additional raw materials, reducing the price further. If PCs prefer gold instead of the discount, they may sell the materials for 50% of the discount amount. However, not all merchants have that amount of gold available to them.

Harvesting

After a suitable creature is found and killed, characters need to process the remains. A PC does this through a harvest check which represents her ability to dismember the creature in the field.

Harvest check (skill based on monster keyword, moderate DC based on the creature’s level) - Characters may make only one check on a creature’s body. Failure renders the remains unusable. The harvest process takes 1 hour although the time is reduced to 30 minutes if the check result succeeds by 5 or more.

Preserving

For longer term storage and transport, the parts need to be preserved. Characters without preservation powder need to make a heal check once per day (moderate DC based on origin creature’s level) to determine if the items they are carrying have degraded. They make one check for all the items they are carrying. After three failed checks, the item has degraded to the point of being useless. Feel free to make this optional if your players aren't interested in making preservation checks.

Preservation Powder - These small crystals prevent decay and extend the storage time of materials.
Level 5 - Extends the storage time to 30 days from kill. Cost: 20 GP
Level 15 - Extends the storage time to 60 days from kill. Cost: 40 GP
Level 25 - Extends the storage time to 90 days from kill. Cost: 80 GP

Skills to Keywords

Arcana - Construct, Elemental, Fey, Shadow
Dungeoneering - Aberrant
Nature - Natural
Religion - Immortal, Undead

Harvesting Kit - Contained in a medium-sized leather roll, a harvesting kit contains the tools needed to skin beasts, pry off exoskeletons and store the remains. This kit grants a +2 bonus to the harvest skill check. It costs 50 GP and weighs 5 pounds.

Example Magic Items

Destrachan Armor - Level 8

Carefully stitched together from destrachan hides, this close-fitting armor augments the wearer’s hearing and attacks while quieting his movements.
Armor: leather, hide
Enhancement: +2 AC
Property: You gain resist 5 thunder damage.
Property: You gain a +2 item bonus to perception and stealth checks.

Iron Gorgon Armor - Level 10

Formed from the scales of an iron gorgon, this suit of armor helps defenders stand their ground and avoid being turned to stone.
Armor: Plate
Enhancement: +2 AC
Property: At the end of your turn, if you are petrified, remove the condition.
Power (Encounter): Immediate Interrupt. Trigger: You are hit with a power with a push, pull or slide effect. Effect: You may make a saving throw with a +2 item bonus against the forced movement.

Shambling Mound Weapon - Level 8

Woven from the ropelike arms of a shambling mound, this weapon allows the wielder to absorb part of a lightning attack and then redirect it to another target.
Weapon: Staff, Spear, Polearm, Whip
Enhancement: +2 attack rolls and damage rolls
Critical: +2d6 damage
Property: When you wield this weapon, you gain resist 5 lightning damage. If you are hit with an attack with the lightning keyword, you add +1d6 lightning damage to the first damage roll before the end of your next turn.
Power (Daily * Lightning): Immediate Interrupt. Trigger: You are hit by a power with the lightning keyword. Effect: You take half damage. Choose one creature within 5 squares of you. That creature takes the remainder of the damage. If you do not choose a creature, you take full damage.

Manticore Mace - Level 9

Thick iron spikes protrude out of this fearsome mace. On a hit, they break off deep in their victim’s flesh only to regenerate over the course of the day.
Weapon: Mace
Enhancement: +2 attack rolls and damage rolls.
Critical: +2d6 damage
Property: When you hit with a melee basic attack, the target gains ongoing 2 damage (save ends).
Power (Daily): Free Action. Trigger: You hit with an attack using this weapon. Effect: Close burst 1. All creatures in the burst take 2 ongoing damage (save ends) and are pushed 1 square.

Hooked Horror Polearm - Level 12

Crafted from the arm of a hooked horror, this weapon increases momentum and ensures the creature stays where directed.
Weapon: Polearm
Enhancement: +3 to attack rolls and damage rolls
Critical: +3d6 damage
Property: If an attack made with this polearm causes a pull or slide effect, increase the distance of that effect by 1 square and the target is restrained (save ends).

Shadow Hound Cloak - Level 5

Coveted by assassins, this cloak deepens the shadows around it, hiding the wearer until the time is right for the perfect strike.
Item Slot: Neck
Enhancement: +1 Fortitude, Reflex and Will
Property: When you teleport next to an enemy, you gain combat advantage against it until the end of your turn and you gain a +2 item bonus to a damage roll you make this turn.
Power (Daily): Minor Action. When you activate this power, you gain an aura 1 until the end of your next turn. The aura reduces bright light to dim and dim light to darkness.

Kruthik Bracers - Level 3

The hard exoskeleton of the adult kruthik is lined with poisonous spikes which penetrate the enemies defenses when you get up close and personal.
Item Slot: Arms
Property: When you hit with a melee basic attack, you deal an extra 2 poison damage.
Property: When you have a creature grabbed, the target receives a -2 penalty to escape checks.

Inclusivity in Gaming

Recently we’ve had another round of discussions on inclusiveness in gaming. I admire all the participants for tackling such a thorny subject, even if I don't always agree with their approaches or their opinions. After having a few such conversations of my own in the recent past, I was going to shy away from the topic. It's not that I don't care about the topic or am afraid to speak out, it's just that, well, I'm really busy right now creating wonderful, awesome stuff. However, someone recently pointed me out as the exception to a complainer rule and I felt the need to say something.

Here’s my overly simplified version of how to get more of group x into the gaming community, perhaps as players or, hopefully, as content creators in the industry: “Don’t focus on getting more of group x.” Ok, that probably sounds really weird and a bit like sacrilege. But I warned for a reason that it was oversimplified.

I have two reasons for suggesting it. First, it’s unlikely that the average person not part of group x will come across a grand new strategy for recruiting people of that group into the game. Sure, people who have training or a deep interest in learning about marketing, sociology or psychology might be able to, but many industries use focus groups for a reason. Second, the goal isn’t to just get any random person of group x into the industry. The key is to get a diverse group of competent, resourceful, enthusiastic people. Give them power and a voice; listen to and honestly consider what they say.

Now here comes the hard part. How do you find these people? I mean, there are tons of people who want to write for RPG companies, especially the big ones. But finding a unique voice, a different point of view, is a lot harder. And for the most part, companies are limited in the amount of outreach they can do. Without outreach, finding new blood in general can be difficult, finding new blood from non-traditional groups can be downright impossible.

Why? Have you ever been outside of your comfort zone before? Maybe you arrived at a party dressed in jeans and everyone else was in a suit or you stopped somewhere to eat on the road, walked in the door and everyone stared at you. Even if it hasn’t happened to you, I bet you’ve seen a movie about it. If not, watch Animal House sometime and note your reaction when they stop at a roadhouse to see Otis Day & the Knights. The awkwardness and the feeling you do not belong can be overwhelming.

For someone who is not part of the traditional group, we’re often asking them to put themselves in this exact situation. Many people will look around for that one person who looks like them; that symbol that’s it’s ok to be here. Maybe it’s gender or skin color or just the way a person dresses or speaks. Having that perceived safety zone often gives people the confidence they need to make the next step or at least not bolt through the door. Let’s be honest, being a content creator requires a certain amount of, well, intestinal fortitude to put one’s self out there. To ask them to be the unicorn of the group as well is a lot to ask.

But until we have those unicorns step forward, the pace of change is going to be slow, so slow that people will wonder if it’s worth it. Instead of looking at the situation, they’ll say things like “women just aren’t interested in gaming.” Companies who pour resources into making the industry more inclusive might not see a return on their investment. The slow pace also means that outsiders are less likely to see the changes that have been made. The current state of the community will reinforce all the bad things they heard, making it even harder.

So what can we do?

  • When you see someone who creates great content, don’t assume that 1) they know that know that they create great content and 2) they know the opportunities out there for them. We’re not in an industry/hobby with a ton of awards and outsiders and newcomers might not know all of the magazines, blogs, forums, etc that cover the industry. On top of it, the anonymity and coldness of the Internet can cause people to second guess themselves. Until I went to cons, I had no idea of that people really liked what wrote and were interested in having me write more. When I got the ENnie honorable mention for best blog, I was totally confused. I honestly thought they had made a mistake or that the field must not have been strong. It didn't occur to me that I had something awesome to offer right now, not years from now.
  • Be a mentor or a cheerleader. It would have taken me much longer to get involved as a freelancer if I didn’t have so many great mentors and cheerleaders. Chris Tulach, Greg Bilsland, and Trevor Kidd all encouraged me to pitch to Dungeon and Dragon and to attend GenCon. Matt James saw the stuff I was doing and asked me to write for Loremaster. Jeff Greiner saw me complaining about skill challenges and invited me on as a guest on the Tome Show. Chris Sims, Robert Schwalb, Owen Stephens, Wolfgang Baur, and Stephen Radney-Macfarland listen to my fears and give me encouragement. Grim from Postmortem Studios published my adventure. I have many more examples like these. They gave me that prod, listened to my questions, and gave me a kick in the behind when I needed it. Just as importantly, they helped me hear about opportunities and gave my name to others.
  • Publishers, if you want to and it’s within your resources, search for some new talent. I know this can be difficult. You have more people who want to write for you than you know what to do with. Many of you are “mom and pop” organizations and this may be your second or third job. You may have been burned by newcomers before and find it hard to justify going outside of your core group. Believe me, I understand all of this and I know it’s a lot to ask. But if you can, start small. Keep an eye out for writers and artists you love. Instead of turning a large project over to a newcomer with little direction or instruction, find something smaller and do some hand holding. It could be a portion of a chapter, an article you wish someone would write, anything really. Go to the newcomer and say, “I love what you write and we’re looking for some new talent. Would you like to write something for us?” Yeah, it’s different, but many of these talented people may have looked at what is currently being produced and who is producing it and said to themselves that people like them aren’t wanted or they aren’t good enough to do it themselves. Tech conferences have been using these and similar tactics to get more female speakers, and things are improving there.
  • For people like me, well, keep doing what you do. Pour your heart and soul into your projects. Reach for the stars! Keep asking if there is anything you can do to help, even if it's playtesting, copy editing, booth setup or tear down, or running games at cons. Realize that you are building a community, changing minds, and that things take time. Every so often, look back to see what you’ve accomplished and see what you are giving back to the community. Find ways to provide the opportunities for others that were provided for you. When you see talented new creators, tell them you like what they create and tell others about them. Also, realize that being the trailblazer can take a lot out of you. Constantly being out of your element takes a lot of effort. You need to rest and recharge. Get a core group of friends to provide support and don’t have all of them be in the hobby/industry.
  • To the community, I’m not sure what to say. Many of you have been so incredibly awesome and supportive, I don’t have enough years left in my life to repay the kindness you’ve paid me. That said, if you want to do more, look at what you do and the traditions of our hobby with a critical eye. I’m not saying banish sexy images in artwork or make everything so squeaky clean that it’s dull. When you game in public, look at how you and the other people at the table react to newcomers who happen to show up. Consider whether the covers of your books might entice a new person to play or do they reinforce stereotypes about the games? Are you willing to accommodate people of a different background in your group, whether its gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, food preference, favorite sports team, etc? If you honestly want new and different people at your table, understand that it might mean being open to some changes. And most importantly, view and treat these people like individuals. Few things trigger my alarms as often as the feeling that I’m “the woman at the table.” Honestly, when I play, I want to be a fellow gamer. I want to be picked for a team because I’m just that good, not because of my gender.

These things helped me and hopefully they’ll help others too.

Guest Post: Using Weather in Your Game

Weather can be a tricky topic in games. Try to model it too closely, and the DM and players quickly get lost in details that don't really help the plot. Make it too random and players might call foul and say the DM uses only to his or her advantage. Fortunately, Scott, @ScottyMet on Twitter and a meteorologist, came to rescue. Below is his guest post on how to bring weather into your game. Besides Twitter, you can find him online on his blog, Always a Gamer.

Patterning Weather

Real-world weather is based on the complex interaction of many factors, all combining
at the same time, in a seemingly completely random fashion. So complicated are all the
processes that go into weather that real-world forecasts are still only reliable out to about
24 hours, after which the uncertainty grows progressively larger, and the accuracy of
predictions gets worse. However, rather than random, weather does happen in a straight-
forward cause-and-effect way. The behavior of a specific “parcel” of air can be tracked,
and how that parcel will react to changes in temperature, humidity, pressure, etc, can be
accurately predicted. However, the reason weather prediction is so difficult is simply
the fact that there are billions of these “parcels” surrounding the planet, all interacting
with their neighbors, influencing them and being influenced by them, while at the same
time moving around the planet, interacting with different terrain, and rising and falling
between different heights. Computers simply aren’t powerful enough to work with all this
information, all at the same time, and still produce predictions in a timely manner.

In gaming, especially running the game as a Dungeon Master, we have the benefit of
being in complete control over the environment that our players’ characters live in,
including the weather. We decide if it is raining or snowing or a bright sunny day, and we
decide when that weather will change and what it will change too. Furthermore, since it is
a world with magic, the weather can change to anything we want on a whim, going from
a bright, sunny, warm day to a raging snowstorm burying the countryside in a matter of
moments. Such drastic changes are typically to drive the story, but there are times when
you simply want weather to progress along more natural path.

In the past, there have been several attempts to design weather systems for games. They
all involve rolling dice to determine what happens, and then more dice to determine
what happens next. Those systems never felt right, and the results were, ultimately,
unsatisfying. Dealing with weather progression doesn’t need tables and dice, though. It
doesn’t require the DM to keep complex records. If you want this kind of detail in your
game, it is as simple as picking a starting point, and following some fairly simple rules
after that.

For your starting point, simply pick your weather conditions. Think about what time of
year it is, what climate your locale is in, and if there are any particular conditions you
need to start. Many adventures start with inclement weather, to drive adventurers indoors,
to where the action occurs. It isn’t necessary, of course, but it happens enough for it to be
a cliché. Don’t let that deter you, though. It’s a cliché because it works!


Once you have your starting conditions, you just need to progress things from there.

Rainy or snowy conditions are due to a region of low pressure. Winds generally blow
counterclockwise around this region, spiral inwards towards the center of the region, and
are stronger the closer to the center of the region you are. This region, if you could see
the boundaries between the air masses that make up the system, would look like a notch-
shaped valley cut into the side of a hill. The base of the western side of the valley would
be the cold front, the slope on that side would be tall, steep, and rounded. The base of
the eastern side of the valley would be the warm front, and the slope on that side would
be long and shallow. Precipitation occurs as warm, humid air blows from the south and
southwest, up these slopes, cooling as it rises, and produces clouds and rain or snow.
Because the slope of the warm front is shallow and gradual, precipitation in this area
tends to be steady and wide spread. With the steep slope of the cold front, air rises very
quickly ahead of it, and the weather you get along this front is more energetic, producing
showers or flurries, thunderstorms or snowstorms. Behind the cold front, winds swing
around to the northwest, the precipitation tapers off, and the skies clear.

Warm, sunny weather is typically due to a region of high pressure. Winds blow clockwise
around this region, spiral outwards from the middle, and are weaker the closer to the
center you are. This region would look like a wide dome. Temperatures are generally
cooler on the east side of this region, where the winds blow generally from the north, and
warmer on the west side of the region, where the winds blow generally from the south.
Heat waves and droughts can be associated with these regions, depending on the time of
year and how persistent they are in an area.

There is some variation in the cycle, of course, but generally an area will go through a
cycle from high pressure to low pressure to high pressure to low pressure and so on. How
long it takes to go from one to the next is really up to you and what you need for your
adventures.

So, if you wanted the weather to progress realistically in the area of your adventures, you
could have the PCs seeking refuge from miserable, rainy weather, taking refuge in some
caves, only to discover that it is the lair for a tribe of goblins. After defending themselves
from the attacks of their unwilling hosts, they discover that the goblins are allied with
tribes of hobgoblins and bugbears that are planning something big, and the goblins
were going to meet them soon after the rain stops. Setting out to find these other tribes,
the rains end, and some warmer weather sets in for the journey. As the PCs approach
their destination, they see storms gathering on the horizon, with flashes of lightning
illuminating a tower in the distance. These storms roll through as the PCs assault the
hobgoblin encampment, with driving rain, strong winds, and thunder and lightning
covering their movements and fighting. Moving on from the hobgoblin camp, they make
their way to the tower they saw. The storms have moved on now, still visible flashing
off to the east. As the PCs travel to the west, the winds grow lighter, turn to blow from
the south and the weather becomes sweltering hot, humid and stagnant by the time they
arrive at the tower and the encampment of the bugbears, possibly giving the PCs a chance
to sneak by weary, complaining guards, or perhaps catch them unawares.

The weather details in this scenario aren’t necessary, but they add some interesting
flavor to the adventure, and even open up some possible avenues for the PCs to approach
their encounters in a slightly different way or grant them some benefits if they use the
situations to their advantage.

Predicting Weather

PCs can predict the weather with a Nature skill check. The higher the roll, the farther out
the forecast can give details for.

DC Easy – next 3 hours
DC Moderate – next 6 hours
DC Hard – next 12 hours

The forecaster can get fairly general information about the longest period their roll
exceeds the DC for. For each successively shorter period, details increase.

What you can tell for the time period:

  • Where you likely are, in reference to high or low pressure, or warm or cold fronts.
  • Whether cloud cover will increase or decrease.
  • Whether wind direction will change and whether wind speeds will increase or decrease.
  • Whether temperature will increase or decrease, and generally by how much.
  • Whether humidity will increase or decrease, and generally by how much.
  • Potential for precipitation.

For the farthest period you have details for, you can know two of the above points (your
choice). For the next closest period, you can know four of the above points (your choice),
and for the next closest period, you can know all of them. Thus, exceeding the Hard
DC will give the forecaster two details about the forecast for 6-12 hours from now, four
details for 3-6 hours, and all of the details for the period for the first 3 hours.

Weather effects

There are some general effects that can be applied to encounters, based on the weather.

  • Strong winds can cause challenging terrain. Succeed at an Athletics check to move
    normally, otherwise experience difficult terrain when moving against the wind, or be
    pushed one square in the direction of the wind when traveling across the wind or with the
    wind.
  • Gusting winds act as Strong winds, above, but happen intermittently. At the beginning
    of each round, roll 1d6. On a 5 or 6, the winds gust until the end of the round. Increase
    the range on the die for more frequent gusting.
  • Fog, rain, or snow cause lightly obscured conditions, granting partial concealment when
    not adjacent to an attacker.
  • Thick Fog, heavy rain, or heavy snowfall cause heavily obscured conditions, granting
    partial concealment when adjacent to an attacker, and total concealment when not
    adjacent to an attacker.
  • Frigid cold or sweltering heat can be used as a zone, which attacks anyone in the area.
    Attack vs Fortitude, inflicting ongoing cold or fire damage, respectively (save ends).

Weather can even be the target of an encounter, or one of the targets. As an example,
here is the Stormrage Cyclone, a level 5 Solo. The design of this “creature” involves
three successive auras, each with their own attack, and an attack for when an opponent
ends their turn adjacent to the cyclone. Note that, although the Cyclone has hit points
and defenses, it is not a living creature, and does not have a will of its own. It makes its
way across the encounter map, possibly having some randomness in its movement, and
affecting every combatant on the battlefield. It can be attacked and destroyed, with force
and cold attacks having the greatest effect on it, but it is meant more as a hazard than a
direct opponent.
Stormrage CycloneStormrage Cyclone

Eowyn and the Nazgul

If you are at all interested in the art of D&D and all of the hard work behind it, you should read Jon Schindehette's blog, The ArtOrder. I had the honor of interviewing Jon for The Tome Show and he's a really nice guy who knows his stuff and loves to teaches others about art. Currently, his site is running a challenge in which artists are asked to depict the famous scene of Eowyn and the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings.

What's awesome about this challenge is how difficult it is. The scene involves a woman disguised as a man. Not only is the disguise so good that acquaintances don't recognize her but the Nazgul himself, one of Sauron's most powerful servants, doesn't seem to notice. Yet the viewer of the painting needs to know who she is. Such subtlety is often difficult to accomplish and I think it's one of the reasons so much of fantasy art exaggerates the feminine form. However, the difficulty, at least in my mind goes beyond that. The Nazgul is invisible. His body outline is defined by the clothing and armor that he wears. Also, do you hint at the locale? Do you include her uncle? Merry? Which part of the scene do you depict? How do you depict the strength of the Nazgul, his aura of despair? So many interesting questions.

Since the challenge started, a number of artists have shared and discussed their work on the ArtOrder ning site in the work in progress forum. In addition to seeing lots of awesome drawings and paintings, the comments and critiques are teaching me a lot about the artist's craft. I hope having a basic understanding of the constraints artists work under will help me write better art orders in the future, especially by giving me an understanding of what might be too much to handle in one scene.

As if the comments in the forums weren't enough, the Muddy Colors crew, who are also serving as judges, wrote critiques of some of the WIP submissions on their website. The first critique post explains a bit about the challenge an what the judges are looking for in an entry. While this challenge is for fun (and some prizes), it is still an art order, there is a specific story being told. They also remind the artists that fans of Lord of the Rings and the scene will look for certain touchstones in the piece. Also, this isn't necessarily about being cool or clever; it's about representing a well-known scene and, hopefully, some of the emotions that comprise it. While writers have words for these things, I envy the artist's ability to use color, lines, even the paint strokes themselves to convey emotion.

After this introduction, they dive into the critiques. Seeing their words next to the artist's work helps a ton. It gives me insight into how they judge the work and I can use the picture to understand what they are trying to say. It also helped me feel better about my own thoughts about the pieces. For instance, I was really annoyed by the submission that had Eowyn fighting in a dress. The artist wanted to make this a story about the feminine Eowyn fighting against the masculine Nazgul. While I respect any artist's desire to interpret as they wish, I don't think the story has the same impact then. The story, in my mind, is not about femininity and making it about her being a woman takes away from her story. Let's not forget, she kills a ring wraith, a creature whose mere presence caused men to lose hope and wish only for death.

The Nazgûl came again . . . like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men's flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death. — The Return of the King, p.97

The Muddy Colors crew also did a second round of critiques. I can't wait to see all the finished pieces and which one the judges pick as the winner. If you want to see more renditions of this scene, check out the original post on the Muddy Color's website.

Pathfinder Adventure Path: Serpent's Skull - Souls for Smuggler's Shiv

When I visited my parents for Easter weekend, I stopped by the friendly local gaming store (FLGS) in the area, Dragon's Den. My husband wanted to pick up a video game for my dad and I wanted to check out the RPG books section to see what they had. My main goal was to find a Pathfinder adventure I could read and see if anything else caught my eye.

So I have to be honest. When it comes to spending money, I'm very picky about which adventures I buy. I'm pretty sure the only 4e adventure I've bought is Logan Bonner's The Slaying Stone and that was after I heard a lot of good reviews from people I trust. The truth is my gaming group isn't a big fan of published adventures and I'm pretty good at creating adventures that we all enjoy.

That said, I had heard some really good stuff about Paizo's adventures in general and about the Pathfinder Adventure Paths in particular. So I decided to take a look at them while I was at the store. The only one I saw was Serpent's Skull - Souls for Smuggler's Shiv. I flipped through it at the store and saw enough to make me buy it.

It's just pure luck (in my opinion) that I ended up with the first chapter of a multiple chapter adventure path. It was displayed front-facing, so when I picked it, I never saw the information on the spine and as someone new to the series, I had no idea I should look there. That said, I'm glad it worked out so well because I really enjoyed reading the adventure. It matched up to everything I had heard about Paizo products.

The Adventure

A deadly storm shipwrecks the passengers and crew of the Jenivere upon infamous Smuggler's Shiv, an island off the coast of the jungle realm of Sargava. If they're to have any hope of escaping the notorious pirates' graveyard, the survivors will need to band together and outwit the isle's strange beasts and legendary menaces. - Back Cover

Ok, it might be a bit unfair but I immediately thought of it as a bad-ass Survivor: Smuggler's Shiv. Players can find a lot of things for their characters to do on the island, everything from building campsites to exploring shipwrecks to going up against wild and dangerous creatures. While not everything may be as it seems, some things are exactly what they look like, deadly!

The adventure itself is written as a sandbox. Players drive the story entirely through their actions. However, the GM has a number of NPCs and other ways of providing hints to the players. It also provides suggestions to the GM how to handle the situation when the players don't take the bait to explore the secrets of the island. I don't want to go into more specifics than that out of fear of spoiling the plot. That said, I would love to use the setting for the adventure in a my normal 4e games as well.

Special Rules and NPCs

In my mind, the product really shines when it comes to the special rules and the NPCs. Each NPC has just enough backstory for the GM to get a good idea of how to run him or her and to provide some tensions for the players to react to without being overwhelming. They have unique personality traits which hint at bits of their history or personality without hitting players over the head with it. I really like Gelik Aberwhinge and his little sayings about things one needs to do to be taken seriously.

The special rules are also well done. In addition to handling basics such as food and water, it covers environmental hazards such as disease and heat. It also provides information for setting up a base camp and handling roles within the camp: defender, entertainer, guard, hunter and medic. Each role provides a benefit to the enterprise and can be done by the PCs or NPCs. Finally, there are rules for dealing with Attitude and Morale. Attitude deals with how the NPCs feel about the PCs: hostile, unfriendly, etc, whereas I think of morale as representing intestinal fortitude. How likely is the NPC to help, especially in a dangerous situation.

Ecology

The adventure comes with an ecology article on the Serpentfolk, an ancient powerful race. I particularly enjoyed the sharp distinctions of caste within the race, which gives a number of role-playing hooks itself. I loved the tablet artwork. It sums up a lot of the feel of the race while still being a bit unclear (at least to me) which is perfect for a mysterious new race. The section also adds a new domain, Scalykind. It doesn't say but I believe it's for clerics of the Serpentfolk gods.

Fiction

The book includes a fiction section written by Robin Laws. I really enjoyed it. It sets the tone for the adventure path well without telling the story of the island itself.

Bestiary

I haven't run a Pathfinder game yet, so going through stats doesn't make a lot of sense. The artwork really helps bring the creatures to life, especially since I'm not familiar with a number of the inspirations for them. However, I love that they also included sidebars with information about those bits of inspiration. I love seeing where other designers get their inspiration from and how they tweak and change things to fit better in a fantasy setting.

Overall

I enjoyed the adventure and am interested in running it for my group in one form or another. The adventure, like many of Paizo's products, gives a lot of detail on creating a rich world. Random monster encounters make sense in part because the island is full of deadly foes. Time of day matters and is marked not only by the passage of the sun but the daily rains as well. The NPCs presented are wonderfully well written and I particularly love that each of them has their own quest.

However, I have a few caveats. The first is, it didn't sell me on running a Pathfinder game. I do a lot of these sorts of details in 4e already and I didn't see anything that made me say, "Oh, I must use Pathfinder for this." What that says to me is that Paizo is an awesome company that concentrates on creating a really good story and hires writers and editors who can pull that off. The other thing I'll suggest is that this might not be an adventure for new GMs. Remembering to handle attitude and morale of NPCs, tracking the number of monsters left on the island, reminding players to make environmental effects checks on top of learning how to run an adventure might be too much. I realize that new GMs aren't the intended audience for this book, but since a fair bit of my audience would be new to Pathfinder, I feel it's important to point out. Finally, I find it a bit expensive. I found enough value in it to justify the $20 I spent, but I'm not sure everyone will and I'm not sure I found enough to pay another $100 to get the rest of series.

That said, I'd recommend #37 to anyone, regardless of system, who would like to run an exploration-based adventure with a lot of rich detail. If you are interested in learning more, they have a handy free player's guide to give you more details.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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