Every convention I attend, I try to run games for people through the RPGA, especially Learn to Play. Given how few hours there are in a con and the number of directions I get pulled in at these things, that might seem like it's not the best use of my time. But I'm firmly committed to doing it for a number of reasons: giving back to the community, being an agent of change, and learning more about the game and its players so I can be a better gamer/DM/writer/wood nymph.
One of the things to know about cons is that a fair number of the attendees haven't played for years, if at all, and don't have a home game. This is particularly true at the Learn to Play tables. If no one runs a game for them at the con, they might go another year without rolling dice, especially if they don't have a FLGS or if it doesn't run public play events like Encounters. It becomes harder to overcome the fear and anxiety that newer players sometimes have. Will I be ok at this? Are the rules too hard for me? Will my friends laugh at me because I don't know who Vecna is? I know I worried about that stuff before I started playing and I've had a number of you confess that you do as well. In my opinion, the single most important thing I can do at a con then is to run games for others, help them have fun and hopefully get them to the point where they will play at home. It's my way of giving back to the awesome role-playing game community and a commitment that I take seriously.
Now, I could just sit here on this blog or on twitter and chat about how important these things are. I could lecture and chastise and basically make a bunch of people angry at me. I can say how the DMs in the RPGA aren't all the same and that we have a number of high quality DMs out there. But that's just not me. I want to be on the floor as much as possible showing people that there are many ways to play. When my group sits down at my table, I try to talk to them and figure out what sort of experience they are looking for. Do they take D&D very seriously? Great, it's not what I'm best at, but I'll do my damnedest to make it work. Do they want to have a beer and pretzels kind of game, even at 8 am on a Friday morning? Awesome! The dark, mysterious stranger flirts back with the naughty rogue (as long as the table seems ok with it of course). In my opinion, that's how we change opinions about our game and our DMs and get people seeing the game in the way that makes them happiest.
I learn so much from every game, even the ones I do really well or really poorly at. For example, one of my first tables had a number of older edition players who weren't incredibly happy with some elements of 4e. I think it was my first table of the con and it was really hard for me to translate between editions when they started asking me where cure light wounds was, where the spells were, and why the cleric didn't heal. Arcana and religion checks to do things like disable or activate runes didn't help either since to me, they are spells or prayers but that didn't make sense to them. In some ways, I think 4e was just too free-form for them. On one hand, I empathized and wished I could make it all make sense in a 2 hour game. But as someone who came in with 4e, it just makes sense to me and is so hard to translate. I gave them the best game I could with what I had (I'll have to write about my problems with the Red Box some other time), but it still saddens me that I couldn't do more for them. But you'll be sure that I'll keep this sort of thing in mind when I write or run in the future.
Beyond these reasons, it's just good to get outside of my comfort zone. I know my group pretty well and so as I game I get surprised less and less. For our game play, that's great. But as a writer and fledgling designer, that's really bad. I start making assumptions about my audience and don't always describe things as well as I could. I also get rusty at improv and quick DM rulings.
So those are some of the reasons I run at conventions. Do you run for strangers, maybe through organized play? If so, why?
My first ever Kobold Quarterly article came out in the huge Summer/GenCon issue, #18. My article focuses on minotaurs, and while I might be a tad biased, I think it's awesome. While it ties into their place in the Midgard setting, many of the ideas in the article can easily be used in other settings. Also, while it has the 4e designation attached, very little of the article is crunch, just a table of minotaur knowledge using 4e DCs and a few boons tied to professions.
I wrote this article back in March which was a crazy month for me. For some reason, my writing assignments tend to come in batches and almost always due right around a con. So that month I had PAX East (with the DM challenge), part of a fortune cards article for the Wizards of the Coast website, and this article. While that might not seem like a lot, with a full time job and a bunch of podcasts, it was a bit daunting. What made me even more nervous was that this 1) was an ecology article for Kobold Quarterly, 2) was about minotaurs a race that many people love and which has a long history in D&D, 3) would set some of the canon of Midgard and 4) that Wolfgang likes minotaurs so I knew he would be giving it an especially close look.
My first step was to spend some time familiarizing myself with minotaurs and what was written about them already. Sometimes this is a bit harder for me because I don't have a huge library of D&D sourcebooks. But between the Internet and talking to a couple of people, I found a fair bit of material to use as my base. I also searched through the Midgard forums for anything I thought would be useful for this article. Overall, I spent about 10 days on a combination of research and letting ideas grow. My husband was kind enough to serve as my sounding board and listen to me get excited about things like horn carvings (based off of military or gang tattoos) and ritualized combat.
Next came the writing. I'm not sure how others write, but I tend to write in layers. The first part is filling in the outline. Whatever comes to me that might be interesting goes in. For this article, that meant a lot of uses for mazes since they are one of the key characteristics of the minotaur. This meant everything from coming up with the first blood ritual (done when children turn into adolescents, based on a combination first communion and ritual combat from the Paksenarrion series) to a description of minotaur sailors seeing the ocean's winds as a large labyrinth to navigate. Not everything stayed in the article, but it was good to get it all out on the screen. Once I had a bunch of ideas on the page, it was time to organize and refine them, the first round of editing. Then for each cycle after that, it was about making the whole thing more coherent and tied together along with finer details, such as the colors for the First Blood maze and the minotaur librarian profession.
I also tried to make sure there was something for a broad array of players. I listen to a lot of the chatter about D&D on twitter and elsewhere and I know while there are lots of players who would never go against type, a fair number of people want some broader options. That's why I included the librarian profession and tried to include some non-combat focused options as well. I also tried to maintain a balance between pushing the boundaries from the past and respecting the legend and lore of the game.
So that's the background of the minotaur article. I hope you find it useful in your games, even if it's just to inspire you to do something of your own. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Finally, in case you haven't heard, SarahDarkmagic.com is up for an ENnie award for Best Blog. I'm really honored to be on the list with other great blogs such as Critical Hits, Gnome Stew, At-Will and Thistle Games. If you haven't voted yet, please go and do so.
Black Rock Bandits, my second 6-pack adventure, is out. The band of misfits have been plaguing the King's Road for years, collecting tolls from the caravans as they passed through the Black Rock Hills. This time, however, the caravan leader wouldn't pay and a fight broke out. Several guards were lost in the ensuing fight, along with one of the wagons. However, the remaining guards didn't walk away empty handed; they captured one of the bandits. Unfortunately, he seems a bit out of his mind at the moment. Can you put an end to the notorious Black Rock Bandits? Will you uncover the secrets of their hideout, an old ruin from a forgotten time?
6-Pack adventures provide everything you need to fill 2 to 4 hours of gaming. They come with battle maps, tokens and pre-generated characters. For this adventure, the maps on the front and back work side by side to create a complete mini-dungeon. Also, I limit the pre-generated characters to player options available in player's handbook 1 and 2 for easy reference.
I had a lot of fun working on this adventure. Trying to fit a dungeon on two 8"x11" maps was interesting to say the least. I added a few areas to explore outside of the encounter areas. Here's one.
F. Shrine to Yeenoghu – Long ago, worshippers of Yeenoghu fastened the bones of their victims to the wall in the form of the triple-headed flail. Thick, red water seeps from a crack in the wall above the flail, giving the appearance of blood dripping from the heads of the flail.
J. Hope’s Bedchamber – A feather bed, complete with four posts and bed curtains fills the southeast corner of the room. Across from it is a small dresser, with a silver brush and mirror set, inlaid with semi-precious stones (set worth 50 GP).
You can buy the adventure at RPGNow.
I want to thank all the people who helped me playtest and edit before it was sent to Postmortem Studios.
How could I forget to write about the chuul? I think out of everything I did for Lost City, they were the most fun. Whenever I worked on their section, I would turn to my husband and make claw motions with my hand. *Click-click*
When I was working on my chapter, one of the things I really wanted to do was to make sure everything had a purpose. This was important due to the limitations of designing for Lost City. There were only so many pages in the book and there wasn't enough room to detail every encounter, especially not in the tactical encounter format 4e is known for. Combined with the sandbox-style of the adventure, this meant the DM would have a fair bit of work to do to make things happen. I wanted to give the DMs as much as I could in hopes of making their job easier.
I added chuul to my pitch mainly because they were a vaguely level appropriate monster from the Monster Manual. This was important for a few reasons, but a big one was we weren't sure how much space we would have for monster stat blocks. I also liked the idea of these brutal fighters who could rise out of the water behind one of the PCs and maybe drag them under. I bet you didn't expect that in the middle of a desert.
So the first question I had to answer was why in the world there would be chuul wandering the depths of the Lost City. There aren't any major bodies of water around and the 4e Monster Manual entry didn't give me a whole lot to use. The earlier edition stuff that I could have really used was stripped from the 4e version so that was no good either. I started to get worried, telling myself, "Don't worry. They just are. People will be ok with that."
But that didn't really make me happy either. Then, while waiting for the bus home after one of my writing sessions, I had an idea. They are the Lost City's version of alligators in the sewers. The giants who lived in the Lost City were a brutal lot. It would make sense that they might raise chuul gladiators who would fight to the death. Over time, some of those chuul might find their way to the waterworks and set up their own home down there. As the waterworks became more and more neglected, they would be free to start their own colony and grow in numbers. The giants wouldn't really care, they would help keep any invaders out. To this day, the hatchlings from each batch of eggs fight themselves until only one of them survives.
As the Kadrana’s society grew, so did their hunger for brutal amusements. They created a large arena and held brutal death matches for the ravenous fans. Their favorite creatures were the chuul, a race they came across in their travels. The cannibalistic tendencies of the creatures appealed to the giants’ natural bloodlust, and many homes of the upper classes housed specially crafted aquariums for holding the egg sacs. When the eggs hatched, family and friends would gather around and watch as the siblings battled each other for supremacy. The winners would be raised and cared for by the families, trained to become gladiators in the ring. It was a high honor to raise a champion.
If you want to add some additional chuul encounters, I would suggest having at least one cage match with the creatures, maybe using the burrows idea from the hatchery encounter in Lost City.
This story totally made my Tuesday morning. It sounds like a group bickered in character about how to approach a temple and the youngest child of the DM decided to have some fun. She wandered over to the table, tapped one of them on the shoulder, and offered to sell him the key they needed. The group stayed in character for the bit and it was absolutely wonderful. Please check it out in the Wizards community forums.
"What if I just give you six thousand gold instead?"
"Okay, six thousand gold...and an ice cream cone."
"No. No. I meant six thousand gold and no ice cream."
"No ice cream, no key." she says with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face.
I personally love these stories and it illustrates why I love playing with new players so much. They have a take on the world that I really enjoy. It doesn't matter that there wasn't a key in the DM's notes or that ice cream might not exist in the world. Now, I know it's not for everyone, but it is what I enjoy. Thanks to the author for sharing it, and to Mike Robles and TheAngryDM for sharing it on Twitter.
Recently I've been reading the book Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism by Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles. I have to admit up front that I love the book. It has some issues that I will address later, but overall I've found it interesting and inspiring. It has approximately 75 chapters of individuals and groups of women, spanning from the Amazons to 'Tammy' Duckworth. In addition to these, the book has a number of other stories in sidebars, increasing the overall number quite a bit.
This book is not a rigorous academic exploration of the topic of women in war. That's not to say that the research is bad or it's full of inaccuracies. But if accuracy is very important to you, you might want to at least peek at the book before buying it. It doesn't cite sources and lacks a bibliography. However, the authors seem to have decent credentials. Robin Cross was a Gulf War reporter and a military historian. Dr. Rosalind Miles is a bestselling writer, lecturer and BBC broadcaster. I cross referenced some of the stories in the book with Wikipedia. I didn't really see any obvious omissions, but the wikipedia entry was far more likely to call something out as a myth or legend than the book was.
In my mind, the book really shines as a source of inspiration for stories and games. After reading a chapter, I often thought of a number of adventure hooks and NPCs I wanted to create out of the 3 or so pages of text. In addition, there's just a wide variety of women in the book. Some are much more brash, they directly take up the sword and fight alongside men. Others are efficient leaders, using their social skills and sometimes even feminine wiles to get what they need and want.
Here are some interesting tidbits:
- Caterina Sforza was despatched to Rome in August 1484 to hold the Castel Sant'Angelo. Well-known for her beauty, she wore a gold satin gown and plumed hat. At the time, she was seven months' pregnant. She held it until October 1484, surrendering it on her husband's order.
- Grace O'Malley (c. 1530-1600) was born into a famous family of sea rovers. If you want a colorful character for a sea campaign, she's a great one. She was a constant troublemaker and excellent defender. After her first husband's death, a rival clan tried to recapture an island castle he had taken. She defended it not only against them, but against a later attack by the English. Legend has it that she melted lead taken from the roof and poured it down over the heads of the attackers. Sir Richard Bingham, Lord President of Connacht, call her the "rebellions in the province for this forty years." She even met with Queen Elizabeth I after sending her a petition which read in part "...to grant unto your said subject...free liberty during her life to invade with sword and fire all your highness' enemies."
- "Black Agnes" Randolph (c. 1312-69) was the countess of Dunbar in March through her marriage to Patrick Dunbar. He was away when their home came under attack by an English force. She refused to surrender even though she had few guards to mount a defense with. Still she held her own against the formidable Earl of Salisbury. After the first round of siege engine attacks, she and her maids appeared on the castle's outer walls, "dusting" away the damage. She then used one of the boulders shot by the siege engines to disable Salisbury's battering ram. Later the earl captured her brother and attempted to negotiate his life in exchange for the castle. Agnes's cool reply was to urge the earl to go ahead as her brother's earldom would then pass on to her.
Why is this better than Wikipedia?
So why buy the book over just visiting Wikipedia? For one, the writing is much better. I love Wikipedia for a lot of reasons but the quality of its prose is not one of them. It's often a bit dry and lacks color. This makes sense, it is more of an encyclopedia after all, but when I'm looking for inspiration, I prefer something that isn't as dry. In addition, the book's layout is just so much nicer. The accompanying illustrations are bigger, time and thought went into the layout and it's a great book to curl up with on the couch.
I definitely plan on using this book in my games and writing and I hope you will check it out. What non-gaming books do you use for inspiration?
Yesterday neogrognard posted a great new article, Essential. If you haven't read it yet, I really suggest you go and read the post. It is full of the sorts of wisdom and critical thought that made me such a big fan of his. In my understanding, the thrust of his argument is this, to survive as a D&D or rpg company, it's important that the current, initiated fan base have a reason to not only buy, but also love, your product. To the initiated, few things are as important as feeling that years of mastering a game means something. If a game does a reboot and significantly changes its mechanics, as 4e did, that fan base will balk. Not only will that not buy the books, they will tell and shame others to do the same. Since RPG companies need to make money now, not take a loss for a few years as new markets are developed, this can really hurt a company.
I fully admit, I have no idea about the financials of a company such as Wizards of the Coast. I'm a smart person and I can make lots of guesses, but that sort of bench racing doesn't really appeal to me, at least not as a subject of a post. What I will say is that srm's discussion of the tension between the initiated and uninitiated matches my experience pretty well. He knows that of course, it was a big thing on my mind at DDXP, especially after Essentials came out. I saw it in my own gaming group. When the guy who had been DMing our game became a player, he constantly tried to create a single, awesome character and was frustrated in the process. 4e had changed the group dynamic and focus enough that he felt a bit lost at what to do. He would talk, at the table, about how this or that was so much better in 3.5 than in 4e. On one hand, I empathized with him and tried to find ways to make things more fun for him, reward him for that knowledge he had gained over the years. On the other, it kind of killed the fun for a portion of the group. We weren't as intent on having to know a rule for every situation or how to make a super awesome and capable solo character.
And when it comes down to it, that's the heart of the disagreement I had with srm's article. I agree with pretty much all of it except for the end where newbies are assigned to board and card games or comic books as the main way of getting them into the hobby. I think board games are useful to a degree, but unless there is a bridge between them and his version of AD&D, I think we'll still run into problems. On top of it, board games by their nature emphasize the mechanics over the story. Lots of people, maybe not a majority but I argue they do constitute a significant minority, love D&D despite its mechanics. If they are funneled into boardgames first, it's quite possible that we'll lose them. Of course, I'm highly biased here. I'm one of those people who don't enjoy boardgames that much but loves D&D.
I also bristled at the use of "our games" as a way to make those of us who don't value the elements of the game in the same way into a different group. I happen to know srm and I definitely don't think he's telling me to go away, but this type of language is used by many players as a sort of "Nerds Only" sign outside the clubhouse door. Sometimes I wonder if it's that, and not the game itself, that keeps people out. If so, no matter how many roads to Rome we build, we're still shutting out a large portion of people who might love and revere the game.
Leaving aside matters of money and a fan base for a second, I would love for this sort of advanced game to be tied to settings instead of the core rules. When I hear initiated, invested fans talk, they describe settings: Greyhawk, Mystara, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Spelljammer, etc. They get that twinkle in their eyes and their voice changes to that awesome story-telling voice many of us have. From there they go to specific supplements. They'll go to their shelf and pick up a book. "I love the wilderness charts from this" or "Man, I've got to tell you, the random encounter charts from that were amazing."
I'm sure there are lots of reasons why this isn't a great idea, but I really think it would solve a number of issues. People would know from the setting what subset of rules were likely to be used for the game and the rules could be tailored for the types of stories people are likely to tell in that setting. So a low magic setting is likely to use the inherent bonuses and a setting that isn't points of light based might get rules for a richer society. Since the majority of specialized rules would be in the settings instead of core, a group could pick their setting based on their level of expertise and how much time they wanted to devote to the game. Groups who wanted to, could cross-pollinate to their hearts content and create the games they most enjoyed for their tables.
At least that's my opinion. What's yours? :)
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?
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?
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. :)