Staff of the Elemental Master

island-during-golden-hour-and-upcoming-storm-1118873

This is a homebrew item for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. Modeled after the Staff of Power, it exists to represent the idea of a caster gaining a degree of mastery over natural elements.

Staff of the Elemental Master

Staff, Very Rare (Requires attunement by a Druid)

This 5’ staff is made of the gnarled, petrified branch of an ancient redwood. It weighs over 240 pounds; however, once attuned, it becomes as light as fresh cut timber and can be used as a magic quarterstaff in Melee.

A Druid attuned to the staff can always draw breath in any environment, and gains resistance to fire and lightning damage.

The staff has 20 charges, and regains 1d8+2 charges every sunrise and sunset. The staff can regain an additional d6 charges per day by submerging it in a large quantity of any natural element that is highly active (e.g. a raging river, a burning conflagration, a gale-force wind, etc). If you expend the last charge, roll a d20. On a 1, the staff retains its ability to grant breath in any environment, and damage resistances, but loses all other abilities. On a 20, it unleashes a level 9 lightning bolt directed by the wielder, using normal spellcasting rules.

Lightning Strike: When you hit with a melee attack using the staff, you can expend 1 charge to deal an extra 1d6 lightning damage to the target.

Spells: While holding the staff, you can use an action to expend 1 or more of its charges to cast one of the following spells from it, using your spell save DC and spell attack bonus: Gust of Wind (2 charges) Plant Growth (3 charges); Move Earth (6 charges); Lightning Bolt, 5th level version (5 charges); Wall of Fire (4 charges); Control Water (4 charges); Control Weather (8 charges)

The Fall – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction round 1a

This post contains the first of my pieces for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. 48 hours to write a 1000 word piece in response to three prompts. The first round involves 2 pieces, with an aggregate score used to determine who goes through to the next round. This was my second piece which came 8th, with a score of 8/15.

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The Fall

Ghost Story, an Ambulance, a Walkie-Talkie

Waking in pain and in an unfamiliar location, Jordan struggles to recall how he got there and figure out how to contact his beloved Lilah before it’s too late.

Continue reading “The Fall – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction round 1a”

RPG Setting Rumours: street brawler edition

adult-ancient-armor-289831.jpg[NOTE: This post sat in my drafts folder for over a year. No, I don’t know why.]

There are two things I like to do when developing RPG settings:

First, I love to populate settings with rumours and local legends. These give a feel of being living places, and also you never know when a rumour will spark a plot hook that leads to a fun new adventure.

The second thing I love to do is crowd source ideas so that a) I don’t have to do all the work and b) I end up with a more varied and interesting range of possibilities to work with.

This post contains a series of ideas shared on twitter in response to this post:

Continue reading “RPG Setting Rumours: street brawler edition”

‘Uphill Battle’ – my NYC Midnight short fiction entry

Having not written any fiction for some time, this year I entered the NYC Midnight short fiction competition to kick myself into gear.

My prompts were: Fantasy, A picnic, a single mother.

As a result I produced “Uphill Battle”.

Enjoy, critique, ignore at will.

UPDATE: I received an Honourable Mention for this story, being one of the three stories in the heat to receive a commendation but not make it through to the next round. I’m pretty happy with that result, and am currently working with the feedback provided to produce a second draft (which is unbound by the competition’s word limit!)

Continue reading “‘Uphill Battle’ – my NYC Midnight short fiction entry”

The First Singer – A DnD 5e Bard variant

E.g. Chorister / Cantor / Hazzan / Muessin

This Bard is the leader of a religious rite or congregation. Their songs are drawn from the myths, legends, and rituals of a particular god or gods and their chants are part poetry, part prayer or mythic storytelling.

As a First Singer, the bard might be a part of a temple, leading worship and rites for the crowds, or they might be a wandering preacher, carrying the word and songs of their gods across the land. They are adept at engaging a large audience, and capturing a crowd with their mythic storytelling and song.

A First Singer is different to a Cleric, in that they find their inspiration in the stories and music, rather than more devout forms of worship. A First Singer need not even be a true believer, and may find religious songs a helpful ruse as they ply their crowds for donations and rumours.

Inspiration for a First Singer bard can be found in many cultures and times. The ancient greek chorus used to chant and sing and dance their epic tales as part of grand religious festivals, wearing masks and using small drums, cymbals and beat sticks. Among the many variation of Christianity you will find the Cantor, who leads a congregation in prayer. A similar role is played by the Jewish Hazzan, while the Muslim Muezzin leads the call to prayer to bring people to the mosque for worship.

Alignment: A First Singer’s alignment will usually partially align with the god whose stories they tell, or the temple in which they lead.

Instruments: Instruments that keep rhythm, like tambourines, drums, prayer cymbals or bells are very common among First Singers. Some may have stringed instruments, though would favour those like a lute that have a chamber for resonance and can be heard over a larger area.

Bard Colleges:

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Johan, a Cantor of Pelor. Image by @EthanMAldridge

College of Lore: A First Singer who joins the College of Lore may pursue the greater truth of the universe beyond the teachings of a particular god or belief. They may become mystics or gnostics who recognise a greater mystery of the world beyond a single deity.

Their spell choices will likely favour detection and dispelling, and the ability to perceive and cross into the meta-planes in pursuit of the ultimate, world-creating song.

College of Valor: It’s an easy step to go from leading a choir in song to inspiring an army with a battle hymn. First Singers who walk the path of valor may become the heart and soul of a fighting unit, crying inspirational charges and rallying songs, and soothing soldiers during brief respite.

Spell choices will favour those that inspire others to greater feats of heroism, heal the wounded and aid the Bard’s own fighting skills.

College of Whispers: These First Singers use their knowledge of ancient tales to invoke holy terror in their enemies in order to seek out heresy. Their chants and songs take on a darker tone as they seek out enemies of their god and deliver appropriate punishment. These questioners are not well liked, because they are often the vanguard of a full blown inquisition, and sometimes even their very presence, if known, is enough to create a religious panic and invite all manner of accusations between neighbours.

Questioners learn spells that distract and terrify their targets, compel truth or otherwise give the Bard an advantage in squeezing confessions – true or otherwise – from the subject of their investigation.

Netflix’s Bright and the problems of world building

Netflix’s Bright is certainty getting a lot of attention, as is the division between critics and fans, genre fans and fans of the movie, and just the general disagreement over whether it is actually “the worst film of 2017” or something to be acknowledged for its originality.

I’ll say up front that I’m glad this movie exists, because it’s bringing new attention to genre fiction in film (or, in this case, genre mashup fiction), and that Netflix chose to make its first big budget movie production something of this nature is not insignificant.

As a long time fan of Shadowrun, I’m 100% behind the aesthetic of fantasy races and magic in a familiar urban setting. But from the perspective of world-building and setting development that are intended to inform a cohesive story, Bright offers many examples of the dangers of being lazy in your approach.

The setting of this movie is so incongruous and lacking in internal consistency that I was unable to suspend my disbelief long enough to be taken anywhere by the story. It seems the writer, director and producers just flat out ignored some simple premises of setting development – namely that when you add an element to a setting, it has a ripple effect over time that affects the world around it.

In Bright we see a lot of world-shaping elements added without any evidence of those elements having had an impact on the development of society over time.

In Shadowrun this works because the story is that the world as we know is developed, and then in the early 20th century magic returned to the world, transforming a section of the population into elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs. And as the magic rose, long slumbering dragons woke up.

But in Bright, we hear about the 2000 year long history of the races having lived together, and yet see little to no evidence of those significant changes to human history having shaped the contemporary world in which the story takes place. Somehow, after centuries of social development that includes humans, orcs, elves, centaurs, dragons, magic, fairies and even more magical creatures that are never seen on screen, they still ended up with modern day suburban L.A.

This blog post arose from a conversation on Twitter, and so this next section gathers together the many questions I have of the setting which I just couldn’t rationalise based on the information presented in the movie.

It started here:

We see no evidence of the many races having had even a superficial impact on the shape of society.

‘Elf-town’ is a part of the city, and elves are described as a race of people ‘running everything’. So either they’ve always been around and in a position of influence, or at some point there was a war or some other takeover when elves took charge. As there is no mention of any elf war, or elf take over, or even any great resentment shown towards elves as you might expect of a conquering people, we can only assume that elves have always been there, and yet have had no more meaningful impact on the shape of society than to fence of a section of a large city.

Humans do that without being magical super-beings.

Elves seem to primarily exist in this movie as analogies for the wealthy, and this movie gives them little more depth of representation as a people than to make them look like the high end of New York or Hollywood. Everyone drives a super car and looks like a movie star, but they live in mundane looking buildings on asphalt streets that are identical to contemporary America.

However, in a world with magic and non-human races, why does America exist at all in it’s current form?

Many of America’s early settlers emerged out of the religious turmoil following the reformation, so in this world of magic and elves and orcs, did the Catholic church still dominate Europe for centuries? And was the reformation a multi-species issue?

How did Catholicism, or any form of Christianity, dominate in a world where an actual war was fought against a ‘Dark Lord’ of unknown magical power? We hear mentions of the orc saviour who unified the races against the Dark Lord (and are then expected to ignore the fact that despite this, orcs were still the subjugated race for thousands of years) yet see no evidence of that having any real influence on religion or belief or societal structure.

And then there’s dragons. Are they apex predators or super evolved magical beings?

Either way, for a dragon to fly, unmolested across the city (as shown in an almost throw-away establishing shot) is to suggest it has some accepted place in society, but where is that reflected in any part of the setting we see?

We are shown a dragon flying over a city that, in the movie, shows no sign of accommodating, protecting against, or interacting with dragons. They don’t even talk about them; Will Smith’s character makes a Shrek reference, but no-one mentions dragons.

This same question applies to the design of cars. If giants and centaurs are millennia-long allies of humans and elves, living in an integrated society, why did they develop cars that neither giants nor centaurs could ride in?

While xenophobia might provide an answer (thanks Litza) the movie doesn’t really bear this out.

The races are millennia-long allies, supposedly living with a level of integration that makes the exclusion and oppression if the orcs a singular thing.

The first orc to become a cop is a big deal – it’s a major subplot of the movie – but when we see a centaur cop being part of an orc beating, no-one bats an eyelid. Centaur police are an accepted part of the police force, suggesting that, in contrast to orcs, they’re a more accepted part of society.

In that scene, not one car looks capable of comfortably accommodating a centaur. There isn’t even a contemporary horse float! (something I imagine centaurs might find a bit degrading). Nor do we ever see such a thing anywhere else in the movie.

We know there’s a centaur police officer who, in stature, stands quite some distance above his human colleagues, but every doorway we see in the police plaza is the same width/height as contemporary human buildings. Do centaurs never come inside? Even as part of their jobs?

Was the centaur, like the dragon, just set-dressing without thought given to the implications of what it means to have centaurs in this world?

We simply see no evidence of society accommodating centaurs.

Finally, there are the orcs. As well as being another fantasy race, they’re super-humanly strong. In onc scene we see an orc single-handedly lift a car to retrieve a kid’s ball.

This means that humans, elves and all the other races had enslaved, or at least oppressed, a race of super-strong warriors for thousands of years, and the world they built off the back of that labour force was identical to contemporary downtown L.A.

So what does all this mean…

For a setting to be engaging and immersive, elements that define the setting have to be evident in the details. Sure, there is a certain amount of handwaving that goes on, but when creating a setting in which you want a story to play out, it is worth considering the broader effects of each new element you add. This ads depth that helps bring the setting to life, and it is what is painfully missing from the world of Bright.

In many medieval fantasy settings, different races are often segregated and, while they may trade and interact with each other, it’s more reasonable to expect such a thing as ‘dwarven architecture’ to be different from ‘human architecture’ to meet their different physiological needs in their own, somewhat closed-off regions of the world. But in an integrated multi-racial society that has supposedly developed over centuries parallel to our own society, many of these gaps are simply too big to overlook.

Still, I reiterate that I’m glad this movie exists and that it’s apparently getting a sequel. If it is successful in kicking off a new trend of urban fantasy in big-budget film and TV production, I just hope that there’s a bit more thought given to the details of the setting in future. beyond “let’s throw a dragon in the background, that will look cool!”

Creating drama in RPGs with choice and stakes

In my last post I responded to the idea that “there are no rules for the GM”, and explained why I disagreed with that premise. In the few discussions I have had and observed on that topic, one of the most common reasons given for a GM to ‘break the rules’ is to create drama or suspense in their games.

While that is certainly one way to achieve such an effect, it is a strategy that primarily targets the player while ignoring the fictional world of the character and is, in effect, only ‘half the game’ of playing an RPG.

In this post, I discuss the ideas of choice and stakes, two key elements of storytelling that can create drama and suspense for the player via the medium of the character and the fictional reality of the game.

In my experience, drama that revolves around these elements is much more satisfying for both player and GM than purely mechanical approaches.

RPGs as Diegesis

Previously, I have outlined the concept of diegetic and non-diegetic gameplay, and argued that to play any TTRPG required acknowledgement of the inextricable relationship between the two.

As a quick summary:

Diegesis – the fictional world of the game where character actions and their consequences occur. Diegesis is the narrative and plot of an RPG

Diegetic gameplay – actions that contribute to the construction of the game’s diegesis, such as describing or enacting character or NPC actions, in-character dialogue, setting descriptions, etc.

Non-diegetic gameplay – any ‘out of character’ action that ultimately informs and supports the creation of the game’s diegesis. For example, dice rolls and discussions of game mechanics, character creation, and moving miniatures around a map.

As a game session progresses, gameplay will necessarily alternate between diegetic and non-diegetic modes. This will often happen within a single moment, where the roll of a dice and discussion of target numbers and results is followed by the narration of action determined by the outcome of the dice roll.

Choices and roleplaying

Like the matrix, the success roleplaying ultimately revolves around the participants making, and having the opportunity to make, choices. Playing a role is the act of making choices that you believe the character would make in whatever circumstances the game places them in. Speaking in different voices, or maintaining characterisations are all elements of playacting that can be an enhancement of roleplaying, but ultimately the choices a player makes for their character are at the core of what it means to play a role.

Having choices, and more importantly, having choices that matter, is an essential part of having a sense of agency within the game. Without being able to make choices that matter a player risks becoming the passive receiver of the GMs game and story rather than an active participant in the collective gaming experience.

For the GM, this also means giving characters and players choices to make. When a character has to make a choice, ultimately it is the player making the choice in a unification of the diegetic and non-diegetic aspects of the game.

While player choice and character choice are still separate, however it is one of the actions taken in playing an RPG in which the diegetic and non-diegetic elements of the game are most closely related. A character in an RPG is utterly incapable of making a choice that is not limited by the knowledge and imagination of the player, and it is because of this concept of a character being entirely contained within the mind of the player that the act of making choices crosses, and indeed starts to break down, the diegetic line.

In short, choices presented to characters in an RPG are elements of the game that simultaneously engage player and character, and thus create more significant moments of drama than strategies that are directed more toward the diegetic character or non-diegetic player.

Creating Drama through high-stakes choices

One way that choices can be used to create tension and drama in a game session is when a choice has high stakes; when there are significant consequences for whichever option the character chooses.

If conflict is the essence of drama, then choices between two conflicting ideas are inherently dramatic. For the choice to be dramatic, however, the character has to have some awareness of the choice being presented to them, and of the consequences of that choice.

For example: The choice between two different swords with which to attack an approaching enemy may result in a slight mechanical advantage that affects the outcome of the fight, but the act of choosing the sword itself is not likely to create much drama.

However, choosing between two swords when the character knows that one of them is a relic of no special power but of great symbolic value that will legitimise the heir to a downtrodden nation but the other would grant the wielder particular power in combat just as a guardian monster is barrelling down the corridor… that’s a choice with high stakes and potentially long lasting consequences.

Drama is created in the moment when a player or character has to make a meaningful choice, a difficult choice, or a choice that has significant consequences for the character, their allies and even the setting of the game.

Suspense – the tension of not knowing – is also created in the moment of choice, and when someone makes a choice that has potentially high consequences, suspense can be felt in the time between the choice being and the final confirmation of the outcome that follows.

The character who chooses the heirloom sword out of a sense of duty to the family it belongs to, but then has to fight off some guarding fell-beast without the benefit of the magic weapon is going to have a more suspenseful fight, as it is assumed that their choice may well cost them their life.

However, while such choices might make for key moments of drama in the climax of a story, not all choices presented to a character need to be so character or world defining in scale in order to effectively create drama within your game.

Choice, consequences and scale

The choices a GM presents to their players can be varying in scale and consequence. By presenting choices of different scale and stakes throughout a story, with consequences that converge at a climactic point in the session, or even at the end of a longer running campaign, you can create a sense of thematic connectedness that makes stories and games feel more unified and satisfying.

Such experiences are also inherently more ‘dramatic’ in the sense of inviting players to be more emotionally invested because the players will to some degree realise that their own actions have brought some of the circumstances they face at the moment of highest conflict.

Continuing the example of choosing between swords that is described above, having players face the threat of a new warlord’s growing power and who decides that the players are enemies to be exterminated can create an interesting story and series of challenges for the characters to resolve. Discovering later that the warlord gained their power by forcefully taking control of a downtrodden kingdom after a legitimate heir could not be found might bring a greater sense of personal engagement to the player or players who are happily wielding the sword they found in a seemingly unrelated adventure several sessions ago.

On a smaller scale, choices that shape the dramatic climax of a story may be littered throughout one or more gaming sessions.

Classic-bordering-on-cliche’d examples include: do the PCs choose to intervene when local guards are being overly rough with the townsfolk; the PCs find a precious object and later encounter someone looking for that lost item, claiming it has some great personal value. Do the players return it to it’s (claimed) owner, or keep it for their own benefit?; a natural disaster/monster/warband is destroying a generally peaceful town, do the PCs intervene? Or flee and protect themselves?

Each of these choices may inform a scene of social interaction or combat, but ultimately the path of action hinges on a choice that the characters and their players make.

As a GM I personally enjoy the tactic of introducing the characters into a moment of conflict and simply letting them try to figure out what is the appropriate course of action. Whether they pick a side, or choose to remain separate, is a choice that carries consequences.

How to build a dramatic story around choices

So as GM who wants to create more dramatic stories that engage players on an emotional level, how do you factor this into your session planning?

The first thing is to recognise that by valuing drama as a goal, you’re elevating the narrative aspect of your RPG, and so narrative structures will play an important part in the construction of your session or campaign. From there, you are most likely going to take one ow two approaches to introducing choices into your gaming session…

Convergent choices

… in which each choice the players make has some influence upon a predetermined end point.

One strategy that is offered as advice by many authors is to start with the ending and work your way backwards.

Imagine the climactic conflict at the end of your session, story or campaign and ask yourself what moment of choice might exist with that conflict. What are the conflicting ideals the PCs may have to choose between?

The type of story you’re trying to tell will often influence the kind of choice that frames your story. In heroic adventures, often the choice will be between some variation of selfishness or selflessness, or between doing what is right vs what is easy (which is a variation on selfless/selfish). In more political stories the choice might be between two conflicting ideologies that inform opposing sides of a conflict, or about the struggle to expose truth in a timely fashion. Romance often revolves around the choice between love and other priorities (family, wealth, status, or even life itself).

Regardless of what the choice is – consider how it manifests in your story? What are the avatars of the different options that players will interact with as they play the game?

Once you figure that out, work backwards to consider the choices that lead to the characters being involved in and how each choice may ultimately influence that final climax. If they had a chance to win over an NPC early in the game (or even just a choice to treat them well or not) then that NPC could end up as an ally, or may even end up on the opposing side.

Was there a key artifact or resource or piece of information that might affect the final outcome that the characters had the choice to obtain along the way? Then that too will build towards the shape of the final, climactic conflict.

Each choice the PCs face can either lead to a different scene in the path of the story OR it can influence an element of the next scene or of the final conflict. Either way, all choices ultimately converge on the final, dramatic climax.

Divergent choices

The other option, in a much more sand-box oriented game, it to let the choices the characters make be the deciding factor of where the story goes.

The GM may introduce persistent NPCs or locations to which the story keeps returning, but the nature of the PCs engagement with, and return to these people and places will be largely determined by the choices they make along the way.

For the GM, this approach requires a bit more detailed record keeping in order to identify choices whose outcomes and consequences might influence later scenes or conflicts. If you’re willing to allow PC choices to create divergent storylines, then for the purpose of creating drama the moments of choice in a game are often best presented as meaningful scenes or self-contained vignettes. While you may use the consequences of such choices to build towards a climactic moment over time, it’s going to be less direct or or guaranteed than if you plan for choices to converge on a predetermined moment of drama.

Introducing Uncertainty

Uncertainty is the enemy of choice. Any individual’s ability to confidently make a choice is undermined by how certain they are of either the principles or information on which their choice is based, or their certainty of the outcome that follows any choice they have made.

A GM can make any moment of choice that little bit more dramatic by simply introducing an element of uncertainty into the scenario. Rumours, half-truths, red-herrings and other plot points are a great way to make even the most innocuous moment more suspenseful and interesting.

Sure, the PCs could easily wade through that unit of guardsmen – but earlier they found evidence suggesting the presence of a werewolf in the region, and it may be that one of the guards is a deadly lycanthrope capable of tearing them apart… but they still need to get inside that castle before midnight! So what are they going to do?

The role of game mechanics in choice driven games

 

While choices may be a mechanism for creating drama, neither choice nor drama are a guarantee of the character’s success along their chosen path. Game mechanics still have a crucial role to play in determining the outcomes of a PCs choices – especially when such choices lead to combat.

The uncertainty of dice rolls allows you to to draw out the suspense of a moment or, better yet, a meaningful choice made by the PC gives greater weight to the dice roll and creates suspense around the outcome that wasn’t likely to be there before.

I just keep reminding myself that in order to keep the story alive, dramatic and interesting, the mechanics exist to serve the game’s diegesis, rather than try to replace it as a non-diegetic source of drama.