Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Nature of the Gods

Today we are going to discuss an important element of most fantasy campaigns: the deities. What is interesting about most fantasy campaigns is the fact that the people KNOW the gods exist. Through the use of divine magic and planar travel the mortals of the fantasy world interact with deities that listen to and respond to their prayers. I have found that this idea is often difficult to reconcile with our conceptions of faith based religions. If you really think about it the paladin of Bahamut does not need to have faith in his deity because he knows that the god exists. This stands in sharp contrast to modern Christians who must use faith to support their beliefs since they have no obvious evidence of God's existence.

The knowledge of the existence and power of the gods create an interesting dynamic in most campaigns. Indeed, people do not have faith in a deity as much as they serve a particular deity over the others. In this sense fantasy deities are more like patron saints rather than a true polytheistic pantheon. Historically polytheists venerate all the gods to make sure they do not get in trouble. Even though they might more devoutly worship a god related to their profession they still acknowledged the others for fear of that god's power over other spheres of their lives. Promote this in your campaign, instead of having the dark gods only spoken of in whispers and their followers shunned, have people sacrifice some of their livestock and crops to the god of disease lest he punish them by taking everything.

often when you use the traditional system of fantasy deities you end up using the god's as one dimensional representations of virtues and vices and alignment rallying points rather than sentient beings of great power. So in my own world building I have used several methods to create a more historically accurate polytheistic pantheon.

First and foremost, the gods and their roles have overlap, one goddess might represent the fertility of women where as another represents the fertility of the land.

Secondly, the gods don't always answer the prayers of their followers. This is a great tool because it drives home the idea that the gods are sentient and have whims and tempers. An example of this is not letting a divine spellcaster heal or buff someone who has slighted the god in the past or not letting that caster harm someone who is dear to the deity.

Thirdly, vary the worship of the god's from country to country. between Rome and ancient Greece there were different names, spheres of influence, and stories for the gods. For example in my current campaign the goddess of lust, battle, beauty, and pleasure is seen as a goddess of enlightenment by the wild people who worship her first and a tempting devil by the elves and other more ordered societies who see her as a trickster. Another example is that in that same world the main god of law and justice is seen as a tyrant by the wild peoples where as the "civilized" societies see him as a savior and bringer of peace.

Remember also that gods are not really good or evil, they just are. The followers of a god should be the source for the overarching alignment of the cult because after all pestilence is not evil, but people who would worship it probably are.

Finally, gods manipulate their followers and gods make mistakes. Common to the stories of most polytheistic religions is that the gods lie, seduce, and manipulate mortals into achieving their agendas. There is a mountain of roleplay that can be mined out of a paladin being misled by his deity, or by having an all powerful god using the party to get revenge on its unfaithful lover or servant. The gods themselves can also be misled or lied to by mortals and one another.

I feel that by treating your deities like sentient beings instead of bots that always follow whats written in the book you can add a great deal of flavor to your campaign.

More to follow on this as I will be posting my deity system for my current campaign.

- Spin

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Long Term Plot Development

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to running an enjoyable campaign. Often times I feel that campaigns focus too much on instant gratification/consequences to the actions of the players. While this practice keeps the party engaged in the short run it gives the party a complex where they never think about how their actions influence the long term campaign or their interactions with NPCs.

As a storyteller it is important to remember that any action has consequences beyond the immediate and readily apparent. A quest to capture a bandit king might lead to peace for the area and glory for the party in the short run, but in the long run might lead to the rise of a worse bandit leader to fill the power vacuum.

The party cleaning out a group of corrupt officials may make potential allies hesitant to work with them, lest their own secrets be laid bare.

On the flip side, the party saving a town from evil may make that town and its people willing to break the law or believe in the party even if the wider world believes them villains.

In essence you should be thinking of the events and side quests of a campaign both in how they effect the overarching goals of the campaign but also how they effect the greater world and how it views the players.

Going back to the ideas of previous posts, you must think of the world as a living breathing entity independent from the players. Do not mold the world to the players but let the players change the world. With each action they take they not only succeed or fail in their goals but influence society to a greater or lesser degree.

While much of this would seem obvious it really is not. Most D&D campaigns are very Ego centric, focusing only on the immediate activities and goals of the party. Prior actions are usually forgotten except for how they effect the major objectives of the party. Remember that the flavor of a campaign is the small details, the everyday interactions and realism.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

It is easy when playing D&D to think of alignment and morality as bedrock solid. After all, in RPG games the gods tend to be real and their powers are granted only to those who follow their code. I feel that sometimes this can lead characters (especially the ones at the extremes) to be very one dimensional.

When creating both PCs and NPCs you should remember that good and evil are primarily social constructs, varying greatly in scope between societies and individuals. This idea can be applied to D&D pretty easily. A paladin of Hieroneous must protect the weak from oppression by the strong. Think of how many ways this could be interpreted, a paladin could seek out evil men and kill them and still be fulfilling this part of his code. In this way he is now evil and good, but if the Necromancer he killed threatened the lives of thousands he would be called a hero. The idea here is that people are not perfect, they can lose sight of one part of a code in favor of another and they can do bad things to achieve good ends. On the flip side an evil character does not always have to be evil. He/she can engage in good acts to gain trust or to gain fame and influence only to execute a plan using the boons from those good deeds. Instead of thinking of the gods and their favor being granted based on a strict behavioral code have them grant power to characters that achieve the ends they desire. When used with a dose of common sense, this practice not only promotes character depth but also adds an element of intrigue and mystery to the gods.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about:

First a PC

A Paladin is lawful good, defender of the weak, protector of life, destroyer of evil. This character contains a contradiction, he is tasked with destroying evil and protecting life. A real person would not have an iron clad sense of mercy and compassion when faced with darkness on a daily basis. most of the Paladins I have played have difficulty finding mercy in their hearts for truly evil people. One of them became a monster himself when faced off against true evil, fighting with glee and reckless abandon, a villain himself, scaring the rest of the party. In this way he could retain the favor of the God he serves for fulfilling the tasks but he is a flawed, realistic character who represents the contradiction of a lawful good character trained to destroy.

Now for NPCs

lets talk about Villains because I feel many bad guys are designed in a one dimensional and cheesy manner. People think of villains as bad guys, morally bankrupt and without any redeeming qualities. Well I am here to tell you that a villain doesn't need to be a total sociopath in order to be memorable. Remember that real people don't wake up, look themselves in the mirror and say "I am an evil bastard". Usually descents into evil and madness are very gradual, as an individual becomes more and more isolated their thoughts can become more deviant. Events and tragedies push them away from others and warp their goals and outlooks. Remember that villains are the heroes of their own stories, they probably didn't start with evil goals, Maybe they were a lawman who snapped under the pressure of a system that allows bad people to get away. Maybe they were a paladin who watched the weak die despite their heroism and decided that the weak didn't deserve survive. Maybe a eccentric and unsociable wizard loses his wife and becomes consumed with using any necromantic ritual to bring her back, regardless of the cost to others.

all of these villains could be monstrous, callous, and evil without being one dimensional. They have some sympathetic elements that made them more memorable and may make the party feel guilt or pity when they fight them.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Character Optimization Arms Race

When creating a character for a game you need to be sure your optimization doesn't lead to an arms race between you and the storyteller. Allow me to explain what I mean when I say arms race.

Let's say you are an experienced player and you know the character creation rules. You know the combination of abilities that will give you the highest possible damage yield for X type of character. If you know how to be the best rogue possible, why shouldn't you be? Because in doing so you may do significant harm to the campaign and reduce the enjoyment that the party gets out of the campaign.

What happens when one PC is far and away more powerful than the rest of the party? Usually as a storyteller in order to keep the game challenging for that character I have to increase the difficulty of encounters. In doing this I end up going beyond what would be a challenge for the rest of the party and just like that the rest of the party is playing second fiddle to one character. If you are that PC then you get to be the star but the rest of the party probably will not enjoy themselves as much as you do. They will miss more than you and they will get hurt more than you. By doing this you have challenged the storyteller to an arms race which leave him in a hard situation, if he doesn't up the difficulty to meet the highest player he risks not challenging the party but if he does the rest of the party is left in the dust. Remember that no one likes to feel useless in real life or in a game. Your objective should not be to outdo the rest of the party but to work with them to overcome challenges. Furthermore you are punishing yourself because as the most optimized character, the storyteller will likely give you less gear rewards in order to keep you from pulling farther ahead from the rest of the party.

But what if the whole party is optimized? Well if thats the case the whole party may have fun and revel in their damage potential. However they should be aware of the by products of having the perfect combat party.

The challenge is what makes combat encounters entertaining. Without risk of failure there is no tension or excitement and while most times a party is not in extreme peril there is always a risk, a challenge involved. If the entire party is optimized for combat effectiveness a storyteller must rely on the most dangerous and challenging encounters the players can possibly handle. From my experience that means that when the bad guys hit they hit hard, actually increasing the chances that a PC will be killed. Also encounters take longer to finish due to the sheer number of bad guys or because of the huge pools of hitpoints the bad guys have. Both of these reinforce negative player behaviors by making them even more obsessed with doing damage and increasing their optimization to keep up with what they perceive to be an upped ante from the storyteller. In essence it creates a damage arms race that often leads to a completely combat oriented campaign and/or frustrated players/storyteller.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Deciding Who Gets to Roll

For today I have a brief post about how you can differentiate skill/knowledge checks into subcategories.

What I mean when I say subcategories is that diplomacy is a broad skill, checks with a noble require a different set of conversational maneuvers than getting information out of a hardened information broker.

For example if two characters are trained in heal but one is a Cleric and another is a fighter you should let them both roll on checks to dress wounds but maybe only the cleric rolls on diseases and other complex infirmities. Maybe the fighter is better at stabilizing people in combat than the cleric due to his combat experience. In this way, even though you are stealing a bit of thunder from both players maybe you've made each feel more unique and clearly defined in his/her utility to the party.

Another and perhaps best example is something like history checks. If every character is trained in history but only one is an arcane caster he/she should either be the only one to roll or be the only one without a penalty to identify an obscure historical wizard.

This idea can apply to pretty much every situation and you should be careful not to overuse it. Indeed overuse of this system can make people feel like they do not get the benefits of being trained in a skill. However, when used correctly this system can increase the degree to which a player's class is unique and useful out of combat. Subcategorizing skills like this can also add a great deal of realism to a campaign by once again making characters function more like real people.