Month: July 2018

Terror in the Tower, part 1

Another tale of the Beckett Family’s adventures in Northumbria.


Background

The session began with the PCs in the small village of Lakesend, where they have been helping the local Lord Balin in finding a missing provost.

Cast of Characters:

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers.

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum

Narrative:

Day 22, Eighth Moon 

The night passed without incident.  The family was now residing in the two abandoned shepherds’ cottages and that of the missing provost.  Most were up and about, eating breakfast outside Jehan’s cottage.  Roger had started a small cooking fire, and the smell of roasted trout and charred wood filled morning the air.  The peaceful scene vanished when Elwood, disheveled and clutching his gnarled wooden staff, came running down from the hillside.  Excited and gasping for breath, he eventually yelled something about a dead man.  Several family members grabbed their weapons and followed him back to the hillside at a brisk pace.  Along the way, Elwood, flustered and still short of breath, provided the others with more information.

“I was gathering worms for my fishing chores later on,” the young druid gasped, “when I heard the sound of something big crashing through the brush, coming toward me.  The sheep started to scurry away, and I picked up my staff, unsure of what was coming.  Then I heard it stop.  I couldn’t see anything, for whatever it was still lay inside the treeline.  I crept up and saw a man lying in the weeds, groaning in pain.  He was wounded, though I could not see exactly how.  It became obvious that he was no threat so I tried to help him, but he only moaned two words and then stopped breathing.  He said, ‘Pholtus’ and ‘Kieran.'” Read more

RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice

This is RPG-ology #8:  The Illusion of Choice, for July 2018.


Last time we talked a bit about the power of the referee, how it can be abused, and the principles that should prevent that abuse.  This time our focus is on how to use that power in a way that will enhance the game by getting outside our usual expectations.

There is a referee “style” identified as “Illusionism,” one of four identified ways of resolving the issue dubbed The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast:  if the players have complete control over all their character actions, how is it that the referee actually controls the story of the game?  You can read about all four answers at Places to Go:  People to Be, in Theory 101:  The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, or in the French edition as Théorie 101 – 2e partie : Le Truc Impossible Avant Le Petit Déj’ if French is easier for you.  Most people condemn Illusionism as unfair to the players, who have no idea that their choices do not matter.  Yet Illusionism is built on the use of some very useful Illusionist techniques, and one of them might be an answer to a problem with certain kinds of play.

Many years ago a referee was bemoaning a disastrous game session.  He had designed a high-rise building in which terrorists had hidden a bomb.  The expectations of the scenario (a Trailblazing design) were that the party would move through the building and along the way collect the information needed to defuse the bomb.  Unfortunately, a few perhaps lucky or unlucky turns put them at the bomb right at the beginning of their adventure, and one of the characters decided that rather than risk letting the time run through its several hours he would attempt to deactivate it now—with a bad roll of the dice detonating it and killing the entire party right at the beginning of the game session.

And I realized that there was a much better way to run a scenario of that sort.  I wrote Game Ideas Unlimited:  Left or Right? (only the French translation, Gauche ou droite ? remains online) to explain my solution, and used it in creating a scenario in a world for Multiverser:  The Third Book of Worlds entitled Why Spy.  That book might never be published, although I run the world regularly at gamer conventions, so if you’re ever playing at my table for such a game let me know that you’ve read this.

What I realized is that such a scenario does not work well as a dungeon design.  It needs to be run like a movie director.

The scenario is about terrorists occupying a fifty-story downtown commercial office and retail building.  There are four maps, each designed so that any one of the four sides can be “north” and all the stairwells, elevators, and utilities ducts will align.  The referee is encouraged to make multiple copies of these so he can write and draw on them.  The players are free to decide how they want to enter the building—ground level entrances on each side (front door, back door, loading dock, parking entrance), roof door, or break through a window at any level.  They know that there is some unknown number of terrorists holding some unknown number of hostages, and that they claim to have a nuclear device which they will detonate if their demands are not met.

Whenever they decide where they are entering, the referee chooses one of the floorplan maps, decides which edge is north, and begins the game.  The only fixed encounter locations are the number of terrorists at each of the doors.  Once the players are inside the building, it doesn’t work that way.  The way it does work is there are nineteen encounters—the first a lone armed terrorist in the hall, the last the bomb itself.  As the player characters move through the building, the referee describes the map, inventing irrelevant details (e.g., opthamologist’s office, photography studio, planter outside the door, mirror on the wall) and decides where the first encounter will occur as they move toward it.  The tools of the game are used to determine whether the players and/or the terrorists are surprised, and the players take whatever actions they wish to resolve the encounter.  Assuming they survive, the game continues.  If the players move to a different floor, the referee repeats the process of selecting a floorplan and orienting it, and continues putting the encounters in their path as they progress.  Players can avoid encounters if they wish, provided they have seen the encounter before it has noticed them, but they will find each in the order it is listed.  Encounters include finding an office worker in hiding, finding a door with a bomb on it, encountering terrorists with and without hostages, coming to an open area visible from above or below where terrorists might be, learning that a strike team has been sent to find them, the team getting split, part of the team rescuing the other part, finding the leader with a remote detonator, and finding the bomb.

What the technique in essence does is deprive the players of control over the order in which encounters occur—that is, they can’t go directly to the terrorist leader without passing through the other events.  In doing this, it creates the fun.  You could, of course, design a dungeon crawl with only one direction through, forcing the players to face the encounters in the order you’ve decided.  This “directorial” technique accomplishes the same result, but with the feeling that they can go any direction they wish.  Indeed, they can—it’s just that which direction they go is completely unimportant to what happens next.  They can’t derail the scenario, save only by deciding to retreat from the building.

You don’t necessarily need a map to do this, if you can keep track of where everything is in your head.  There are ways to do that, too, which we will discuss in the future.


Previous article:  Playing Fair.
Next article:  Three Doors.

House of Coursan (War)

This House has a much smaller presence than it used to. South of the Belt Line, Coursan is almost unrepresented. In the north near the Sealed Lands is where they are most commonly found, though they do show up frequently among the Free Marines. Their temples usually double as Forts, shelters and other buildings useful in such endeavours. Those so gifted are found in law keeping, military and business. What many do not realize is that the House isn’t focused on destruction, but rather on success and surviving conflict. It is they that ready a people against an enemy, against death and destruction. In ages past they organized defenses and developed strategies with great success. Their efforts secured the northern Free Lands. However, their sheer capacity for martial ability cannot be denied. They have finished many fights they did not start.

Granted Power: 1rd/SPIRIT they can grant +1 Hardness to any of their allies

  1. Magic Weapon: Weapon gains +1 bonus.
  2. Spiritual Weapon: Magical weapon attacks on its own.
  3. Magic Vestment: Armor or shield gains +1 enhancement per four levels.
  4. Divine Power: You gain attack bonus, +6 to Str, and 1 hp/level.
  5. Flame Strike: Smite foes with divine fire (1d6/level damage).
  6. Glyph of Warding, Greater: As glyph of warding, but up to 10d8 damage.
  7. Repulsion: Creatures can’t approach you.
  8. Power Word Stun: Stuns creature with 150 hp or less.
  9. Storm of Vengeance: Storm rains acid, lightning, and hail.

Faith in Play #8: Redemption Story

This is Faith in Play #8:  Redemption Story, for July 2018.


Years ago I wrote Faith and Gaming:  Redemption, which was republished last spring.  In it I made the distinction between the “Prodigal Stories” that we sometimes call stories of redemption and the real “Redemption Story”, the story of how the price was paid, how we were saved.  I then addressed whether prodigal stories were inherently and specifically Christian, although I admit that the answer was a bit inconclusive—after all, even its creator says that Star Wars is about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader—you knew that, forget I mentioned it), but he would never claim it to be a Christian story.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Yet it never occurred to me to consider the other side of that, the actual redemption story, and whether that might be included in our games and stories.  Further, I’m embarrassed to say, I find that it has been included in a number of stories with which I am familiar, so apparently it can be done.

Maybe.

The glaringly obvious example is the one I mentioned in that other article:  the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of The Chronicles of Narnia.  The redemption in that particular telling is very individual:  Aslan dies to save Edmund, although there is a hint of more in the statement that when the innocent dies for the guilty, the ancient magic would cause death to work backwards.  It is one of the best pictures of the Redemption Story in fiction.

It is not alone, though.  J. K. Rowling ultimately explained that she never wanted to tell anyone that the Harry Potter series was a Christian story because she believed that one fact would be the spoiler that gave away the ending.  In the end, Harry voluntarily sacrifices his own life to save everyone at Hogwarts—and because of magic Voldemort never realized he had cast, Harry’s death becomes Voldemort’s defeat, and Harry returns to life to finish the dark wizard.  We thus have the chosen one defeating evil by dying and returning to life.

I was further reminded, by the piece we wrote decades ago on The Problem with Pokémon, that in the Pokémon movie Ash also gives his life to save his friends, and is brought back to life.  It has been a long time since I saw that movie, but it again appears that the self-sacrifice of a lead character was a redemptive act.

I don’t want to stretch this too far.  Many stories include the hero sacrificing his own life; not all of them are redemption stories, and I’m not even completely certain all of these necessarily are.  Yet they suggest that a redemption story is possible in a fictional setting.  It is something that can be done in a book—I won’t say easily, but with care and skill successfully.

The much more difficult question is whether it can be done in a game, and if so how it would be done.

The critical problem is, who plays the redeemer?  When Mel Gibson directed The Passion of Christ he cast himself in one on-screen role:  his hands drove the nails.  If I am the referee in such a game, is the most important character in the story, the central character who pays the redemptive price, one of my non-player characters?  Or if it is one of the player characters, how do I make that work?  I am all in favor of player characters making dramatic sacrificial deaths—Multiverser encourages them, because the death of a player character becomes the tool that moves him to another world, another story, so the player can both let the character die and and have him survive.  However, how do I arrange the sacrificial death that leads to the redemptive resurrection?  Does the player have to be in cahoots with me on that, or do I have to keep it a secret, hope he will make the sacrifice, and surprise him with the outcome?  What if he balks at the sacrifice?

And after all that, would it be a necessarily Christian story?

That is a difficult question to answer.  I don’t know whether the Pokémon movie was intended as a Christian story, or how many people recognized it as such, despite the fact that Pikachu won the big fight by repeatedly turning the other cheek until his attacker collapsed from exhaustion just before Ash made his sacrificial move.  I do know that there are people who have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and probably more who have seen the movie, who do not know it is a Christian story by a Christian author.  It may again be one of those stories that you can tell, but without someone to call attention to it some will never recognize.

If any of you know of a game in which it was done, I would love to hear the story.


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Next article:  Clowns.