Terror in the Tower, part 2

The Beckett family ventures into the Temple of Pholtus described in part 1 of this adventure narrative.


Background

The session began with the PCs at a ruined temple of Pholtus, not far from the western shores of Blackwater Lake. They had already explored one outbuilding, where they found some hidden valuables in a buried stone vault. One such bauble was a silver decanter that slowly filled with fresh water. Daniel discovered this the hard way when it leaked through his backpack and breeches, giving the group a laugh.

Cast of Characters

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers. Characters in gray text were not present during this encounter.

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

Read more

RPG-ology #10: Labyrinths

This is RPG-ology #10:  Labyrinths, for September 2018.


In game terms, a labyrinth is a geometric puzzle, a system of passable and impassible spaces solved by the discovery of a consecutive path of passable spaces connecting some number of points, commonly the entrance and the exit.  A maze, usually, refers to a type of labyrinth for which there is a unique solution, only one path that connects two points; a labyrinth might instead have many solutions, or no solution.  The distinction is significant in several ways; they are related puzzles, but both the ways in which they are created and the techniques for solving them are different.

Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007. http://www.tonipecoraro.it/labyrinth28.html CC BY 3.0

Labyrinths can occur naturally, when geologic forces crack rocks in seemingly random patterns.  Even mazes can be naturally occurring—if a tunnel system was carved by water which has since mostly evaporated or drained away, it commonly carves one exit point, and then the current follows that path and ignores the others.  Mazes are more commonly created by intelligent action, although sometimes an intelligence will create a labyrinth for any of several reasons.

Labyrinthine road patterns sometimes develop from the process of acretion, as new residents add new housing and thus new streets attached to old ones.  Suburban developments are often labyrinthine by design so that residents familiar with the roads can exit in any of several directions but others will not consider the connected roads a viable short cut between two points outside the development.

The Minotaur was kept in a labyrinth because a maze would have been too easy to solve.

A maze in two dimensions is easier to solve from above than from within; the eye can trace patterns and look for the connecting path, spotting and avoiding dead ends early.  Still, from within a two-dimensional maze you are guaranteed to find the way through if you pick one wall and follow it.  This will take you into many dead ends, but it will take you out ultimately.  A labyrinth with more than one solution cannot necessarily be solved this way, as there is a high probability that you will be caught in a loop.

Three-dimensional mazes are considerably more difficult to solve, because we are not generally accustomed to considering them three-dimensionally.  These are most easily created as multi-level constructions with stairways, ramps, or chutes and ladders connecting them in specific points, often connecting some levels but not accessing intervening levels.

Five level three-dimensional maze, top level to the left, crossbars mark ladders, with markers for up and down. Entrances are on the middle level, center of left and right sides.

One mistake often made in maze design is designing inward only—that is, many mazes are easily solved by working backwards, the tricks and turns and deceptive paths all designed to mislead the one coming in from the front.  This is not as much of a problem in a role playing game maze, because these can often be placed in locations in which the characters will initially approach them from one side.  On the other hand, the designer can take advantage of this by creating the maze backwards, such that characters will easily find their way in but will be confronted by the confusion on the way out.  However, many tabletop gamers become very good at mapping, so the scenario designer might need some particularly complicated tricks to stymie his players.

Fortunately, fantasy and science fiction give us such tricks.  In Dr. Who:  The Horns of Nimon, the space in which the Nimon lived was a giant logic circuit, the walls switches which seemingly randomly switched from “A” to “B” positions making it impossible to have an accurate map created from passing through it.  I have recommended using teleport points, in either fantasy or science fiction settings, by which any character crossing a specific spot on the map in a specific direction is moved to a specific other spot on the map not necessarily facing the same direction, but is not moved back on the return journey, passing the arrival point unaware that it was there.  There are many ways to use this—creating recursive occlusion, as in Dr. Who:  Castrovalva, a section of the map in which there are many entries, but only one exit, all the other exits delivering you to the entry point on the opposite side of the isolated area; creating maze-like labyrinths in which the characters are moved to parallel paths but the occupants know how to use their teleport points to get where they want to be; creating duplicate rooms in which characters who enter one room always leave from the other.  I have used all of these techniques, and have had players trying to resolve their situation for several play sessions.

I have also confused players by using maps with repeating patterns, causing them to believe they had returned to a place they had already been when they were instead in a different place exactly like it.  Nothing is quite the same as watching a player attempt to erase and correct a map that was already right.


Previous article:  Three Doors.
Next article:  Scared.

House of Foura (Luck)

The House of Foura is an odd house by comparison to the others. The House is closely associated with the Aruman, dreams and destiny. They are sought when a way must be found. Despite their good fortune, they often don’t accumulate much wealth or seek fame. They instead seek to fulfill their purpose. To a one they are driven towards one goal or another and become focused on that need. Their temples are usually in disarray, but some are places the desperate seek when all else fails.

Granted Power: Providence. Once per game session the player may pick either an attack, skill or save. The results will be the best possible outcome. If an attack, not only is it automatically a critical but it will also be maximum damage.

Luck Domain Spells

  1. Entropic Shield: Ranged attacks against you have 20% miss chance.
  2. Aid: +1 on attack rolls, +1 against fear, 1d8 temporary hp +1/level (max +10).
  3. Protection from Energy: Absorb 12 points/level of damage from one kind of energy.
  4. Freedom of Movement: Subject moves normally despite impediments.
  5. Break Enchantment: Frees subjects from enchantments, alterations, curses, and petrification.
  6. Geas/Quest: As lesser geas, plus it affects any creature.
  7. Control Weather: Changes weather in local area.
  8. Moment of Prescience: You gain insight bonus on single attack roll, check, or save.
  9. Miracle X: Requests an intercession.

Faith in Play #10: Goodness

This is Faith in Play #10:  Goodness, for September 2018.


Back in May I introduced the notion that in the original Dungeons & Dragons game, alignment was the True Religion of the game, what the characters ultimately fundamentally believed.  I did not at that time delve into what those religions were, but promised to return to the question in future articles.  This is the first of those, second in the alignment miniseries, dealing with the alignment aspect everyone always mentions first:  what does it mean to be Good, and what does a “Good” person believe?

First, let us be clear that “good”, in game terms, does not mean “obeying the rules” or something like that.  It is not a religion of laws, but a religion of attitude.  It is defined as the belief in promoting the greatest benefit for the greatest number.  The word beneficence is perhaps the best synonym for it.  Javan’s Feast was an example of good in action:  how do I help these poor people who are struggling to survive?  Good King Wenceslas, in initiating the practices of the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas, known in England as “Boxing Day” because Christians box up their spare and leftover food and deliver it to the poor), demonstrated the acts of a good-aligned person in giving one poor man food in the depths of winter.  A “good” person (or character) will break the law, if doing so will make the lives of others better.  If indeed Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, his actions were criminal—but decidedly good, which is why his story is so revered.

Good has a good reputation.  Most people, even most “evil” people, want to be perceived as “good”.  It is characteristically compassionate, caring for the needs of others, in a sense putting others before self.  Good people are generally against torture, will probably not perform it themselves, and will only tolerate it if it seems absolutely necesssary to rescue someone else or somehow beneficial to the one being tortured.  They are generally against unjustified killing—to put a sentient creature to death, there must be some evidence that the creature is guilty of some heinous evil and unlikely to be rehabilitated.  Killing orcs just because, hey, they’re orcs, is questionable.  Killing orcs because there is clear evidence that these orcs have committed felonious crimes against nearby human or similar settlements that need to be defended is certainly acceptable.

On the other hand, good people can be misled or misinformed, in essence wrong.  They can genuinely believe that certain actions promote the welfare of the greatest number of people which in fact do not.  At that point the question becomes whether they should have known better—is it that the orcs they killed were not involved in the attacks on the human settlements, but the characters had good reason to believe they were, or is it that orcs attacked the human settlements so humans are attacking random orc settlements?  Understanding good can be tricky, because people often do what we might think bad things for good reasons.  Many slavers genuinely believed that they were taking primitive sub-human creatures out of the poverty of their homeland into a better life as domesticated animals.  Indeed, most domesticated animals live longer than their wild counterparts, and are healthier and more comfortable along the way; why might it not be so for humans?  We abhor such practices—but our characters’ perception of the best possible benefit for the greatest number might well be something we would not perceive as “good” because of our own background.

There is a degree to which “good” is definitive of Christian love.  The game version probably does not need to be held to quite that standard of self-sacrifice and servanthood, but a saint who lives so would definitely be a clear example of the “good” alignment.  I hope that your own alignment is “good”, whatever alignment you prefer for your characters.


Previous article:  Clowns.
Next article:  Halloween.

The Moons of Northumbria

In this series of articles, Michael Garcia shares various custom rules and handouts related to his worldbuilding for his ongoing Northumbria campaign. 


It is well known among scholars that the world has at least two main continents and countless islands, surrounded by at least four seas. Of these continents, the vast region known as Northumbria is the northernmost. While civilizations on the other continents are not the focus of this work and the savage inhabitants of the countless islands are rather unimportant, the heavenly bodies, at least those visible in the northlands, are of great interest and concern. We must study these bodies—those that move and those that are fixed—to understand Astrology and the secrets of the universe. Read more

RPG-ology #9: Three Doors

This is RPG-ology #9:  Three Doors, for August 2018.


Probably over a decade ago now there was a big debate in the community of people who enjoy logic puzzles when Marilyn Vos Savant published her solution to one, and many disagreed with her.  I was belatedly dragged into the argument by my father, who sent me a late and partial version of the question.  Eventually I obtained what I take to have been the original question but concluded that her answer was incorrect.

Now, I might not be as smart as Ms. Savant.  After all, she has the highest tested I.Q. on record.  My Intelligence Quotient has always been at the top of the scale on every test I’ve taken, including the Mensa tests, but I have never taken the Triple Nines test.  I can say that on the Law School Admissions Test, which is comprised entirely of various types of logic puzzles, I scored better than ninety-nine-point-eight percent of those who thought themselves smart enough to be lawyers, which was the highest bracket for the test.  It is not impossible that she is wrong and I am right, as I explain in the third of the three pages I wrote on the subject.

This is not really about that, except to the degree that the issue that Ms. Savant failed to see in that case is the issue I want to address here:  the motivations and objectives of the referee, and how knowing them can make a difference to the way you play the game.

Perhaps you have read the short story The Lady or the Tiger.  If so, you probably already know where I am going—but I suggest that, just as Marilyn was dealing with three doors, we have three possible referee attitudes.

I will begin with the killer referee.  I have had conversations with dungeon masters who are proud of their dungeon designs with the inescapable fatal traps.  This referee considers it his duty to get the upper hand and kill all the player characters, and he expects their players to be very cautious and very perceptive.  He is there to beat you.  He is like the host on the three doors puzzle who only offers you the opportunity to change doors if you in fact already have the right one and he wants to tempt you into giving it away.  If you recognize that you are playing with a killer referee, your play has to be careful, circumspect; you have to watch for traps, expect to retreat from overwhelming enemies, and use defensive strategies and escape plans as a regular part of your play.  That’s not to say that it can’t be fun.  Grig said, “I always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds.”  Knowing that your referee is going to pull out all the stops to defeat you makes the victory all the more thrilling, and defeat considerably less embarrassing.  The deck was, after all, stacked against you, so if you lost, that was the way it was dealt, and if you won, you beat the odds.

The door at the other end of the row is perhaps the reverse, the beneficent referee.  This guy is on your side.  He wants to see you win.  You might not know that he fudges dice in your favor, but the fact is he will never throw anything at you he does not honestly believe you can beat.  I don’t mean he’s necessarily a “candy store” game master (although they are usually of this sort), but rather he is one who makes an effort to bring you through to victory.  With this kind of referee, the odds favor winning if you take the chance—he built a scenario you can beat, and if he has created something you can’t beat it’s because it will be quite clear to you that this is there to turn you in a different direction—he puts his tarrasque at the edge of his map so you won’t contemplate going where he isn’t ready for you.  The plan here is to make you look like heroes, to give you battles you can win and come away feeling good about it.  That’s not always as much fun as it sounds—if you come to a place where you think it’s impossible for you to lose, winning loses some of its charm—but knowing that the referee is on your side gives you confidence to take a few more risks than you might otherwise.

There is, of course, a door in the middle.  We spoke previously about Playing Fair a couple months back, and there are referees who let the chips—or the dice—fall where they will.  The scenario has not been stacked against you, but it’s not stacked in your favor, either.  If your referee rolls a lot of dice when you ask him questions, and it seems that the dice are dictating whether it’s a good or bad answer, this might be the type of referee you’re facing.  There is much to be commended about such referees.  They will give you a fair challenge, not making it too easy while at the same time not trying to kill you.  Their scenarios are much less predictable, overall, because it is entirely possible that they have rolled up an encounter that is well beyond your ability, and just as possible that they have created one that will be a cakewalk, and you aren’t going to be able to guess until you’ve walked into it.  This is the guy we think our referee is; he’s also fairly rare.  With this guy the way to play is probably realistically—don’t be overconfident, but don’t believe that everything is a trap.  He has made it as fair as he can, which means you have to be careful, but not paranoid.

So those are three general types of referees—killer, beneficent, and fair—and that’s how you play if you can recognize which one you’ve got.  I wouldn’t bother to ask:  quite a few wouldn’t know the answer, some would be wrong about themselves, and those that do know also know better than to tell you.  But if you can figure out how your referee thinks, you can use that to improve your outcomes in play.


Previous article:  The Illusion of Choice.
Next article:  Labyrinths.

House of Curren (Travel)

Eapon is a giant planet, and travel is a major part of life. The house of Curren is well known for being involved with vehicles and living mounts of all types. Further, their temples serve as inns, visitor centers and other places that accommodate those on the road. Small Curren Houses can often be found along travel routes to supply fuel, food and other needs.

Granted Power: Any penalty for terrain or environment to movement is halved whether they are on foot, flying an aircraft, or riding a beast. Additionally they always know which way is north.

  1. Longstrider: Increases your speed.
  2. Locate Object: Senses direction toward object (specific or type).
  3. Phantom Steed: Mundane mount appears for 1 hour/level from the local environment. Stats may vary by creature.
  4. Freedom of Movement: Subject moves normally despite impediments.
  5. Shadow Walk: Step into shadow to travel rapidly. Instead of walking the border between shadow and material it is the border between the physical and spirit realms. Spirit encounters may be greatly increased. If in a vehicle, the vehicle’s speed is doubled.
  6. Find the Path: Shows most direct way to a location.
  7. Phase Door: Creates an invisible passage through wood or stone.
  8. Freedom: Releases creature from imprisonment.
  9. Summon Monster IX: Calls natural creature that you may ride and that may fight for you. The creature must be plausible for the area. Known for calling birds of great size. Duration is 1hr/lvl

Faith in Play #9: Clowns

This is Faith in Play #9:  Clowns, for August 2018.


When I thought I was reaching the end of the Faith and Gaming series, Christian Gamers Guild member Lynette Cowper (who wrote GURPS Rogues) suggested that I address Archetypes.  It was a challenging suggestion for me—I had never thought about characters in terms of archetypes.  However, I undertook it, and wrote about Warriors, Knights, Rogues, Wizards, and Holy Men before turning my attention to another subject (after all, that was half a year of monthly articles spent on one subject).  I think I might have had a couple other possible archetypes identified in my notes, which as I have previously reported were abruptly lost in a computer crash, but every time I turned my mind back to them, my impression was that I didn’t know any other “archetypes.”

Perhaps it was because I had run so much original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and these really were the major character classes, almost everything else in the game falling into one of these groups.  On the other hand I could see that functionally a medic was a non-religious holy man, most techs were non-magical wizards, and maybe spies and ninjas are distinct from most other rogues, but not enough to warrant another article on the subject at that time.  Really, in my mind, archetypes were pretty much covered.

However, when I was talking about doing this series, webmaster Bryan Ray wrote to me, “I always thought there was a lot of space in the Archetypes sub-series that you hadn’t yet explored.”  That caused me to reconsider my own conception of an “archetype”, to attempt to get out of my own box, as it were, and think about what else might be covered.  I recognized that in stories we often have character types that serve what we would call a story function.  They make the book better, the movie more entertaining.  And as I thought about movies, a few characters came to mind who are what I believe Jack Slater (addressing his boss in The Last Action Hero) called “comic relief.”  I remembered a reviewer complaining about the movie Willow that brownies Franjean and Rool were comic retreads of Star Wars robots C3PO and R2-D2, who were also there for comic relief, like having Abbott and Costello in a serious movie in which someone else is the star and the hero.  So I realized that this, too, was a type of character archetype, inserted to break the tension, to make the story a bit more fun.

I am calling them “clowns,” not just because they are funny.  They often appear at scene changes, breaking the main action with a lighter aside before returning us to the heroes.

I rarely see these in games, and even more rarely do I see players undertake playing them.  Everyone wants to be one of the heroes, one of the serious characters contributing to the victory in the game.  I have had occasion to use non-player characters for the function, but players often regard these a waste of what could be productive game time.  We tend to exclude clowns from many of our games.  Perhaps, though, we do our games a disservice in doing so.

Of course, the story function of clowns in movies and books is to break the tension and delay the resolution.  They are in that sense a bit like the horror movie trope in which we discover that the movement of the curtain is just the cat, and a moment later the monster pops out of the closet.  They take us away from the chase scene or the shootout or the face-off, entertain us for a moment, and then drop us back into the action eager to know what is going to happen next.

Yet as archetypes they are something more, and perhaps something very important.

Clowns remind us that not everything in life is serious, and that the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.

Let me repeat that:  the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.

The time you spend playing games with your friends is probably more important than the time you spend pushing papers or digging ditches or building machines at work.  We tend to confuse that which is most necessary with that which is most important.  The clowns are not necessary.  They do not contribute to the success of the plot (well, R2-D2 does, being a hero who saves the day in almost every Star Wars movie and usually over the comedic objections of C3PO—but someone else could have done it).  Fun is not necessary; we can live without it.  Yet it is important, because it is that which makes life enjoyable, in a sense which gives value (not meaning or purpose, again things which we tend to confuse) to living.  Clowns remind us that we should enjoy life, even in the midst of its seriousness.  C. S. Lewis told us, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”  In a sense, the Christian life is about learning to enjoy, to enjoy our relationships with God and each other.  Game play is part of the enjoyment of those relationships; clowns are a serious reminder that it is not all serious, that we are here to have fun.

Of course, clowns also have their down side.  They are ineffectual; they rarely contribute to our success.  Yet when we realize that those goals, as noble and necessary as they often are, are not the ultimate purpose of our lives, we also recognize that our clowns are trying to remind us of this, and so even in their weakness they are strong, even in their folly they are wise, and they teach us to be weak and foolish so we may be strong and wise.


Previous article:  Redemption Story.
Next article:  Goodness.

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