Month: August 2014

RPG Design: The Asymmetry of Narrative Weight

The Anti-Monitor

“Maybe I’d do more good stopping muggers in Metropolis?”

Not all story elements have equal impact on a game setting. The more dramatic a threat to the status quo, the more that threat deforms the setting around it like a gravity well, pulling characters and events into its orbit. Existential threats overshadow local events; the specific issues you’re dealing with in your local context have no meaning in the face of the larger threat, making the rest of the setting irrelevant.

For example, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth hosted all manner of interesting local stories, such as the picaresque events of The Hobbit. But the drama of the War of Five Armies, central as it was to the latter part of the story, simply couldn’t happen in The Lord of the Rings, even though both narratives take place in the same fictional setting. Sauron’s return reduced all local concerns to irrelevancy, except insofar as they touched on the goal of destroying the One Ring.

Similarly, in Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, the titular antihero has all manner of local pulpy adventures through much of his career. He engages in thievery and war, battles sorcerers and godlings, and is embroiled in feuds with relatives and rivals. He also struggles against his own inner demons, and at least once tries to set aside the sword for a peaceful life. But later in the series, once the powers of Chaos rose up to ravage the world, every story revolves around that conflict, pushing smaller events and themes to the wayside.

High fantasy stories of this nature, dealing with matters on the grandest scales, are viable in a literary work where the author decides the aims of the story. But a published game setting should provide players and referees with many possible stories, and if a threat demands that the PCs combat it, that narrows options for play.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Many games thrive on a narrowly defined setting and story, especially small indie games like Polaris or Dogs in the Vineyard. These games have a laser-like focus on specific playstyles and stories. If you’re playing 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars, you go into the game expecting to kill aliens as a Space Trooper; that’s what the game is about.

Broader, mass-market games with world-shaking Big Bads also generally assume that you’ll end up on the front lines, but certain factors allow early gameplay to avoid focusing on the grand conflict.

  • The “zero to hero” power curve generated by typical RPG advancement systems means that you’ll typically start off as such small fry that you don’t have a role in the fight. Starting characters in the Supernatural RPG simply aren’t going to harrow Hell and go toe-to-toe with Lucifer.
  • Similarly, various high-powered NPCs are usually posited as holding the line against the threat while the PCs are still low on the totem pole. In Mage: the Ascension, the Traditions’ Masters and Archmasters are so far beyond the powers of starting PCs that the PCs can act as they will without feeling that they need to be throw themselves into the conflicts of the Ascension War.
  • The existential threats are often genuinely existential; though the struggle dominates the setting, there’s no immediate threat written into the books. In the various incarnations of Runequest, Chaos endangers the universal order, but there’s no immediate War against Chaos that the PCs have to participate in. Despite the presence of an inimical cosmic threat, life goes on.
  • Lastly, sometimes the war has already been lost, at which point the urgency of individual battles subsides. For all their rage, the Garou of Werewolf: the Apocalypse are a dying race, and their defeat is inevitable. They can continue to fight the Wyrm and its minions, but they can’t win, so while the PCs may still be drawn to battle, their players recognize that there’s no underlying urgency to the conflict.

Where things get tricky are in games where these factors don’t strongly apply. If your PCs start out at a high power level in an environment where they can make a difference against a powerful foe, stories will naturally revolve around conflict with that foe. If the enemy is transparently evil or just plain doing bad things, then unless you’re making an effort to eschew modern morality in your roleplay, you’ll feel compelled to intervene. World-destroying threats don’t even allow you that loophole; your game has to be about that fight, because if you lose, you don’t have a world to keep playing in.

This has been a steadily increasing problem through the run of Exalted. As more and more existential threats to Creation appeared—such as the Deathlords being repurposed from focusing on conquering the Underworld to actively seeking to annihilate Creation, or the Yozis going from an irrelevant holdover from an ancient war to a potential invading force of unimaginable power—the local stories that the game was always intended to facilitate became irrelevant in the face of those existential threats.

The peculiar asymmetry of such threats comes from the relationship between the game designer and the individual RPG group. It’s the designer’s job to present an environment full of stories; it’s the group’s job to select and play out their own story. The referee and players pick what they focus on, and if they want to add such narrative weight to an adversary that it warps the entire setting around it at their table—well, that’s very easy to do! But taking that weighted threat out of a published setting for your home game is much harder! If that warping effect is hard-coded into the setting, you’ll have to untangle it from everything it touches in the books—a significantly more arduous task.

In short, creating an immediate, world-ending threat to a game setting is only the job of the designer if the core of the game is always meant to be the struggle against that threat. If the game is about other things, then adding immediate world-ending threats is a job for the table.

Ink Monkey Bones #16: Swallow the Black Pearl

Here’s another excerpt from the original Ink Monkeys blog’s never-published “Hearthstone and Manse Charms” post. We’re holding some back in hopes that we can revise them for publication in some future Third Edition supplement. The rest will continue to appear here.

<3>Swallow the Black Pearl

<n>Cost: 1wp; Mins: Lore 3, Essence 3; Type: Simple

Keywords: Combo-OK, Obvious, Reactor

Duration: Instant

Prerequisite Charms: Essence-Draining Touch

Clutching at one of her attuned hearthstones, the Abyssal drains every last iota of its Essence until the stone itself crumbles into fragments of raw gray rock. The Abyssal’s player regains a number of motes equal to her (Lore + Manse + [Essence x 2]). This destroys the affected hearthstone without the wild magical effects normally evoked by a hearthstone’s destruction.

Exalted: Language Families and Dialects

Some quick thoughts on languages in Exalted:

First and Second Editions both used the terms “language” and “language family” more or less interchangeably. Both define Riverspeak and High, Low, and Old Realm as specific languages, while leaving the directional languages as broad language families in which each specific nation or culture has its own dialect. 2e exaggerates this by noting that “each nation of the Threshold speaks a slightly different dialect of its local language.”

What does “slightly different dialect” mean? It implies that the linguistic differences between citizens of, say, Kirighast and An-Teng are comparable to those of people in New England and the American South—distinct in trivial ways, but otherwise completely mutually intelligible. This is implausible, given the vast geographical and cultural divides of the Threshold. It also begs the question of why one would call Flametongue a language family rather than a language if its dialects can’t be seen as distinct sub-languages.

Breughel's Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563.

On the other hand, we could stick with the idea that each Directional language is a true language family comprised of distinct languages. The problem here is the lack of mutual intelligibility. If we look at the Indo-European language family, we get languages as divergent as English, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Urdu. Even if we say that Flametongue is akin to the Romance languages (themselves just a branch of the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European language family), we’re looking a language cluster including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Romanian. Presuming that every character who knows “Flametongue” can speak such a broad slate of languages is implausible.

On the third hand, one might confine the national dialects of a Directional language to those only as distinct as Norwegian from Swedish, or Spanish from Portuguese. Derived from similar roots, such languages are genuinely mutually intelligible. On the other hand, it’s implausible to suggest that every dialect in an entire Direction is mutually intelligible with every other dialect. China alone contains hundreds of mutually incomprehensible dialects that are lumped together as “Chinese,” and Creation’s Directions are far more geographically dispersed and culturally diverse. We’re far more likely to see dialect continua in which only neighboring dialects are mutually intelligible.

My preferred solution is to reject the presumption that knowing a language family means you can speak every language in that family up front. A character from Kirighast who travels to the City of the Steel Lotus can’t automatically speak the Tengese dialect of Flametongue. Instead, she gets to roll Linguistics for her first efforts to communicate, and after a few scenes she—like Conan and other sword and sorcery characters—picks up the language well enough to be intelligible, requiring neither training time nor additional experience point expenditure. (NPCs are not necessarily assumed to be so adept; they don’t need to be, because they don’t have a play experience to be concerned with.)

One other quick note on languages: In my experience, players and Storytellers tend to write off the “Tribal Tongues” language option, not so much because it’s less broadly useful than the other options (and no examples are provided), but because they assume that “barbarian tribes” implies “way at the edge of the world, outside the scope of our game’s location.” Mutually incomprehensible tongues and language isolates can exist in close proximity to important play locales, like the real-life Ainu language in a Japan-based game, or the Basque tongue in a game set in Spain. Folk such as the Serpents Who Walk Like Men, who would reasonably be expected to appear in An-Teng stories, are a good example of a folk likely to have their own unique tongue.

Onyx Path Publishing 2014-2015 Scheduling Brochure released

Onyx Path Publishing Exalted logoOnyx Path Publishing has posted a free full-color PDF brochure that summarizes the upcoming books for late 2014 and early 2015. Fans should feel a frisson of familiarity, as it shares the glossy, full-bleed look of old-school White Wolf brochures.

For Exalted fans, the section on Exalted’s upcoming third edition releases can be found on pages 20-21. The overall OPP release schedule is all the way in the back. Here’s a list of the Exalted book schedule estimates, peeled away from the World of Darkness material:

Winter 2014-2015:
Exalted Third Edition
Ex3 Arms of the Chosen

Spring 2015:
Ex3 The Realm

Summer 2015:
Ex3 Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought
Ex3 Towers of the Mighty

Three other books are described in the Exalted section of the brochure but not listed in the schedule. These are The Exigents, Different Skies, and War in Heaven. Download the brochure and have a look!

Ink Monkey Bones #15: Moon-Born Madness Assimilation

Not much to say about this one, other than that it’s very second edition. I can’t wait for Exalted Third Edition to be released so that I can talk about all the cool stuff in it! Coy hints are really no fun at all by comparison.

I’m currently working on two unrelated writing projects for different publishing houses, so my blogging time and energy will be low for a while. I’ll try and stay active here, but expect output to be a little lower than usual.

<3>Moon-Born Madness Assimilation

<n>Cost: —; Mins: Perception 5, Essence 5; Type: Permanent

Keywords: None

Duration: Permanent

Prerequisite Charms: Eagle-Fish Transition Prophecy

Luna is not of the Wyld, but she is kin to Chaos, and her Essence bears an affinity with the madness at the world’s edge. A character with this Charm treats all Lunar-aspected manses and demesnes as part of the Wyld for purposes of Charms with the Wyld keyword. If the intensity of the Wyld is relevant, treat one-dot and two-dot sites as the Bordermarches, three-dot and four-dot sites as the Middlemarches, and five-dot sites as Deep Wyld.

Recommend: Dyson’s Dodecahedron

beyond-cricket-streamIf you’re a tabletop RPG gamer of any stripe, one of the premier sites to look into is Dyson’s Dodecahedron. While the site is oriented toward OSR play—that stands for “Old-School Renaissance,” a movement based around rediscovering early Dungeons & Dragons playstyles—its primary focus is mapping. And the maps… well, you’ll want to see them for yourself.

D&D referees will rejoice in the site’s many pre-built dungeons and adventures. Players of other games can still get some use out of the maps; in addition to the dungeons—and let’s face it, no matter the game, sooner or later your players will go into a cave or basement or what have you—there’s a selection of regional, city, and town maps as well. There’s even a bunch of RPG articles on the site, and PDFs of a pay-as-you-like fanzine you can download.

the-dungeon-of-smiths-chartFor my ongoing Basic D&D campaign, I’ve trawled the web for dozens of short adventures whenever I needed to take a break from my megadungeon (or when my laptop was down, or I’d mislaid my maps…), and I’ve used more than one of Dyson’s prepackaged modules. I’ve also had to come up with maps on short notice for when the PCs unexpectedly pursued a stray plot thread, and the site’s legend-free maps have been a godsend.

These maps have come in handy in other games, too. Are your Exalted PCs plumbing a First Age tomb? Is your Vampire: The Dark Ages coterie laying siege to a nearby manor? Dyson (probably) has a map for the occasion, and it’ll look great printed out and spread out on your gaming table.

(And if you like the site, you can kick in $1 in thanks on Dyson’s Patreon page. Today’s crowdfunding tools really are marvelous!)


“Ride the Camel Cock”

This post’s title is a quote from Tony Perrottet’s excellent Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. (Interestingly, my copy is titled Route 66 A.D.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. The title was changed in later printings; I presume this is because “Route 66” is a meaningless referent outside of the United States.)

Embarrassing English-speaking customers since 1926.

Embarrassing English-speaking customers since 1926.

“You like to ride the Camel Cock?”

“Excuse me?” Les almost choked on her rose-hip tea.

The agent pointed to a ticket. Kamel Koç, his preferred bus company.

Names are tricky in role-playing games. A silly-sounding name can break immersion, leading to bad jokes and an ongoing inability to take events surrounding the named subject seriously.

Real-world foreign languages are the best sources of verisimilitudinous names, but they also contain all sorts of words that sound silly to your players’ ears. My most memorable experience in this regard was in a Dungeons & Dragons game I ran several years ago. One of the deities I included in the campaign setting was the Roman war goddess Bellona. Unfortunately, it turns out that her name sounds just like “bologna,” which led to players repeatedly singing the “Oscar Mayer Weiner” jingle. Not coincidentally, the campaign lasted only one session.

Names from one’s own language are safer, but even they can result in embarrassment if they’re not thought through. For instance, my friend D— came up with what he thought was a marvelously Victorian name for his Vampire: The Masquerade character, only to be surprised when everyone he told it to started laughing. It didn’t occur to him at the time that “Lazarus Graves” wasn’t simply an obscure Biblical given name added to a primly British surname. Similarly, my friend A— spent years playing a bard named “Aria” without realizing that the name was a musical reference. She had picked the name purely because she thought it sounded nice.

Still, even that’s less disruptive than deliberately inserting jokes or pop-culture references. An unwelcome example is the goddess Somairot, found in Manual of Exalted Power: Alchemicals. It turns out that this is simply “Tori Amos” spelled backwards. Knowing this makes it significantly more difficult to take the character seriously.

Even when you’ve come up with a good name, it’s important to double-check that you aren’t inadvertently reusing a pre-existing name. I fell into this trap when working on Compass of Terrestrial Directions—The North. I’d named an ancestor-worshiping reaver kingdom Charn, with the intent that it’d play off the associations of “Char” and “Charnel” to give a fire-and-sword vibe. But a quick Google search revealed the name had been used for a dead city in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. The book’s developer, Dean Shomshak, changed the name to Karn. This turned out to be the name of a golem planeswalker from Magic: The Gathering—arguably a more distracting association.

I’d love to see some more egregious examples of ill-chosen names in published RPG material. Please post your most entertaining examples in the comments below!

Ink Monkey Bones #14: Essence-Lensing Jewel

Here’s another dusty Ink Monkeys 2e Charm that’s unlikely to see print in any form in Exalted Third Edition, for various reasons. Elemental lenses have a… troubled history. (If you have any particularly entertaining—or depressing!—elemental lens stories, please post them in the comments.)

<3>Essence-Lensing Jewel

<n>Cost: 2m; Mins: Lore 3, Essence 3; Type: Reflexive (Step 1)

Keywords: Combo-OK, Elemental

Duration: Indefinite

Prerequisite Charms: Elemental Bolt Attack

A Terrestrial hearthstone is a crystallized expression of one of the five elements of Creation. This Charm causes an elementally-aspected hearthstone to resonate with the character’s expressions of that element. Whenever the character uses a Terrestrial Charm to create or enhance a physical attack, if that Charm possesses the Elemental keyword and its element is the same as the hearthstone’s aspect, she adds the hearthstone’s Manse rating to the raw damage of her attack(s). Charms that create environmental hazards add half the above-mentioned bonus to damage at each interval.

The hearthstone, or the artifact it is set into, must serve as a conduit for the elemental energies. For example, a hearthstone socketed into a daiklave could be used in concert with Melee Charms, or to hurl an Elemental Bolt by channeling the blast through the daiklave, but it could not be used to enhance an Archery Charm.

Only one hearthstone may be used at a time with this Charm. If used in concert with Glorious Birthright Font, the damage added by this Charm is halved (rounding up). This Charm does not stack with any artifact which directly augments elemental energy attacks, such as an Elemental Lens.

Status Report: August 12, 2014

On the Exalted front, it’s still Arms of the Chosen all the time. I’ve finished my first drafts of five Evocation-based weapons, ranging from a couple of rather esoteric daiklaves to a peculiarly lethal direlance. Two of the weapons will need significant rewrites once I’ve finished the rest of the first draft; the others are good to go for playtesting.

With that out of the way, I’m working on the book’s collection of miscellaneous, non-Evocation Artifacts. (Yes, these are still a thing.) Whereas the majority of the Evocation-based weapons are brand new, almost all of the miscellaneous items are classic 1e/2e devices. Some have appeared in both editions; others only in one. On Lea’s suggestion, I’ve just updated an item that hasn’t been reprinted or even referenced since 2001, which is cool.

It’s good to get a crack at writing equipment again. A big chunk of my early game design career was based around equipment design; the only two game books where I have lead author credit have been equipment books. Of course, Paranoia isn’t exactly a mechanically rigorous or balanced game! Exalted design is much more demanding. On the other hand, we have an active design and development team that provides ready feedback on mechanics, and access to playtesters with the interest and know-how to assess balance issues.

For those interested in the difference between design and development, this Magic: The Gathering article—while it obviously deals with a very different game built using different processes—provides a useful grounding in the distinction between the two.

Robert Vance’s work on Exalted 3e sabotaged by kitten, film at 11

Exalted 3e writer Robert Vance reports that a fellow kitten vandalized his notepad yesterday, damaging the contents of over zero pages. When interviewed about the attack, Vance said, “Words of guidance for aspiring writers: Do not leave your notes where your little sister can find them. They are merciless.”

The following photo depicts the crime scene. Be warned: it is not for the faint of heart. Do not show this to small children!

Robert Vance bluh bluh