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Randan Chronicle: Session #3

Having just played session 4 of the Randan game, this seems like a good time to post a summary of the third session. Von Der’Harr’s player is moving across the country in a few weeks, so this is his last hurrah in our gaming group; we’ll miss him.

Anyway, to summarize:

A palace functionary, Iron-Under-Hammer, visited Blood on the Petals to investigate the recent battle in her pagoda, and to corroborate rumors of demonology—especially in the wake of our raid on the Potters’ Lodge, where the explosion had been spun by the palace as the Aokis’ very flesh having been impregnated with infernal powers. Petals proclaimed her innocence, then followed her usual modus operandi of enthralling Iron-Under-Hammer and his military escort with a seductive dance. She went on to invent a tale about how Yueh Strife had threatened her with demonic attack, and though she did not wholly persuade him, he left the pagoda uncertain of the truth.

After an interlude wherein Von Der’Harr discovered that his aide, Vince Smar, was actually a First Age automaton (with a cigarette lighter built into his forefinger, no less), Von sought an audience with Randan’s chief craft-goddess, White-Hot Hammer. After browbeating his way past the goddess’ priests, he bargained with her for her aid in constructing a ship whose hull fuses together wood, metal, and ceramic. Such was Von’s skill with bargaining and fine print that he easily obtained satisfactory terms. (Sadly, I don’t recall the details; hopefully Von’s player will chime in at some point.)

For her part, Sanrei spent some time investigating the palace functionaries involved in the plot against her family—including retired prime minister Soaking-Up-the-Moon, who had spent the past few months out of favor and heavily intoxicated, and ambitious courtier Apple-From-the-Tree—and attempting to establish ties with surviving Aoki cousins. Other than that, her time was largely spent on crafting projects, from repairing the damage to Petals’ pagoda to making ceramic hull sheeting for Von’s mystery ship.

After a few days had passed, Von gathered his fellow Solars to explore an underground labyrinth his men had stumbled upon while digging beneath one of their hideouts. After an hour of exploration, they were ambushed by an ape demon. But Sanrei was too alert to be caught unawares, and she lopped off the beast’s arm with a single stroke before it could even act. (Full Awareness Excellency + Sensory Acuity Prana for 15 starting Initiative, going straight into a decisive attack using Shining Starfall Execution for 9 health levels of damage.)

While the maimed demon was off-balance, Von persuaded it to join his ship’s crew. It then explained that it was part of the entourage of a more powerful demon that dwelt at the heart of the labyrinth, and agreed to lead us there. This proved to be Alveua, Keeper of the Forge of Night, one of the three demon queens of Randanese fable, caged by sorcery in a cavern amid a dozen lesser demons . After the demoness and Sanrei exchanged a few idle threats, Petals once again broke out the sexy dancing to seduce Alveua, then negotiated a pact whereby neither of the two would attack the other or any of the other’s friends. We then departed, though Sanrei lingered a bit to say that while she would slay the demon queen before allowing her to regain power in Randan, freedom outside of Randan might be arranged in exchange for knowledge of Alveua’s secrets of demonic forgecraft.

After our departure, Von returned to the temple of the White-Hot Hammer, where he informed the goddess of the demon queen’s presence and location beneath the city. The next morning, Sanrei visited the hideout to venture underground again, only to discover that the stairwell into the depths had been collapsed as though by a localized earthquake. Clearly, the untrustworthy Blood on the Petals was responsible for this…

Another book published!

My author’s copies finally came in! It’s not an Exalted book, nor even related to gaming. But I wrote it, it’s getting published, so I’m posting about it here. 🙂 So if you know anyone in high school who’s interested in a career in biotechnology, buy ’em a copy once it hits the shelves!

I’d like to thank my editor, Amelie von Zumbusch, for doing an incredible job and being a pleasure to work with. Thanks also to my interviewees — Vanessa Borcherding, Doug Darr, Heather Geiger, Christopher Mason, and Elizabeth Waters — for all their help!

biotechbook

Ask an Exalted Writer!

Now that I’ve exhausted every major vein of Exalted developer quotes that I’m aware of, I’ve been mulling over some more substantial blog posts. However, my brain is still effervescing with 3e material for upcoming drafts, and for the moment I’d rather keep my creative energies aimed in that direction.

In the interim, if anyone would like to ask me questions about Exalted (or anything else), feel free to do so in the comments! I can’t provide substantive 3e spoilers, of course, but beyond that, ask away, and I’ll answer as best I’m able.

Ink Monkey Bones #17: Salubrious Wood Dragon Nest

<3>Salubrious Wood Dragon Nest

<n>Cost: 8m, 1wp; Mins: Medicine 4, Essence 3; Type: Simple (Speed 1 long tick)
Keywords: Combo-OK
Duration: One day
Prerequisite Charms: Wound-Closing Touch

With this Charm, the Dragon-Blood refines the Essence flows within a manse or demesne which he currently occupies and to which he is attuned, transforming it into pure healing Essence. Characters attuned to the manse or demesne cease to draw motes from it, and its hearthstone or Essence token ceases to provide motes (but retains its other powers). Instead, the healing Essence suffuses every character—attuned or not—who is on the site or who bears the site’s hearthstone or Essence token. Such characters add the manse or demesne’s rating to their healing multipliers. They also add that many dice to all rolls to stanch wounds and to resist and treat poisons and diseases.
Healing multiplier examples: Everyone at a one-dot demesne heals at twice the normal rate, while everyone at a five-dot manse heals at six times the normal rate. A Solar in a two-dot manse who’s also using Body-Mending Meditation will heal at twelve times the normal rate.

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!)

cruars-cove-final-smaller

“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!

Status Report: July 26, 2014

Latest updates on my involvement with Exalted Third Edition:

I’d planned to start off by saying that I’d completely wrapped up my role on the 3e corebook, having finished my revisions to the setting and antagonist chapters and turned in my art notes. But I’ve been given a chance to make some last-minute flavor tweaks to mortal antagonists, so that’s back on my plate. Hopefully I can finish up in time to get to the beach before my vacation ends!

Myrtle Beach, SC

I’ve started on my first post-corebook assignment. I cannot discuss details, but a sword may be involved.

Last night, I was up until 4am on a conference call with the rest of the writing and development staff. We talked about what’s left to do on the corebook and about ideas for both immediate and long-term upcoming projects, focusing largely on Dragon-Blooded and Lunar material. I also inadvertently got everyone excited about printing out their own 11″x17″ copies of the Ex3 map. Hopefully they’ll post their own blurry photos of the map, like the one in this old post.

On Wednesday, I’m meeting up with a new writer who happens to live in my city. We hope this will bring about a new era of peace and creativity!

The Three Faces of Troupe-Style Play

The term “troupe-style play” is bandied about pretty often at my table. Other role-playing gamers aren’t always familiar with it. But the term may cause confusion even among those who’ve used it, because it can refer to more than one thing.

One meaning of troupe-style play is that players take turns running the game. This can involve assigning most responsibilities to an “Alpha storyteller” who is generally in charge, while still allowing other players to run side stories. Alternatively, it can mean spreading out authority further, so that Storytellers take turns running the game or divide up their responsibilities in other ways—one might run non-player characters in social scenes while another adjudicates combat, for example. This is the definition appearing in Ars Magica, the game that coined the term. It’s also how I run my Basic D&D campaign; I’ve been busy lately with Exalted 3e work, so some of my other players have been running sessions for me. Sometimes I even get to stop by for a couple of hours and play!

Another meaning is that each player runs two or more player characters, choosing which one to run at any given time. Ars Magica also gives explicit rules for this, with each player running one wizard, one skilled non-wizardly “companion,” and any number of the group’s hirelings and henchmen (or “grogs”). Some indie RPGs, such as Capes, go even farther by allowing players to draw all their PCs from a common pool.

Ultima IV NPC dialogueYet a third meaning is that whenever a PC is not in a scene, its player may volunteer, or be assigned by the Storyteller, to run an NPC in the scene. This is ad hoc for one-off NPCs, but a player may repeatedly take on the role of a recurring NPC. (Such recurring NPCs may effectively become secondary PCs, much like in the previous version of troupe-style play, though they arrive there by a different route. My Exalted players fondly recall the demon merchant Makarios and the wandering Dragon-Blooded hero Alec Doren as secondary PCs of this sort.)

This third meaning is the one I personally use when discussing troupe-style play, because it’s the one that I have used—and continue to use—in actual play. Turning responsibility for NPCs over to the players has proved invaluable in keeping my games running smoothly and making them exciting and engaging for the players.

Running NPCs—whether minor characters like gate guards, or major characters like family members, reigning monarchs, or the superpowered rivals of other PCs—keeps players involved in a scene when their own PCs aren’t present. This isn’t an issue in every game; it certainly doesn’t come up often in my Basic D&D campaign, a classic dungeon crawl where splitting the party is a no-no (unless you want your exploring thief to disappear around a corner and never return). But in character-oriented games, splitting up lets you nab the spotlight for your PC’s story. Instead of making players feel guilty for pushing the other players onto the sidelines, troupe-style play ensures that they’re also involved and engaged.

This also improves the game experience on the Storyteller’s side. It reduces the workload to run the game; I know I already have my hands full keeping track of game mechanics, setting details, and plot threads, and letting someone pull the weight of running non-plot-centric NPCs makes things much easier for me. Troupe play also makes it feasible to run interactions between NPCs that would otherwise degenerate into farcical exchanges where the Storyteller plays every part. (“And how are you this fine day, sister Mnemon?” “Quite well, sister V’neef. One sugar or two? Lemon?”)

Planescape: Torment dialogue

Example: During my first Exalted game, the PCs visited a tiny little kingdom called Tul Tuin, where they met various members of the royal family. I made sure that each of the prince’s sons, daughters, and lovers was run by a different player. Then, a few sessions in, I started a scene in which the entire royal family got together for dinner. I didn’t have to explain anything; after a few seconds of perplexity, everyone fell right into character, and we ran a half-hour all-NPC scene that illuminated all the players regarding local politics and the royal family intrigues. It’s not a trick I would use often—certainly, I haven’t tried it since—but it was lots of fun and a great change of pace that couldn’t have been accomplished so smoothly by other means.

On a related note, when players put their own spin on NPCs, this helps avoid the samey-ness that can creep into the Storyteller’s portrayal of background characters. I mean, I could play every NPC member of disgraced military officer Coravan Calan’s entourage, but why would I? We’d lose out on Jon’s sarcastic portrayal of Calan’s manservant, not to mention Conn’s vacuously obnoxious presentation of Calan’s nephew. These are better NPCs than I’d manage, and better NPCs make for a better game!

Troupe-style play also enhances recollection of play, in a way paralleling that of session summaries. Players are more likely to remember a scene if they were in it, and are more likely to remember what an NPC did if they ran that NPC. I’ve certainly noticed less confusion about the events of previous sessions in my games now that I regularly assign players to take on NPC roles! This is especially true of certain players who tune out when their PC is off-camera. (The player in question knows who he is—hey dude, if you’re playing Kashif’s character’s vain brother, you can’t play games on my iPad at the same time! Ha!)

Disgaea dialogueLastly, if you’re a player, playing NPCs can be fun! You get to play characters that you otherwise wouldn’t—obnoxious children! Senile grandparents! Drug-addled gamblers! Bloodthirsty zealots! Unintelligible foreigners! Jaded princesses! Etc.) Plus, you can chew the scenery with a will, secure in the knowledge that soon the NPC will get shuffled offstage and you can get back to playing your PC.

Still, troupe style play is not a perfect tool. It has its problems, and these may make it less than optimal for any given game or gaming group. It takes time to get players up to speed with the NPCs they’ll be running, and players that like to partition in-character and out-of-character information won’t be happy if they gain OOC knowledge from those briefings. It can be difficult to keep some players on track when running NPCs; they may end up chewing the scenery or being inappropriate helpful to the other PCs. And as bad as it is to lose an ongoing PC when a player leaves the group, it’s even more disruptive in a troupe-style game because all the recurring NPCs they ran will have to be adopted by other players or removed from the game.

Have you experimented with this sort of troupe-style play? If so, I’d love to hear how it worked out for you!

Why Session Summaries are Awesome

Scriptorium Monk at WorkLots of players and Storytellers record the events of game sessions. You can read thousands of actual play write-ups online. Indeed, many gaming forums have entire sub-forums dedicated solely to posting session summaries.

Why are session summaries useful? They can seem indulgent, whether because you’re tying down stories to a page when the real fun lies in playing them out, or because you’re seeking acclaim from readers online. But they serve a useful purpose for your play group.

Session summaries help the Storyteller and the players remember what’s happened in the game. After a while, it’s easy to lose track of plot threads and minor characters—What was the name of that random guardsman who’s marrying the Dawn’s daughter? Which parts of the ruined manse did the PCs explore? Where exactly did the Twilight stash the Soulbreaker Orb during Limit Break?

Worse, without a record of events, the Storyteller can misremember key plot points, only to realize that she’s painted herself into a corner once everyone involved pools their recollections, revealing that characters have acted uncharacteristically or progressed with schemes that make no sense once the full context of events is recalled—Why did the Mask of Winters let the Circle pass through Thorns without confiscating the jade casket he’d been hunting for the entire chronicle? Life in Great Forks has seemed normal for the past two sessions; shouldn’t it be full of refugees after the PCs burned Nexus to the ground three sessions ago? The Zenith’s demon hunter retainer finally Exalted as a Lunar a few sessions back; hey, I just remembered that she was actually a Dragon-Blood in disguise! Working your way out of a jam like this can lead to some really cool plot twists and entertaining storytelling, but it risks breaking immersion for Storyteller and players alike.

Aside from all that, summaries provide a shared context for play. It’s kind of like how, once you see the movie version of a book, you tend to visualize the book character as the actor from the movie. But where book readers maintain their own private visions, RPG players share an imaginary space with the rest of the group. If everyone reads the session summaries, the shared imaginary space gains texture and solidity as every player remembers events through the filter of the summaries’ writer.

This last reason is good cause to go the extra mile and elaborate on the story with sensory and cultural detail that wasn’t necessarily spelled out during actual play—What does the architecture look like here? What sort of clothing do people wear; what food do they eat? How do people greet one another? In what regard do they hold their rulers, their cosmopolitan kin in the capital, or foreigners who’ve settled in their lands? If the players are reading the summaries, they’ll soak up setting information there that they might not otherwise be aware of. This will make the setting feel more real and help ensure that everyone’s on the same page in terms of how the setting works and where the PCs fit into it.

Of course, there are limits to the utility of session summaries. Taking notes on what happened in the session shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with involvement in actual play, and a Storyteller with limited leisure time (which is just about every Storyteller!) should prioritize preparation for the next session over writing up the events of the previous one. But beyond these obvious issues, I think the value of session summaries is clear. Share your gaming experiences with your players—and after that, why not with the world?

Game Designers Aren’t Wizards

In my experience, the fans who most acrimoniously disagree with certain game designers are also those who attribute the greatest skills and talents to those designers. How does that work?

It’s an extension of the persistent notion among fans of any media that their favorite creators are magicians. Not literally in the sense that they cast magic spells or pull rabbits out of hats, but rather that they have a preternatural ability to create—that they need only sit down before keyboard or easel and instantly whip out perfection.

There are, admittedly, a rare few who seem to possess the skills and talent to get it right the first time, without deliberation or error. But that sort of mastery takes years—decades!—of constant practice, and even then, I suspect few are truly that expert. For example, we view Mozart as a gifted prodigy for composing his first works at the age of five and gaining employment at the Salzburg court at the age of 17. But his abilities didn’t come from nowhere; he spent his youth in musical tutelage and practice, and he wrote dozens of compositions before his court debut. And his works did not appear fully formed—he outlined each piece through drafts and musical fragments before putting them together in their final form.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

— Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Game designers are, by and large, amateurs working on games in our spare time. Freelancers squeeze in a few hours a week on various projects in between our full time, non-gaming jobs with which we pay the bills, and our other leisure activities—like actually playing the games we love. Despite this, we do our best to revise and refine the material we plan to publish until it’s the best that it can be. But there are limits to this process that readers ought to recognize.

In the most egregious example, I’ve seen people complaining that playtest material for Exalted 3e contains problematic elements—broken rules, overpowered combos, etc. Well, duh? The whole point of playtesting is to find problems in the rules. If they were already perfect, we wouldn’t need to playtest them.

“But I spotted an error just by looking at the rules,” you say. “The designers should also have spotted it even without playtesting, so they’re idiots.” Unfortunately, not all humans think alike or spot the same things. That’s a perfectly normal part of the writing process.

I’m a professional proofreader and copy editor. It’s part of my job to spot mistakes in people’s writing. I’ve edited copy written by professional authors and journalists. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single document longer than a few paragraphs that didn’t have at least one error in it—even from experienced authors who’ve been in the business for decades longer than I have, including some authors who are also copy editors or proofreaders. Similarly, no matter how often I fine-tune my writing, editors always find errors in my work. That doesn’t mean I suck; it means I’m a writer, that’s all.

When a game designer sends out a broken rule or overpowered combo for playtesting, that doesn’t mean the designer sucks. It means that they’re a game designer, that’s all. Look at Steve Jackson’s OGRE, one of the tightest little sci-fi board games of all time. It’s currently viewed as a classic. It also had stat changes between the first and second printing because the “G.E.V.” hovercraft unit proved to be overpowered with its published stats.

There’s also the issue of some designers not being the smoothest intermediaries for their companies. Sadly, the pen-and-paper gaming industry is run on a shoestring budget, which means there’s no cash for dedicated public relations specialists. So it’s either designers untrained in PR interacting with the fans, or dead air. And the Exalted community has certainly dealt with the latter before, when 1e lead developer Geoff Grabowski completely stopped communicating with fans after the vicious reception met by the original Lunars splatbook.

The time we spend talking online about games is time we don’t spend writing those games. We talk to you guys because we really want to share the cool stuff we’re working on. So while it’s cool to politely point out that we’re saying something that comes across as dumb or offensive, please don’t lash out in anger over disagreements; we’re doing the best we can with a very limited time budget.

And then there’s blog posts. If a designer is really excited about a topic, he or she might put a lot of time and energy into brainstorming, researching, writing, and editing a post. But aside from the vanishingly few designers who work on games full-time, we don’t get paid for blogging. So we squeeze in a few paragraphs here and there, and we try to do a good job of making our posts coherent and useful, but hours spent on researching and revising blog posts are hours we’re not spending on the games we’re trying to publish.

Game designers aren’t wizards. We can’t wave our magic wands to turn out perfect material. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to produce quality work, and many of us are already sweated out from our day jobs. Posting online is a third job—essentially a second unpaid job—and it has the lowest priority, as without either of the first two, there’ll be no game to comment on.