Villainy and You!

1) My apologies for lack of content just of late…but I had to take time out of my busy schedule of planetary domination just to make room to write this. And on that note:

2) Villains are a centerpiece of almost every tabletop RPG game out there. It is a game of opposed goals. The goals may be simple (lootables/XPs etc) or complex (world peace/national stability/long term regional prosperity etc) but those goals are always opposed by the ultimate villain…your DM! Since this is a lot to take on, a DM needs bosses and mini bosses. Most of these are self evident, quickly made and defeated…but you can expand on this and make some unique and lively opponents that bring lasting irritation to your players. Why? Because appetite is whetted by time and hunger. Make your player’s enemies memorable, and their experience defeating them is savored all the more.

Enemies don’t always have to be evil incarnate, but it does make things easier when they’re disposable and any actions taken against them are well justified. If it’s short term, as in a villainous monster or NPC that will be confronted in a few games and removed from the equation fairly soon, just a few small flourishes are called for. By flourishes, I mean personality quirks, backstory and reputation, and appearance. That local orc chieftain isn’t complete until he is the source of dreadful rumors in local taverns, with people speaking of his ferocity in battle, quoting the number of times young adventurers have been slain seeking him out, and describing his unique appearance and the rune on his battle standard. Likewise, a malignant local sorceress can have all kinds of foulness attributed to her over decades, with locals speaking of magical mists in which people get lost, disappearances among those who wandered out of town at night, and demands of tribute that have left them impoverished. Even ordinary opponents can be dressed up and made unique fairly easily. Example: A single, aging ogre with a bad temperament and a nearby cave lair. Give him a ring of invisibility, some crude armor, a couple of healing potions, and a magic morning star regularly dunked in poison…and the encounter just shifted from routine brute brawl to cunning and wily foe.

Long term enemies are much more difficult. It helps if they are distant and powerful at first, while the players are obviously outmatched. This keeps the PCs from slaughtering their ultimate enemy too soon. (Because, seriously…if a 3rd level party crashes an archmage’s palatial estate…it won’t end well for them, and they know it, or soon will.) The archmage’s lesser minions are another matter entirely. So begins a campaign arc, perhaps in the Robin Hood tradition, sabotaging the mage’s revenue streams, defeating his minions and representatives, giving people hope that change can come, and ultimately drawing the archmage out of his entrenched and comfortable position and into a battle with more equal terms, preferably when the PCs have had time to slowly build up levels and acquire powerful magic weapons. In any case, the sense of long term purpose, the reminder that a greater campaign goal is at stake, and taunting them with insults from their long term opponent  (assassination attempts, bounties, kidnappings of allies, etc) can build the final battle up to a moment of epic satisfaction for players.

We covered the essentials in the podcast, but particulars for ‘customizing’ enemies is a more in depth subject. Leave no idea unused. It can be as simple as distinctive mode dress and speech, or as complicated as a campaign related backstory with several pages of material (Ravenloft style). It can be a tale of a modest person turned to evil by a powerful artifact they possess, or as familiar a tale as a person turned to evil by personal tragedy. The important point is that all these things can make a boss stand out from the herd of NPCs and random monsters.

Finally, a note about organizations. Defeating individuals is easy (relatively)…but beating an organization is far tougher. It allows for much more resources, shadowy hard to follow connections and influence, terrifying reputation with far more reach than one person or monster can ever have, and much more capacity for harm. It’s one thing to terrorize a local village…it’s another to co-opt an entire region’s governments. By voiding the traditional ‘single foe’ expectation, you can keep players busy rooting out members one or two at a time, until they’ve gathered enough clout, information and evidence to reveal all they know and collapse the organizations influence and relevance.

The big goal for a DM is always the same…presenting players with challenging experiences that they can enjoy and remember fondly. Or at least it for me, because my favorite table chatter…is those moments when players reference a time place you created, and they speak of it with the same affection and enthusiasm that we normally associate with classic movies or well loved books. That moment…always makes my day.

Creative Treasures

After a brief hiatus owed to computer failure, I have at last returned! With great pleasure, I issue this blog on the topic of treasure, following up our 19th episode on that same topic.

Now, creative treasure placement isn’t especially hard, but creativity is only limited by the DM/GMs knowledge of things, so I do strongly recommend taking a little time out to read up on ancient trade and valuables, a little peek at numismatics info (coin collecting, particularly ancient coins), books on gemology, examples of ancient jewelry and art, and develop a general sense regarding the value of things.

I know that this seems like a bit of homework, but it does lend itself to delivering really cool, convincing descriptions of interesting items. Not every treasure should be limited to a pile of coins, and selling off or dealing with the finding of strange items can also occupy game time.

Example: I stuck some PCs with minted gold bars, each with a maker’s mark on them. These are legally questionable items whose origin point is a known quantity, and they acquired them at a discount in a deal as they sold off a pile of gems and jewelry from their last adventure, because the merchant couldn’t offer more than a certain amount of cash. The only way they could turn the gold bars back into cash (without steep taxes or harsh questions about how these fell into the hands of strangers)…was to take them somewhere far enough away from their original minter that they wouldn’t be recognized. It became an entire separate adventure path as they made a trip to another country with their gold bars hidden and undeclared, sold off their lesser goods, and struck a deal with a thieves guild in order to move the bars, and while they didn’t the full legal value, they turned a suitable profit and avoided uncomfortable questions.

Now, not every situation needs to be so complex, but adventure hooks can be created by treasure just as they can by maps, strangers in alleys, bartenders with rumors and town criers announcing offers of employment.

Here’s a list of handy treasure ideas, (although I always recommend getting a copy of the 1st edition Ad&D DM Guide and checking the back…the tables and appendices are AWESOME sources of inspiration and help.)

Statuettes of rare stone or other materials (jade, ivory or bone scrimshaw, jet, amber etc). Armbands/bracelets crafted from precious metals or of an ancient age and unusual beauty. Rares spices or valuable spell components (even pepper, which we today treat as a common item, was once a rare commodity with a high value per pound.) Pots of dye in valuable colors (purple and red and blue were hard to ‘fix’, so these dyes, and naturally mined alum (a fixer for dyes) were unusually valuable. Non-magical ‘panoply’ display armor gilded with precious metal. This kind of thing would belong to nobles, but could have easily been taken centuries before in the sacking (pillaging) of a city. The value of such armor would be because of its gold or silver content and rare craftsmanship and beauty, not for its defensive quality. Art took other forms than mere painting…tapestries and rugs woven carefully to display events of note. Clothing of exceptional quality, expensive furs, precious woods from faraway countries used in the making of well carved and attractive furnishings. All of these things are worth tucking away in a bandits lair or in the horde of a dragon. They make a great exception to the usual rule of clear coinage.

That brings me to coins! And this may get tricky. Coins do not have to be boring or dependable. Historically, nations have taken great pride in the minting of their own coins, and the value of one coin versus another has been a factor for literally as long as coins have been made. Competing currencies can make for tricky needs in game, and PCs can find that one country will accept foreign coins at a lower value, lowering the worth of their ready cash, or they may find that the use of foreign coins is prohibited and that their cash must be exchanged at a moneychangers stall. The size of weight and coins matters. A country might have coins minted in ‘half’ sizes as well as full, starting with a half copper(1/2cp), a full copper (1cp), a half silver (5cp), full silver(1sp), half gold(5sp), full gold(1gp) and double gold (2gp). Admittedly this is needlessly complex, but if you remember British currency before the Euro and decimalization…this is nothing!!

Further, coins do not all have the same value when ‘debasing’ occurs. A nation in crisis may use less gold/silver in the alloy of their coins, or a nation at the peak of prosperity may issues coins of unusual purity. This alternately lowers or raises the value compared to coins of standard value. An unwary adventurer may agree to receive 1000 gold in compensation for some task…only to find that outside the borders of that nation, their gold is worth 80% of its face value, or less! So the push becomes to negotiate clearly for a currency that is trusted. Unscrupulous lords or merchants will happily pawn off less valuable coinage…or even counterfeit coins…just to avoid paying what they actual owe. Clever players will check their payment as they receive it, so this trick won’t work more than once, but it can really drive home that the players live in a world where some folks are out for themselves first.

Last (for now), coins aren’t the be all and end all of money. Some places may use paper scripts that represent a value of traded metals, others may use attractive items like semi precious stone, beautiful plumage from specific birds, wooden tokens, or who knows what. Currencies may be incredibly valuable in one land, and valueless in another, so trading out that currency before traveling becomes an ingrained habit.

Obviously, this doesn’t cover magic items and other alternatives in treasure, but that can be a blog for another time. Very much this dropped a few ideas where people can find them. Enjoy!

Alignment Check!

Randy and I have been debating alignment longer than some gamers have been alive, and always with a smirk instead of a clenched fist. Truth is, alignment is nebulous, intentionally varied and flexible, and most meant to streamline play for a few very specific situations (item interactions, religious observations, paladin conduct, and evil mage obligations). The rest of the time, it doesn’t really make a big dent.

Now, if its in play, and people have drawn their lines for Law or Chaos, Good or Evil, its a fair thing for a DM to expect them to live up to it…and as I mentioned, I prefer using both the carrot and the stick on this one. Alignment should NOT be just a handicap that generates periodic disadvantages or punishments. It should come with perks, too!

I’m breaking off topic a little here, but this is Alignment play examples in world building…so it connects to what I’m aiming to get at. Example: I usually grade nations in play with an ‘approximate’ alignment. This compiled as a way of measuring the quality of their leadership, average trend of their religious observations, reasonableness of the legal system, and general demeanor of their people. LG characters may find themselves very out  of place in a nation that trends NE. That designation does not mean everyone is NE…just that the current leadership is opportunistic and ruthless, the religions tend not be ones that fight that trend, the legal system is largely uncaring and cruel, and the people, even though they suffer, accept this state of affairs as normal.

A heroic character who does not bend or bow to evil practices, or who works to bring justice to a place where little exists, is living up to an alignment that isn’t favored and isn’t ‘convenient’…and that should generate rewards in play…the favor or blessings of a patron deity, the rewards of beleaguered townsfolk, XPs etc.

Conversely, the same should apply to characters whose personal alignment and conduct perfectly match a regional alignment average. Chaotic Good adventurers find that they are well spoken of, well received, and get along easily with both local leadership and local residents in areas that have a CG average demeanor. If they have a degree of fame or reputation, this means free lodging or free drinks and food, a friendly legal system that is surprisingly forgiving of small lapses, and in general an easier time accomplishing goals or seeking aid.

At present, the campaign I’m DMing in 1st edition has a strong Druidic tradition on one side of a continent, and a competing and hostile faith on the other. When the PCs travel, depending on the end location, either the Druidess (now 11th level) is treated like a visiting Curial Cardinal with all according respect by locals…or…she is obligated to conceal her identity and faith entirely to prevent her arrest and execution. To date, the party has used several different ruses while in hostile lands…traveling once as a merchant caravan and its guards, a second time as a nobleman’s retinue, and third as a traveling circus and menagerie (thus explaining their variety of well trained and clever animals).

The point to all of that is this: Alignment, even if it just seems like a limit of player behavior, can have a much wider impact that affects not just personal gameplay, but party planning and conduct as they progress. Alignment can measure more than a paladin’s loyalty to his code, it can determine how your entire group of players interacts with communities, nations, law, faith and more. In short…its what you make of it. So if you don’t want to make use of it fully and would rather keep it simple, don’t bother with the big picture stuff. But…if you’re out there and the idea of expanding alignment relevance in play seems appealing…GO FOR IT!

Crafting Mysteries…?

Mystery writing is a fine old tradition, and DMing, like all fiction, is little more than a deception that happens to be entertaining instead of malicious. RP games can easily incorporate elements of mystery and shades of classic ‘whodunnit’ without sacrificing much…other than time.

On the show, we mentioned several wonderful classic examples of RPGs that made use of this style of adventure (Warhammer Fantasy RP/Call of Chthulu/Shadowrun/Top Secret etc.) Never feel that you can’t write your own…and even if the first attempt flops, just make note of things that went wrong and work to avoid those next time around. When it works…it’s amazing and doubly satisfying…so don’t be discouraged by early misfires.

The easy route for inspiration is to hijack movie plots, change names, and move the scenario into your campaign…and there are countless movies and TV shows worth ripping for ideas. The longer route is some old fashioned heavy reading…especially Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”. Some of the plots are very convoluted, and more than a little contrived, but others are ideal for making into plots for murders or thefts that have been unsolved.

We also spoke of ‘The McGuffin”…which is something of a writing term for ‘any desirable object that moves the plot forward’, and it can mean any number of things…a lost or missing or suddenly dead person/persons, an object of any value, but certainly with some relevance to others so that it remains desirable and the focus of attention, or even a forgotten and rumored place…El Dorado, Atlantis, The Fountain of Youth are all examples of sought after locations.

Introducing PCs to the desirable item is easy enough…a town crier calls out job offers, a barmaid passes a rumor, or a messenger well aware of the party and its skills seeks them out with an offer from some influential person. The tricky part is turning an easy task into a complicated scenario (ala’ Chinatown/Payback/Johnny Mnemonic/ or even Fifth Element). The important thing is to have a clear goal for the party…and a VERY muddy path to get there.

Items or persons to be escorted can be stolen or hijacked at an unaware moment, diverting the party back to just trying to salvage their mission before they can continue…if the item or person is essential to the goal. (Example: a magic key that fits in an ancient door only once every thousand years…with days left on the clock before it must be used or it becomes useless for another thousand years. Then have people stealing it, killing for it, constantly attempting to deceive the players with frantic tales of woe in order to get it before time runs out…while their job becomes deciding if the door should be opened at all, and by whom.)

The NPCs should have convincing reasons to be involved, solid backstories, clear goals of their own (even if those are hidden from players) and fairly unique identities that stand out. Writing these out in advance may indeed be time consuming…but that’s DM writing for you…an arduous and often little rewarded task…but if you consider entertained players a good reward…it’s all worth it, a hundred times over.