Tuesday, April 21, 2015

They Refuse To Just Die

It was a game I was running online and I was pretty sure everyone was going to die.

When the last session ended the players had just failed an assassination attempt on the Deep Janeen. They were trapped in a tunnel, surrounded by his army.

His army was dozens of older and younger temporal duplicates of all the PCs, including duplicates of the 10th level wizard, the 9th level monk, the 9th level roachman thieves and the 9th level assassin.

They players were in a tunnel. They had been discovered. They had just lost one fight and were about to roll initiative on another.

On paper, it looks very simple. All the PCs' badassness added together = X. Whatever was out there was at least 8X plus a genie.

The session began.

The wizard had a deadline, the monk had just been promoted. The roach thief showed up with the 6th level monk and a 4th level race-as-class elf. Versus an army.

The elf and roach surrendered, the monk hid in the shadows in the tunnel. They found her.

"Are they gone?" she said, pretending to be one of her own duplicates. She hadn't been here during any part of this adventure, they had no idea she was with the party. Also: 18 charisma.

"Let me kill them myself, alone" said the monk. Who would buy that? But 18 charisma prevailed.

They sent her to a dark room. But they weren't stupid: Unbeknownst to the party, the room was crawling with roachthieves hiding in the dark. This was just delaying the inevitable. As soon as they began faking their deaths, the roachthieves descended.

And then the real roach thief-- Fiddlin Joe--said "Oh I have that thing from the Insect God where I can control any insect with lower HD than me".  And so he did.

I rolled to see how many were lower level than him. All but one. The roachmen revolted. A thri kreen PC showed up late and sent an indigo demonbat plunging into a Web.

A great battle ensued-- against dozens, almost every PC got knocked unconscious but their bodies were watched over by obedient roachmen. Then the assassin showed up.

"Hey guys"

"Ok, this'll take a second to explain..."

Two rounds later the PCs were tied up at the bottom of the mine, surrounded by other selves. 120 feet above, the Janeen mocked them and ordered their execution. But in the complex melee in the mines of the Janeen the assassin had made his Hide In Shadows roll.

He struck, knocking the Janeen 120 feet to the ground. The yielding stone kept the earth-spirit safe (half damage), but the roachthieves had just enough time to sleight-of-hand their hands free. In a round they had sprung onto the boss, pinning his hands and leaping on his face. The lackeys attacked, hitting hard.

And then the assassin said:

"Can I jump 120 feet, sword first."

"The only way you won't take 120 feet of falling damage is on a critical hit."

"......................I'll do it"

Natural 20.

And soon the empire of the Great Janeen was ended.

People say "Oh there are so many consequences more interesting than death" maybe. But as stakes in a game? When your heart skips beats on the edge of a die roll, that's amazing.

And unlike so many other thrills it gets more intense the more you play, because the characters get more established, more loved. 3 years of gaming and leveling and murdering were gambled on that roll.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The D&Dability of Daredevil

One of the great questions that faces many RPG bloggers is: When do I get to talk about comic books?

Well with everyone talking about Daredevil on Netflix, I'm going to say right now.

So here's my window to talk about the best Daredevil comics and why they're gameable.

Daredevil is a comic of particular interest to RPG people for three reasons:

1) Daredevil is blind. He can't see the word he interacts with. Just like your players. In the comics, we only understand what he experiences through a verbal description. Just like your players. The best Daredevil stories have grounded themselves in this sensory reality, using heard, felt etc detail to express a sense of place and movement. In fact one could argue (ok, I specifically could- and have- argued) that the whole "grim and gritty" late 80s-90s sensibility in comics really took off because Daredevil's blindness and heightened senses demanded that Frank Miller create a language which placed the reader's sensory information very close to the characters' sensory information (what John Gardner called "close psychic distance") which later got ported to Batman and the other grim and gritty character with heightened senses, Wolverine. In short: Daredevil has some great, evocative moments of sensory description. So there's something to learn for GMs there. The man who wrote Batman thinking "The rain is a baptism on my chest" in Dark Knight Returns is someone who'd already spent years describing what Daredevil felt but couldn't see. Compare:

"Close your eyes, let the night touch you. Feel the cold, driving rain as it batters your face and soaks your clothes...hear the moan of a freight barge on the nearby east river: the haunting chimes of a solitary church bell as it tolls the midnight hour, taste air heavy with lingering fumes of rush-hour traffic long gone...smell, in maggot-ridden garbage, the stench of another day's misery in New York's Lower East Side...let the night touch you--and you will take in only a fraction of its total texture...a texture fully experienced by only one man -- a blind man--"
--First lines of the first Daredevil issue Frank Miller wrote and drew

"The unholy three have Matt! We've got to help him, somehow!"
"O-oh, no--! It never ends...never..."
--First lines of the first issue Frank Miller drew, 10 issues earlier, written by Roger McKenzie

2) Because of coincidence or something in the very character-centric nature of the book (the book isn't usually about villains or schemes, the villains are mundane compared to more high-powered heroes, the book isn't about exploration, it's about New York and other comics already are exploring both the imaginary (Spider Man) and the hidden (Punisher) New York more than Daredevil) all of the best and most well-known Daredevil stories have an easily RPGable structure.

3) Ninjas.


The Best Daredevil Stories

Where Is A Good Place For Newbies To Start?

Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and Dave Mazzuchelli


It's all collected in an easy-to-get-edition, it has a clear beginning and ending, the character's origin is mixed in there, you don't have to know anything that's not in the book and it's a fucking classic.

What happens?

Daredevil's archenemy, the Kingpin, finds out his secret identity and uses it to ruin his life. Daredevil goes a little crazy then sets out to ruin Kingpin's life right back.

Why is it great?

This is the gritty urban personal nightmare done exactly right. Flophouses, conflicted newsmen, corruption, henchmen with goofy speech patterns, subway car fights, bricks, burgers, beer bottles. This is the world of Scorcese's Mean Streets getting the closest superhero comics get to Miller's Crossing. And it's a Daredevil story so definitive every single run afterward has had to deal with it's influence, either running toward or away from the tone it set. Harold Bloom would be pleased.

In the early issues, Mazzuchelli is within a stone's throw of what you might reasonably call "normal bronze age comic art". Sometimes it doesn't look like much, especially if you're not into the sludgy, feathery inks characteristic of 70s comics...
Don't worry, this gives way very quickly in later issues to a sharper, more modernist take:

...this stuff had a HUGE influence on David Aja and Matt Fraction's new Hawkeye series, which is the talk of the town these days.

Why is it so RPGable?

Basically, the set-up is so easy you could do this to your players tomorrow--in any genre. They get up and wherever they stay wants them out. Whatever job they have fires them. The wizard's guild kicks them out, the taxman comes with his dobermans (dobermans were specifically bred for tax collection--did you know that?). Their allies are hired, unknowingly, by their enemies.

Finding out all that alone could result in a session's worth of encounters and interactions even before you do anything. Then the characters have clear options: find out who did all this (it's someone immensely dangerous whose minions they've foiled in the past, ensconced in a tall tower, surrounded by assassins). Or hit the road, harried by assassins.

In the second act, the villain starts to make things worse, striking at whoever the PCs value through proxies. The problem is: the proxies are obviously horrible to everyone, and if they can be caught the connection to the foe will be obvious, turning great powers against the archenemy.

And there's more so seriously go get it. The seven issues of Born Again are a treasure trove of gameables, if only because--unlike other classic pop crime stories like the Big Sleep--who killed who when and why and how is actually pretty clear.

But What If Just Being Anywhere Near Frank Miller Gives Me Hives?

No doubt Frank Miller has said some crazy shit. Anne Nocenti, ont he other hand, not only delivers the grim and the grit and the city lights but has absolutely impeccable lefty-feminist-activist-journalist credentials.

And her run on Daredevil with John Romita Jr is...ok, I won't say it's a classic--the run is way too long and regular comic book deadlines are way too short for the whole run to be a classic and Nocenti doesn't know narration and pacing like Miller used to (to be fair, nobody knows pacing like Miller used to), but the Nocenti/Romita run has some beautifully evocative moments, like Daredevil meeting the actual devil, both with beer...
...and without...

...and it has a stubbly Daredevil beating the snot out of the main villain in the upcoming Avengers movie using only a pick-up truck and a stick:
...and just generally, a lot of John Romita JR at his absolute peak, with the sense of space and weight he picked up from traditional comics shading into the stylized dynamism of his later stuff:
Issues 275-276, the fight versus Ultron are a good place to start--then, if you're interested in seeing Daredevil in Hell, read forward, if you want the urban neo-noir, rewind to the beginning of the run with 250 (Nocenti's collaboration with Barry Windsor-Smith on 236 is also worth a look, despite the awful cover).

Why is it so RPGable?

Nocenti's unenviable job was to bridge the claustrophobic and moody world of Miller's run with the crossover-happy cosmic time-travelling megaverse 80s Marvel turned into. Basically, the same mid-level switcheroo every GM ahs to pull once the wizard learns Fireball. She leveled D&D up from orcs to demon princes and she did it with style--the overall plot in the Nocenti/ Romita issues is Daredevil does some Daredevil adventures, collects some bad guys, then they team up and run him out of the city. He then hexcrawls across the land running into bigger and bigger trouble until he meets Satan.

This is basically exactly where my Vornheim campaign is headed.

But What If I Hate Normal Comic Books And Want Something With That Classy Graphic Novel Feel?

Then this is what you want. Miller (on art and story this time) is here assisted by his then-wife Lynn Varley, best colorist in comics and the result is magnificent and very classy. Daredevil doesn't even appear in costume the whole time (just like TV!). In fact, he's naked--and nothing is more classy than naked men.

Though the plot is kind of a lot of set-pieces held together by spookiness (it's almost more of a Call of Cthulhu story than anything else), the fight choreography is magnificent (I've blogged these pages before...

...ninjas in a snowy graveyard, ninjas on rooftops, ninjas in a cathedral worshipping the Beast, ninjas leaping from morgue drawers, chains wrapping around things, chopsticks through eyes, and classy as all fuck. Enjoy.

The larger Daredevil-Elektra metastory is totally D&Dable: she loves him, she keeps getting hired to kill him. Then she is killed. Then she's resurrected to try to kill him again. Who hasn't been there?

If you want more of the backstory on that--or if you just want to see what Miller was like back when he was kind of a normal comic book artist--then you can read all the Miller Daredevils--he starts on art on 158 and takes over writing too at 168, finishing at 191 before coming back for the aforementioned Born Again. They're collected in volumes bearing the useful title The Complete Frank Miller Daredevil.

It would be dumb not to also mention the Sienkiewicz-pencilled Elektra: Assassin here because it's possibly the best comic book in the world, but Daredevil's not in it, so it technically falls outside the remit of this blog entry. Plus it's a total railroad.

But Modern Modern Modern I Want It Modern

Then what you want is the Brian Michael Bendis--Alex Maleev Daredevils.

Some people think they're overly talky and nothing ever happens and Maleevs sharp, photorealistic pencils are buried under and amid too many swiped backgrounds and computer filters. But then some people think Bendis' dialogue is modern wisecracky genius and Maleev is using the tools appropriate to the job.
Either way--their Daredevil is probably the closest to what you'll see on the Netflix series in both the look and the dialogue, so if you like it, you may like them:
I actually think the Bendis/Maleev stuff is some of the hardest to directly convert to RPGs, relying as it does on slow pacing, snappy patter and Daredevil's internal (and lonely) turmoil. But it's a surprisingly long run, especially for a relatively recent comic (50 or so issues), so there's a lot there to mine.

Oh If Only It Were Not So Grim

You're in luck! The runner-up Daredevil stories are pretty much all people who've had a more light-hearted take on the handicapped alcoholic Catholic urban vigilante with the dead lover. Some highlights:

Mark Waid has done some impressive work lately with a platoon of retro-style artists including Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera.
Karl Kesel and Cary Nord had some good chemistry--though issues with Cary Nord on art are spaced out so it's kind of hard to read, and he was uneven anyway--and the plot's kind of all over the place. Still: as the panel above clearly demonstrates, fun.
...and, of course, the original Silver Age Stan Lee Daredevil comics are, well, Silver Age Stan Lee comics.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Vornheim Costs 170 Bucks Now

So, yeah, the first and only printing of Vornheim (a three year old book) went for 170$.

That's more than ten times the cover price for a 64-page black-and-white book. So if you're still on the fence about buying a second (or, god forbid, first) copy of 200ish page, full color, gold trimmed, embossed Red & Pleasant Land, there's one more reason.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Puzzling And All His Friends

"You ever make your own comic books, Washington?"
"Yessir, I had one called 'The Puzzling And All His Friends;. No one but me could understand it"
"That's what always happens"
Some issue of Doom Patrol that Grant Morrison wrote and Steve Yeowell drew

Oh no it's the black knight!
This particular black knight is a champion of the Black Wing of Tiamat. Meaning he is slated to compete with Laney (the Knight Viridian) in the coming Tourney of The Five Churches.

Is Laney ready?

Well, judging from this weekend's Ren Faire...


Anyway the Knight was at the top of a tower rather than patiently waiting 4 in-world days for his turn to kill people.

Why? Nobody figured that out yet so I won't spoil it. The girls were just looking for the Heart King's missing food taster to get into said King's good graces after breaking into his castle and fucking around for a session and almost TPKing themselves.

We had a new player -- Morgan playing Lunessa. Elf thief. Far right.

Ladies love playing elf thiefs. Or like a lot of them do.

Also ladies bring Cactus Cooler. Or at least Morgan did.
Anyway ladies also apparently really like goat men, who occupied the lower reaches of the tower:

 Also, they like tentacles:

Anyway so in this tower there was a lot of like themes going on as they say in game design.

But also murder, so I was entertained.

There was also another Spinneskelle--a mechanized spellcasting statue which caused no end of trouble on account of it does something in reaction to whatever you do. The team had a good idea--they had these two small picture frames--putting something through one makes it come out of the other no matter how far they are from each other.

So Lunessa / Morgan managed to sneak up and hang that on the Spinneskelle's hand, thus separating the fiend from its wand. Rendering it harmless.

So rock on first-time girl. Always good when a new player gets to do something cool right off.

Now, weirdly or dumbly enough, the Black Knight had a sort of similar gimmick to the Spinneskelle because I rolled randomly and got the Hunter axe, which means he wouldn't die until he's separated from the axe.

This was an insane fight that took over an hour because there were like 7 or 8 players and we're playing high-level 5th edition including spellcasting firepower from a witch, two wizards and a druid and they managed to make pretty quick work of the henchgoats and would've iced the knight in a round or two (despite massive hit points) if it weren't for the axe.  But he just kept coming back and nobody could figure out why. I probably would've killed someone if there weren't so many damn players that night, but I still think everyone started to hate me a little, and the Black Knight more-- but they mostly hated themselves, which is the important thing, really.

In actual real GMing advice: puzzle monsters are a thing I think you should do increasingly in high level D&D There are just not enough hit points or AC in the world to deal with all the lunacy players will have accumulated by 10th level. This is barely a puzzle, to be fair, but it was enough.

Eventually somebody's was like "Let's take his axe" but then you know that thing when you have seven players and one of them says what you need to do but then there's seven players so who's listening? That happened. It was a few rounds until someone was like "Yeah, let's take the axe again" and I think Twiggy actually did it.

"It was the axe all along. Boy are we dumb."

No, dumb would be if someone was dead.

Then the knight became dust. Now everybody has to figure out why he was hanging out with the king's food taster in the first place.

Then Laney used a lot of emoji and I sold a book to a publisher and a new Manson album came out so Twiggy went on tour and Stokely and Connie's had their nipples cut off for a photo but not really and then Alondra got hers pierced really and kept complaining about it and we went to Ren Faire and I had a scotch egg.

So yeah alright.

Black Knight you suck they owned you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

More Dr Strange and An Opportunity for the Ladies

First up:

May 16th and 17th, the best online game con -- Contessa -- is inviting women to think up and run some games. (Anybody can play, if you didn't know.) Got your own game? You can run that too. Here's Stacy:

ConTessa is already gearing up for another game weekend. We've got this process down, and we're getting to the point where getting these weekends running is more of a science than a lot of cats running around trying to herd other cats. Or goats. Depends. 

ANYWAY! If you'd like to GM something for us on air on either May 16th or 17th (you get to set the exact time), we'd love to have you! New or experienced, doesn't matter. All you need is a camera, a microphone, and the will to run a good game. :) 

This time, we'll be ending registration a week early to make sure we have enough time to fill the games up with players. So, we will be closing registration one week prior to the convention on May 9th. 

The earlier you get your game in, the more we can promote it! 

To sign up to run a game: 

Filth attracts filth spell

This is just a good place for a fight courtesy P Craig Russell.
The door leads to an ordinary hallway, pink things can be whatever you like.

First: Purple lich rules. Second: Replace the confusing term spell 'level' with spell 'age'.
Old spells are familiar to fewer protective deities & therefore hurt more.

It's tough getting levels.

There's..I can't even.

For when Cthulhu is too classy for what you've got planned.
Also, Zzarchov came up with some neat ideas based on last week's Dr Strange:
The Sun god is always the good guy who turns undead and is lawful,   demons are far-away stars (based on LotFP's contact outer planes bit).

Each star is a sun in its own right.

Stars are lawful to those evolving on their planets, nurturing them to pick up science and civilization and shun magic and disruptive sorcery.  Other stars meddle by granting power and sowing chaos, trying to get the local populace to abandon civilization and devolve to magic use.

Option A.) Each star hinders or helps civilization through religion to try and guide its populace towards advanced robotics prior to interstellar travel so the star can just shed off these corruptible biological entities and build itself a mobile Dyson sphere and eat the fuel of other stars.

Option B.)  Each star is looking to turn its people into a star faring civilization to act as conduits to begin psychically enslaving other stars.

Not sure which option I like more.   Leaving one as the story being told to the clerics and one as the story told by other stars is a good option as well, create doubt.

There are some other nice ideas in the comments threads Zzarchov started here and my repost of it here. Ask to be added to our G+ circles to read them.

Friday, April 10, 2015

7 D&Dables From Doctor Strange

Click to enlarge.
365-level wizard wants you to live in this crappy castle forever instead of him

Clock pendulum trap

Just show them that

The damsel you saved wasn't meant to be saved

You are divided into several poorly-rounded selves

Some freaks to fight

Each star is scheming against every other

Monday, April 6, 2015

Werewolves as Worldbuilding

Ok, so a thing about the second edition of the game Chill which is also about other games, too:

-Start out with addressing what Chill 2e was not:

-Chill 2e was not Chill 1e, that is: not a light-hearted Universal Horror RPG. So it took its monsters seriously.

-Chill 2e was not Call of Cthulhu, that is: it couldn't just say "Monsters are like go read Lovecraft or else make something up".

-Chill 2e was not Vampire or any other World Of Darkness game where the player was the monster and so, therefore, the monster had to be intelligible, fully describable and described to the player, and had to be within an arm's reach of what a person would want their own in-world player to be and act like.

-Likewise it was not Warhammer--where the existence of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle and 40k lines meant the that mythology of the monsters of chaos was fleshed out in such a way you could take the chaos side of chaos in a tabletop battle.

-Chill 2e was not D&D or the Marvel RPG or any other fantasy game or superhero games: that is, it didn't assume a world of magic operating on magical rules which the monster was part of. It was a horror game: magic is evil and operates as disruption. Monsters are not ubiquitous scenery that we can just assume show up now and then, each monster is a distinct mystery. Horror has to take its monsters one at a time.

-Chill 2e was not Dread or even Night's Black Agents, both of which have enough new school in their blood to constantly remind the GM that the monsters and world as presented are not canonical and there would be no point to doing that, these are just options anyway, pick what you like best.

-Add all this up and it suddenly becomes clear that the second edition of Chill had to do something that no other game I have played quite had to do. It had to present it's monsters as:

*Complete and original enough to form the setting of the game.

*Rare and shadowy enough to be a mystery the players must penetrate.


The way Chill 2e uses monsters is the template for how the current wave of RPG bloggers (and the products they make) has most productively used monsters: as secret worldbuilding, hidden from players until they adventure into it. A compelling but wholly GM-facing fiction that only needed to be nuts and bolts enough that players could fight it in the last scene.

The monster is no statblock or character class or random-encounter collage element--it is a piece of a new mythology, known to the GM, that the players slowly penetrate.  D&D only did this once a monster got a module about it--Chill 2e took it for granted: they don't give you a monster unless they can give you a backstory for it, and the backstory (the silver bullets, arctic hideouts and running water) needed to be penetrated to defeat the monster.

Chill was all about committing to the monsters, reworking them into something new and spooky no matter how cranky or cliche they were. Using the mythic resonance and building on it rather than taking it as read that it needed to be replaced. Which I think is a very OSR thing.