Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Veray Parfit Gentil Knight

Rose Red, by Dan dos Santos. Oils on Board, 12x16 in.
Robin’s playing an oath of the ancients paladin in our 5e group game that’s been running most of this year and in occasional non-canonical duets. We’re both pretty invested in the character, but I keep feeling like I’m not quite invoking the right mood, the right feel for what she’s supposed to be and what kind of adventures she’s supposed to have. My imagination skews really dark, and having even a chaotic good paladin to DM is a challenge.

Part of the problem here is that WotC themselves confused the issue of what an oath of the ancients paladin really is. They give alternative nicknames to all the paladin sub-classes (like “white knights” for the classic oath of devotion paladins and “dark knights” for the Batman-analogue oath of vengeance paladins) and the nicknames they give for oath of the ancients paladins are “fey knights,” “green knights,” and "horned knights." 

The Green Knight by Des Hanley

My mind immediately jumps to the Middle English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and from there to the Chronicles of Corum, Sword of the Valiant, and the Marvel UK series Knights of Pendragon. When I read “green knight” or "horned knight," I think of a primal, fierce figure – an animist embodiment of the undying trees, of the cycle of nature. I'm not the only one; lots of people online keep comparing them to and confusing them with 4e's wardens. The thing is, though, that these “green knight” paladins aren’t like the Green Knight.

They’re like Sir Gawain.
Heroes of Camelot Knight of the Rose

They’re like the nameless “veray parfit gentil knight” who takes Gawain’s place in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale or Gawain’s original Welsh form, Gwalchmai the Golden-Tongued. Courteous and compassionate, they’re lovers of beauty and life. The oath they follow exhorts them to be merciful, kind, and filled with joy. 

Let me see if I can wrap my brain around that oath.
  • Kindle the Light.
    Through your acts of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, kindle the light of hope in the world, beating back despair.
“Mercy, kindness, and forgiveness” say to me that the paladin should attempt non-violent resolutions when possible, fight to subdue as a first choice, and kill only as a last resort. This feels not so much like the “no killing” rule of American comic book superheroes so much as it does the “beat the crap out of ‘em and then befriend ‘em” style of anime and manga. Random acts of kindness and mercy would also fit well. 

“[K]indle the light of hope in the world, beating back despair” also resonates strongly of anime to me. Despair is the sin of giving up hope, and anime heroes always struggle on despite the odds. Strong shades of the never say die attitude of Fairy Tail.
  • Shelter the Light.
  • Where there is good, beauty, love, and laughter in the world, stand against the wickedness that would swallow it. Where life flourishes, stand against the forces that would render it barren.

“Where there is good, beauty, love, and laughter in the world…” speaks heavily to a green knight’s role as a defender (or warden, to be honest), protecting places of beauty and joy against those that would destroy them. Silverymoon obviously stands out as a place in Faerun that embodies the ethos the green knights protect; Evereska, Evermeet, Myth Drannor, and similar elvish realms also seem likely candidates as do certain sylvan sections of the High Forest (like the Lost Peaks or Unicorn Run). “Where life flourishes…” also identifies bountiful nature as something the oath of the ancients protects.

“[S]tand against the wickedness that would swallow it… stand against the forces that would render it barren” implies a more reactive than proactive stance. This actually kind of argues against the typical adventurer lifestyle and for something more like a superhero (or Slayer) going on patrol, watching over a chosen bastion of goodness and smacking down the things that try to creep in and mess it up. An oath of the ancients paladin might act as an agent of some power or organization that identifies threats (like the Harpers), but she wouldn’t necessarily go looking for trouble.
  • Preserve Your Own Light. 
  • Delight in song and laughter, in beauty and art. If you allow the light to die in your own heart, you can’t preserve it in the world.
This definitely isn’t a paean to selfishness, but it does exhort the paladin to enjoy life. A green knight should not be a grim and terrifying figure, but rather an equal participant in the love and joy she protects. The entertainer background (the one Robin chose) really is one of the most appropriate for the sub-class.
  • Be the Light.
  • Be a glorious beacon for all who live in despair. Let the light of your joy and courage shine forth in all your deeds.
Lead by example, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, don’t be a dick, etc. Being a paladin really demands a strong will and a lot of self-confidence. It’s a good thing that 5e is so forgiving of minor infractions of the oaths, because otherwise you could never play a paladin with any personal issues. (I realize that I would be awesome at playing a paladin; I can play self-confidence to a degree I could never embody in real life.)

I think it’s pretty obvious that the “ancients” green knights swear their oaths toward are the Seldarine, the gods of the elves. The oath is far too focused on society and beauty to be an oath to “primal” powers (though I’d probably accept it as an oath to Oberon and Titania and the like). And now that I write that, I’m suddenly seeing Sailor Moon’s Prince Endymion as an oath of the ancients paladin.

And I realize now that their first epithet -- "fey knights" -- really is the key to the sub-class. The "ancients" are the Seldarine and the Seelie Court, the timeless gods and defenders of joy and merriment. The spectral vines fey knights can call on to bind foes should be blooming with spectral roses, their ability to rebuke fey and fiends is shaming those who turned their backs on their true heritage, their nature-based abilities are about nurturing instead of the survival of fittest.

Dammit, they're anime characters or refugees from Blue Rose...

I can do anime.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Voice Like Silver: Prologue

(or "some scene-setting fiction for our duet campaign")

So, kinda like this guy except less Warcrafty.
A lone sun elf kneeled beside a pool deep in the Moonwood. Amidst the slate-gray sky reflected in the water, the black bark of the duskwood trees, and the white of the fallen snow, he was a blaze of color. His mithral plate mail was decorated with scores of autumn leaves worked in brass, bronze, copper, and gold. The helmet that sat beside him was similarly worked and surmounted with branching bronze antlers. His golden blond hair and bronzed skin combined with the golds and reds of his armor to make him appear an incarnation of the rapidly-fading autumn.

Autumn, the season of Marpenoth, the month of falling leaves… Autumn, the season of Uktar, the month when the leaves rot… Autumn, the season of Nightal, the month when the sun draws down into darkness…     

The elf seemed to be gazing at his own reflection in the pool, but one familiar with the elvish trance state would recognize that his mind was far from his present surroundings. The elf relived unpleasant memories, to judge from the furrowing of his brows and the gritting of his teeth. The growl of a nearby beast brought him out of his unhappy reverie and he rose to his feet in one smooth motion.

“Yes?” he asked politely, his voice as golden as his armor, as honeyed as his golden hair.

The pale-skinned moon elf in hunter’s leathers who entered the glade seemed rustic, inconsequential beside the sun elf knight in his red armor. The moon elf bowed. “The drider has failed, my lord,” he replied.

“The drow?” asked the sun elf. The drider – a half-spider, half-drow outcast from drow society – had been paid to destroy a coven of drow worshippers of Eilistraee, a goddess determined to lead her people out of the dark and the evil they had descended into long ago. The sun elf conspired to make sure these “good” drow made no allies among the elves of the Moonwood; their goddess was far too openhearted for his taste.

“There was not a casualty amongst them,” the moon elf replied, retreating cautiously as his master drew nearer. “One of Alustriel’s brats interfered – as well as the half-elf. Brightwood’s child. The paladin of Hanali Celanil.”

“Dagorcarak!” shouted the sun elf. A pitch-black worg padded quickly to his side, an ornate elvish saddle on its back. The beast’s burning red eyes bespoke its fiendish origin. The sun elf mounted his steed and turned to his servant.

“Tell the Eldreth Veluuthra that Carric Starym returns to the hunt. I will not rest while a half-human is loved by the goddess who rejected me.”

Don't tell my players, but I kind of want to ditch my current campaign.

The Duelist by SBraithwaite
Our little gaming group has been playing a 5e Forgotten Realms campaign for a few months now. I’ve been splitting DM duties with +Alan Vannes and running a GMPC who becomes my PC when Alan is running the game. We’ve worked our way up to 6th level by fighting some yuan-ti, killing a young dragon, and leading an army of sylvan creatures against a horde of gnolls. It’s been wild and (mostly) fun and pretty chaotic and most everybody seems to be having a good time.

And I’d kinda like to dump the whole thing and start over.

Partially, this is because I’ve been super over-indulgent during character creation and advancement, so the characters are… Well, they’re not so much over-powered as they are overgrown. They’re sort of like Great Dane puppies with super-huge paws and heads too big for their bodies. They’ve all got maximum hit points, feats and ability score increases, and really high stats, but at the same time they’re stumbling around with their limited magic and 6th level proficiency bonuses. They’re too strong for level-appropriate challenges and too weak for higher-level challenges. It’s weird.

Also, I’ve discovered that I’m kind of crap at describing wilderness exploration (which sucks, because the Silver Marches setting was my idea).

My strengths as a DM are NPCs and intrigue, so an urban setting (like Waterdeep or Lankhmar) would probably be a better match for me. I chafe against medieval social structures, so something with more upward mobility (like an Early Modern setting – or Waterdeep) would be a better match for my sensibilities. I also prefer swordplay over spells.

In other words, I kind of want to dump our traditional high fantasy game and start up a swashbuckling campaign instead. 

I sincerely doubt that we’re going to actually do this. We’ve put in a lot of work on the campaign so far and some of the players are really invested in their characters (others have changed characters several times because they keep not meshing with the others). Heck, I’m one of the players who is really invested in his character. I love Braul.

Nonetheless, here are some thoughts I’ve had on running such a theoretical swashbuckling campaign:
  • As much as I love the idea of Altellus, it’s probably too much work to be worthwhile. The players would have to have a bunch of handouts and crap in order to get up to speed on the races and the world. It would be much, much more effective to simply utilize the resources in the Players Handbook.
  • It would be perfectly possible to run a game with no magic users. Between the berserker barbarian, champion and battle master fighters, the open hand monk, the Unearthed Arcana no-magic ranger, and the assassin, thief, and Unearthed Arcana swashbuckler rogues, you’ve got effectively 8 different classes that don’t cast spells. If we utilized the cinematic healing rules from the DMG, then we wouldn’t need healers. Add in blackpowder weapons for some pyrotechnic fun, and everything’s cool.
  • That said, I do think it would be neat to have a game with magic users who can’t cast direct damage spells, forcing them to explore and rely upon utility spells. In that case, I’d probably open up totem warrior barbarians, bards, eldritch knight fighters, way of shadow monks, and arcane trickster rogues to play. I’d be tempted to add some clerics and wizards, but I’d probably resist the urge.
  • I’d probably get rid of the Duelist feat and turn its parry feature into a core rule, adding something beyond opportunity attacks to the basic reactions. It would add a bit more strategy to the cut-and-thrust of the sword fights. For that matter, I’d definitely incorporate the optional Actions in the Dungeon Masters Guide into the game. Everyone should be able to attempt a Disarm; battle masters should just be better at it.
  • Also, characters would want to remember that final blows can be fatal or not at their choosing. They really, really would not want to kill everybody they fight.
  • Preferably, we’d stick closer to the tiers of play outlined in the DGM: Local Heroes (levels 1-4), Heroes of the Realm (5-10), Masters of the Realm (11-16), Masters of the World (17-20). I’d love to see the characters start off as local – even neighborhood – friendly Spider-Men heroes, fighting burglars and kidnappers (in the vein of Backswords & Bucklers) until they get noticed by the powers that be and are recruited for more city-wide or state-wide missions. Eventually, they should be in a position where they can found their own mercenary consortiums or marry into money (become Lords of Waterdeep), and then finally engage in politics on a global scale (like Napoleon). This would probably mean a slower accumulation of experience points at low levels, so I would need to find ways to keep the in-story rewards going between level advancements.
  • Does Wizards of the Coast even remember that firearms were introduced to the Realms in 2nd Edition? Did the Spellplague get rid of them or something? Firearms in my game would have an Armor Piercing quality, thus explaining better in-game why people have abandoned heavy armor for swashbuckling around in leather jerkins. This would require listing an armored and unarmored AC, but I’d probably want custom character sheets anyway. (It would probably be simpler to have the Armor Piercing quality mean that bullets simply bypass any and all armor, though I’m sure someone would want to argue that magical armor is resistant or something.)
  • If firearms bypass human armor, why wouldn’t they pierce Natural Armor? Hmm, maybe dragons and beholders have learned new tricks to stay clear of adventurers…
  • Lifestyle expenses and downtime activities would be important elements of play. We’ve been all but ignoring them in the current campaign, and that’s probably been a mistake. They really help flesh out a character. They do seem to take a lot of time, though, so I might need to trim some of the timescales (and definitely use Blog of Holding’s business rules). Carousing, gaining renown, and sowing rumors are must haves for a swashbuckling game. Training to gain levels might even add to the verisimilitude of the setting, as PCs have to seek out master fencers to learn new tricks.
  • I’d really, really like to do a roundtable character creation session. I don’t want everybody sitting there with their PHBs, furiously scribbling down class features and spells. I want to do it more in the Dungeon World/FATE collaborative style and make the players build their back stories together. Common bonds and real relationships would be important to the campaign. I imagine them as friends who have known each other for a while, maybe even growing up together in the neighborhood or city where play begins. They’d all still have different backgrounds and races, but they’d still be pals. 
  • I might give Wil Wheaton’s “every character should have a secret” thing a try. Maybe. I suspect it would backfire with my group. 
  • I probably wouldn’t stick to the ability score array offered in the PHB, but I wouldn’t use the overpowered one I used for the Realms game. That 8 really bugs me – I don’t know any player that wouldn’t rather reroll the whole set than get stuck with an 8 – but 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13 is completely unnecessary for Fifth Edition. Bounded accuracy really does keep things reasonable. I’d probably go with 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 10; I’d have players griping that they could roll better on their own, but I also know that some of my players could roll worse.
  • It might be fun to basically randomly generate the new setting – and I think I’d go with a new setting, rather than adapting the Realms or another pre-existing world to an Early Modern style. This could even give the players a chance to do some world building. That would really build some investment in the campaign.
Anyway, this is all hypothetical and probably not going to happen. We’re taking a break to let Alan run a Savage Worlds super powers campaign, but everybody’s still bubbling with ideas for the current campaign. I’ve got some ideas on how to retool it (stop running a GMPC so I can pay better attention, put everybody to work for the Harpers so we can jump into action quicker) and I’ll probably use some of the ones I listed above.

Crap, I just realized this is basically a retread of a post from last month. * Sigh * The temptations of swashbuckling remain ever present.

Friday, June 12, 2015

I Have Issues

I have become Wembley, worrier of worlds...
Dammit, I even dress like him.
It turns out I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)


I’ve also got celiac disease, lactose intolerance, Meniere’s disease, and a ton of allergies, so this really takes the cake. I’m a pretty messed-up dude.

I’ve been trying to write about this for a couple of months, but I kept chickening out. Lots and lots of people in the RPG community have issues – many of them far worse than mine – so it seemed really self-indulgent to bawl about my annoying but hardly deadly mental disorder. Depression is much, much worse, after all.

(Admittedly, waking up at 3 AM because your cat isn’t sleeping at the foot of the bed and immediately concluding that he must have died of a blood clot because he was limping a little earlier that day and then having to get out of bed to find him and reassure yourself that he’s still alive before going back to bed and being unable to sleep properly the rest of the night IS NOT FUN.)

The thing is, I’ve had GAD pretty much all my life. It runs in my family and affected me even as a child. Sometimes, it has really gotten in the way of personal happiness and success. It’s gotten worse over the last year because some genuine worries that preoccupied much of my energy are now gone, and the disease is now creating unreasonable concerns to take their place. I’ve had some mood swings, depression, panic attacks, and just plain weird enervation over the last twelve months, but it’s getting better.

It got worse first, though. Back in April, I finally followed the brave example of Wil Wheaton and admitted I had a problem. I went into therapy, learned some techniques, discovered I should stop drinking caffeine (dammit), and I’ve been getting things back on track. I sometimes wish I was on actual medication for anxiety, but a crying, laughing marathon of the Fairy Tail anime does wonders for purging bad thoughts.

During this course of self-discovery, I’ve over-extended myself a bit. I’d like to both apologize to and thank +Eric Simon , +Vickey Beaver , and +Charles Akins  for their indulgence and support. The next few weeks will see the completion of several outstanding projects, and then I should be able to approach future commitments with a more realistic idea of my capabilities. 

Honestly, knowing I have a problem and I’m not just being a hypochondriac or worrywart has been very liberating. Being able to isolate self-defeating thoughts and identify them as a disease allows me to set them aside and deal more with real issues. It isn’t easy (some estranged relatives have been badgering me this week and that has really been setting the GAD off), but overall it’s allowing me to create better mechanisms for both my own and my loved ones’ issues.

Also, it turns out all that talk about how exercise helps is true. I’m not really losing weight, but an hour at the gym really helps perk up the brain. As a life-long unathletic nerd, I'm honestly surprised.
Also also, the cat is fine. He's got a problem foot that bothers him from time to time – just like me with my bum knee and jammed finger – but otherwise he's a very healthy, active seven year-old cat. I won't be surprised if he lives into his twenties.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

NPCs: Naturalistic, Political Characters

from Silver Marches

I don’t want to think of myself as the kind of DM that uses high-powered monsters and NPCs to swat down uppity player characters, but I do have to admit that I like to maintain a balance of power and respect.

My philosophy of running traditional, multiplayer tabletop RPGs is to extrapolate naturalistically from the players’ interactions with the setting. The PCs are running around a world full of NPCs with their own plans and desires, the vast majority of which are independent from any concern with the players’ characters. NPCs make choices based on the world they live in, not on how those choices help the PCs. This means that if you deliberately antagonize a powerful NPC, they’re going to retaliate.
(It just makes my skin crawl when an NPC has to ignore antagonizing behavior from a PC just to keep the game on track. It really offends me on some deep, aesthetic level.)

To use an example from my ongoing 5e Forgotten Realms game, the green dragon Grimnoshtadrano recently aided the party in destroying an army of gnolls who were burning down the High Forest. While he probably would have been forced to eventually take action for his own sake, Grimnosh bargained with the party to slay a younger dragon who was intruding on his territory. The bargain was concluded to everyone’s satisfaction – but one of the PCs decided to threaten to come back and kill Grimnosh later. 

A clever dragon is hardly going to stand idly by while a party of dragon slayers levels up in his neighborhood. It hasn’t come up in play yet, but Grimnoshtadrano immediately sought out the ancient red dragon Imvaernarho to begin whispering in his ear about the dangerous dragon hunters plaguing their home. While the elder dragon is hardly likely to leave his den just to kill some 6th level adventurers, Imvaernarho is going to alert his agents throughout Luruar to watch them. 

(The only reason Grimnosh didn’t immediately devour the party is because he has long-term plans to corrupt the party’s half-elf paladin and use her against her estranged elvish family. I never said NPC naturalistic reactions had to be practical, just believable given their desires. Green dragons in 5e are characterized as being bonkers for seducing elves.)

Similarly, the fey’ri of House Dlardrageth have been repeatedly stymied by the party. While they’ve only ever appeared in the game as underlings to more powerful villains, it’s not like they’re going to take their defeats lying down. The fey’ri were only allied with those other villains in order to gain their objectives while risking as little of House Dlardrageth’s resources as possible. They have their own schemes, and now the PCs are identified as enemies who stand in the fey’ri’s way.

Crap, the High Forest has gotten rather hostile toward the party. Maybe they should think about making some allies. After all, it’s naturalistic extrapolation to think that friends and allies will want to aid the PCs against mutual enemies. Unfortunately, you have to make friends first – which means I need to nudge the players toward some encounters with some influential figures. I mean, you can’t just expect Alustriel to rescue you because she’s “good;” she’s a slightly-insane demigoddess benevolent tyrant who is trying to oversee the political demands of a growing nation. She told Drizzt he couldn’t enter Silverymoon way back in Streams of Silver because she wanted to preserve peace with Nesmé; she’s not going to risk Luruar for a bunch of strangers. 

Hmm… This might be a good chance to try 5e’s faction concept. While my campaign is set back in the classic Realms, most of the 5e factions were operating back then too. This would be a good way to get the players into position to wield some leverage in the game world, make thems a concern for the great and powerful, and extrapolate naturally from there.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Catching Up

Yes, the new duet campaign is about a Japanese catgirl.

The Japan chapter of Steamscapes: Asia is now 100% complete. After submitting the overlong first draft last week, I got some notes from Eric and trimmed it down to his specifications. I practically excised a chapter in its own right, so I’m tempted to use that section to write a scenario set in Yoshiwara. The “-punk” part of “steampunk” refers back to cyberpunk’s concentration on social disorder, and nothing reflects that better than Edo/Meiji Japan’s red-light districts.

After considering Altellus and a Stone Age game, Robin and I went in a completely different direction to do a game about modern yokai living a World of Darkness-style secret existence in modern-day Tokyo. Weirdly, this is basically a remake of the first duet campaign that we played together nearly thirteen years ago. That game was fueled by Land of Eight Million Dreams, the Year of the Lotus spin-off for Changeling: The Dreaming. This one will probably be run using Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion since we’re comfortable with the system and using the SPC means we don’t have to track Power Points or modifiers to the activation rolls. Even though I didn’t expect to be running a game like this anytime soon, it’s easy to slip back into a familiar(ish) setting.
The 5e group game has taken a weird turn: my character (not I) is upset at the quest they’re on. My character – a CN totem warrior barbarian – is annoyed because he doesn’t like quests; he’s very much in the mode of classic sword and sorcery, low fantasy characters like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and he thinks epic, high fantasy quests are for suckers. The party is currently in the Nameless Dungeon – an elvish prison for primordial evil – chasing down some yuan-ti who kidnapped some of the other PCs’ tribesmen. Given that I am the DM right now, this is obviously my own fault. 

There is a Godzilla or Jormungandr imprisoned in my Nameless Dungeon. I haven’t decided which it is yet.

Fast and “Fury”-ous

Evil Beagle recently provided me promotional copies of Leonard Pimentel’s Magnum Fury and Six-Gun Fury . No expectation of a review wa...