Saturday, January 30, 2016

Musings of The Bard: Why Crafting Magic Items SUCKS (And How To Fix It)

"Bruenor steadied himself again, then suddenly snapped the bag into the air, releasing its contents high into the night. He tossed the bag aside, grasped the warhammer in both hands, and raised it above his head. The dwarf felt his very strength being sucked from him as he uttered the words of power, but he would not truly know how well he had performed until his work was complete. The level of perfection of his carvings determined the success of his intonations, for as he had etched the runes onto the weapon, their strength had flowed into his heart. This power then drew the magical dust to the weapon and its power, in turn, could be measured by the amount of shimmering diamond dust it captured.

A fit of blackness fell over the dwarf. His head spun, and he did not understand what kept him from toppling. But the consuming power of the words had gone beyond him. Though he wasn't even conscious of them, the words continued to flow from his lips in an undeniable stream, sapping more and more of his strength. Then, mercifully, he was falling, though the void of unconsciousness took him long before his head hit the ground.
Drizzt turned away and slumped back against the rocky ridge; he, too, was exhausted from the spectacle.
He didn't know if his friend would survive this night's ordeal, yet he was thrilled for Bruenor. For he had witnessed the dwarf's most triumphant moment, even if Bruenor had not, as the hammer's mithril head flared with the life of magic and pulled in the shower of diamond.
And not a single speck of the glittering dust had escaped Bruenor's beckon." 
-R.A. Salvatore, The Crystal Shard 

 "The only way it could get more dwarven is if it grew a beard"

Magic Items. They are glorious, aren't they?

The first time a character holds one in their hand, it is something special. Memorable. That thrum of power, knowing that you hold in your hands is something that transcends mundane craftsmanship.Something utterly impossible, and yet, there it is, in your grasp. 

 "By the power of Grayskull--where are my pants?"

Such a thing of unparalleled beauty and splendor should be the topic of epic poems. Songs are to be sung of such magnificence, and the deeds it has wrought, be they for good or ill. This thing... this one of a kind thing, that cannot possible be measured in such simple terms as gold...

"We're running a 2-for-1 special on Cloaks of Resistance"

Except that is exactly how it is measured! Want a belt that imbues you with the strength of giant, so that you might perform feats of unprecedented athleticism and crush your enemies on the battlefield? 4,000gp nets you a Belt of Giant Strength +2. How about a pair of boots that grant you inhuman celerity? 12,000gp will net you some Boots of Speed.

Suddenly when you can just run down to your local corner magic shop and buy a Sword of Swordly Swording for a song, it becomes a whole lot less interesting, and not very special at all. It becomes even less special when you factor in the one thing about games like Pathfinder that I detest the most; crafting.

 Now, any mage with a couple of feats and a pile of gold can crank out magic items. And when you factor in feats that allow you to craft items at a fraction of the gold cost and reduce the time to make them, then you cease having unique items, and start having an assembly line of gear that is mechanically better than other gear.

That my friends is a sin.

"Just throw it on the pile with the others."

Call me crazy-lord knows everyone from my patents to the nice people at the asylum have-but in my radical, completely insane and illogical brain, I whole-heartedly believe magic items shouldn't have a gold cost.

"Oh Captain, my Captain."

When you put a gold cost on something like a magic item, you are telling the player and the GM this is a thing that can be achieved by normal means with some degree of ease, be it through feats or the accumulation of shiny, shiny gold. The materials are easily attainable, since they too have a gold cost attached.To be able too create and sell something like an enchanted shield or weapon cheapens it. Wouldn't you want something so precious for yourself?

Nah. I can just make another. And another, and another, and another...

I played in/ran a medium-to-high level Pathfinder game. We had ourselves a dedicated crafter, that could make things on the cheap in no time flat. He churned out magic items for all of us, and we were elated... at first. To be able to pick any item out of the book, and have it made for you sounded like a dream. What manner of juggernaut could I be if I ran around in head-to-toe magic gear?

I liken it to eating ice cream. You can pick up a container of Ben & Jerry's, stick your spoon in, and enjoy the hell out of it. You can savor that shit. But if you sit down with a gallon of ice cream, and eat your way to the bottom, two things are doing to happen. First, you are gonna hate yourself forever. Secondly, you are going to get sick, and may loose your taste for the frosty confection. It's too much of a good thing.

"Sorry, they were all out of Mind Flayer Fudge Ripple."

The point is, when it becomes an easily accessible resource, it isn't a very "magical" item. This is one of the things that made me fall in love with 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. They saw this conundrum, and said to themselves, "No sir, I don't like it".

There are no "Magic Shops", or mages' guild that churns out a small armory of enchanted munitions every week (you know... in case of spiders). Magic items are things found in forgotten crypts, or given as kingly gifts to stalwart heroes who have shown true mettle and have thwarted some grand scheme, or just something thrown at you by some watery tart laying in a pond.

In short, they are earned. It's a reward. It is as it should be.

Does this mean that crafting should be ignored for story elements? Hell no. In fact, I don't see why the two can't be one in the same. When dealing with crafting, I suggest throwing out the entire notion of a gold cost. Instead, break down an item into materials you think may be used to create it, then turn acquiring those materials into story elements.

Someone in your party wants a Flametongue.One of the materials could be the heart of an elder fire elemental. Perhaps it requires the use of a certain steel that can only be found in a lonely dwarven fortress in the icy north that is rumored to be overrun with goblins, or that it must be forged in the heart of a volcano when the moon is at its apex.

There are thousands of possible stories that can be told about gathering materials alone. Game Masters could, even should work it into their overreaching story. These things cease to be McGuffins when they all come together in a cohesive item of wondrous power. And one thing is absolutely certain; that magic item will mean more to them than some bargain-basement Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity.

"I mean, it's an elf. How could you tell the difference?"

Keep magic items magical. Keep them personal. Keep on keepin' on. Most importantly, keep the gold away from any of it. After all, money is the root of all evil.

Have a magical day,
+Ed The Bard 

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If you find yourself searching for a little something to run for your magic-hungry players, feel free to cruise on over to the Dungeon Master's Guild, and pick up my debut adventure, The Mines of Dhol Kuldhir, for the low-low price of $1.00! That's right, for the price of a crappy cheeseburger you could brave the lost dwarven mines of Dhol Kuldhir.

Monday, January 25, 2016

GM Advice - Death Becomes Us: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

"The Wraith reaches into your chest. Your body grows cold as you feel the last fleeting spark that was your life leave you. You fall to the ground in a crumpled heap as your final breath escapes your ragged lungs.... No, Dave. There isn't a save.... No, you don't have any more actions... You're dead, Dave... Dead. As in not alive. You've moved on. You have shuffled off this mortal coil. You cease to be. You are an ex-fighter... Put the gun down, Dave.... No, I am not afraid to die. I'm not you..."

"Reap what you sow, son!"

Death, that fickle mistress. Always waiting in the wings for your HP to go away, and your Cleric to be mind controlled by Illithid ponies. It is, for all intents and purposes, a very large part of any Role Playing Game. After all, without the threat of death, those pretty hit points your so desperately covet would be meaningless.

Death is the ultimate consequence. The final defeat of a character. It is a powerful thing to behold. Many of us have seen it at our tables. Some foolish fighter gets the bright idea in his head to go all "Leroy Jenkins" on the ghast in the crown with three hit points and a "What's the worst that could happen" attitude, or an overconfident barbarian staring down a mage casting Phantasmal Killer, while saying, "What are the odds that I'll fail both saves?"

"Pretty good when you roll double 1's"

Sometimes we've been that person and have fallen into the void by no fault of our own. If you play long enough, you'll eventually rack up at least one corpse. Hell, a friend of mine has a small cemetery of fallen "heroes".

So powerful is the possibility of death, that some DMs-the people who quite literally have control of the universe and hold sway over life and death-shy away from it. When Ozzriphathimus Zorrastigellion, Wizard of the 5th Circle, decided to use the cursed Flute of Owlbear Summoning he procured from the treasure horde in the Crypt of Cursed Items, a rampaging herd of (you guessed it) owlbears materialized from wherever forsaken hell owlbears materialize from, and trample his robe-wearing ass into the forest floor.  This is a delicate situation for many DMs. They will go out of their way to hit the reboot button. They look for loopholes, addendum, errata, and put the group on a quest to search the books for any passage that could deliver their crushed comrade from the clutches of the reaper.

"Seriously, owlbears! What the actual fuck?!"

In these rare cases, I have all the confidence in the world that a determined table of gamers could be the greatest team of lawyers walking the Earth,

Now, any old person would give you reasons arguing for, or against letting that character move onto the next life. I am, however, not any old person. I am-according to my closest friends-a "genocidal monster intent on nothing more than bringing about pain and misery".

While I can agree with most of that, I can also argue that I want nothing more than my player characters to live. They are sort of essential to this storytelling aspect I've grown so fond of. But sometimes, peeps gots to get ganked.

Let's look at our example above, with the crushed wizard.He's dead. Dead like you read about. Deader than disco. But here are a few reasons why he shouldn't be.
  • Sometimes players get their hands on cursed items. Sure, it can be fun for a little hindrance here and there, but for one to kill you outright doesn't seem entirely fair.
  • The player of said character could become alienated by the whole experience. After all, they put all the work into the character, their backstory, their little nuances. It's a shame to have that ripped away in a moment because rules and stuff.
  • The other people at your table could likewise become disturbed by your decision to sever the thread of fate. They could be next on the chopping block. Paranoia breeds mistrust, and before long you have a player vs. GM mentality working against you and your artfully crafted campaign world.
  • Fun is rule 0, no matter what you're playing. Not being able to play your character anymore is not terribly fun. Unless you're a necrophile, in which case, have at it!

Now, I think we can agree, that when Ozzriphathimus Zorrastigellion, Wizard of the 5th Circle, decided to use the cursed Flute of Owlbear Summoning he procured from the treasure horde in the Crypt of Cursed Items, he done fucked up. Little gnomish bastard deserved to die, and here is why.
  • He's a gnome!
  • He willingly produced an item that was modestly described as cursed, and on a whim, activated it. There are consequences to actions in the game. You open a trapped door without searching for a trap, you are going to get at least mildly fucked up. Death is the biggest consequence. It's a harsh, but effective learning tool.
  • There are going to be instances where a character is in over their head (or in this case, neck-deep in owlbear). Bad things happen, even to good people. Especially good people. When death can lurk behind any corner (or any cursed flute), it makes your players cautious. Adventuring is a short and brutal life. Very few ever reach retirement age, and those that do are canny old bastards that approach EVERY situation cautiously. This is how characters that started as farm hands and apprentices grow into the rough-and-tumble adventurers we see in all our favorite fantasy novels and erotic fan fiction.
  • Fun is rule 0, and as strange as it sounds, dying can be a positive experience for the player. Imagine if you will, that you are standing in a long corridor, and at the end of it is a stone relief of a green-faced devil, with an open mouth just wide enough to fit through. You know you want to crawl in, despite every logical thought in your brain screaming at you for even entertaining the notion. You throw caution to the wind, and inside of 6 seconds, there isn't enough left of you to fill a matchbox. While some would call "bullshit" you simply turn to the DM, laugh, and say, "Oh, you got me good". Then you can begin plotting his demise.
"Free hugs inside!"

Dying is a pretty definitive thing. 9/10 Clerics agree it's super bad for you (Watch out for number 10, he's a real Lich). But, as final as it is, it doesn't have to be the end. Lords no! It can begin a whole new direction for things. Sometimes dying can be downright cool. I mean, all the funky fresh hip kids are doing it these days!

For an example, let's say your players are squaring off against some truly bad dudes. Like, Kardashian-level evil. They fight valiantly but succumb to their dark foes. Total party kill. Roll up new characters next week, right? Hells no!

Resurrect them. Maybe some other adventurers discover their remains years later, and take them to a nearby temple to have them raised. Perhaps the villains beat them to it, and bring the party back from beyond the veil for some nefarious purpose. Or, keep them dead, and venture on into adventures in the afterlife.
"Death is not the handicap it used to be."

Another fine example of embracing your fate is the "Blaze of Glory" scenario. Your players are beaten down, and hopelessly outnumbered. Hit points can be counted on one hand. They decide to launch one final push, knowing full well they charge to their doom. Everyone dies, but perhaps they vanquish the evil-doer, fulfill the prophecy, destroy the MeGuffin, or defend the town. There is a great deal of satisfaction and finality to that. 

And that is where death can come full circle. The game you run, and the game you play are fun now. But the great ones, like stories of old, are kept alive in stories the players tell. You may have done a load of cool and badass things over the history of your campaign, but the thing you may remember the most is how you laid down your life defending the door against the merciless dracolich while your friends destroyed its accursed phylactery once and for all. In dying, that character transcended mortality and effectively became immortal.

So, what do you think? Is the prospect of death important to keep in your game, or does it impede the fun?

Live long and prosper, dear reader
+Ed The Bard 

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Musings of The Bard: These Roots Run Deep

It has been a good long while since I first got the idea in my head to start a blog about my first love, table top role-playing. Sure, anyone could tell you that family, friends, and career should come first. They are lying. They are lying to you, and to themselves.

For shame.

I have agonized on how I should start this whole blog biz out. Should I tell you about who I am? Launch right into a topic? Perhaps some lengthy, convoluted conversation with a dark, hooded figure sitting alone in the one corner of the tavern where the lighting situation is best described as "iffy"?

Where to begin?

Then it struck me like an owlbear during mating season; The best place to start is the beginning. While that may seem like the sarcastic remark of a self-absorbed asshole (credentials I will never deny), it's true. The best way to really describe who I am and how I game is to go back to the very first Dungeons & Dragons campaign I ever played.

Most folk will tell you tales of their socially awkward middle school years, uncovering a magnificent Red Box like it was the Ark of the Covenant, and playing into the wee hours of the night in someone's parents' basement, chugging mountain dew while the melodic tones of Led Zeppelin play softly in the background.

While I may hold this as an ideal of what the experience should be like, mine was different. I did not find the sweet addiction of chucking dice until my freshman year of college. It was there I was seduced to the dark side by a silver tongued devil that looked like members of Metallica used to.

"Have you ever role-played?" he asked me one day while training me in the finer arts of disc jockeying.

I had heard tales of such things from a few friends in high school, and having just come off of the euphoria of watching "The Fellowship of the Ring" for the first time, I was intrigued. What followed was a three-hour conversation (Mostly one-sided) about an intricate story the likes of which Hollywood could never hope to replicate.

And people got to experience this. Weekly!

I wanted in, and in a few weeks both by best friend and I were welcomed into the dark den of tabletop gaming. The game was split into two groups of six, with two game masters presiding. Each group was to work against and undermine the other while at the same time accomplishing their goals.

That game? Heroes Unlimited.

Those of you under the age of 25 might not know what the hell Heroes Unlimited is. That's fair. It is a very acquired taste, namely because it runs of the Palladium system. Palladium is similar to D&D, in the sense that it has stats, and you roll to hit things. Besides that, it is a hot mess. Don't get me wrong, it busted my gaming cherry, but like most "first times" it was painful, awkward, and after awhile you tend to move on to something that knows what the hell it's doing.

It was perhaps a year later (and yes, we had continued playing Heroes that entire time) when my closest amigo told me about this "cool guy" at work who was getting a game of D&D together. My interest was piqued. Again, I wanted in. Calls were made. Clandestine meetings in back alleys were held under cover of darkness, and before long, I was welcomed in.

"Slightly more malevolent than The One Ring"

The group consisted of three old school veterans from the old days. The dark days were the term THAC0 weighed heavy on the soul, and the undead were merciless (they broke your shit, and stole your XP. That just isn't cricket). Our DM was one of these veterans. He had been tempered from editions designed to break a man and take his measure.

The rest of the group consisted of three first-time players, of which I was one. We hadn't the faintest idea what we were doing.

We were, without a doubt, amazing.

Through the course of that campaign, we were lashed to the bone. In one dungeon we found ourselves holed up in a single 20x20 room for two weeks.


Huddled in the dark, eating half rations as we nursed our fighter back to full health after having his throat torn out by a ghast (Our cleric had used a scroll of resurrection that was far too high a level for him to cast, and nearly died himself in the process of casting it). We defecated in a corner, slept in shifts, and nearly died of dehydration as ravenous zombies clawed endlessly at the stone doors that separated us and them.

This was my first dungeon crawling experience. I found it to be harsh, brutal, and deeply satisfying for some godforsaken reason. It became the first standard I held myself to as a game master. I enjoyed the challenge of keeping an eye on my resources. I thrilled at the tension each new day would bring as our stocks dwindled into near nothingness.

Some years later, my best friend (the fellow that was with me through this whole wild, strange journey) decided he was going to run a D&D game of his own. Our previous group had since disbanded, so I welcomed it with open arms. His DMing style was almost the polar opposite of our previous Dungeon Master. He was very focused on the player, giving us more power than we had previously been accustomed to. He made the story wrap around us, and catered to us. The experience was empowering, and so I had the second standard to hold myself to.

That campaign, by the way, was the best campaign I had ever played in before, and since.

I know had the two halves of my DM personality. My yin and yang. On one side, the thought of tormenting my players, and challenging them with perpetually rising challenges appealed greatly to me. At the same time, I wanted to empower them. I wanted them to know that they could overcome these challenges and would be rewarded greatly for their deeds.

I have triumphed, and I have stumbled. I have risen characters up to such exalted heights that could be considered Gods in their own time, and I have slain entire parties at the dreadful claws of a giant crab.

"Fun fact! Giant crabs have no weak spot OR fucks given"

I have built worlds, destroyed others, and through it all, I've never grown tired of it.

I am Ed the Bard, and we will be talking more, very soon.

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