Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Servants of Gaius released in PDF

Servants of Gaius released in PDF:"]

Servants of Gaius(from the book):
As Neptune’s armies threaten the empire, Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus ("Caligula") creates a secret order to root them out.

The Servants of Gaius come from all the ranks of the Empire, chosen by the divine emperor himself. In their quest to save Rome they face dark cults, backstabbing politicians and even the gods themselves.

Servants of Gaius is a game of intrigue and investigation. It comes with a complete alternate history setting but is perfect for any Roman campaign.

The book includes:
•A complete and flexible rules system
•An overview of Roman society and government during the early empire
•Stats for important historical characters
•Monsters and other supernatural threats
•Rules for gods and rituals
•A map of the Roman world in 38 AD

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Goods of Villainy

Everyobody loves villains. They do things heroes cannot and usually manage to work in a solid one-liner in the process. If you like Die Hard, chances are Alan Rickman has something to do with it. If you enjoyed The Professional, you probably also got a kick out of Gary Oldman's use of the word "everyone". If you grew up watching classic horror movies as I did, then actors like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre likely made uncredited appearances in your greatest campaigns. Villains are wonderful. They frighten, fascinate and make us laugh all at the same time. My personal favorite is Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lector because he hits all three of these key points so brilliantly. Here is a simple list of principles to help bring some of that magic to the table. These are not exhaustive, but they should hold you in good stead if you consider them while designing your bad guys.

Villains aren't wimps. And even if they are they either have the resources or genius to be a true danger to the world. Your villain need not be unrealistic or unfair but he ought to have the power to ruin the player's day if he so chooses. That doesn't mean you give him every spell in the player's handbook or max out his core attributes. There should be some weak points to balance out his strengths. Give him one or two critical resources (wealth, connections, firepower, magic, etc).

Don't misunderstand this heading; in-character villains cheat, lie and steal all the time. In terms of game mechanics however, don't cheat or fudge to keep your villain a challenge. If he is a solid character with well thought out resources and powers he should be able to sink or swim on his own without your intervention. Don't deprive the players of rightly earned victories because you want a villain in the game.

Related to the last point, you can't force a recurring villain on players. If they kill him fair and sqaure, then he isn't a worthy adversary and needs to stay dead (barring special and unique backstories and campaign developments of course). If you have a recurring villain you like, but the players manage to put him six feet under, then retire him with dignity. Better to be remembered as the worthy foe they slayed, than as the annoying DMNPC they despise.

Your villain shouldn't just sit in his lair or manor house waiting for PCs to arrive, he should be out and about plotting and planning. If the PCs disrupt his plans, he shouldn't just sit back and take it, he should try to get revenge or adapt a new plan of action. Good villains have life. They are dynamic forces in the campaign.

Players should love to hate your villains. There needs to be things about them likeable or interesting and things that provoke dislike. Their good qualities can can make them an great source of role playing at the negotiating table while their bad qualities should make them monsters.

This one is important and it should come out through events and conversations in the game game, not through explanations. The old saying "show, don't tell' applies here. Really get to know your villain so you can play him effectively at the table. Normally the GM doesn't get a chance to devote much time to a single character. Well, villains are your chance to invest a little energy in background, personality, motives, etc.

When playing villains it is important for you, the GM, to speak in character. The moment the PCs rush into the evil mastermind's headquarters and he tries to convince them the folly of their ways is not the time for third person dialogue. Role play your villains.

If you don't enjoy your villains, the players will notice, so design them to entertain yourself and your players. Give them qualities and flaws that intrigue you. Give them style and manners that you feel comfortable pulling off. If you are self conscious about your fake German accent, don't throw too many Nazi villains at your players. Play to your strengths as a GM.

A villain should have a weakness or deficiency. This could be physical, mental or spiritual in nature. Everything from drug addiction to a family curse. Whatever it is, it should be exploitable.

One of the reasons villains are compelling is they do things normal people can't or won't do. Take the movie scarface. In the restaurant scene Tony says to the diners "Who you looking at? You are all a bunch of &@&@@ $$$$$@. You know why? You don't have the guts to be what you want to be?" In his mind the thing that seperates Tony Montana from everyone else is the willingness to break a few rules and take the risks needed to get rich and powerful. This line is also an example displaying a villain's repugnance and magnetism all at once.

If your PCs hate the villain, they should really, truly hate him. If they distrust him, they should distruct him like nobody's business. Whether it is fear, love or any other emotion, your villain needs to generate strong feelings from the party. This gives life to a campaign and is fuel for adventure. Strong emotions toward an NPC mean the players will often go out of their way to destroy him and will help create lasting memories of your classic villain.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why Horror is Hard

I've run a lot of horror RPGs over the years but I have also played in many Horror campaigns. Ravenloft, Call of Cthulu, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, World of Darkness and even Ororsh from Torg are some of the games that stand out in my mind. They came with advice for running effective horror, often the advice was taken as gospel by new GMs or carried with vetern GMs for years. As a die-hard Ravenlodt GM I very much embraced what I call the Vincent Price approach to Horror GMing (lengthy and evocative descriptions, heavy on the melodrama and adjectives, etc). Over time however, I began to realize this approach wasn't always the most effective. In the hands of some GMs it backfired, performed before certain players it provoked giggles rather than shudder of fear. Part of the problem with this kind of advice is it focuses on what to do, it is a list of things to make a point of doing as you describe the game to your players. But it often fails to account for the things that make horror difficult to achieve in a role playing game. When we developed Horror Show, I paid close attention to the hurdles GMs face when trying to spook their players. Here is a partial list of my observations in no particular order.

GM ISN'T "THERE": We talk a lot about player immersion and how this can produce a deeper experience of the game, but we don't talk about GM immersion that much. This makes some sense, since the GM plays the role of the world and its inhabitants, he doesn't play a single character like players do. But when you describe a scene to your group, if you don't see it in your head, if you don't feel like your there it loses something (especially in horror game). Being there is an important part of bringing the horror setting to life and pointing out the vital details (not the needless ones) that inspire fear.

PLAYERS ARE TOO GUARDED OR CYNICAL: Have you ever noticed that some people respond to horror movies with fear and others with laughter? To feel fear at a horror movie you have to give in a little, allow it to frighten you. The same is true of a horror rpg. It isn't about being tough or wimpy, an intellectual or a fool; it is about giving into the thrill of being scared. To do that, you can't play with a sense of detachment, you need to be immersed in the experience. This involves immersion like the above hurdle, but it is more than that. It is about lowering your guard. Ultimately whether players are willing to give into the experience or not is beyond the GM's control, but this is a good thing to be aware of.

GM ISN'T OBSERVING PLAYER CUES: It is important to know what is working and what isn't in a horror game. Not paying attention to minor cues like expressions and body posture is a sure way to miss this. Players who are affraid, appear more tense and interested. They lean forward as you describe the action. Players who are not affraid appear bored, disinterested or even confident.

BAD ATMOSPHERE: Have you ever tried watching a horror movie in the day time with a bunch of friends or with the lights on? Have you noticed it is a lot more scary witht the lights out and when you are alone? The same thing with horror RPGs. Nothing kills a good game of Cthulu or Ravenloft like bright lights, Ipads and cheese doodles. Keep the distractions away, these are horror mood killers.

GM TRIES TOO HARD: Remember the Ravenloft advice I mentioned earlier? If it happens to fit your natural style, by all means go for it, but when a GM forces himself into a style that isn't his own in an effort to be scary, it usually doesn't work.

SCRIPT IMMUNITY: When a horror GM protects player characters from death he murders some part of the world. This is one of my few unbending rules of horror: death must be on the table. Players know when they have script immunity and providing it really does cheapen the threat. Even worse: only killing the PCs when they make a "stupid decision". This has actually been official advice in a number of gaming products and needs to come to an end in any horror campaign worth its salt. If no one ever dies, you are doing horror with kid gloves.

GM OVERKILL: By the same token, mercilessly slaughtering PCs or, worse, scripting their deaths ahead of time is just as inneffective in horror. Death should be on the table but it needs to be fair and determined by the dice (not GM fiat).

Well, those are the major hurdles I kept noticing. If anyone else has any to share, feel free to comment.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Art of Monster Hunt

It is no secret I love second edition Ravenloft. Back in the 90s, my favorite supplements were the Van Richten Guidebooks. Not only did they offer great material on customizing and running monsters, but the examples and strategies peppered throughout the text offered ideas for adventure. The monster hunt/investigation formed the backbone of the series. In each release, Van Richten related tales of is encounters with creatures like the Gibbering Golem, usually providing some background and a flavorful description of the menance before proceeding into the details of his investigation process. For me, the investigation was the most interesting aspect of the guidebooks, and served as a useful template for adventues. Over the years I ran many such scenarios and they were always my most successful sessions. Here I wll offer some advice on creating an effective monster hunt.

The best monster hunts in my opinion are free form combinations of location based adventures, event-based and character driven adventures. The driving force on the GM's side is the monster and the community or people it threatens. The players should always be free to engage the hunt or not (though they can't be assured immunity from the creature if they leave the area after attracting its attention).

The player characters themselves will determine much of the flow of the adventure. They are the monster hunters afterall and the hunt is for them to plan. However the threat needs tonhave its own agenda and schedule. Suppose the adventure is set in the secluded mountain village of Grega, where locals have been dissapearing in the night. Eye witnesses report seeing a strange beast near the scene, though accounts of its appearance differ somewhat. As the characters investigate, you will want to have an idea of the monster's attack schedule and its overall aim.

The first real work is to develop your monster. Before you create any stats, think about what kind of threat you want the party to face and try to devise an interesting backstory. In the above scenario, you might decide that the twist is there is more than one creature. That these are unusual golems fashioned from different animal parts by the local priest as part of a failed effort to protect his people. Perhaps the priest continues to make more golems in an effort to eradicate his original creatures. He isn't evil, but he does have an interest in covering up the truth which could come into play during the PC's investigation. Alternatively, the priest could be evil or have a warped sense of right and wrong. Maybe he created the beasts to give the populace something to fear so they turn to his god for aid. It is all up to you.

If the threat is intelligent, give it a personality and motivations. Is it killing for food? out of rage? to bring justice? There is nothing wrong with a simple answer, a vamire hungry for blood is just as entertaining as a criminal mastermind. The trick is to mix things up; never rely on one type of threat or one kind fo motive.

Next you should establish some powers and stats. I am a big fan of unique monsters (even if they are standard entries from the monster compendium). Making the monster unique increases the importance of investigating the threat before going in guns blazing. Not only will the players need to assess its strength, they should discover its weaknesses.

To continue the golem example, maybe the creatures are largely invulnverable to normal attacks (not totally invincible to mundane weapons, just difficult to kill with them). The PCs might even try to take them on at first, only to watch in horror as their swords and even their spells fail to yield the desired effects. Figuring out their weaknesses is going to be key. An easy way to determine the weakness is base it on the monsters' creation. So in this case, the golems may have been molded by a knife blessed in local waters, and if the players bless their weapons in the same fashion they can harm them. Whatever the weakness it should be discoverable through investigative means. So the blessed weapon weakness could be learned by tracking things down to the priest or finding a local grimoire describing the ritual he used to create the golems.

Map out the area where the adventure takes place. If this is to be a hunt, the players need places to explore. If there is a village or town, map that out as well. Be sure to include ample sites for investigation (libraries, dissapearance scenes, dens where the creature sleeps, trails, etc). Don't be affraid to throw in incidental locations for fun and exploration. Old mine shafts, isolated cabins, and even the occassional manor house. These may or may not be connected to the threat. But either way, they are potential sites of confrontation with your monster and even sources of information on the threat. If the creature has a lair, be sure to elaborate on that with a map.

Presumably the monster threatens people. They could be a community, a small family, or even the adventurers themselves. Whoever they are, you want to flesh them out a bit, particularly people of interest (those conncected to the threat as victims, backers, eye witnesses). Before play starts you want to have a sense of what makes these folk tick, and you want to create interesting standouts for the PCs to interact with.

These are great adventures to drop on player characters passing through, but if the players aren't on site, they could be summoned by victims who have heard of their exploits. Personally, with monster hunts, I don't like to be too heavy handed or work on overly contrived hooks. At most they may witness an attack or be near after one occurs and get drawn in that way, but leave it in their court. They either express interest in the adventure or they move on. Monster hunts are pretty simple to design, so if the players pass it up, it isn't a big deal,

Hopefully I can address this subject in more detail later. For now, I hope this has been helpful.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Slayers Playtesting Underway

The first round of Slayers playtest reports came in this week (our in-house playtests have also begun). So far we are getting great feedback from both playtesters and readers.

Weighing feedback is a challenge and it is important to carefully evalate all of it with an eye toward our design goals. Some feedback is easy. Typos, problematic math, unbalanced mechanics, and unclear text are usually obvious when they are pointed out. But some feedback has more to do with individual preference. For example one playtester may want combat to be more lethal, another wants it less lethal, while another thinks it is perfect as is. So we give careful thought and discussion to such reports. This month we intend to do just that.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Servants of Gaius (coming soon!)

We are pleased to announce that Servants of Gaius is entering the final stages of development. It should be available very soon. I am confident this will be our best looking book so far. This time around we hired a skilled layout artist and graphic designer (Richard Iorio), who has done a stunning job and continues to surprise me with every layout preview he sends (he also created the Servants of Gaius logo). Once again, Michael Prescott is aboard as the cover, border and map artist. I have the cover art and it is incredible. Most of the interiors are being done by Jackie Musto and Samantha Fanti. Both of them handed in great material. Visually, this is a killer book.

Servants of Gaius also received attention from our historical advisers, our editor (Jennifer Schoonover), and playtesters. It was heavily playtested, but also benefited from our years of observations playing the Network Sytem. We cannot wait to get Servants of Gaius on the shelves and in PDF.

So what is Servants of Gaius? Here is a brief explanation from the back of the book:

Unravel sacred mysteries and explore the empire in this unique alternate Roman history setting where a mad emperor is savior of the world.
As Neptune’s armies threaten the empire, Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus ("Caligula") creates a secret order to root them out.
The Servants of Gaius come from all the ranks of the Empire, chosen by the divine emperor. In their quest to save Rome they face dark cults, backstabbing politicians and  even the gods themselves.
Servants of Gaius is a game of intrigue and investigation. It comes with a complete alternate history setting but is perfect for any Roman campaign.  The book includes:
·         A complete and flexible rules system
·         An overview of Roman society and government during the early empire
·         Stats for important historical characters
·         Monsters and other supernatural threats
·         Rules for gods and rituals
·         A map of the Roman world in 38 AD

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Brief Defense of 2nd Edition AD&D

Second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is perhaps the most disliked version of D&D (though 4E certainly has its critics). This wasn't always the case. Hatred for 2nd edition wasn't universal in its heyday, in fact between 1989 and 1997/98 most gamers I encountered actively played 2E. I was no no exception. But these days the edition has a reputation for railroading and story focus, and many people hold it up as an example of bad design (or at least bad GM advice). And this criticism is valid. But 2nd edition did some things very well. So lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss everything that arose during the 2E era.

Since attacks against it are directed at its spirit, I will be defending the less tangible aspects of 2E instead of defending its mechanics. The reason for this is it had much in common with 1st edition, many of the changes it introduced were already existing houserules or options, and I recently defended many of its key rules in my blog on unified mechanics.

Clearly, second edition came from a time when story was prime. There was a sense in much of the game material in the late 80s and in the 90s that the GM was the author, the players his protagonists. This predates 2E with the Dragonlance modules and setting. However Dragonlance transitioned into 2E smoothly and many of its underlying assumptions carried into other second edition material. You also see this with Vampire, D&D's biggest competition at the time. I would argue that you can chart TSR's emulation of White Wolf as the 90s progress. The emphasis on story in 2nd edition grows as Vampire's popularity increases.

But RPGs are not books or movies. To achieve the kind of story TSR suggested, the DM needed to railroad, fudge and fiddle with player freedom. I just ran a bunch of 2E Ravenloft modules and there are plenty of instances where the writers suggest railroading or fudging for story purposes. They even suggest making key NPCs immune to death in combat. In some cases the modules are even structured into three acts with scenes. I readily admit this advice was bad. Not only does it work against the rules the designers themselves created but it gave people some whacky ideas about GMing. With that said I would argue that 1) GM advice is easy enough to overlook and 2) In the case of 2E it is worth overlooking because there is so much cool material. And oddly enough much of this material stems from their misguided focus on story.

The one thing everyone generally agrees 2E got right is setting material. In the 90s we were literally buried by the volume of modules and supplements devoted to their numerous campaign settings. You had Ravenloft, Darksun, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Planescape, Birthright, Kara-Tur, Greyhawk, Maztica, al-Qadim, and a few I may be forgetting (can't recall if Savage Coast was 2E or basic). Granted, some of these began as 1E settings but the important thing is you couldn't count the available worlds on one hand. Plus there were numerous variations like Masque of the Red Death.

Personally I gravitated toward Ravenloft and owned every book released for the Realm of Terror. I would site the Van Richten's Guides (to vampires, lycanthropes, ghosts, the created, the ancient dead, liches, vistani) as examples of another (related) thing 2E did well: flavor material. These were, in my opinion, some of the best gaming books ever written. The Van Richten Guides inspired me as a GM, they showed me how monsters could be used creatively, how investigations and monster hunts might work, and they helped give me a micro-level appreciation of the Ravenloft setting. My games thrived in part because I read the entire line of Van Richten releases. As with setting, I believe one of the key reasons these books were made is because of the focus on story.

Roleplaying and immersion is another area whre 2E (like 1e before it) excelled. They introduced non-weapon proficiencies, but these were unobtrusive enough that you still focused on what your character said and did rather than roll for social interactions. So when I went back to playing Ravenloft 2E, after years of Ravenloft 3E, I immediatey noticed the level of in-depth role play increase (something I had remembered but chalked up to nostalgia). Because there was so much focus on worlds and interesting characters, I think the emphasis on role play was natural.

Though 2E is attacked for some of its bad GM advice, it actually had one of the best DM supplement lines, the blue books. Things like Campaign Cartographer, Creative Campaigning, The Castle Guide and The Villains Handbook were great resources for GMs. These were packed with great information on everything form mapping to player types. I still use many of the prop and mapping techniques discussed in Campaign Cartographer.

It also had a whole line of green books for various historical settings. If you wanted to play a Roman game, there was a green book for that. Renaissance Campaign? Viking Campaign? Knights of Charlemagne? There were books for these and much more.

I could go on about the brown books and their kits, or 2Es naturalistic and historically grounded spirit, but that would lead to more talk of mechanics than is my goal, so I will close with praise for their modules. It is true, 2nd edition modules suffered a lot from the story focused railroading. But they alsonhad a lot going for them if you look past this (and in practice I find it easy to do). Since I am most familiar with Ravenloft, look at Feast of Goblyns and Castles Forlorn. These were solid because they provided lots of interesting setting material and mixed it fairly seemlessly with adventure and characters.

Feast of Goblyns was the first module I encountered (though I am sure it isn't the first module that did this) where the NPCs were treated as free agents who moved around and reacted organically to the PCs. I believe they called it a living adventure, and I still use that term to this day. This opened all kinds of doors for me as a GM, ultimately leading me to excel at character driven and investigative adventures.

Both Feast of Goblyns and Castles Forlorn had exciting locations you could strip out and use as needed. Famously Feast of Goblyns gave us The Kartakan Inn. A whole section of the module is devoted to it. But it also gives full descriptions of two towns (Skald and Harmonia), a castle, a lair, a homestead and other places.

Castle Forlorn Provides a much needed overview of the domain of Forlorn and a massive description and map of its castle. It was a non-linear adventure, more like a setting book with a bunch of hooks. So it had lots of backstory, characters, creatures, etc but not much in the way of linear adventure.

So yes, too much emphasis on story, fudging and railroading were bad, but I think our memories get clouded by these recollections and we forget much of the good that came out of 2E. In my opinion, it was the greatest edition in terms of flavor and setting. And even though they were bogged down by the spirit of 90s, the modules themselves were often very good if you could look past some quirks.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Slayers: First Glimpse

Here is a preview of Slayers. This is a rough of the Elders monster entry. I chose the Elder because it provides a sense of the setting and the mechanics. The two dice attack entry is because the core mechanic is: skill die plus attribute die, take the highest result and compare against target number.

Attacks: by Weapon or Hands d6/d6
Damage: d6 or Afflict with Ailment
Attributes: AGI d6, DEX d6, STR d6, CON d6, WILL d12, INT d12
Defenses: Dodge 3, Parry 3, Grapple 3, Health 3, Resist 6, Reason 6
Move: 6 yards
HP: 6
Size: Normal
Skills: Ritual d12/d12, Arcane Lore d12/d12
Powers: Perpetual Life, Afflict with Ailment
Elders look like crumpled lumps of bone and flesh. They only vague resemble a human being. Usually they are mistaken for a kind of goblin or demon. Their faces are shriveled to the point that it is impossible to read their expressions. Their backs are stooped and twisted like a knotted tree, and their limbs dangle like thin branches from their bodies.

Long ago, the last great emperor of Caelicia made a pact with the Beast. In exchange for eternal life for himself and his people (that is the people inside the empire’s capital), he agreed to cast out the Church of Avoril from its home continent and begin an immediate purge. However the exchange backfired on the empire. The Emperor and the residents of Cael (the capital) found they lived forever, but continued to age. The Beast also made them barren. All this led to the collapse of the Caelician empire and the creation of the Elders.
Though they lost their empire, the Elders still dwell in Cael and are in fact its only residents. Time has been their friend and Elders used it wisely, acquiring as much knowledge of magic and as many magical items as they could in order to protect their city. Occasionally an Elder will venture out from Cael in search of a relic or interfere with history (something Elder’s enjoy immensely).
Elders are cursed to live forever. Though their bodies age and decline, their minds remain keen as the years go by. So long as a small fragment, even just a tiny particle, of an Elder’s body remains, he will regenerate after being killed and restored to full HP. This process takes a few days.
Afflict with Ailment: The Beast’s curse came with a small gift, they can Afflict foes with ailments by touch. Unlike the ritual or natural Ailments, there is no roll against the target’s health, the ailment is automatic if the Elder succeeds on a Hands attack roll.
In addition to these powers, elders are notoriously gifted casters and most know a large number of powerful spells (usually appeals to the Beast).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012