Category Archives: Fluff

Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar

Like many adolescent geeks, I fell in love with my first computer game back when I had lots of time and very little money.  I mowed lawns for many weeks (probably around 12) to save up for Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar to play on my Commodore 64.   The game came on, I believe, four five inch floppy disks, and a nifty metal ankh and fabric map were included in the box along with two instruction books.  I felt like I’d got my money’s worth.

The object of Ultima IV is to live well and in accordance with eight virtues:  Honesty, Valor, Honor, Compassion, Justice, Spirituality and Humility.  This leads to becoming the “Avatar” of those virtues and positioning your character as an example to the rest of the world.  I was just impressionable enough to invest quite a lot of myself in the game’s core principles.  I took it so far that I stopped reloading at previous save points, when I made a mistake and lost some rating in the virtues.  A simple typo when dealing with a blind vendor would cause me to lose ‘an eighth’ of my avatar hood.  One cannot be the avatar of honesty if one rips people off.  It wasn’t a terrible hardship:  even if you took a step backward, you could always redeem yourself, though this took hours.  I probably added 50 hours of game play by compensating for typos provoked by an interface that I wouldn’t tolerate for ten minutes today.

After I completed the game, naturally I took my tricked out party back and slaughtered town after town.  At that point even the town guards presented little challenge.  After all those weeks spent tightly following a path of virtue, it was quite a relief to just go evil for awhile.

This reminds me of life in a long term Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  I like playing and developing the same character over long periods of time, but sometimes it’s fun to change things up by creating a character who thinks a less and cares little for authority.

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Last Session’s Nuts and Bolts

June 2010 Session

Days have passed since the attack of the Shadar-Kai.  The PC’s can spend the time as they wish.  Presumably they found the camp, gathered the loot, got their reward and have arranged for re-equipping and upgrading.

One midnight, Nightcloak escapes and his group kidnaps a child from the village:  Jeff’s daughter.  The sheriff puts Drale on the case.

Shortly after, Clintok sends a messenger – a crow-mask wearing halfling.  He would like to see the group immediately concerning the missing child.

  • Fortified, wooden wall, stone building
  • Salvador Dali art
  • Everyone wears a mask, Clintok wears the Ibis

Clintok wears an Ibis mask – “what did you do before the Zain-kin came?”  “Before we talk business, let’s have refreshment…”

  • Gives exotic fruit, liquor, lemon water.
  • Warriors draw weapons and attack – See Clintok’s Rangers Encounter
  • Clintok does not engage unless absolutely forced.

“Congratulations, you passed the audition”

For parcel 1&2 and whatever salvage, pursue the bandits and bring their treasure to me to examine.

They’ve gone into the 100 Acre Forest, you’d best leave immediately.

Gives a magic compass that will track The Egg.

Arcana check to use the compass
Any Point in direction
Medium success or better See through eyes
Hard  success Know limited thoughts of Egg’s owner

  • Shadowcloak has The Egg
  • Hates the PCs
  • Hates Westfall
  • The new boss will give him new power

The woods are dark, weird, sprites flitter about 15 miles (three hexes) from town, the sprites coalesce into a swarm and Doc and his pets attack the intruders.  See Outside the Hag’s House Encounter

The thick forest leads further to a house of gold, platinum, copper, jewels, magical knowledge – all of the dreams of player characters.  When the PCs approach the door opens and a beautiful, elderly elven woman in a fine gown appears.

Clintok’s Rangers

XP #
1250 1 Clintok
38 5 Burly Halfling Sellsword
38 5 Halfling Slinger
1630



***********

Outside the Hag’s House


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The Story in the Session

Our last session ended after our heroes (the player characters) defended Westfall from a group of Shadar-kai raiders.  I first went around the table and asked each player say a few things about how their characters spent the following few days.

I next introduced the central McGuffin:  a previously encountered bandit named Nightcloak had escaped and kidnapped one of the town’s children.  The party’s investigation led them to “Clintok’s Ranch,” in a way I didn’t anticipate.  They didn’t know that an invitation from Clintok was waiting for them back in town; instead they sent the party assassin and the party monk in for reconnaissance.  They quickly discovered that Clintok and his fellow halfings are an odd bunch: they wear animal masks that seem to correspond with their jobs at the ranch.  This was inspired by the Granbretan empire in Michael Moorcock’s The History of the Runestaff .

The first encounter of the day was an audition.  At the snap of a finger, ten of Clintok’s minions attacked (remember that scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?).

Clintok did not engage in the battle, though the assassin nearly changed that in a moment of eagerness.  I had his stats ready, just in case.  From my perspective, this was a moment of big decision for the campaign.  While I didn’t expect them to kill Clintok, and I have big plans for him later, I wasn’t about to say ‘no.’ It would have been a tough battle against a solo, but they could have prevailed and there would have been long term, interesting consequences.

Clintok revealed that the Nightcloak not only kidnapped a baby from town, he stole an artifact from Clintok’s private collection.  He offered a deal:  if they retrieved the item, he would use his connections to clear their criminal records.  He then gave them an arcane compass-like device that would help them locate the artifact.  They soon learned that in the right hands, the compass would also let them see through the eyes of the artifact’s carrier, and listen to his surface thoughts.

Their pursuit took them in into a nearby fey infused forest.  This forest has been a name on a map for over a year, so I was excited to let their characters get in and explore a bit.  I emphasized how dark and weird the forest was, with an uncontrolled, random feel.  While the forest wasn’t sick, it felt a little like the bad side of the warden’s hometown.

The forest grew dense, and the sprites suddenly gathered into two aggressive swarms (Tinkerbell’s friends were mean!), and the party was ambushed by a Duregar named Doc (in the forest?!) with his pet fey panthers.  As with most good Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition encounters, there was a moment in the battle, after the monsters had used their recharge and encounter powers, and things were looking a little bleak for the player characters.  However, used solid tactics and won the day without too much drama.

I had one more encounter prepared for that session, but by then I knew we didn’t have time.  We had started later than I’d hoped, and the party had spent quite awhile investigating Clintok’s ranch.  That allowed me to end the session on a cliff-hanger.

The forest soon cleared and the party came upon a house constructed of gold, platinum, gems, jewels and magical weapons.  In short, there was everything an adventurer could desire, ready to be plucked.  There was movement inside the building, but they couldn’t see any details.  After one of the PCs tossed a pebble at one of the windows, an old elfish woman opened the door and introduced herself (“Miss White”). – end of session.

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Communication’s Golden Path

There are a few seemingly simple habits that are easy to forget, and make any Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game smoother and more fun.

Role playing comes easily during skill challenges and between encounters, but it’s very common for combat to devolve into an exchange of numbers, with little or no narration.  It makes for a richer experience when players and dungeon masters keep narrating and role-playing during combat.  Instead of simply calling out “23 versus AC, 32 fire damage” include the fluff: “I summon a wave of fire energy through my sword, that’s 23 versus AC and the waves of flame surround him for 32 points of fire damage.”  The flavor text included with player character powers provide a nice aid for describing those abilities, and can simply be read if you have trouble of articulating the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is best when players and DMs are transparent and mechanically precise when describing what is happening.  Many key words have mechanical connotations that aren’t always intuitive.  For example, when a character ‘runs’ it allows two extra spaces of movement and grants combat advantage.  Should that same character simply move their full normal speed or take a double move, there are no such negative consequences.  While it seems accurate to describe a double move as a ‘running,’ this can create confusion.  ‘Shifts’ and ‘moves’ are similarly hazardous when described imprecisely.

It’s also best when players and DMs include the details of what is happening when it comes to who has attacked whom, what the ‘to hit’ total was and what defense it attacked, even when it seems obvious or inconsequential.  D&D is a complicated game and many powers have unusual triggers.  It’s certainly not reasonable for any one person to keep track of every detail; instead, good, clear communication allows the entire group to use its collective mind to manage it all.

As in all things, the key is to find and walk the golden path.  Include the crunchy details, so everyone can track the mechanics, but wrap the crunch within the context of the story in order to make the experience one worth tracking.

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Creative Teamwork

I haven’t been gaming much lately, and I’m a smidge under the weather, so this will be brief.

When playing any role playing game, either as player or game-master, keep an eye out for bits of creativity from your fellow players that you can hook on to. If a group is going to create a world that feels developed and real, it will take all of your brains and all of you will need to participate. Otherwise, you may wind up with five completely separate and parallel stories surrounding your adventure. There are certainly worse things, but if you find ways to interweave your creative minds, you’ll find that it all hangs together in a more satisfactory way.

Along with the idea of hooking on to the stories of your other players, support your other players when they want to add content to a story that you’ve created.

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Character Sexuality

As a combat oriented role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition holds a tension between the tactical parts of the game and the character elements. I’m a fan of both, so I constantly try to inject flourishes into my player characters.

One often overlooked and avoided way to inject true character into your PC is to reflect on and identify a sexual orientation. Many gamers avoid anything to do with sex in their game: for some of us, our early gaming experiences were as teenagers when we knew little about human sexuality; when the topic came up, it likely to descend into adolescent silliness. There is also the concern of the gaming group becoming creepy or feeling threatening to those uncomfortable including sex in the game.

These concerns are fair. While it is reasonable for a group of adult gamers to focus on romance and other aspects of human relationships, most D&D groups frankly aren’t interested. As an aside, the Book of Erotic Fantasy by Gwendolyn Kestrel and Duncan Scott is a supplement that is compatible for the 3.5 rule system that focuses exactly on “intrigue and manipulation, marriages of power, dangerous seducers, sex and magic.”

Even for standard hack and slash Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, simply identifying your character’s sexual orientation is a large step toward making him seem more real. It is then interesting to flesh out a character’s interest in relationships. Consider Westley’s situation before the action really started in The Princess Bride. He is clearly straight, but when he was away, becoming The Dread Pirate Roberts, he had no interest in pursuing other relationships. Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, Wildstorm comics’ Midnighter (member of Authority) and Moorcocks’ Elric of Melnibone are other characters with established sexual orientations that added something to their personas.

If your group isn’t in to it, there’s no need to role-play any of the details. This doesn’t mean you can’t add story elements to the back story or into the out-of-play scenes.

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Battlestar Galactica Reflections

I really love the Battlestar Galactica television series that ran from 2003 – 2009. Even now, a year after the series finale’ I consider it the best television I’ve ever seen. I’ve had a few recent reflections about the show that may prove useful for role-playing game players.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition character classes fall into one of four roles: the defender, the leader, the striker and the controller. These roles match well into BSG ship battles: the vipers are clearly the strikers of the fleet. While Galactica’s cannons are significant, a battlestar’s primary function is to launch vipers, so they can shoot stuff and win the battle. Galactica coordinates the fight, much like leader classes. When a viper gets damaged, it can land for repairs (or to spend a healing surge). Galactica is also really good at taking hits. It got hit by a nuke at the end of the miniseries, and do you remember how badly it got shot up in that final battle?

The Colonial Fleet was lacking in the controller department for much of the series. Conversely, the Cylons’ ability to control the battle led to the initial genocide when the entire Colonial Fleet simply stopped working as a result of the computer virus. Finally, during “Daybreak,” the show’s final episode, Sam steps into the controller role and is able to freeze the Cylon fleet, which allows the strike force to rescue Hera. Without a controller, both battles would have ended completely differently.

My second reflection about BSG focuses on William Adama. In season one’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” he puts the fleet at risk to extend the search for Starbuck, who was shot down in the previous episode. While his decision to extend the search is questionable, there is the clear sense that he will leave when he is sure that all hope has passed. Near the episode’s end, he tells his son, Lee “Apollo” Adama, that if he had been shot down, “we’d never leave.” At the time I considered that to be a bit of sentimental claptrap: of course they would have left, there’s no way Adama would have sacrificed the fleet to continue a pointless search, even for his own son.

Then, I watched season four, and my analysis changed. During those final episodes, we see genuine vulnerability in Commander Adama. We catch glimpses of what he will do when his mind is set, even when those actions conflict with the measurable greater good. This is best illustrated in the final episode when he leads a group of volunteers on a suicide mission to save one little girl. He didn’t expect to find Earth as a result, he didn’t believe that she would save the human race. He just knew that Galactica was dying and that Roslin was dying and that he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t try to save Hera.

In light of that, it’s clear that he really would have kept the entire fleet in place until he found Apollo, had the situation warranted it.

In gaming terms, this kind of nuanced characterization can be very effective. What situation will make your character abandon her other values? What does he value above his normal morality? Is this a flaw, a benefit, or a little of both?

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