We Belong Dead: Monsters That Should Never Be

GROGNARDIA: My Least Favorite Monsters beat me to it, but here’s a list of my 10 monsters that I never want to use or see in a campaign:

  1. Ear Seekers.  Despite my abiding affection for things like the Rust Monster, Ear Seekers cross the line between challenging the player and punishing smart play.  Even if the dungeon is stocked by a mad arch-mage intentionally seeking to thwart explorers, this kind of thing is just a reason not to play.  Whether to risk listening at the door is not the kind of decision that a GM wants to emphasize.
  2. Drow. I tried to read R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt trilogy, I really did.
  3. Krenshar. A big cat that can peel the skin of its face back, so that… what?  I’m not getting it, either in evolutionary or mad wizard design terms.
  4. Troglodytes.  Why did cavemen become some wierd lizard creature?  And why aren’t lizard men and reptilian kobolds enough?
  5. Tarentella. (a spider that has a bite that not only causes the victim to dance, but makes onlookers save vs. dancing)  Even I have a limit to the pun-inspired game features I can take.
  6. Girallon.  To be honest, I’ve never actually seen or heard of these used, but adding an extra pair of arms to a gorilla and calling it a new monster was not anybody’s finest day.
  7. Deathbringer.  Now they’re not even trying.
  8. Gem Dragons.  Scraped right past the bottom of the barrel there.
  9. Jermlaines.  What purpose do these serve that kobolds don’t do better?
  10. Forest Sloth.  So…it’s a sloth.  With lightning fast reflexes, that can move along the ground or climb through the trees faster than a human can run.  Why exactly is it a sloth, again?  So that when the GM just says the name instead of describing what the characters see, they can get fooled for a moment into thinking they’re facing something slow?

My thanks to Ed Bonny, Jeff Grubb, Rich Redman, Skip Williams, and Steve Winter, without whose Monster Manual II this list would have had to stop at number 5.

How Long is Your Campaign

Twenty Sided » Blog Archive » How Long is a Campaign? writes:

The games I’ve run last a few months. Ten to twenty sessions seems ideal. The last one I ran was fifteen sessions. I know some people have settings and characters that they play for years and years, their tale spooling ever onward as their rulebooks get dog-eared and their character sheets fade with age. As someone who loves inventing new settings and populating them with characters, I don’t want to be stuck in any one place for too long.

My reply was:

For us settings come in and out of rotation. We’ve got one setting I’ve been GMing off-and-on for about 15 years. That setting has seen about 5 different systems used to run it. My friend GMs one that she’s run since High School, about 25 years, using the same AD&D plus house rules she’s always used. On the other end of the scale, we’ll often do a one-shot in a setting that we’ll never revisit; usually those use one of the old stand-by systems, so the players don’t have to learn two things at once, but sometimes they’re a test run to see if we like some system we haven’t tried or a play test of a homebrew one of the players is working on.

Half the fun for me is making new settings and new systems. The other half of the fun is playing a setting long enough that the players really start to have a good understanding of the world and it really feels detailed and full of history. So there’s a definite tension there…

What about you?

Procession of the Psychopomp

Game Summary for 2/22/09, a somewhat abbreviated due to the presence of Rock Band

The Party (Idariel 7, Twonkey, Josepi, and Stan McStan ) made its way back from the SludgeWorks, with their captured Zombot-ratipede corpse and a bunch of the Thaumivorous Ghost-Moths that they had discovered.  They boarded the platform and were being winched back up to level 1, when they noticed a bunch of commotion in the Web, with G-Nome couriers racing back and forth on their rocket-skates. This triggered their paranoia pretty badly, as they became convinced they were about to be ambushed, but they made it back to Barbis Boltbiter’s Adventure Emporium (No Adventure Too Dangerous! No Fee Too Big!)  safely. After collecting their fee for investigating the Zombot Infestation, they began discussing cashing in on the Moths with Barbis.  As a Dwarf of honor, he insisted that they would have to negotiate with the owner of the Sludge Works, Lord Shadrach (one of the few non-Elf, non-Dwarf Lords of Infrastructure).  Somewhat surprisingly, the party saw his point. Before they got too far, however, one of Barbis’ nephews burst in with the news that a huge black blimp had docked at the Zep (the zeppelin docks), bearing the Psychopomp of Anathem, and there was going to be a procession.

The Psychopomp of Anathem is the ruler of the city of Anathem, a city that New Ark City had been at war with up until recently (a few game sessions ago) where they practiced the forbidden arts of Necrotech.  Josepi announced that there was no way he would buy that there was no connection between the Zombots they’d been encountering and the situation with Anathem. The party decided to go check out the procession.

They used their connections to find a second floor window above an apothecary from which they could watch the procession route from the Zep to the Palace of Instrumentality, where the Lord of Infrastructure meet.  The parade route was packed with people, trying to get a glimpse of the mysterious Psychopomp.

First came the music, a Heavy Metal dirge. Then came the marching guards, seven-foot-tall cadaverous humanoids in tattered gray cloaks, indistinguishable save for the slight variations in the black patterns on their ivory masks, rifles over their shoulders.  Following them was the Psychopomps float, drawn by a pair of Zombie Mammoths.  Occupying the rear of the float was a steam calliope, from which the music wailed.  In the center of the float, supported on iron bars, was the Psychopomp itself…a grey metal sphere, 10 feet in diameter, bound in loops of darker metal. Nobody knows whether it is a machine intelligence, a sentient artifact, or is there something else, something organic, encased inside.

Kneeling around the Psychopomp were pairs of figures, one set each of the Precursor races, Human, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Orc, Dryad and Satyr…all attractive and richly dressed in elaborate robes and jewels, several wearing crowns, and all chained by their necks to the Psychopomp’s float.  Their eyelids have been sewed shut.

Behind the Psychopomp’s float, row after row of iron-collared human soldiers bearing spears.

Just then, as the party was discussing “Why aren’t we at war with these guys any more?” a small figure skidded from one of the cables that make up the web, and tumbled to the street in front of the stamping feet of the Zombie Mammoths. It was a G-Nome girl, with small goat-horns and little cupid wings, who had slipped as she was racing by….

Stan McStan started desperately slapping together a robot, knowing that there was no way he could finish in time.  Twonky contemplated jumping from the window, only to conclude that he would crush more people than rescuing the kid would save.  Idariel and Josepi stared helplessly.

The mammoth’s foot descended, then stopped in mid-air.  Kneeling beneath the foot, holding it up with one hand, was a figure completely swathed in bandages, wearing a red, hooded cloak.  The other mammoth, being just a zombie, obliviously tried to continue forward, and the float started to swerve.  The Corpse Guards turned, raising their enormous rifles. The figure scooped up the G-Nome girl and darted from beneath the foot, the mammoth stumbling then continuing onward.  Red-cloak deposited the girl at the side of the road, just at the edge of the crowd, as the Guard leveled their rifles.

By this point Stan had snapped together a hawkbot, and sent it winging towards the scene, with instructions to interpose itself between the riflemen and Red-cloak (and the crowd), international incident be damned.  Before the riflemen actually opened fire, there was a sonic boom, glass rattling and cracking in most of the nearby windows and the rifleman were knocked from their feet…the first row of riflemen’s weapons all snapped in half, and Red-cloak was gone.

Stan recalled his hawkbot before (he hoped) it could be observed by any of the Psychopomp’s minions. It was at this point that he noticed some wetness on his upper lip… his nose was bleeding. Nobody else suffered this (they all made their vigor rolls), and he shook his fist at the Psychopomp and muttered something about “Keep out of my head!”  Eventually, after a bunch of men in the livery of the Lords of Infrastructure showed up and had earnest discussions with the Psychopomp’s servants, the procession straightened itself out and made its way out of sight towards the Palace of Instrumentality.

The rest of the session was spent discussing what the Red-cloaked figure could possibly have been, whether they should try and find the G-nome girl, who they saw had been grabbed up by her mother, why the sudden peace with Anathem, and what the connection might be between the zombots and the Psychopomp.

You Say Po-tay-to, I Say Po-tah-to

Scott, of World of Thool, writes, in Dropping out of the Old School

JimLotfP has written an “us vs. them” opinion piece over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Jim’s blog is one of my daily early-morning Google Reader destinations. From what I’ve seen, I genuinely like him, I suspect we’d get along just fine in real life, and I especially enjoy the effect his posts have on the excitable.

However, Jim’s post today highlights why I’m not part of the “Old School Renaissance” and my name can safely be stricken from the rolls. I refuse to serve in the Edition Wars. If necessary, I can have my insignia ripped from me in a humiliating divestiture ceremony, complete with expectoration.

The whole enterprise seems exhausting and silly. I do very much think of my setting project as, in a way, my reaction against gaming consumerism, including my own. I react the same way fairly often in real life. I don’t find it distressing that people buy stuff — I’m firmly in the capitalist camp, and a great fan of buying stuff. I find it distressing that people buy stupid, superfluous, low-quality stuff, and they do it reflexively.

My feeling is that you shouldn’t take this kind of stuff too much to heart.

Have you ever seen some real baseball fans arguing over the Designated Hitter rule? Passionately believing X is better than Y for reason Z and arguing about it seems to be part of the pleasure of being a fan. It’s Kirk vs. Picard. Batman vs. Superman. First Gundam vs. Mobile Fighter G-Gundam. (Sorry, very obscure joke.)

People can be assholes about they way the argue about it, particularly on the Internet where you’re arguing with strangers instead of your friends, but simply arguing about it doesn’t make you an asshole per se.

I think JimLofP is nuts if he thinks the “Old School Renaissance” is anything more than some people using the power of the Internet to connect with others way out there in the end of the long tail. Hey! There are other people out there who are still into this old version? Cool!  That’s the thing about the long tail…you don’t need to convert a single gamer from 4e in order for Old School to thrive, not even if you assume that people only have time for one or the other.  All you need is a way for the people with minority tastes to find each other.

So I think it’s a bit of an overreaction to repudiate the Old School tag if that something that can help congenial people find your blog, enjoy what’s written there, and maybe contribute to the conversation.  You might even meet up with them in person and be able to game with them.  I can see from the blogs I read that’s happened to several of them already in different parts of the world.  If I find myself in Chicago or Toronto, for instance, with some free time, I know who I’m going to try to look up and sit in on a game with.  And that’s because I’ve found them through their interest in Old School play, even though that’s not necessarily their exclusive interest, and it’s certainly not mine.

If there’s any windmill more hopeless to tilt at than “Someone is wrong on the Internet!”, it’s “Someone is arguing on the Internet!”

But Oh, If we call the whole thing off,
Then we must part
And Oh, If we part it would break my heart…

Monsters I Have Loved

Following the lead of Monsters and Manuals: Top 10 Monsters, here are my Top Ten D&D Monsters, in no particular order:

  1. Gelatinous Cube:  I love these guys.  They’re creepy as all get-out, particularly when they’ve got a partially digested skeleton or something suspended in them, they’re not so dangerous as to be unfair and they’re the perfect accoutrement for that oubliette….
  2. Purple Worm:  It’s a worm big enough to swallow you whole.  It can come at you through the dungeon wall. And it’s purple.  What’s not to love?
  3. Umber Hulk: I just like the look of them, back in AD&D 1e.  Mandibles are scary.  The 3rd edition version just looks like a bug missing some legs. I can take or leave the Confusing gaze.
  4. Cockatrice: Stoning is an awesome ability, but I’m not a huge fan of gaze weapons, so I like this guy better than the basilisk.  Did I ever tell you about the time I used Telekinesis to hurl a black pudding at a cockatrice?
  5. Troll:  One troll on the wall, on the wall, one troll on the wall,
    if one of those trolls should happen to fall, Two trolls on the wall on the wall….
  6. Green Slime: it’s a horrible way to go, and a really useful weapon against other monsters.
  7. Golem: they come in a wide variety, and they can stand there century after century waiting to bash in the head of the next adventurer to come through the door.
  8. Liche:  I never actually used these that often, but the fear of them was so strong that I once had an orc with a couple of faintly glowing gems held in front of its eyes bluff a party into retreating by advancing on them from the down the dark corridor.  For the rest of the campaign, players would tease each other by making a holding gems in front of their eyes gesture and saying “Run away! Run away!  I’m a liche!”
  9. Balrog: for some reason Balrogs, and not dragons, were the ultimate bad-ass monster in D&D to me.
  10. Dinosaurs: Breathes there the man with soul so dead
    Who never to himself hath said,
    “I’m fighting a dinosaur! With a Sword! Coooooool!”

What is Role-playing?

The Fine Art of the TPK asks
A short question, but by no means easy…

Instead, I have a question. An open call, if you will. Can somebody PLEASE define role-playing? Somebody will be a wise-ass and link the wiki stub, so I’ll just get it out of the way.


Specifically, I’d like to know how or why one game would have it in any more or less abundance than any other. You folks are incredibly bright, but you bicker over minor details WAAAAAAAAY too much.

Role-playing is playing a role. It is the player getting to make in-character decisions, and making those decisions for the character as if the character’s motivations, personality, goals, and such make a difference, so the character is being driven by their inner mental life. For instance, in role-playing, you try to maintain a distinction between what the player knows and what the character knows. (That’s not completely dispositive, since some hard-core wargames with fog-of-war rules also try to impose that distinction–though most of the time they will try to conceal certain knowledge from the player, such as by having chits upside-down until revealed, rather than asking the player to simply act as if he didn’t know what was there.)

It can be done from various stances, such as trying to imagine what it might be like to be that character, or by trying to construct a story so that the character seems psychologically plausible the way characters in good (or even not-so-good) fiction are.  The goal is to make it so that explanations of the character’s actions refer to the character’s role, and involve things like knowledge, beliefs, and desires, and to avoid making it so that the actions can only be explained by referring to things outside the role such as the actions of certain rules (“My character hates to see animals abused and goes berserk, so I held my action until the evil guy kicked the puppy because I wanted to trigger his Rage ability for the upcoming fight”)  or meta-game situations (“Carla has to leave in 20 minutes, so I attack the guy with the flag of truce.  We might as well get one combat in this session”).  Even worse is when rules or meta-game considerations prompt actions that are contrary to the role:  “My saintly pacifist attacks, because we might as well get one combat in this session.”

From this point of view, it’s obvious that some games are better or worse for role-playing. Despite the fact that you are assigned identities in Clue, it’s not a role-playing game. It doesn’t matter for game-play whether you’re Colonel Mustard or Miss Scarlet, and you would be considered strange or playing a prank if you insisted on trying to play it as if Colonel Mustard and the other characters had a distinct personality and approach. “Col. M wouldn’t think that Miss Scarlet was capable of the murder, because he’s a chauvinist, and a rope is not a woman’s weapon.” Even if the other players humored you and let you play that way (or you concealed the reasons for your decisions), the game doesn’t support role-playing and you’d be at a distinct disadvantage compared to playing it as intended, where the piece is just a token to push around the board.

Games that are intended as role-playing games can have features that aid or hinder players in making in-character decisions. In some cases, they might even make it impossible to make in-character decisions for certain situations; if those situations come up frequently in the game, the game is objectively worse for role-playing than the same game without those features.  For instance, games with lots of coercive personality mechanics can be hell on role-playing.  Even though they’re often built so that you can make a narrative that sounds as if it’s talking about mental state, the actual facts are it’s a narrative about game state that’s out of the player’s hands.  The character did what he did because the rules and dice said he had to, not because the player played it that way.  “I say my character is brave, the stats on his character sheet say he should be brave, but every combat we’ve had so far the unlucky die rolls say that he’s run away.”  Or, in My Life With Master, you’re not making character decisions, you’re rolling to see what the character decides and narrating around that.  The game rules reach in and flip the character’s mental state, and the player carries it out.

Games can also make it difficult to role-play by putting too much knowledge or narrative power in the player’s hands.  Just as it can be a lot to ask of a war-gamer that he move his units as if he couldn’t plainly see that cavalry screened by the woods, ready to charge his flank, it can be a lot to ask of a role-player to separate what the character would want to have happen from what would make the most sense in the game world, or what would make the most interesting story in retrospect.

Games can also fall down by making the player have to care about things that the character cannot in principle know.  I’ve gone on at length before about how 4e’s Skill Challenge system falls into this category, so I won’t repeat it here.

Are there things that games can do to actually enhance role-playing, and make it easier?  Sure.  The very fact that games can be separated into role-playing games and non-roleplaying games shows that there are.  The major thing is to make it as much as possible so that character reasoning and game-rule reasoning are congruent, and that the game is responsive to logical actions of the characters. The biggest thing that RPGs can do to emphasize the RP part is get out of the way.  Every time you tell the players that even though it would make sense for the characters to try X, they can’t because there’s no rule for it, you kill role-playing a little.  Every time you invoke a rule that changes the state of the game world in a way the characters can see and react to, but you can’t actually explain what it was that they saw happen (Own the Battlefield, I’m looking at you!) you kill role-playing a little.  If it’s not possible to eliminate some arbitrary construct in the rules, it can often at least be made real in the game-world so that the characters can think about it.  E.g. if there are things in the game that depend on level, such as spells that won’t effect people of certain level, or have a duration based on level, it can be a big help to role-playing to have level be something that the characters can know and talk about.  Russell does this in his Hero Cults D&D setting, where levels are actual ranks in a quasi-religious hierarchy.  The rules should emphasize giving information at the character level, and explicable in terms of things the characters understand, and game-play should emphasize overriding the rules whenever they give a result that forces the players out of playing the role and just into accepting that’s how things are because the rules say so.

Power Creep…and Things You Can Do About It

One problem some campaigns run into is Power Creep.  Whatever the power-level the PCs started out at, they have gained in capabilities until not only are the opponents they originally faced beneath them, but opponents that would challenge them strain the verisimilitude of the setting.  This dilemma is practically designed into D&D, but it can occur in nearly any system and setting…even ones that don’t allow PCs to personally advance in abilities or do so at a tiny rate will almost always allow PCs to advance in political and social power through their connections and influence on NPCs that they’ve befriended and aided over the course of the campaign.

Often the game is supposed to transform at that point.  In D&D, for instance, once the characters reached a certain level, it was expected that they would build a stronghold of an appropriate type for their class, and the game would then focus on them dealing with ruling and expanding their lands.  Even if there isn’t a set of explicit rules for it, the PCs may find that through roleplay they’ve climbed to the top of their hierarchy, and they’re now in charge.

Their personal level of power matters a whole lot less, and the problems that they face are a whole lot bigger and more diffuse.  But for a lot of players, that’s not what they signed on for.  Becoming the head of the thieves guild, or ruler of the kingdom, or whatever, was a good long-distance goal, but they what they want to play is a game where they’re James Bond, not a game where they’re M…  the fact that they could actually make progress towards the goal and eventually reach it was much appreciated as it was occurring–a distant goal that never gets closer is usually either forgotten or becomes frustrating–but actually playing it out isn’t of interest to them as an ongoing concern.

One approach is, of course, to retire that character and start with a new one.  That can actually be pretty neat, and can provide a lot of depth to the setting as you revisit it with a new character’s eyes.  But players might not be satisfied with starting over, particularly if the climb has been long and arduous.  They can feel like now that they’ve arrived, they should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Another approach is to increase the scope of the campaign. If they’re not interested in politics and being in charge, and want to keep things on the level of personal adventure, many settings are ripe for out-of-setting travel once you reach Epic levels.   Whether it’s extra-planar travel in D&D, or finally getting a working starship and getting off the backwater world you’ve been adventuring on,  you have a potentially limitless source of ever-increasing potential danger levels there, without ever having verisimilitude problems with those levels of power in the original setting.  Even in a more down-to-Earth setting, you can go from city-bound shamus to globe-trotting detective…if the players are willing to adapt to a slight shift in tone.

Otherwise, you can start to provide players with strategic instead of tactical challenges. Even if it’s a given that they can win any individual battle, there’s nothing at all bizarre or contrived with the notion that there may be multiple places where they want to intervene but they can’t be everywhere at once. Unless you’ve given them access to time-manipulation, time is a resource that constrains everyone.  In D&D or such a fantasy setting, the smaller estimates of the size of medieval battles would be 20,000 men on a side…on the high side it might be 70 to 120 thousand or more. Even if they can kill 100 hobgoblins without breaking a sweat, even if they could eventually take on the whole army, that’s more than enough opposition to justify them needing to be in two, three, dozens of places at once if they want to protect everything that’s important to them. In modern or futuristic settings, it’s even easier to justify them being opposed by organizations that have enough manpower and resources that simply winning every melee or firefight can never be sufficient.

The point isn’t to beat them up and take away everything they hold dear, but to force them to make choices and be clever about deploying their power to accomplish their strategic goals and not just think in terms of winning each skirmish they get involved in. Strategic goals don’t have to mean military ones, just that’s an easy example. What do the characters want to accomplish? What do they want to protect? Make them think about that instead of just defeating the monsters and mooks in front of them, and I think it would immediately become clear that they don’t have nearly enough power to make that trivial.  Not even Superman can be everywhere at once, so even in, or especially in, a super-hero game the GM isn’t stuck with ramping up the power of the bad-guys and piling on the world-shattering threats until the players wonder how there are any civilians left.

You can also introduce things that can’t be solved by combat or a couple of quick spells. Suppose you’re playing D&D and a plague or famine hits the kingdom…not one caused by a bad-guy who can be defeated, just a natural disaster. There’s not a lot that even a 5th or 6th level spell can do about that directly. Even a 14th Level Cleric can only create food for 96 people per casting of Create Food, 3 times a day…. The players would really have to think about whether there’s a way to use their great power to accomplish something, perhaps by bringing in food from elsewhere, or helping people emigrate. I think it’s helpful for this sort of thing not to have a solution in mind, so it doesn’t become a game of guess the GM’s clever way out. Pose a problem out of the myriad that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time, and if they can come up with a reasonable solution, or at least a way of mitigating it, great! If not, ah, well, hard luck, but it’ll eventually resolve itself one way or another…even if that means mass death or migration, and that can be a springboard for future problems.

Now, not all players are going to like that, and some will down-right hate it. If that’s the case for your players, then I think opening the scope by providing a bigger pond for them to play in such as by planar travel is really the way to go.

One last piece of advice is that you probably shouldn’t try to deal with Power Creep by stripping the PCs of power without discussing it with the players first, no matter how well-justified the take-away is by the setting and system.  Hitting your D&D PCs with a bunch of level draining Vampires, or having their home base destroyed by some arch-rival while they were off on an expedition, even if it returns the game to the “sweet spot” of power levels where all the players were having fun, is the kind of thing that can end campaigns.  If you think that the PCs are too powerful for the setting and you want to depower them a bit or a lot, perhaps because you didn’t realize what a campaign changer it would be when you let them get the McGuffin of Magnificence or they hit a high enough level to cast that spell, ask them what they think.  Do they want to change the nature of the campaign, just the scope, retire the characters with a “job well done”, or will they go for a great dramatic reversal of fortune?  Only your players know what will please them best.