Archive for June, 2009

Emergent Plot

The “plot” of an event is much more than the story run by the directors and supporting cast. There are stories that emerge from character personalities playing off one another. You cannot write these stories, by their nature they emerge spontaneously from gameplay. You can, however, write scenarios which reward cooperation, competition, creativity, ingenuity, and initiative. This is the  perfect backdrop for players to showcase their character concepts.

Here is one method to encourage emergent plot: create a resource that players will compete over to accomplish their goals.

Eyes on the Prize

Allow the players to choose their own goals. They should have a number of options. Participation in the plotline gives them clear steps they can take towards accomplishing those goals.

The Macguffin

The plot should involve a resource that many people could use to accomplish their goals. This could be an item of power, access to a learned sage, command of a military force, the favor of a foreign ambassador, or ownership of a famous shield. Maybe if they succeed at the challenge, the players may choose their reward, negotiating it with an NPC. In any case, everybody wants it!

Competition

Players will be competing along a common axis. If they are competing over a scarce resource, working towards one goal may prevent other players from achieving their goals. This creates inter-player tension, strengthening the importance of in-game friendships and rivalries.


Examples

  • A local lord is concerned with the goblin population feeding on his crops. He has offered a reward for whoever brings him the most goblin ears. The champion goblin slayer will be given a forge or laboratory of his choice.
  • There is a shrine in the woods which is a focal point for the balance between order and chaos. When meditating there, you can sacrifice an elemental component or an elemental gemstone (a treasure that can be found throughout the adventure weekend) to slightly shift the balance. This changes the power level of certain creatures over the weekend and influences the behaviors of certain NPCs.
  • A number of merchants come to town, each one representing a different cause or faction. Some are friends and some are rivals. They are taking donations for their cause, and specifically looking for certain items owned by other merchants, which can be bought and sold by players. Whichever faction has made the most money by the end of the weekend will become more powerful within the season plot. Factions may promise boons and favors in reward for help with their collections.
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Module: Rope Trick

This is a LARP module written around a basic challenge – players must hold onto a rope while moving the woods collecting glowsticks.

This scenario could be used as a challenge when visiting any hostile plane. In this example, we’ll be talking about a trip to Dreaming, but you can adapt it to any plane.

The final encounter of the module is up to you – you’ll fill it in with something relevant to your plotline.

For some reason, the PCs are visiting Dream. Perhaps they need to speak with someone in the dreaming, or get information from someone who cannot wake up and forever wanders dream country.

If you don’t like  reading module writeups, stop here!

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Physical Challenge: Jumping Stones

Here’s an old module gimmick with some new twists.

Jumping Stones – there are certain parts of the floor that players can step on, and certain parts that they shouldn’t. Mark off the edge of the “safe” stones using rope or chalk. To create reusable props, you can cut cardboard, doormat, or lenolium tiles into shape and then place them wherever you’d like. Most stones should be about as large as a shield, but make stones of various size. Some might fit two or three characters, others that can only fit one foot as you skip to another stone.

Players often face opponents while navigating the jumping stones. The creatures which prefer this kind of environment are not effected by the floor, such as bats, noncorporeal undead, or creatures who are immune to the damage type. If the monsters can step anywhere on the floor, be careful of giving them ranged attacks or two handed weapons. Players ability to defend themselves from ranged attacks decreases as their mobility decreases.

Treasure can be hidden in an out-of-reach spot which requires you to step off the stones.

The penalty for falling off a stone or missing a stone should be enough to discourage players from taking a step through it. Here are some ideas for jumping stone rooms:

  • Lavastone – The floor is directly above a lava flow and is steaming hot. If you touch it, you take elemental flame damage equal to the party’s average level. The monsters are immune to fire.
  • Iceflow – The floor is covered in water from the plane of ice. If you touch it, you’ll be instantly stuck as if by a paste of stickiness. A release spell or any flame damage will unfreeze the character.
  • Blightmarsh – The floor is a wet marsh, corrupted by necromancy. If you touch the floor, that limb will be withered. If your torso touches the floor, your blood is tainted. In one corner of the room there is some boonblossom growing (use some plants as a prop). If you can make it to the boonblossom and spend 10 seconds smelling its fragrant air, you will be cured of all necromantic effects. On the other side of the room is a chest that can only be opened if you have no necromantic effects on you. Monsters make liberal use of necromancy. If the players don’t want to use up their spells, they will have to move back and forth across the room to cure their effects.
  • Rapids – the floor represents a rushing river. (For something this dramatic, use sound effects!) The players are fighting their way upstream. If a player falls into the river, he takes damage equal to the party’s average level and must go back to the large stone the players started on.
  • Long Distance Stones – the stones are far apart, but can accomodate several players per stone. The group has two planks they can use to create temporary bridges. There might be a rope hanging from the ceiling they can use to swing across a hard spot.
  • Searching Stones – Some stones have treasure hidden under them. When standing atop a stone, you can spend one minute searching the floor. At the end of this time, you’re allowed to step off the stone briefly to grab any treasure under it. During this challenge, monsters are constantly attacking. Players will have to divide up their party between searching and defending in order to find a key item.
  • Spell Stones – in certain rooms, players might be able to create temporary stones by casting a spell of the opposite element into the floor. The spell packet itself becomes a spot you can step on safely, but only once. For example, a spellcaster can create a safe spot in an iceflow room by throwing a flamebolt at the ground. The spell packet will support one person stepping on it before the area is frozen again. Players might need to use this technique to access something on the far side of the room.
  • Turtle Stone – a hula hoop, “pop circle” or other ring can be slowly dragged across the floor using string. It will stop moving once someone stands on it. Players might have to skip across it in order to access certain parts of the room. They may be able to hit it with a spell to stop it from moving.
  • Color Stones – the room has many jumping stones in it, represented by blue, red, or green paper plates. Players have six colored gems to divide between their party. They may only safely step on the plate if they are holding the gem of that color. Certain regions of the room will only be accessable by certain colors. Players can trade gems during the adventure.
  • Toss the Stones – the room has no jumping stones in it. On one side, the players have a quarry of stones which they can toss onto the floor to create a path across the floor. Players must carry the stones with both hands and can’t toss them more than a foot or two past the previous stone. Once a stone is placed, it is stuck to that spot and cannot be removed.

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The Cast: Recurring NPCs

Recurring NPCs, (sometimes called “Town NPCs” because they are characters who hang out with the adventurers in “town”) are a way of keeping your players in touch with your chapter or event story. Each chapter or event should have several NPCs which serve as the focal point for the plot. This is not to say that the focus IS these characters, but rather that the focus on the players comes through these cast members.

These plot controlled characters, or Cast,  can serve your plotlines in many useful ways.

Designing a Cast

In the absence of visible plot, your chapter’s theme and atmosphere will be carried through these recurring NPCs. Think hard about who you’d meet if you hung out in your game world. Who are the people who would get you involved in the action?

The cast will serve as the hooks and foils for much of the chapter’s plot, so they need to be versatile enough to get involved in different plotlines. Create NPCs who seem both relevant to this year’s storylines and relevant to the character’s general motivations. If your chapter runs a war plotline, consider an NPC who is a high ranking officer in the army. If there’s a lot of ancient magic in your plot, the mage’s guild master might end up playing a critical role.

In some ways, your cast members represent what is relevant about your chapter’s plot. They can stand-in for entire groups or factions – for example there might be a city of Sarr nearby, but there’s one matriarch who comes to town and represents the group.

Even the bad guys can have cast members. There’s a lot of intrigue and drama possible if there’s a questionable character in town you can spy on, assissinate, or make deals with. It also makes the conflict with the villain very present, local, in-your-face. You’ll have to come up with a way for the villains’ lackeys to walk around in town without getting jumped by every do-gooder with a sword. Perahps the character is an ambassador, a slave who can escape now and then, or a turncoat.

Cast members should have big, memorable personalities. Take the time to design interesting characters who are fun to interact with. In addition to a character history, hobbies, pet peeves, habits, and neuroses are great ways to bring a character to life.

How to Use a Cast

Because Cast members are relatively accessable, they should try to develop personal relationships with most of the players. This gives you an excuse to hook nearly any group with nearly any cast member. Since cast members often represent some element of the game’s theme, plot, or atmosphere, it gives players a personal way to relate to those concepts. For example, if your season plotline is about a war against Orcs, having a soldier or orc that the players can talk to gives them a backdrop to react to the story even if they’re not directly involved in the plot.

Cast members need to be able to spout information about the setting. They are the player’s proxy for the citizens in our imagined game world. For example, the players may want to know if their spell worked and the crops stopped dying. Due to the way LARPs operate, they probably can’t just visit a farm and take a look. But they can talk to one of the local cast members, who likely knows a thing or two about the local conditions.

The Cast member’s role in the story need not be cut-and-dry. These characters can be more intersting if they’re complex. Maybe their allegiances shift over time, or they have certain topics about which they are untrustworthy. You should seldom be able to peg a cast member as a “good guy” or “bad guy”… they often have internal conflicts and gray-area motivations just like any player character.

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Called Defenses and Effect Timing Resolution

When exactly does an incoming attack take effect? How much time should a player fairly be given to call out his defenses? Specifically, if a spell caster is struck by a packet attack while in the middle of his spell incantation, should he have to immediately stop his spell to call a defense?

There are a few operative rules here to consider.

First, if the target doesn’t hear you, technically by the rules he doesn’t have to take the damage or effect at all. So going by that statement, all those flurries of, “Hold! Ok, did you get my 37 imprisons, 18 dragon’s breaths, and this guy’s 4 assassinates?” shouldn’t be done. If he didn’t act out the effect of the spell, then he didn’t hear you, he shouldn’t take the effect, and you should take your spells/items back. 

But we all know the game simply doesn’t work that way. Everyone is just trying to play fair here, so when a hold is called by someone else for whatever reason, we run down a quick check of all the attacks we think the target may not have heard to give them a chance to respond. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem lies in the fact that if the target had heard the effect and used a defensive ability, the call for that defense would use up real time. This is a critical dynamic of the game. It takes a discrete amount of time to state the call for an attack, and likewise for a defense call. Monster abilities and gasses consume much less real time to use than spells – that’s one of their primary advantages. Allowing the monsters to call out dozens of defenses during a hold makes them so much more dangerous, because they can continue to blast you with their extremely quick packet attacks or weapon strike abilities without stopping to say “return” or “phase.” Similarly, the verbal calls for cloak and bane were extended for exactly that reason – to increase the real time it takes to use the defense. Individual PCs go down extremely fast to status effects, so it’s absolutely essential that the players be able to interrupt the boss’ stream of attacks by forcing them to call defenses.

That’s also why the “2 second rule” is so important. If you’re hit with an effect while in the middle of a spell incant, you can finish the spell, but you must immediately call a defense before starting any other attack or skill. If you wait too long, you’re supposed to take the damage or effect, even if you had a “dumb” defense ready (like shield magic) or an appropriate cloak. Timing is critical, and those precious seconds when your opponent is essentially stunned because he must call out a defense make the difference between a win and a fail. 

The simple answer is, you have 2 seconds to call out a defense when hit with an attack. Unless you have a speech impediment or are purposefully casting slowly, you would always be able to finish your spell before calling a cloak, without disrupting the casting. Calling it beyond those 2 seconds, especially during a hold, shouldn’t be done. If you honestly didn’t hear it, and the PCs tell you what you got hit with during a hold, I’d say you should still be able to use your defensive abilities after the lay-on is called.

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Create Undead PSA

The following public service announcement is brought to you by the necromancers of Nero International.

Here’s a summary I wrote for the Create Undead spell a year or two ago:

  • Body Points equal to ½ the value listed on your Character Sheet
  • Melee Damage equal to the base damage of the weapon itself. This includes the additional damage from a Damage Aura on a magical weapon, but not any ProficienciesSuperhuman StrengthStrong Arm, or any other skills or abilities.
  • Lesser Undead creature type: You are affected by the Control UndeadFree UndeadHarm UndeadHelp UndeadTrap UndeadTurn Undead and Sanctuary spells, as well as the Voice Control Lesser Undead monster ability. Your weapon damage is not absorbed by the Desecrate spell. You are completely destroyed by the Destroy Undead spell regardless of your Body Point total. You are healed by Cause spells, damaged by Cure spells, and take double damage from the Healing damage type. Being undead is a visible effect and should be stated as such if you are asked for your description.
  • Immunity to: all alchemical substances, all Poison attacks, Waylay, Calm, Cause Disease, CharmDeathLifeParalyzeShun, SleepTaint Blood, and Wither Limb.
  • Mindless: You are a mindless berserker. When the spell takes effect you must immediately stand up and attack the nearest living creature (except the caster) with your weapons. Generally you will “zone in” on the nearest target you see and relentlessly attack that character without concern for defense or tactical fighting. You will follow the target into a crowd unless other characters completely block your way, in which case you will re-orient to the nearest target. You will continue to fight until destroyed or ordered to stop by the caster. You may not use any game skills or abilities whatsoever, only melee combat. Finally, you will not remember anything that happened while undead.
  • Controlled: You must obey the commands of the caster to the best of your ability, taking into account the fact that you are now mindless. For examples of commands that you can and can not understand, see the Control Undead spell.
  • Death Count: When affected by this spell, continue to count down your five-minute Death Count. If you are reduced to zero Body Points or otherwise destroyed before your Death Count is finished, you fall down dead with your Death Count continuing and may be given a Life spell as normal. Additionally, you may only be affected by this spell once for each time you enter your Death Count. Once Created and then destroyed, you are immune to further castings of the spell until you are given a Life spell and then killed again. If you are destroyed after your Death Count has finished, or if the spell’s one hour duration expires, your body immediately dissipates and you can seek resurrection

Here’s what you WON’T do:

  • Yell “I’m a zombie!” at the top of your lungs. This is cheating.
  • Loudly groan, moan, or otherwise yell anything. The spell does not instruct you to make loud noises. This is cheating.
  • Yell, “Visibly undead,”, “You see an undead,” or, “You see a zombie!” Players should only indicate visible effects if ASKED for them. This is cheating.
  • Throw your weapons out to your sides and make no attempt to fight. “Mindless berserker” does not equal gimpy, defenseless lump. The spell does not say you can fight poorly on purpose, or refuse to block.

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Character Histories and Profiles

Ok, I know that I’m probably not making any friends by saying this, but I HATE character histories. Before you jump up and start raving about how character histories are what give PCs depth and how they’re the coolest element of the game and all that, allow me to explain. You see, not excepting myself at all, any character history is, at best, mediocre fanfic. And fanfic, by definition, is awful. Not only is it usually painful to read, but often times it is nearly impossible to distill specific plot points from them that can easily be incorporated into an event.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post – character profiles. This is the information that plot writers and event directors actually want. No fluff about how the springtime zephyrs blew lazily through the scenic bows of the Quentari forest – just cold, hard facts describing things that can feasibly come on-stage at an event. There are numerous variations on what exactly should go into a profile, but the template below covers most of the bases.

So without further adue, here is my character profile template:

Character Profile

Player Name: Who are you???

Character Name: duh

Birthplace/Home Region: Everybody has to come from somewhere! This field can include your character’s original homeland as well as other places he might’ve lived throughout his pre-adventuring life.

Current Homeland: Where does your character live every Monday-Thursday?

Race: Include any “sub-race” variants or specific cultures in this field.

Age: List your character’s actual age, along with an estimate of the equivalent in “human years”

Mentor: Almost nobody is completely self-taught. Most characters had one or more teachers train them in the ways of swordsmanship, stealth, arcane arts or whatever. Who taught your character, where are they now and what are they doing currently? It’s ok to write in what your mentor(s) are doing even if your character doesn’t actually know. If it’s an established NPC that has already come into game and you really DON’T know, that’s fine too.

Friend: No man is an island. Everyone has someone that would help them out if they were in trouble, or who they would drop everything to aid if called upon to do so.

Rival: Most people grew up with peers in the same field of study as them, who they competed with and may have some animosity towards. These characters aren’t necessarily “out to get you,” but you might cross the street if you saw them walking down the sidewalk in your direction.

Enemy: The classic arch-villain. For whatever reason, this character is actively trying to kill, maim, rob or discredit you. Briefly describe how you first encountered this person, why you’re enemies with him, and how you think they plan to get you.

Allied Groups/Factions: Tyrra is overflowing with interesting groups, guilds, knightly orders, racial subcultures and other factions. Which of these has your character specifically encountered and decided to ally with? Why does your character prefer these groups over others?

Rival Groups/Factions: Same as above, except that these groups work in the same circles as your character and compete with you.

Enemy Groups/Factions: Peoples whats yous hate.

Secret: Every interesting, memorable character has had some experience that they don’t want other people to know about. Even the most shiningly righteous knight must have done something he’s not proud of – it doesn’t make him a bad person by default, and actually drives him towards greater altruism and chivalry to prove to himself that he has risen above this sordid event.

Goal: Why do you risk life and limb once a month by going to these bizarre carnivals of death and mayhem we call “Adventurers’ Gatherings?” What are you working towards? And no, “being a famous adventurer” doesn’t cut it. Think a little deeper than that, please.

Obstacles: Why haven’t you achieved the above-mentioned goal already? What is holding you back? Again, if you have a cool idea for something you want your character to work through but the character himself doesn’t actually know about it ahead of time, that’s perfectly acceptable. Just note that in the entry.

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