Saturday, December 31, 2011

Real Geomorphs: Voronja Caves

The Voronja Caves are the deepest caves in the world. Located in the Caucasus mountains it's the only known cave in the world that's deeper than 2000 meters.

The caves are spectacular.

If you need an actual map or geomorph you might as well use one of the actual cave system. If you don't want yours to go down, flip it 180 degrees. Don't want it that long? Add loops and caverns and other exits.

And for those interested a National Geographic feature on the expedition that pushed the known depth of the cave to 2,000 meters.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Game Reviews: Gentleman's Entomology Club

The Gentleman's Entomology Club is a role playing game written by Michael Sands for 2005's Game Chef competition. The game has this to say about itself:

"The Gentlemen’s Entomology Club is a roleplaying game of wine-drinking, boasting, beetles and some incidental rationalist philosophy. You take the role of an aging eighteenth century entomologist attempting to impress his peers with tales of adventures seeking bizarre insects in far-flung corners of the world. Your objective is to tell the most diverting stories of the evening."

This is one of those games that caught my eye one day. The title was intriguing, the fact that it's free sealed the deal. After downloading and reading it I have to say that I think this could be loads of fun to play if you had the right group. 

The idea behind Gentleman's is that you are a member of an exclusive club somewhere in Western Europe during the Enlightenment. During your younger years you were quite the adventurer, and now you meet with some of your peers to reminisce about the old days while drinking a fine alcoholic beverage and slipping in some observations about the nature of man. 

Gentleman's uses plain old d6s as the driving mechanic. There are no character sheets. A deck of cards is provided with the game. This deck will drive the mechanics of the game. 

The first step in playing the game is to decide on the nature of the club, the location, the time, and the city. For example the club might meet in a private room of a local private "members only" club, or it might meet in the billiards room of one of it's members.

Character creation simply involves each player determining the age of the player, a few locations he's traveled to, and some insects he may have captured or purchased. As per the conventions of the era, the characters are almost always men.

Game Play
Game play is driven by use of the special deck of cards. The cards are prompts for the stories, containing various insects, modifiers, and themes. Whoever plays the insect card is the Storyteller, while the players who put down the modifier and theme cards play different roles. For example, the cards played might be "butterfly", "farmer", and "Machines can tame Nature". 

The Storyteller begins his tale with the statement "I remember the time" and then tells the story about the rare butterfly or crazy adventure he had. The player signifies the end of the story by saying "And that's how I got the "modifier" "insect". 

During the storytelling, the Skeptic can add a difficulty "I seem to recall that you ran across a difficulty" At this point the narration stops, the Skeptic introduces the difficulty and they roll a d6 each, with the highest score "winning" and being able to narrate the conclusion of that difficulty.

At some point it's possible that the storyteller may be telling an out and out lie, at which point the Skeptic can say "Sir, that can not be true" and then narrates what really happened, making sure that the details are as embarassing as possible. The narrator can rebut with his version. The person playing the Companion can accept either version, or tell what both are trying to hide.

There's more to the storytelling of it than that, but I can't put it all here or there would be no point in getting the pdf. 

--I think that this could be loads of fun if played with the right group.
--This seems very much to me to be more improv than rpg, though in a certain sense you could argue that all improv is role playing
--I think the use of props could greatly increase the fun of this. Top hats, monocles, canes, etc.  all add to the spirit of the game.
-- same with the setting of wherever you're playing. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Being a Better GM part 3: NPCs

Creating effective and interesting non player characters can be a difficult challenge for some people. Here are a few tips and tricks that I've learned over the years.

Remember that what drives your player's characters also drives your NPCs. The prime motivators for people are wealth, power, and other people.

--npcs want to be rich too. If the party hears about a dungeon with rooms full of treasure, chances are that there are others who have heard this as well. This could set the scene for a rival adventuring party becoming a major protagonist for the long term.

--power. If it's not money, it's power. Power can come in many ways, depending on your setting. Perhaps it's simply being wealthy and visible with your wealth. That's a fleeting sort of power though, and one that you have to work hard at to keep. There are other kinds of power too. There's power of position--maybe an npc wants the party to help her gain a position of power in an organization and promises favors and friendship. Maybe the party stopped someone from getting the position of power they wanted, and have earned that person's emnity. There's also the power of knowledge, specifically the knowledge of secrets.

--people. NPCs have relationships with other NPCs (shocking isn't it?). My very first post explained a great way for generating a depth of relationships for your NPCs. Now it's time to use those relationships to your advantage. Hatred, love, envy, jealousy, respect, fear, etc. are emotions that everybody feels, whether they're a member of the party or not. Having a protagonist being driven by an emotion instead of a pursuit of wealth or power can be a very effective way of disarming your players and leaving them vulnerable.

Affecting the people that an NPC cares about can be a great way to develop depth in them as well. Threaten a family member and you've got an NPC who's motivated and hard to resist.

Some other motivations for NPCs. A simple misunderstanding between a member of the party and an NPC that might result in lots of conflict. Another method that I really like to use is having antagonists who aren't evil in any way, but who have goals that are opposite of the party.

Additional Thoughts
--Very few people in the world are truly evil straight through. Almost every person likes to think that their actions are justified. Use this to help add depth to your NPC's actions.

--Just like one dimensional player characters are boring so are one dimensional villains.

--duped or enslaved minions can make great contacts for the party.

--As a personal preference when describing NPCs I try to avoid getting too detailed. I try to focus one one thing that will make them memorable, because the players most likely won't remember any of the rest anyway.  Whether it's a distinct physical feature (nose broken in a fight and never healed properly), a physical quirk (he shifts his eyes nervously when talking to authority figures), etc. I find that this sort of description is easiest on me as a GM, and generally more effective in helping players remember characters.

Finally, remember that NPCs aren't stuck in time and activated only when the party comes by. They have their own plans and goals and desires. Things happen in the town, plans proceed, people get older, etc. This will probably be worth a post on it's own but it's something to remember about creating NPCs. Figure out what it is that they want and then have them work towards that. Doing so will help provide natural plot elements for your game.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Real Geomorphs: Blue Cave, WV

What's the saying "The truth is stranger than fiction?" I often find that using real life as gaming inspiration is the most fruitful, because the vast majority of the work is already done. I just have to file of the numbers and repaint it.

In that spirit I present to you some geomorphs for your next adventuring session.

The Organ-Hendricks Cave System is one of the largest in the state of West Virginia. Giant ground sloths, sabre-tooth cats, grizzly bears and all other sorts of bones have been found in the cave to add flair and adventure to the trip. 

Here are two different geomorphs of the caves, sourced from the Flickr account of G.S. Springer.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Sampler, December 18th 2011

Over on G+ I'll occasionally post pictures or stories or phrases that spark my imagination. Basically anything that I think might make good game fodder for a GM (or alternatively good story fodder for a writer). When I post them to G+ I'll prompt discussion by asking questions about the items. The thing is, I don't post everything I find. In fact, I probably post less than 1/4th of what I find to be interesting (and now with the new work schedule it's even less).

Every Sunday one of the things I'm going to do is use this blog as a place to share those things that I find cool or interesting or weird.

Jewel Encrusted Skeleton

The treasure is there, but you have to defeat the skeleton lord first.

(Found via fustians)

Ghelston, City of Wanderers
I love the idea of a nomadic people who suddenly decide to stop travelling but keep most of the customs, style, housing, etc. of their nomadic past.

(found via lawfulindifferent)

Haunted House

(found via the subreddit "Abandoned Porn")

Shelob's Cousin?
I always thought that Shelob preferred the dark and dank corners of the world. Maybe this is her cousin?

Fairytale Land

Very creepy forest. All the worst fairy tale creatures probably live down that road.

High Fantasy Intrigues

I think this hall is a perfect location for your game that involves high level politics.

Monster from the depths?

I'm especially curious to know what kind of creature left that ooze behind as it slithered into the hole.

Fire Salamander

Sunday Stats, Week 2 (Dec 18, 2011)

Weekly statistical report for December 18, 2011

Previous Reports
Report 1--December 11, 2011

General Stuff
The first post on this blog was November 27, 2011 (Creating NPC's with depth). This will mark lucky post number 13. That's just over one every other day, which is at least the pace I'd like to maintain. As of this post I've had 711 page views, 194 more than last week. My all time most popular post continues to be my review and actual play of Hollowpoint.

Where in the world is Carmen San Diego?

The international scope of my visitors log continues to surprise me. The list of the top countries is the same, though there has been a bit of shakeup outside the top two.

United States
United Kingdom

The week's visitor log

United States
United Kingdom

Japan, France and Mexico are all new on the weekly list compared to last week.

Chrome is still the most popular blog, though it's losing ground to Firefox (38% to 32%). Windows and Mac both increased their dominance on the blog by 1% each (71% and 11% respectively).

What in the world are you thinking?
and the blue sky lit the deep--2
musings from a dungeon--2
"larry correia"--1
the captain of the guard--1
the captain of the guard i--1

The same search terms as last time, except for the addition of an extra "musings from the dungeon". I'm expecting that those who are entering that term into their search engine are looking for this blog since it's a rather unusual combination of words.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Urban Fantasy Anthology (edited by Peter Beagle)

Peter S. Beagle is probably best known for his book The Last Unicorn though I think my favorite novel of his is A Fine and Private Place. His work has a certain quality about it that makes it unique, so when I heard that he had edited a collection of urban fantasy short stories I was definitely intrigued by the notion.

The title of the collection is The Urban Fantasy Anthology, and is divided into three sections covering three broad sub-genres of urban fantasy.

There's the kind of urban fantasy that Peter Beagle wrote in A Fine and Private Place. Charles de Lint writes the same kind of thing as does Emma Bull, Terri Windling and many others. I've called this kind of urban fantasy "contemporary fantasy" because it might not be urban and it probably doesn't feature things like werewolves or vampires.

Then there's the paranormal urban fantasy. To paint in broad strokes this kind of fantasy is at least nominally noir in style and centers around a mystery that needs to be solved. Most of the heroes are women, with a few notable exceptions (chief among them Harry Dresden). They also tend to run towards long series.

Finally we have a category that's a bit harder to define and explain, but which I like to refer to as the New Weird (though I know that there are others who dislike that term). Authors like Chuck Wendig and Joe Landsdale write in this category. Tim Powers might be classified as New Weird, because his novels aren't "urban fantasy" in the sense that's been made popular, but they aren't really the same style as de Lint or Beagle either.

In this collection Beagle has stories from each of these types of fantasy. Since it's Beagle I tend to expect both a certain type of fantasy as well as a certain quality. The first expectation was shattered. The second wasn't.

The book is laid out by sub-genre, with an essay before each section and an overall introduction by Beagle. The introduction gives a brief history of the genre, and does a decent job of it. Charles de Lint provides an introduction for the contemporary fantasy section (which he calls 'mythic fiction'). Paula Guran writes an introduction to the paranormal fantasy section and Joe Landsdale writes an introduction to the "New Weird" section.

I was mostly disappointed in the introductions. I like de Lint's best of all because he actually gives some history of the sub-genre. In my opinion if you're going to be writing an introduction to a section in a short-story collection you should at least provide some sort of connection to the short stories in the collection. If you can't do that an interesting or new take on the genre would be great. By far the weakest portions of the book were the introductions.

Of the three sections I thought that the Paranormal section was the strongest. Some of the other sections had better stories, but I don't think there was a story in the paranormal section that I didn't like.

My notes are a bit jumbled from my reading but I did want to highlight some of the best stories from each section.

Mythic Fiction

Bird That Whistles--Emma Bull
What can keep a fey creature tied to one location except for excellently played music?

Make a Joyful Noise--Charles de Lint
Great little short story based on Native American mythology and centered around two raven sisters in the big city who try their hand at doing a good deed with their trickery.

Goldfish Pond and Other Stories--Neil Gaiman
A screenwriter goes to Hollywood to work on his script and learns about the history of the town.

Paranormal Fiction

Seeing Eye--Patricia Briggs
A blind witch needs to help a policeman find his werewolf brother.

Companions to the Moon--Charles de Lint
A woman thinks her husband is cheating on her and finds that it's not quite what she thought it was.

Hit--Bruce McAllister
A hit man is given a job by an angel (and by that he means a real live honest to God angel).

New Weird
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown--Holly Black
Some people try to get into Coldtown to become vampires. Some try to get out.

Talking Back to the Moon--Steven R. Boyett
In a post-apocalyptic landscape two odd companions wander.

The Bible Repairman--Tim Powers
He doesn't do that kind of job anymore, but he has extra incentive this time.

Overall I'd rate the book at 4 out of 5 stars. There are some big names in the urban fantasy field who have contributed stories, and almost all of them are worth reading.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Magic Item: Skod's Shield

One of the things that's always bugged me about fantasy games is the prevalence of magic and magic items. Magic should be rare and exciting. Picking up a +2 sword at the magic shop is boring. Finding a sword with a long history and a name is exciting.

I love the show Warehouse 13 for this reason. Yeah it's all about chasing down cool magic items, but the show never says "Look, there's this thing that turns people into zombies, go and get it." Rather they say "There's the artifact that's a mason jar recovered from the site of the infamous Donner party. It was used to store valuables through the winter. Now this taco wagon is using it as a tip jar and everybody who puts money in it gets turned into a zombie and will eventually freeze to death."

In other words there's a reason for the item to have unusual powers because of the history of the object. As such I give you a new magic object, Skod's Shield.

This was an interesting project for me to do. I started thinking about the history of this object and then found that trying to figure out what the powers would be was far more difficult than I thought it would be. It's easier to come up with the powers and then do the history, but I like doing it the other way around.

Oh, and I have to say that there were several conversations on Google Plus that were invaluable (as well as interesting) in helping me out with this

Skod winced as another sword slammed into his shield, sending shards of pain up his broken arm. He couldn't remember when the arm had been broken, it may have been when he braced himself against that last horse charge, but now it hurt like the fires of hell every time a blow landed on the shield. Glancing around he felt despair. 'There are too few of us to hold them off longer' he thought. 'We have to get the prince away!'

At that moment the object of his thoughts picked up a spear and threw it at the approaching hordes. 'What a king this one could've been' Skod thought with a smile. 'Only 11 and fighting alongside the shield wall like a man'. 

There were only 6 of them left now, out of the 27 that had set out to bring the prince to the summer castle. Then they'd been attacked by the men of the prince's uncle who had sworn vengeance on the royal family after being exiled for cowardice on the battle field.

'Should've just cut the bastard's head off' muttered Skod to himself. 'Then we wouldn't have this problem'. The bastard's men had attacked them on the road mere hours after the group had set out. The bastard kept getting reinforcements from somewhere, because Skod knew for a fact that his men had sold their lives dearly. 

"Fall back!" he roared. "Protect the prince and fall back!"

The group took another 6 or 7 paces back, setting up a defensive position in front of the bridge. Skod took a deep breath and then made the decision that he knew had to be made. Grabbing his second in command, Ulric, he whispered in his ear. Ulric paused, looked Skod in the eye and then nodded briefly. That was all that needed to be said.

"Come and get me you sons of whores! Today is a good day for me to die. Is it a good day for you to die!?!"

Behind him he could hear the rest of the men grabbing Prince Eric and bodily carrying him away, despite Eric's screams and demands to be put down. 

"What's the matter you cowards!?!" he bellowed again. "Are you afraid to meet me in the field of battle?"

Skold smiled contentedly ss the remainder of Leifr's men charged towards him.

Three days later a large party bearing the prince's sign of the One Tree set out from his mother's summer castle. Coming to the bridge where Skod had made his last defense they stopped and stood in awe. Skod was dead of many wounds, but he was surrounded by at least 20 dead men, and there were signs that another 10 men had been drug away. In one hand he held a shattered with blood on the jagged end and in the other was his shield. 

Skod's Shield
Skod's shield is named after the legendary fighter who sacrificed his life to save that of his prince. It's a simple shield, round with an iron cross bar and a metal dome in the middle. On the outside of the shield there is a large red stain that can not be removed, no matter how much cleaning is done. One of the metal cross bars is chipped away. There are splinters from the wood of the shield and chips around the edge.

Constant power: When in use the shield grants an automatic 20% bonus to all defensive abilities (convert appropriate numbers to the system you're using)

Minor power: When the bearer is down to 50% or less of their hit points, the shield will soak 1/3rd of the damage rolls of any successful attack.

Major power: Once per session the player may declare that a Shield Wall is now in affect. When that happens all of members of his party get a 20% bonus to their defense for 4 rounds. However, choosing to activate this power will stop the minor power. The Shield Wall is an act of great sacrifice and should feel like it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Effin Fairies

This will be a somewhat regular feature of this blog. At least once a week I'll be doing a review of something. It might be a tv show, movie, book, gaming supplement, core book or something else. This time it's gaming material.

Title: Gangworld: Effin Faires
System: d20 Generic
Author: Uri Kurlianchik
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
Format: pdf
Length: 5 pages 
Corebook/Supplement: Supplement
Price: $.99 (Disclaimer: I received my copy for promotional purposes. Plus I consider Uri a friend so this review may not be the most un-biased review out there)
Where to get it: At DriveThruRPG

Premise: When it comes to supplements they're almost always just pure fluff. However there's the good kind of fluff which is interesting, brings a new idea to the table, is entertaining, etc. Then there's bad fluff which is none of those things. Effin' Fairies is the good kind of fluff.

The premise be hind the supplement is that there is a criminal organization made up of fey. Most fantasy settings will have the fey remain mostly aloof or cause mischief just for the thrill of it. These fey cause mischief but they do it for the loot. Originally calling themselves by the more prosaic term "Weather Solutions" they offered their services to people in the area as a type of insurance. It quickly went from real insurance to mobster insurance, i.e. pay us the money or something bad will happen to you.

I love the concept. It's one of those concepts that on reflection should have been absolutely obvious but isn't it. That's either genius on Uri's part or stupidity on mine--I'll leave the reader to decide.

Generally the book is laid out very well. The cover has some artwork which I didn't care for, but that's my personal taste (the fairy reminded me of an anime character, not a wild fey). Then there's a history of the organization from it's founding to the current status (the leader in jail where he continues to run the operation). There's a brief section on some of the activities they do now, followed by another section on the organization of the group. This is a great little detail that I love, having 12 under-bosses of the fairies named after each of the months and responsible for a certain type of racket.

Following this there's a random chart (roll a d10) for adventure seeds. Some examples:

3.) Gangsters and officials are routinely found gnawed to death. Investigation reveals that March has awakened rats to serve as assassins and unleashed them upon the enemies of the Fairies. Even if March is killed, the rats, now sentient and malicious, will continue to kill, possibly even starting their own gang.

10) A discussion on classic Seelie poetry leads to a rift between Winter and Summer. Before this escalates into fighting, and the inevitable insane weather that will accompany it, the Seasons ask the PCs to serve as neutral mediators. This task is not easy, since fairies on both sides have completely skewed sets of priorities and very alien morality.

There's a new fey called The Winter Fey with some pretty cool powers, one of them being the ability to inflict the common cold on anybody. There are some great special abilities too. There's also a Summer Fey that has the ability to cause dehydration with a touch, along with some other major powers.

Not much. I didn't care for the artwork. Based on the description of the fey the artwork didn't fit the image. I didn't care for the stats of the fey either--they seemed underpowered. Had I seen the stats without a description I would've been bored and not wanted to read more.

Should You Buy It?
Yes, especially at only $.99. That's less than a pack of gum or a soda.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Stats week 1

This post is both lazy and narcissistic. 

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

My first post on this blog was November 27, 2011. This post will make 9 since then, which averages out to just over 1 every other day, a pretty good rate if I do say so myself. As of this writing, I've had 517 pageviews, with my most viewed post being my review of Hollowpoint. Apparently I'm an international superstar, or so my audience visits seem to indicate. 

The big surprises on this list for me are Urugay and Taiwan. Russia is somewhat of a surprise as well. 

United States
United Kingdom

The visitor's log for this past week is quite different. 

United States
United Kingdom
South Africa

It appears that whomever it was that visited from Uruguay found the blog this week and then stuck around. I'm at a loss to explain South Africa and Switzerland, 

Chrome is the most popular browser with a 40% market share, followed by Firefox with 30%. The least popular browser being used is RockMelt, with 1 page view. 

Windows is by far the most popular operating system with 70% of the market share. Surprisingly Macintosh is next at 10%, but Android is hot on it's heels with 9%. The least popular operating system viewing this site is the iPad, with 1 view.

What in the world are you thinking?

I haven't been around long enough to generate much in the way of search terms, but these are the ones that have landed viewers on the blog.

and the blue sky lit the deep--poetic, but I don't recall ever using the phrase in any post
"larry correia"--I find it odd that someone would stop here after searching for Larry Correia since my only mention of him is in my Hollowpoint review you know the name of the blog and search for it directly why not just enter directly in?
the captain of the guard--I hope whomever was looking for the captain of the guard managed to find him. I'm surprised the search landed here, as it's a pretty generic search (though the post in which I used the phrase wasn't generic at all).
the captain of the guard i--maybe it was a corporal looking for a promotion?