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Monday, March 12, 2018

#RPGBlogCarnival "Gamemaster's Cut": my two cents on cinematography and D&D!


When my dear friend Gonzalo, owner of the beautiful Codex Anathema gaming blog (and company!) decided to host his own RPG Blog Carnival I had to go back to this almost defunct blog of mine and write something! It's like a Geas spell... :P


The topic could be described as cinematography in D&D, or D&D in cinematography. Or both, if possible.
I was initially unsure I could contribute with something meaningful, but I also remembered that my current campaign, which runs in a world loosely based on the "Cthon" cosmology/setting detailed in the deepest archives of this blog, basically started exactly as an attempt to bring the best thrills of cinema into D&D, in a very specific way.
So I'm going to talk about this specific way of mine, which could be summarized as...

Bringing back the Fear of the Unknown to D&D... And cinema


Yes, it's self-evident to me that the fear of the unknown is something that has been missing from both camps. Movies such as the very first Alien, with their all-but-cheap thrills and scares, are extremely rare nowadays. The closest example in recent movies that I can think about is The Witch. Although it achieves the objective in a very different way. And then also some alien abduction movies, which by definition fit in this trope, and usually manage to deliver the chills even when done poorly.

Seeing how very different movies and methods can be used to convey what is perhaps the most primal emotion in the human repertoire, I asked myself what's the "winning recipe", not only when it comes to movies, but also in tabletop RPGs such as D&D.

The Monster must be unknown until the very final showdown.

This is arguably the most important point to consider. So many movies nowadays sin in this respect.
In D&D, the sin is even easier to commit, because you know how it is: character rolls high on Perception, and that's it: he/she sees the monster in all its macabre detail. Well, no. It doesn't have to be that way.

First of all, the characters might not understand what they perceive.
This is very important in my game: the monsters are something completely unfamiliar to the characters, they are not supposed to exist in the world. So even when they see them, they don't make sense of them. They might be simple CR1 creatures from the Monster Manual, but that shouldn't be clear to the character, and not even to the player. Even when one or two of these monsters fall down to the characters' magical or martial firepower, the corpses might disintegrate (especially when the monster is extraplanar) or puzzle even more due to their alien anatomy.
A gnoll might be described and portrayed as a humanoid with a hyena head, but this description might be an approximation, and a character seeing one for the first time, might not immediately understand the similarity to the animal. As a GM, I take some pain in describing the creature in ambiguous terms, so the description might still be truthful, visually speaking, but hiding the "meta" about the creature, both to players and characters.

To this end, a few other methods, apart from the description of the monster can be used, which I better list separately.

Your Monster is different.

Sometimes considered a cheap trick of GMs, I think it's fundamental both in movies and games.
In the past I re-imagined the simplest monster, the Goblin, resulting in something that could have came out of the worst nightmares. Some players would consider this unfair, since it also inevitably makes their knowledge of the game less useful, but that's exactly the point: fear of the unknown.
If players don't like this, they don't belong in such an adventure/campaign, and the GM is responsible for announcing in advance that the adventure/campaign will subvert what they know about the game's usual opponents.

As said before, sometimes description is enough for this, but sometimes it isn't. Think about the xenomorph in Alien. It would have been original enough due to its appearance and abilities, but guess what: it also has acid for blood. That's the type of detail that the aforementioned players would have considered foul play by the GM. But it's also what changes the whole situation. Suddenly, the classical methods of confrontation are not so useful anymore.

The true monster is not just a threat when alive, but when dead too. This is especially important if there is more than one of them, but not only. Even when the baddie is just one, having something unexpected happen on its death, will confound the characters and the players alike.
Just as a new method of movement, something happening when the monster is hurt and so on.

But that's not all: the scariest movies don't scare you just with the monster, they use other things. Such as...

The claustrophobic locale.

You might say that dungeons are by definition claustrophobic, but that's not exactly true. A Dungeon is, first of all, a place where you expect threats. You go in there expecting to fight, so the thrills go down from the very first moment. A true claustrophobic locale doesn't even need to be actually closed, or small, although it helps. A forest can be claustrophobic, if done right. The feeling must be that you want to be out of it, but you can't, of course, but also something deeper. Something more akin to "this place is not what it should be". The best claustrophobic locale, both in movies and D&D, is some place which is usually safe. 
This is played especially well in the typical alien abduction movies: the classical isolated farm or cabin. Nothing beats it. Because it's familiar (so it's easy to picture yourself there), and because it can be easily put under a siege from the outside. This is what makes it claustrophobic. Four walls, some windows and a door. It seems ok, until unknown forces are known to be outside, and possibly even INSIDE. That's another hallmark: the threat should be both outside and inside, in poorly known fashion and proportions. You have clues to both presences, but you can't quantify them. And a house is much smaller than a dungeon... You can't just "run back": the problem is most likely exactly what's at its entrance.

I mentioned that even a forest can be claustrophobic, and this is especially true if the characters get lost. It's not that hard to get lost in a forest, even experienced trekkers will tell you this. So even high level characters might fall into this apparently trivial problem.
Even without being lost, there might be reasons for which you can't or won't go out of the place. In my campaign, the characters are confined to a swampy, dark, mysterious forest for weeks. They are not far from the nearest village but guess what: they are wanted in that village, the very commoners would be glad to hang their necks, and the Inquisition would gladly do it for them.
Inside the forest though, of course, that are other dangers. Of the unknown variant. Even outside they actually don't know exactly what's waiting for them, because for some reason I won't explain, they know that the people looking for them, found corpses that look exactly like theirs. So in theory the search for them should be over. But what happens if some criminals thought dead pop back into existence? In addition, the problem which they would like to solve, lies inside the forest... So a lot of forces compel them to stay, making the typically open environment an actual prison.

The Alien Abduction trope

This needs a point of its own. It's not entirely evident, but if you do some cross-referencing, you may find out that humanity has been writing (and delivering scares) about alien abductions for centuries, or maybe millennia. It's an archetype. Nowadays it's aliens, before it could have been hags, or even gods. But most of the time, generically speaking, it's "The Monster", whatever it is.
The fact that the Monster is kidnapping, more than killing, is a big part of the fear of the unknown.
Death, afterlife not included, is something of a known. It's the end of the line, and it's reassuring in a way. But being taken away by unknown, possibly inhuman forces, for purposes unknown... Much worse. This should not happen to characters, at least not to all of them. They should witness it, or even better suspect it, about other people first. But at some point, it might happen to a character, and it should be a nightmare.

The trope of Alien Abduction though, is not only about the abduction itself. It's also about what described before. The threat from outside finding you in a familiar place, suddenly transforming it into a hell on earth because of the ensuing claustrophobia. 
It's of course perpetrated by the most unknown and unknowable monster(s). It kind of summarizes everything I talk about, but by itself is still not enough, because it doesn't provide enough depth and variety. It can make for a nice movie, but not for a lengthy campaign/series/saga.

The Unknown World

Monsters must come from somewhere. Once the first, traumatic contact is made, and the monster(s) are momentarily defeated, the Righteous have to take the next step: venturing into the home of the monsters to end the threat once and for all.

This is where things get really interesting and challenging for GMs and film-makers alike. This is where world-building becomes the skill you need to roll high on.
This unknown world doesn't have to be completely unknown, or the players/viewers will not identify with it enough to feel involved. At the same time, making it just the typical "cave of the dragon" or "temple of doom" will not engage in the other sense.
Once again, the best lesson comes from the movie that in my opinion delivered the best in this department: alien.
The alien nest is a place that is familiar, in theory, but made alien by the threat itself. The Monster transformed a place that should have been normal, into something hellish, or at the very least unsettling.
This is one way to do it, and it solves an important issue: having this unknown world near enough for it to be an urgent threat.
There are other ways to do it. Stranger Things, borrowing heavily from D&D, does it with a parallel dimension, which is conveniently accessed from physical portals. Modestly speaking, this was the whole idea behind my setting/cosmology: having the classic "planes of existence" as places that can actually be accessed from specific locations, even when their space overlaps "normal space".
Another nice unknown world can simply be, as suggested before, the "forbidden forest", which can of course be any other terrain type (although of course the forest is a primal archetype, that engages humans at an instinctive level).

Can you seal the Unknown away?

Stranger Things season 2 [spoiler alert] replies to this question with its ominous ending. Of course not. Not completely. Even when you win against the monsters in their own world/home, you might find out that you just closed one end of an extremely intricate maze. 
I'm not saying that every story should end with nihilistic realization that the unknown will always be out there, but a bit of this concept sure helps. Maybe you actually managed to secure a nice slice of your cherished reality from the threat of the Unknown, but you might discover you just saw the tip of the proverbial iceberg, with your face-off against evil.

I think heroics can still be a thing even in a world full of evil unknown. The whole point of the unknown is more of a conflict between Chaos and Order. The Unknown is of course Chaos. When we add Evil and Good to the equation, things get more complex. That's where you could find "people like you" working against you, conspiracies and so on, and it opens an entire new topic, but the point is Chaos and Order. The Unknown, the Monster, is an agent of Chaos, and it doesn't have to be overly complex in that. Schemes, complexity, possibly even intelligence, are hallmarks of Order, more than Chaos. So my point, in the question "Can you seal the Unknown away", is that depending on the case, it could actually be easy. Maybe that particular unknown threat is actually minor (it could be), or extremely simple in its nature. 
The heroes might discover that the threat was coming from an unintelligent, or at least not so smart source. In this case, it might be easy to at least confine it, if not seal it off. 
Discovering that a lot of suffering, if not death, was coming out of something actually simple, might be as horrifying as discovering it was all a plot by some powerful individuals. The point is making something simple not so simple to understand. 
The needs/drives of the monster, of the Unknown, might be simple only when understood. It might not be a simple matter to understand them... And even when understood, the simplicity might be horrifying. 
Just as in, again, Alien: their need to reproduce using humans as hosts is actually simple, but not less horrifying. And the moment you put the last of them and their eggs under the flame-thrower, in theory you are safe. But then again, someone might have interest in using all of that. That's when Evil Order wants to put Chaos under its leash, it's a another classic trope. Maybe, instead, the threat is just something naturally occurring (not in the sense it's truly natural, but in the sense it occurs spontaneously) and at that point, you will need a constant effort to keep it in check. That's probably when the Fear of The Unknown ends, but it's also just an episode. The Unknown being Chaos is extremely varied, if not infinite. There will always be a new horror, a new Unknown, popping out from where you least expect. 

EXTRA: How I'd do a D&D movie, based on this.


As you might have guessed, I would first of all do a horror. It would be the "session 0" of the campaign. Just one big session, in one movie. It would be session 0 because the "heroes" are still all level 1, or actually level 0. They are not heroes yet. It's what happens in this story that will make them heroes. And of course, it would be a horror movie.

Here's my pitch:

"THE TIME OF THE FROGS"

Children playing in swampy fields spot strange creatures after dusk. The creatures seem to be hiding from them, but the children are sure they are malicious. Talking to each other, they describe the creatures as having the face of a frog, and they start hunting for frogs, in an effort to "exorcise" the threat. They impale frogs around the fields, leaving them gutted open on sticks, to try and "scare" the frog-faced creatures.
One of the kids disappears, and the kids speak up with their parents, who are ignorant and impatient, struggling all day to bring enough food to feed the families. The parents, furious about the "fantasies" of the kids, don't believe their stories and think they are actually responsible for the other kid's disappearance. They start keeping the kids indoors, prohibiting them from playing in the fields. 
After a while, the kids start thinking that the creatures are closing in on the farms, and they are not mistaken, but the parents again don't believe them.
One fateful night, one of the farms gets attacked. The adults are so indoctrinated (by the local faith) about the non-existence of supernatural creatures, that they take the whole matter in a foolishly light-hearted way, basically letting the creatures in. At that point, chaos ensues. The creatures seem to have the power to hide in plain sight and make people literally shit themselves. Adults go completely crazy, and seem to be basically cooperating with the creatures: they become affected by uncontrollable hilarity, and disturbing scatophilic behaviors. One by one they get abducted, while a few of the kids, still able to react rationally, manage to fight the creatures. They manage to escape only by setting the whole place on fire thanks to previously-dormant magical powers in one of them, that were hinted at beforehand.
They find out that dark figures outside seemed to be watching the whole thing, and appear menacing enough to prevent them from reaching the village. They run towards the nearby forest/swamp.
At dawn, soldiers investigate the burned farm. They find adults and kids burned to death, the adults seemingly still laughing. They find no evidence of the monsters, and thus can't believe the stories of the kids of nearby farms. 
Meanwhile in the forest/swamp, the kids found shelter in an abandoned ruin. There, they find engravings of monstrous faces that seem similar to frogs, and various artifacts. They arm themselves, they slay a giant frog that was lurking nearby, and they impale it gutted at a stake, out of an improvised "fort" they build up. They shelter there. A hermit finds them and fends off their attacks, telling them "I BELIEVE YOU... I BELIEVE YOU!" - he manages to win their trust and opens a book he is carrying, a bestiary, to show them a page describing the frog-faced creatures - The movie then ends ominously, with a cacophony of ribbits resonating both in the forest and nearby the farms.
THE END.

You might say this is not at all a D&D movie, although you might have understood it's a take on the classic Bullywug monsters. The thing is, it would be chilling (if done right), and it would set the start for a series of adventures, where young adults become heroes against all odds.
It would also show, if endorsed by the D&D trademark, how far can the game and its concepts be stretched, which is the entire point of this (now a tad too long) blog post: a return to the unknown.

Now, I'm kind of obsessed by this concept, to the point I want to write a novel based on it, and on my whole campaign (which also started more or less like this, although the kids were not the playing characters). But it's more of a manifesto than an actual working idea. I hope you can appreciate this manifesto, use it, and make your own "Gamemaster's Cut" a bit more thrilling thanks to it. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Zendikar: Uncharted Seas - Introduction!

Scattered In The Blue

There is no telling where or what the storms of Zendikar can lead to.
And in fact, there is no telling where this island is, and what happened before you arrived here.

Few memories haunt your traumatized mind.
The wind was so powerful that it lifted you repeatedly.
The waves were so tall that looking forward from the stern of the ship you could see only dark clouds, while from the bow there was only angry ocean.
The roil spouts were dreadful: the massive ship felt like nothing but a tiny Kor kitesail blown away by a gale, when it was carried away into them and by them.

Into The Roil

There might have been something even more dreadful than the fury of Zendikar, into that storm. You remember seeing live flesh within the cloud of detritus flying above the immense waves. The strange flesh of creatures that never saw the light of Zendikar before, probably: such are the depths that the roil currents may have scraped and uplifted.

Roil Spout

The flesh of those creatures ripped dead by the storm is probably the reason why your leather and armor are completely soiled by a foul-smelling sticky fluid that is already half-encrusted. Who knows what or who was gutted by the wooden blades that splintered from the boat while it was being disintegrated. And who knows how many days and nights you were passed out on the beach, drying those disgusting deathly fluids under the sun.
The crabs were feasting all over-you and it's only blind luck that they didn't take out an eye of yours as well with their hungry pincers.

Near Death Experience

Your senses are overwhelmed. Apart from your nose being assaulted by the pungent odor of rotten marine life (or what you hope is marine life, and not the shreds of an ex crew member), the next sensory organs under attack are the ears. The waves and the pitched calls of the welkin terns are echoing in your head, as if everything around you happened to emit its sound twice at the same time.

Welkin Tern
Could it be the roil? Sure. Just like it could be the roil making the flooded strands in front of you look so damn near in the sky. There comes the third sensory attack. But damn, this looks nice.

Flooded Strand

It's like a piece of dreamy heaven painted right into the sky and popping up as if seen through an explorer's scope.

Explorer's Scope

You try to get up and you fall, over and over again. You feel like you're glued to the sand, and probably that's exactly the case.
Finally you manage to get up and look around.
The coast is varied, with high rocky cliffs alternated by pristine lonely sand bars.

Lonely Sandbar

And lush vegetation covers every space that is not firmly conquered by sand, rock, or water. Actually no, the water doesn't stop it, and probably not even the rock. Zendikari plants, unlike its people, have found out how to live in every corner of the enraged world.

Island

The horizon that is not occupied by floating land strands is a beautiful blue sky, were the few wispy clouds are tinged of pink: a sign that the hours are already quite postmeridian.
A, fortunately, really far away drake tosses and turns among the clouds like a young cat in a basket full of clean laundry. The first sign of life had to be that of a predator. Although it looks uninterested in anything that might lie closer than twenty leagues from you. You wonder how big must that drake big if seen upclose. You don't want to find out: anything that plays so cheerfully in the highest altitudes of Zendikar's skies must be awfully close to the top of the food chain.


 No sign of your ship, not even a wooden stake. No wonder there is also a lack of human bodies around: the ship was surely much more solid than the crew.
You're left to your own devices more than ever. Even in the direst straits of your past, you have always had some people around to face the world with. Now it look you're alone. Alone in an unknown, scary, beautiful heaven.

MPS Promo Island

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The alternative D&D Ranger from Unearthed Arcana: A New Hope!


Even if I didn't have a very positive initial reaction to what I saw in the new Ranger alternative brought to the community by Mike Mearls, I want to call this initiative a New Hope.

First of all, because I wrote so many times about the issue, and I'm finally seeing some movement at least in the direction of a class that finally has more identity, originality and uniqueness.

Second, because I think the effort needs encouragement and positive feedback to actually improve and become a great piece of the game.

I will not discuss here of what could happen if it ever becomes official, nor any other "it's the end of the world as we know it" things. I just want to compare this new Ranger with the expectations I have, and the expectations I see around. And I'm going to do it in detail, following the order of the document that was released with the (draft) class.

First of all, the feedback and the motivation

What I see written in the first part by Mearls seems to coincide with my thoughts. The Ranger having begun as just a mix of classes, the signature features becoming available to every other class (thus stopping being signature), the Favored Enemy thing being too little to become a new signature feature, and the problem of the animal companion ending up being too little or too much.

I would stress again, based on this, what I always say: until we stop trying to "do the ranger" and start trying to understand what it is to "BE a ranger", there is no hope for this archetype: it's gonna end as a sub-archetype of something else, and unfortunately lots of people are fine with it. But from my extensive experience, the people that are fine with it have never questioned themselves about what the Ranger should be and could be. And this is the question that matters.

Because we all already understood that the "Ranger as we always knew it" is just doable with other classes, but that doesn't mean the Ranger should be just that. It just means it shouldn't be what it always was. And anyone who opposes this is just not interested enough in the outcome, (because don't forget that for some people, warriors are just an accessory for spell-casters) and as such, logically, these people are not the best to consult for this matter.

So to wrap it up: the Ranger must be re-thought from the ground-up.

The concepts behind the new Ranger

Skirmishers

Well, this should find everyone in agreement, at least everyone who cares. We have a front-line warrior (Fighter), we have a tricky lurker (Rogue), we have an armored bulwark of defense (Paladin), but we don't have a true Skirmisher. The Rogue comes close, and that's why, as I discussed previously, to find the new Ranger we must actually start from the Rogue and try to evidence all the possible differences.

I would say that this new variant does this a bit, but here come my first negative feedbacks: while having more time to act than the Rogue is a fine variant, it feels too automatic. It doesn't seem to represent the patience and hunting techniques of a Ranger. He just does his Ambuscade all the time, and I think it's a bit of a lost opportunity to build something more thematic and strategy-bound.

Also, the focus on stealth seems to be cool at first, but then you realize that it really steps on Rogue's toes. It's cool that the Ranger can actually choose who doesn't see him, and it could lead to interesting tactics, but again: it seems more like a trick a Rogue would do. More Lurker than Skirmisher. A Skirmisher should focus on movement, not on stealth (although stealth could be an advantage as well).

In addition, it seems like the feature is there to be used defensively more than aggressively: apart from Advantage itself, there is not much that the Ranger's attacks gain from this, and it's probably because otherwise it would be just a Sneak Attack.

The fact that this Ranger is so good in defense is one of the surprises that really turned the tables upside down, even for a non-traditionalist as myself. I'm not completely opposed to it, but what I'd like to see is some dependence on skills, or at least well thought tactics. Just getting this and that whenever you want is not a Ranger's style. I'm ok with the "power level", but I would spread it more, by making these advantages more situational, while giving other more reliable little things, such as reactive movements and attacks, which I will detail later with all my suggestions.

All in all, about being a Skirmisher, I think the intentions are good, but it should be made in a more thematically-accurate way. Probably they automatically get these kind of things in Difficult Terrain and/or Favored Terrain, but to be like this in the open, they need to scout the area first.

Wanderers

Here lots of people have started freaking out, and I was among them I must say. A warrior that has both skill and extreme durability is a bit... Extreme. It's nice to see durability as a new core idea, but that's also kind of over-done. The Ranger, as I wrote in the linked previous post, should be a warrior that uses expertise, patience, and superior mobility to survive. That kind of implies that he doesn't have the durability of a Fighter or Paladin or Barbarian.
I think it might still fly as an idea if the extreme stealth gets toned down, but in general, I would prefer to see a more active self-defense, and other means of achieving it (again, more detail below), rather than just making the Ranger a big guy. We can also go the way of the big guy, but then some other things should go away. I think it could be a good subclass, though.

About the rest, I love Natural Explorer, it's the one feature that makes the current Ranger still tempting to play, so of course I'm fine with it. Actually, I would build a lot more on it.

Guardians

Here I must give a bit of negative feedback again, in particular about the flavor: a warrior that protects the wild is a cliche that should stay in Background territory. We are doing a class, not a background. It's ok to give "guardian capabilities" to the Ranger, it fits, but I would definitely avoid mentioning that he "protects the wild"; especially in a game like D&D, where the wild is actually one of the most dangerous and abundant regions. Paladins of the forest? We already have them, they are Paladins... Of the forest. Leave this mystical stuff to the mystical character that the Paladin is, and make the Ranger the practical, cynical, expert character that he/she should be: no tree-hugging, but lots of tree-hiding, tree-jumping, tree-traps, tree-spring-attacks, and whatever: the Ranger definitely uses nature as an ally, but that doesn't mean all kind of nature magic that is already part of Druid and the nature-related Oath for Paladins.

I know that I might sound more radical than Mearls here, but I think it's really for the best, because if we keep the tree-hugging, we keep the mystical stuff, and we keep not finding a unique identity, borrowing from Druid, Paladin and so on.

Now, talking about the animal spirit... Guess what part I don't like of "animal spirit" when it comes to the Ranger. Exactly: "spirit". I would LOVE Mearls to bring us a 4e-like Shaman, with all kind of stuff related to animal spirits, but the Ranger should really be about the relationship with animals. Maybe, maaaybe at 20th level he could have a powerful spirit animal, but I would avoid even that.

I think the mechanics here are solid, they would just need to refer to real animals. I think the big dangerous beast once a day, taking turns etc is great, and then they could have a more pocket-size animal, like a familiar but trained for combat and support, giving exactly the benefits that the spirit would give. True, it's more of an aesthetic change, but at least it makes for a solid identity with roots into the practical knowledge of nature, the true bond between man and beast.

Stop ranting and give us some ideas, L.A.!

Here are my ideas:
  • About Skirmish: make it more of a skirmish. More movement, less stealth, more attacks.
  • About Ambuscade: make it so that it works in difficult terrain or Favored Terrain, while in others it should require long setup.
  • Also use scouting as a signature: by spending time in an area, the Ranger can set it up, prepare traps maybe (subclass: Trapper), but especially set up some cover to be used defensively or even aggressively.
  • Connected to this, let the combat style of the Ranger involve the use of terrain. In a previously scouted terrain, the Ranger not only does Ambuscades, but can have small reaction-using attacks and movements that lure the enemy into Disadvantage, make them slam into each other while chasing you, make them hit branches or trip on rocks. The Ranger should have a limited ability to even manipulate the terrain (with enough time), so that it gives these opportunities later on. The key is that the Ranger should scout ahead and prepare the battlefield to his advantage,
  • If we want a more survivable Ranger, we need the "Herbal Poultices" back: they were great, they stay true to the roots of the Ranger, and they represent the superior foraging abilities.
  • Make the animal companion, the big one, follow the Ranger only from afar. It must be a conflicted relationship: it can come in moments of great danger, and/or once a day when the Ranger "convinces it", and it can't be just called on the spot: it's another of those things for which the Ranger should need a long preparation, maybe even a Short Rest spent only for that.
    Complement this big animal with a smaller, much more faithful one, that harries enemies, does some damage, distracts, trips, whatever: like a familiar but much more combat-focused. It can also dies, but then the Ranger could get a new one as well, although of course not without some work.
That's it for now, will post more ideas if I have them, maybe even my version of the class!

Thanks to Mearls for doing this and going against the mainstream of the D&D community (if it really is a main stream), and at the same time doing so as feedback follow-up.

Good skirmishing, everybody!



Saturday, September 5, 2015

Vurokk Dahvre: my favorite character, for the updated D&D and updated Zendikar!


Vurokk Dahvre (aka Vurokslaw Dedahvrov) is a name that, if googled, might even be mistaken for an official character of Magic: The Gathering, and its Zendikar plane in particular.
That's because I really wrote a lot about him, and played him for a while in a Zendikar-set D&D campaign, albeit a prematurely ended one.

He is the only character I would like to keep for the new campaign that me and my original Zendikar DM (and beloved friend) Gonzalo are going to start soon, set back into Zendikar, but in the updated timeline, matching the new Battle for Zendikar expansion (#mtgbfz), and with the new fifth edition of D&D (#dnd, #dnd5e).


He was always a weird character for the setting, but at the same time fitting. So much so, that I would like to point out, for future reference, what of him doesn't seem to fit in Zendikar.

  • His looks seem a bit too gothic when put next to the usually practical/pauper outfits of the typical Zendikari adventurers.
  • He is a user of dark magic, possibly even divine in nature, something that not even the vampires in Zendikar are known for.
  • He's not cunning, wise, or very resilient, which are probably the distinguishing abilities of a successful adventurer in Zendikar.
  • He's not even a native of Zendikar, or at least his ancestor weren't (it's unclear).
At the same time, there are some aspects that really fit, and in some way cancel out the ones that don't.
  • The gothic appearance is actually supposed to be just a styling of very practical/pauper materials, typical of Zendikar: the armor is not metal, but giant scorpion chitin, the mask although black is carved out of the skull of some demon or worse, and so on.
  • The "dark divine magic" he is supposed to use in D&D terms is actually just plain Black Mana in Magic terms, thus molding up nicely in the setting, which is supposed to translate D&D concept into Magic ones, when applicable.
  • He sports a combination of abilities (strength, agility, and charisma) that is rare and even unique (you never see them all high, all together in any character, usually), making him a character that is sought by the typical Zendikarian "Expeditionary Houses", because he is not replaceable.
  • Even if he is not native of Zendikar, or descended from non-natives, he doesn't know it (although sometimes he suspects it), so for all purposes he is and acts as a true Zendikari.
So, leaving his past aside, in particular leaving it to the copious text I already wrote, and links to them (background, short story, character sheet), what is new about this new Vurokk?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Role-playing in Zendikar, without too much Battle for it! #dnd #mtgbfz


With my already long-time friend Gonzalo we once delved into the Zendikar world with D&D.
He mastered a great adventure that in true Zendikar style was a puzzle-heavy dungeon delve in an exotic land (Tazeem).
It stopped short of turning into a full campaign, because of defections of players and the impracticality of forums. But it was already starting to include a bit of Eldrazi in it. It was an element of Zendikar nearly impossible to ignore, even if it's been confirmed that they didn't originally belong to the setting, in the designers' view.

Some time later I took interest in the very D&D-derived 13th Age table-top RPG, and more than in the game itself, in its approach to role-playing and setting-building. The concept of Icons, the Non-Playing Characters with enough influence in the setting to become political forces, and the relationships of playing characters with these Icons, fascinated me.
So I went on to create the "Icons of Zendikar", and an incomplete but usable set of locations and story hooks to go with them.
I also kind of attached a few parts of our campaign story (especially the parts that actually never came to be played) into the story hooks, advancing a bit the whole story-line. Eldrazi where largely absent, mostly due to my personal dislike of them.

My dislike for Eldrazi is mostly due to a love for Zendikar: when you love something, you don't want to see it spoiled and ruined. Other than that, I also think they did them too well: they are really alien and it shows. And I don't like that. I would have liked them more if they would have been less alien, more Zendikari. But then their purpose would have been defeated, so I still "accept" them. I just prefer not to deal with them in role-playing.

Now Battle for Zendikar is coming, and with it a new wave of excitement and will to role-play into Zendikar (shared with Gonzalo!), but also a new wave of Eldrazi madness.

So this post will be a brain-storming about how to make a cool adventure set in Zendikar, even in the Battle for Zendikar times, but without much influence of the Eldrazi.

"I search for a vision of Zendikar that does not include the Eldrazi."

Wall of Omens flavor text

So where in Zendikar could we have an Eldrazi-free or Eldrazi-light experience?I have multiple answers.
We know from the story released so far, and the lands artwork, that Tazeem still has pockets of uncontaminated nature. But it's basically a continent under siege, so it should be largely excluded.
Bala Ged, one of my favorite continents (actually defined as a sub-continent of Guul Draz, a bit like India is a sub-continent of Asia), has been completely destroyed. And apparently, Sejiri was destroyed as well, I guess being the continent from which Ulamog came out (but that's not canon, just logic because I wouldn't see the titan going there to destroy something, since there's little life anyway).
These leaves us with three continents: Murasa, Ondu, and Guul Draz.



Murasa: the "Retreat to Kazandu" option.

One of the spoiled cards caught my eye and mind immediately: Retreat to Kazandu.




It clearly represents a place where the "allied forces" have found shelter, free of Eldrazi presence and contamination. 
Murasa has also been quoted in the wonderful Canopy Vista dual land:



So it's even more clear that Murasa itself, not only Kazandu, would be a great location for such a campaign: the Eldrazi would arrive mostly from the sea, and even if they would corrupt the ground, the "canopy" would still be free.

I would say this could be the "classic" option: getting to Murasa is still as difficult as before, so half of the challenge could actually be the arrival by boat in the dangerous Sunder Bay, and finding a way to go up the canopy. But then it could turn into the kind of "pure Zendikar adventuring" that I like, although maybe focused on finding some answer to the looming Eldrazi threat (which could be found in Murasa's vast subterranean cave complexes, including the mysterious Glint Pass and Visimal the hidden city.
Good stuff!

Guul Draz: the "Another Kind of Evil" option

Even without playing an all-vampire game (which could still be fun), we have a quote from the new set stating that vampires could be the only effective force against Eldrazi. Although it's a quote coming from a vampire itself...


It would be extra-cool to have a sect or other powerful group being sure that victory is already in the hands of vampire lords. And already busy brokering the spoils of Zendikar coming from the eventual aftermath! Nimana, "the free city", would be an obvious starting or central point of such a campaign, in which the vampires would be a shadow darker even than the Eldrazi, maybe even using the Eldrazi to gain more power. After all, Sea Gate has been all but destroyed, and it was basically one of the very few "points of light" in Zendikar: some powerful vampires might be thinking that that's the opportunity of a lifetime to actually rule all of Zendikar.

In the depths of wild Guul Draz, another possibility opens us: these lands were not only left untouched by the Eldrazi, but also by the vampires. And they might hide artifacts and ruins of great power, from the ancient past of pre-Eldrazi Zendikar. The Planeswalker's Guide to Zendikar clearly states that in Guul Draz "there are more ruin sites here than elsewhere". Complexes such as the Hagra Cistern could be "mana engines" capable of countering the Eldrazi influence, or who knows what else.
Plus, there's another power hidden in Guul Draz: its name is Ob Nixilis, and if you're reading this, you know how important he is!

So I would say that Guul Draz offers as many opportunities for an original, "pure Zendikar" experience as Murasa, although more bent towards "evil parties", who could feel at ease negotiating with vampires and demons, maybe because they're vampires themselves, or maybe because they even plan to double-cross the vampires in a gigantic game of powers!


Ondu: the "Sea-faring Adventures" option

The mainland of Ondu is not a very interesting place, and the description of it coming from the new dual cards doesn't sound similar to the one given with the old Planeswalker's Guide... There is probably some confusion among the designers themselves about what's in Ondu and what's on Murasa, because it seems like they regulary mix the two continents, in terms of environments, in particular regarding the "verticality of the landscape" (which I like to think to as a constant of Zendikar, actually!)

The Turntimber forest looks and sounds very similar to the the forests of Murasa, although at least one main difference remains: Ondu's forests are (or were) the resting place of Omnath, one of the "avatars" of Zendikar that could be counter the Eldrazi.

There's few places worth mention in the mainland of Ondu, like Graypelt Refuge. Instead, the big islands that surround Ondu are the truly intersting places.

There's Agadeem, which is both home to the "church", in my interpretation of the setting, and to some very strange roil effects involving hedrons that are no longer aloft. It could have been the very first place where the original Three planeswalkers started working on the big ward against the Eldrazi, since that would explain why the hedrons stopped their levitation here before stopping elsewhere. The Crypt of Agadeem is still one of the most mysterious places in Zendikar and could have something to do with the Three, or maybe with the demons.
If I would have to bet on the next target of the Eldrazi invasion, I would bet on Agadeem, before even Ondu's mainland.

Then there's Beyeen, with its interesting port settlement of Zulaport, which I detailed in this blog. Zulaport could mirror Nimana in being one of those "bad cities" that can still work as a hub for both good-aligned and evil-aligned adventurers.

And last but not least, there's the mystery of mysteries: the Isle of Jwar. This place is so inaccessible that most Zendikari never even dreamt of going there, before the Eldrazi. After the Eldrazi, it could become a safe haven, target of a mass exodus both from the rest of Ondu, and from other continents. it's described as tiny, but since it was home to a prehistoric civilization which littered it with the "Fadun" statues (very much like the Easter Island heads), and it's still home to the Strand of Jwar, a strange magical or meteorological phenomenon centered on the island, Jwar could be made into a more prominent setting, either by adding a large underworld connected to its surface, or by stating that the Strand of War is actually a giant illusion magic that screens a much larger land-mass from the sea-farers.



So the campaign set in Ondu could be a sea-based campaign, in which reaching Jwar and unveiling its mysteries could require an intricate voyage, from Tazeem to Beyeen, then from Beyeen to the mainland, from mainland to Agadeem, and finally from Agadeem to Jwar. Not only that, it woud be easy to add some small islands in-between. Pirates would abound thanks to Zulaport, and the Eldrazi could become just a distant thought in all of this.

Other options remain!

I also like to think about more radical approaches, which I will just list briefly as "bonus ideas":

  • Bala Ged is still alive! -  Bojuka Bay was such a hidden place that not even the Eldrazi found it...!
  • Aerial Tazeem - The highest floating parts of the Vastwood are still safe havens, and Emeria could be the ultimate exodus target.
  • Hidden Islands - After Jwar lie more islands that are somehow warded off from the rest of Zendikar, maybe thanks to the Strand of Jwar. Old isolated civilizations could be still living there as they used to before the very first advent of the Eldrazi, 3000 years before!
  • New Continent! - Much like the above but bigger: the Zendikari explorers suck, and they hadn't mapped all of the continents yet!
  • Underwater Sejiri - Sejiri is destroyed, but under its ice, an unexplored underwater world remains, where the Sejiri Merfolk are planning a counter-offensive, or maybe just want to remain hidden...
  • AKOUM - Yes, I had forgotten about it, no, it wouldn't be a main option since the Eye of Ugin where the Eldrazi where released from is exactly here..!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Doing the Ranger or Being the Ranger: a #dnd class and its (missing) identity!


The "State of the Game" official podcast on the D&D website was a huge surprise for me and guys like me: they finally admitted having given the Ranger class nothing really unique, no true definite identity, and admitted that they want to work it out and present variants that solve this issue.

I don't want to link now the posts in which you could see that "I told you that!" - But I friggin' told you that!

Now, on to business:

The Ranger as it is today (read: as it always was)

The parenthesis is there to explain the origin of this whole issue.

We tend to associate words with what we know the word for, not with what the word could potentially represent. Due to this fundamental human weakness, every single iteration of the game has tried to refine, fix, and improve a class that was flawed *in its roots*.

The problems of the original Ranger are the following, and they apply to the Ranger as it is today:
  • It's a hybrid class, let's face it. Everything "typical" of the Ranger comes from another class, except for a few things that (even worse) come from Background territory.
  • It was meant to describe a specific character, we even know his name. The very word "ranger" basically comes from that character. The class evolved a bit only when it also needed to describe another specific character, and we know the name of that one too. Still: no class should describe unique characters. Unique characters should use the classes to be better described, which is totally different.
  • It casts freakin' spells. And still it tries to describe a particular archetype of expertise-based warrior/specialist that, if having all the skills and derived advantages it should have, would have no need of spells, other than no time to study them, or no time for the eventual mystical connection needed to receive them.
  • It's portrayed as a tree-hugger (a completely Background-territory concept) for no other reason than pure blatant cliche. To make a comparison, if such a Background-tied concept would be tied to the Fighter, we would have Fighters being described and having *features* such as "Beer-Fueled", "Obsessive weapon polisher", and "Being unable to speak without shouting". These kind of things should be completely out of a class, they just don't belong there.
  • It has no fighting mechanic that makes it different from any other man swinging or firing a weapon, other than some minor things like "extra damage or extra attack" choices, which could belong to just about any other class and don't tell anything about how is the Ranger something different.
Doing The Ranger

So to do the Ranger, what should you do? Being able to track, take the Perception and Survival skills, maybe some Knowledge (Nature) or Knowledge (Arcana) to know the weaknesses of monsters, and maybe have Expertise in these skills to be better than the Fighter with those skills. So you should be a Rogue and do these things. Entirely possible, entirely viable, and you will probably feel like you're "doing the Ranger" better than the Ranger himself, since you actually deal more damage with beautiful Sneak Attacks.

 - FAQs at this point:
  • But what about armor? Take the feat.
  • But what about hit points? Take Constitution, maybe feat.
  • But what about the animal companion? Animal Friendship or Familiar spell or plain-old training and Animal Handling skill.
  • But what about two-weapon fighting or archery? Yeah, what about them? You have them.
It's clear that it is easy to do the Ranger, especially by being a Rogue, but also being a Fighter or Barbarian, or even better mixing all of them, which is entirely possible.
If the Ranger has to be just "the class for those people who want to mix classes but don't want multiclassing", I hope you realize how pointless and shallow that is. The designers, fortunately, realized it now.
So what about being the Ranger?

Being The Ranger

Being the Ranger is basically what we don't know how to do. No Ranger yet has even BEEN a Ranger for real. It was just a class to easily do the Ranger, something that you could do using other classes. To be the Ranger, you must basically be something that no other Ranger class has ever been, then. It's uncharted territory.
Here is my basic point, my manifesto for the Ranger that is instead of the one that does.
A RANGER SHOULD BE A SKIRMISHER WARRIOR: AN EXPERT IN USING TERRAIN, RECON, AND WISDOM TO GAIN ADVANTAGE IN COMBAT, USING HIGH SPEED AND MOBILITY TO COMPENSATE WEAK DEFENSES, AND WITH THE ABILITY TO ENGAGE, HARRY, AND EVENTUALLY KILL MANY FOES AT THE SAME TIME, POSSIBLY EVEN IF/ESPECIALLY WHEN THESE FOES ARE FAR APART AND/OR FAR AWAY.
The statement could sound a bit too serious and modern, but it's just because it needs to stress out technical differences. Without breaking much the immersion into the world of fantasy roleplaying, or D&D in particular, we could say that the Ranger is:

  • The kind of warrior that concentrates on the environment around him/her other than the foes.
  • The kind of warrior that patiently scouts an area and observes enemies for hours before attacking, to maximize every advantage.
  • The kind of warrior that is always moving and using momentum to dart around the battlefield, nearly dancing around the enemies, and making them die the death of the thousand cuts while pinning them in a situation or terrain from which they can't easily escape.
  • The kind of warrior that would set up traps,
  • The kind of warrior who works best alone.
  • The kind of warrior that can guide his/her allies across difficult terrain, or save them from immediate environmental dangers.
  • The kind of warrior that uses beasts as a tool for combat, sometimes forming close bonds with a beast that becomes the only reliable companion to fight in his way without spoiling the plans.
  • The kind of warrior that takes on the most difficult to reach enemies, by navigating the terrain better and faster than others, and/or by harassing them with bursts of arrows.
  • The kind of warrior that can have a whole bunch of people concentrated on him/her to no effect, because he/she moves better and faster, knows the terrain better and uses it better, and is sometimes difficult to spot or catch.
I think everyone can say that these things are strongly rooted into the fictional Ranger. The kind of Ranger that the Ranger class was never able to deliver.
This kind of Ranger is closer to the Rogue than to the Fighter, so...

The true rival of the Ranger: the Rogue - What should be similar, what different.

Similarities:
  • Both should be experts/specialists, as opposed to pure fighting machines/generalists (aka Fighters).
  • Both should care about their surrounding more than the generalists, because they depend on them both for attacking and survival.
  • Both use intellectual abilities more than the typical soldier.
  • Both are weaker in defense, stronger in attack, at least in general.
  • Both should be able to create the situations they need to excel/survive, at least in some limited fashion, when they can't find them in their surroundings.
Differences:
  • A Ranger should be an expert in survival, terrain, the use of animals, possibly the making of traps or at least ambushes. A Rogue could be an expert of anything, even the Ranger stuff, but will never get the benefits that the Ranger gets from its particular expertise.
  • A Ranger should be a specialist of open, possibly natural terrain, movement across it, and long ranges (hence "ranger"), whereas a Rogue should excel in close quarters, provided he can use or create a distraction and/or a hiding/escape.
  • A Ranger should use a lot his/her Wisdom, whereas a Rogue should use a lot more Intelligence and Charisma.
  • A Ranger should focus more on open movement as a defense, whereas a Rogue should focus more on hiding or distracting.
  • A Ranger is stronger than a generalist Fighter in attacking multiple enemies, whereas a Rogue is stronger in attacking only one enemy at a time. None of them are strong in attack against a tight group, which should instead be the specialty of the Fighter, that has the defense skills to survive thick melees.
  • A Ranger could create the favored situation using his/her animal, previous terrain recon, and/or with bursts of movement and maneuvers aimed at separating the enemies, making them more manageable, whereas a Rogue could create the favored situation by improvising a diversion, distracting, feinting, hiding, or dirty-fighting alongside a more imposing ally.
____________________

And that's it from my side: I hope the designers will follow these new ways at last, after I suggested them for so long. Sure, crafting mechanics that actually represent them could be harder than just describing things like this, but I have a few ideas in those regards as well.
And in fact, I will conclude with a bonus: a pitch for a truly unique Ranger mechanic.

BONUS: Skirmish (A possible signature mechanic for the new Ranger)

Instead of attacking once (or more times, depending on additional attacks), and subsequently dealing damage accordingly, as a Ranger you can attack every enemy you move close enough to, or every enemy in line of sight in case of ranged weapon usage, with a single attack roll and damage roll. You just split the total damage as you wish among the enemies whose AC you hit with your roll.

This feature would work because instead of gaining additional attacks, the Ranger could gain additional movement or line of sight to attack more enemies, while other features could provide additional damage in various situations.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

#DnD in #MtGKtK: Adventuring in #Tarkir! (BONUS: Ainok as a PC race!)




Well, finally after the intellectual injury that I felt during the #Theros period, a new Magic expansion comes. (To add offense to injury, I even liked Theros' art and mechanics, making me even more mad about the flavor...).
Khans of Tarkir looks like it will become one of those expansions that catch me completely, like #Innistrad or #Zendikar (although nothing can beat Zendikar for me, really).

What are some good bullet points about Tarkir as a D&D setting?

  • The land is wild and dangerous but includes some civilization in many different forms.
    This is particulary good because it offers variety in playstyles. You could have dungeon crawls in the bowels of the #Sultai decadent cities, intirgue on their surface, wild adventures throughout #Temur and #Mardu territories, with Mardu offering a cool militaristic/nomad background and Temur focusing more on primal aspects. #Abzan organized cities would be good for crime and politics adventures, while #Jeskai monasteries could house arcane weirdness of all kinds.
  • Each clan has multiple focuses, allowing for different types of characters in it.
    The Sultai (my favorite) are about necromancy, opulence, assassination, intrigue, and even world domination.
    The Abzan are about law and order, with a focus on defense and passive isolationism.
    The Temur are the go-to clan for primal forces, druidic magic, beasts and the wild in general, but also have a good bit of martial prowess in them.
    The Mardu are the typical "horde" clan, the icon of the setting if you wish, with "raiding" being the standard form of living, but with some dark magic (especially concealment) in it as well.
    The Jeskai are the most "enlightened" clan, with monks being prominent, but also wizards and a pursuit of knowledge and perfection in general.
  • There are a few nice peculiarities about magic in Tarkir.
    The "morphs" are basically just concealed creatures or things that fight with some kind of elemental or purely arcane force power. There are artifacts and spells to look what these morph "clouds" conceal, and it's a form of magic available to all clans, something connected with the world itself maybe, worth exploring in D&D even as a new mechanic.
  • Dragons are apparently absent, but at the same time their presence is felt.
    The spirit dragon Ugin is trapped somehow here in its homeland (although he was prominent in Zendikar, so it must be or have been a planeswalker), and Sarkhan Vol is a dracomancer. The spirits of dragons may be the basis of elemental/primal magic in Tarkir, and some dragons may still be alive, trapped in hybernation beneath the ices that they indirectly brought after their last war (some sort of nuclear winter!).
  • A guide to the setting: Part 1 (Intro, Abzan, Jeskai, Sultai) and Part 2 (Mardu, Temur, Planeswalkers)
    There is even mention of locations and prominent NPCs. I'd say it makes for a nearly ready-to-play world!
  • Quite a few interesting races!
    The new tage on naga, the brand new Ainok that come in canine or ursine variants, the extremely original take on djinn and efreet... There is really plenty of races to choose for Tarkir characters!
  • There are strong connections with Zendikar!!
    This is not really an advantage of Tarkir as a D&D setting in general, but for me personally it is that and much more!

Clan Mechanics

I really tried to translate some of the clan mechanics to feats or some other kind of thing, but I must admit that even with my now long experience of translating even the most abstract Magic mechanics into D&D terms, this time I thought it was too much of a stretch. It's really not worthy in my opinion, and subclasses specific to the clans may do a much better job. I might change my mind on special feats, but it would entail changing the original mechanic very much, especially since some of them are just keywords that activate always on the same condition, but never having the same effect. These must change for sure, if they have to be set into feats, while they can retain their variability if set into different subclasses, or variant class features.

All in all, it's really not necessary to convert these signature mechanics, because more than anything they represent the style of the clan, which is already apparent if one builds a character well-inserted/themed in/around the clan.

Races! The Ainok!

Yes, I could not resist!

Ainok Traits

Ability Score Increase. Your Wisdom score increases by 1.
Size. Canine, desert-dwelling Ainok associated with the Abzan are human-sized or even a tad smaller, while the ursine Ainok of the Temur lands are much bigger, espeically broader.
Subraces. There are two subraces of Ainok: the canine Ainok allied to the Abzan, and the ursine Ainok allied to the Temur. They are very different.



Canine Ainok
Canine Ainoks sometimes resemble hyenas, and are adapted to the desert of the Abzan territories, and the magic art of sandcalling.
Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 35 feet.
Survivalist: You are trained in the Survival skill.
Desert Adapted. You have the equivalent of the Natural Explorer Ranger feature focused on deserts and dry steppes. If you are a Ranger, you must select another territory, since the bonuses wouldn't stack.
Sandcalling Adept. You can conjure sand to make lightly obscured an area of 10 feet per 10 within a range of 30 feet. The effect lasts until the end of your next turn. You can do so a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier. You regain all expended uses after a long rest. At 5th level, you can instead make the area heavily obscured.



Ursine Ainok
Ursine Ainok resemble bears, and are adapted to the cold sub-arctic territories of the Temur clan.
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 1, and your Constitution score increases by 2.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 25 feet.
Cold Adapted. You have Resistance to Cold damage.
Broad Build. You have Advantage on Shoving and Grappling checks and count as Large for the purpose of carrying capacity and the amount of wight you can lit, push, or drag; but you have Disadvantage on attacks and Dexterity ability checks and saves when confined in a 5-feet wide space.



That's all for now folks, please provide your feedback and ideas!