Sunday, June 22, 2014

World building, granularity, and the long payoff

When I wrote about the introduction of the Patriarch, I mentioned that he never spoke for himself, but had a red imp familiar who sat on his shoulder and spoke for him. This was an attempt at world building that never came to fruition, and it's a pretty common problem for GMs.

This is a perfectly reasonable arrangement.
There's a principle for dramatic narratives known as "Chekhov's Gun," which says that you generally remove any narrative or contextual elements that aren't necessary to the story. If you point out a gun on the wall in act 1, then it ought to be fired by act 3, otherwise it never should have been pointed out at all. You could reasonably extend that idea to RPGs, cutting out the unnecessary fluff and narrative clutter, but it's not the same process as with a novel or play.

The way I understand it, there's two general ways this plays out at the table.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: Family Matters

Following their rescue of the captured spy, the players make their way to Sar Diga to help The Family deal with traitors in their midst.

I've written at least a bit on Sar Diga before. It's a well-connected hub of commerce: It's not terribly far from the capital, it's a hub of fishing off of Lake Kheldram, and it's sitting on the coast. Merchant and passenger ships coming from the east make their first stop here, so there's a lot of commerce that passes through the city. The gothic aesthetic of the city distinguishes it from the others. It's the perfect place for a crime syndicate to make its headquarters.

Like Thief but replacing technology with magic.
The Family isn't really familial, but the ranks in the group are organized by lineage. The head of the group is the Patriarch, an elusive figure whose true identity is known only to his inner circle, the Brothers. There are five Brothers in the organization, each in charge of respective fields of crime: Prostitution (Thalia Cyanal), gambling (Haneth Tsalaxa), black market goods (Imre Levalle), and organized theft and protection schemes (Kahveh Harandi). The fifth Brother, Dimos Seeren, acts as liaison between The Family and the Boland Brotherhood. After that, the organizational breakdown goes through nephews, then cousins, then various levels of "friends of The Family."

The players don't know how to get in touch with their liaison, but they do know how to find the Greeter.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: The Lion and the Unicorn

As the players prepare to leave Dockhouse to further their adventure, their host, Colton, gives them a warning. As a man privy to rumors, he's heard talk of a traitor within the Family, prepared to sell them all out to the Queen. Although rumors like this circulate frequently, the threat of a crushed rebellion certainly raises the stakes. Colton tells them to keep an eye out for things in Sar Diga and bids them farewell.

In Hillstead, the players quick meeting with Glabrous and their next Brotherhood contact, and the players are off and on their way to Fol Thron, capital of Alessia's empire.

Fol Thron would later be fleshed out a bit more, but at this point it was just a generically large city with a few interesting land marks. This is one of the challenges of using your own setting. You usually have the time to flesh out one location really well, or you can design a broader setting, but any given location is by necessity less interesting. Of course, that's assuming you need every street named and every building assigned. I've found it to be most useful to give the important details and let imaginations fill in the rest. 
The players have to figure out what happened to the spy, with only half a letter and a hastily scribbled riddle. It turned out to be a lot less complicated than you'd imagine.

(Read the rest below the fold)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: High Stakes

After the players, agents of the Boland Brotherhood, finished dealing with the kraken in Lake Kheldram (because krakens are clearly freshwater creatures), they made a brief detour to Hillstead on their way to Fol Thron. While here, they retrieved the half-letter in the hopes of deciphering the missing agent's clues, as well as to meet up with their fellow traveler, Glabrous Emerald-Eye.

Why were they meeting Glabrous in Hillstead? Aside from Glabrous's player being absent for the first session, Glabrous was in Hillstead convincing the leaders of other churches to support the Brotherhood's cause, for it is in need of allies.

Of course, most revolutions start this way. The Brotherhood needs allies, and the players will spend a great deal of the game recruiting for the cause of unseating the Queen.

Actually, this is one of the things I tried to bring in early to make player agency matter. If the players are plotting a civil war, how will their actions bring it to a favorable conclusion? I wanted them to be thinking about how their actions would direct the outcome of the war, rather than simply having events unfold around them.
To make sense of the sides, we have to travel back to the past.
(Read the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: The tale can now be told

It's been roughly six months since this D&D campaign ended, and nearly as long since I last wrote about it. There are several reasons for why this series has been on hiatus for so long, and just as many for why I'm finally starting it again.

Since it's been a while, a recap might be good (or you could just start here).

The land of Mar Tesaro has a troubled and storied history. The current queen, Alessia, fought tooth and nail to get recapture this land from a supremely powerful lich, consolidate her power in a devastating civil war (culminating in the return and defeat of said lich), and then rebuild in the aftermath. Along the way, she made friends and enemies. One particular group of enemies wouldn't forget the civil war, determined to overthrow the queen and restore the previous ruling order, calling themselves the Boland Brotherhood. The players cast their lot with the "Rebel Alliance."

It's a lot like this, except instead of space ships we had wizards on gryphons. Otherwise, exactly the same.
The telling of this story will be interspersed with commentary about actually running the game. Those bits will be in block quotes.

Speaking of which . . .
(Read the rest below the fold.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 3

8:30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”8:31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)
Have you ever given, or received, an evangelistic tract? I consider them to be something akin to street preaching, not a particularly effective tool but not one I can say is 100% ineffective.

Sometimes those things make us look bad. Sometimes they make us look really bad. Take, for example, this old Jack Chick tract. Although Dungeons & Dragons isn't a particular bugaboo these days, you'll still find folks who think Harry Potter is going to indoctrinate their children into the occult. All the same, the RPG community still passes around poor Blackleaf as a joke. I realize that even the most genuine attempts at evangelism can open a person up to ridicule, but I think we can all agree that something that sticks around as the butt of a joke for 30 years is a problem.

The point of the chapter for week three was that evangelism is almost entirely about relationship. Most tracts are used in a "fire and forget" manner, shoved into the hands of passersby on the street in the hopes that someone will read it. What if they do? Who explains the meaning of the text to them? Who helps them find a Bible to actually look up the things that are said in the tract? Who helps them connect to a body of believers in their area? Who helps explain to them what being a Christian even means?

It's not even just tracts. When I was in college, we used to hand out food as a means of "ministering" to our community. The hope is that someone receives some free food, sees the love of Christ behind that action, and becomes curious enough to probe further, offering an opportunity to share the gospel. We used to make care packages (instant drinks, ramen noodles, candy, etc.) for the new freshmen. We'd hand out snowcones at the festival showcasing all of the student groups. We'd hand out hot cocoa to people during the winter. In the spring, we'd hand out Poptarts. I was part of that for four years, and I can probably count on one hand the number of people who even stopped to ask why we were giving away food, much less wanted to ask about this "Jesus" fellow.
From PRC's study on the "nones"
It only compounds the problem further that Christianity is becoming much less "standard" as far as cultural knowledge goes. As the general public moves away from church, it's much less likely for anyone to even know the basic Biblical stories, much less what specific terms of theology mean. As with Philip and the eunuch, how can they understand if there is no one to explain it to them?

I won't discount the potential for one person to sow while another person reaps. However, so much of the world views us as uninterested in the person we are talking to, instead seeking another notch in our belt, another conservative voter, another tithe in the church coffers. If we want people to take our attempts to share our faith seriously, our attempts have to look genuine. If evangelism is like a meal, we need to sit down and grab a menu, rather than hitting up the drive-thru.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 2

The subject for week two of the study was on the value of stories during evangelism and spiritual conversations. Illustrative stories can be very helpful for explaining an idea; Jesus always seemed to have a parable at hand to explain the nature of God or the Kingdom. Paul began his speeches before gentile audiences with stories. It's just a well known idea, people like stories. There's no faster way to draw in an audience than with stories.

More specifically, however, this chapter looked at stories from your spiritual journey. This can be a tricky area. It can be easy to ignore, overlook, or even ridicule the stories others have of experiencing the supernatural. They can be brushed off as coincidental at best and signs of mental illness at worst. The experiences are no less meaningful to folks, however, so it's important for Christians to understand how to respond to these stories and use them as tools of evangelism. Incidentally, it's not just Christians who have stories of the supernatural or spiritual experiences.

From PRC's 2009 study of the rise of the "nones."
One of the points we discussed was just how important being able to share these stories can be. I thought I'd use this week's post, then, to share one of my own stories, one in which I almost died.

(Continue reading)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 1

Last year, I was in charge of my church small group discussions about Calling. I decided to write about the material in addition to leading the discussion. (All of those posts should be available here.) I'm leading the group again this fall, so I thought I would write about it again. This year, we're going through the book Holy Conversation by Richard Peace.

The overall point of the book is that evangelism is in a wayward state in our current cultural climate. For a lot of people, it means tracts and pamphlets, brimstone condemnations, self-righteous judgment, that sort of thing. Even if you dial that back, just the act of telling someone that their beliefs are wrong or their actions sinful is the worst possible social blunder, impolite at best and offensive, bordering on a human rights violation, at worst. On the other end of it, many Christians have taken such cultural frowning on proselytizing to heart to the extent that even talking about their faith is uncomfortable. The goal of the book is to move back towards a model of relational evangelism, purposeful and personal without being offensive.

I'm not unsympathetic to the idea. Drive-by, shotgun-style evangelism is a net with very big holes in it. I can't say it doesn't have a place, but it's not going to catch a lot of fish. Religion has become a very personal thing, not a public expression, in the last several decades (for better or worse.) Even Pope Francis is on the same page:

He smiles again and replies: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."
I feel like the Pope is a bit too heavy handed with the Universalism-angle in this interview, but that could be the translation. The bottom line is that conversion is a different process for everyone, and that makes it a very personal thing. Formulas and presentations aren't necessarily the way to go, but a direct relationship can make for a much more natural progression.

The first week focused on the idea that everyone is on a spiritual journey, and half the battle in having a productive conversation about faith is understanding where your friend is on their own path how to address them in that place.

Frankly, I think I missed the point of the study in the first week. The goal of the study is to help make evangelism a natural process, getting away from heavily religious terminology that might scare or confuse folks, working on a personal level. What did I do? I prepared a discussion that tried to form a biblical basis for the idea that everyone is on a spiritual journey. I tried to establish a connection between the ideas Peace was laying out for the conversion process and traditional theological ideas. If you're used to thinking in technical ways, it's hard to break away from that.

Hopefully the coming weeks will be more natural. It's frustrating to me so far that each session is very light on material; preparing an actual "lesson" seems counter-intuitive to the goal of the study, but hoping that three pages of material focused on a single idea can generate 1-2 hours of conversation seems overly optimistic to me. Still, I look forward to seeing how the study turns out.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro: Band of Misfits

As I said a few weeks ago, the D&D campaign will be finishing up this month. We have our final session next week, after which I have much more I want to write about the game. However, I think a good prelude to that discussion would be to talk about the actual movers and shakers in the game, the player characters.

In a previous entry to this series, I mentioned that my players decided to take up arms with the Boland Brotherhood, a secret rebellion plotting to overthrow the Queen. They wanted to be lieutenants, not leaders, SEAL team 6 instead of the Security Council. D&D games work much better if the players aren't spending the entirety of their time politicking, so this brooked no arguments from me. The characters had a purpose, and I had a vehicle for sending them into adventure.

So, who was this cast of adventurers?
(Read the rest below the fold)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Honorary gnomes

All this WoW blogging has brought some traffic back to the site. Maybe I should just turn this into a WoW blog. (Won't happen, but I've had worse ideas.)

One of the traffic sources was from the Gnomeregan Forever guild website, apparently impressed with my post on Operation: Gnomeregan and an offer to make me an honorary gnome.

My favorite character is and will always be my draenei paladin, but I actually do play gnomes. Well, sort of.

Hassium, Warlock Supreme Totally not a warlock, and I have no idea why that demon is following me around.
Halanium, Warrior of Gnomeregan and part-time gardening enthusiast
The above screenshots are both of my gnomish characters. Hassium made it to level 80 in Wrath, but didn't get played in Cataclysm. I was volunteered as raid leader not too far into Cataclysm, so there wasn't really time to level a bunch of alts. It doesn't hurt that it was taking me a while to adjust to the changes Warlocks received in Cataclysm. I also had been wanting to try out a Warrior for quite some time.

That's when Halanium appeared on the scene. My plan had been to level him as a tank in the dungeon finder, as my main was a Paladin tank and I wanted to see how the differences between the two classes played out. Then I remembered that I hadn't really explored any of the changes to the questing experience after Cataclysm was released, so Halanium went out into the world to kick butt in the name of Gnomeregan.

Oddly enough, all this talk of gnomes convinced me to play Halanium again. He'd gotten to level 85, but I've been well occupied in Mists with my Paladin.  (Okay, and a druid healer.) I have no idea how long that'll keep up, but it's been fun getting back into another character.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Community Blog Topic: Adding fourth specs to WoW

You'd think this was turning into a WoW blog, but it really isn't. I have all kinds of other things to write about. For example . . . um . . .

Hey look, another WoW blog topic!

With 11 classes, 34 total specializations, and 13 different races, you have plenty of options for the game. A few more couldn't hurt . . . right?
If you aren't familiar with the class specializations in WoW, let's start at the beginning.

WoW has always had three specializations (specs) for the classes.  These would allow you to distinguish your character from others of the same class, as well as offering different gameplay.  This could be minor, such as the difference between two different DPS specs, or it could be major, such as the difference between a tanking and a healing spec.

A few classes have bucked the three-spec rule at various times.  Death Knights started out in Wrath of the Lich King where each of the three specs could be a tank or a DPS spec.  Blizzard eventually removed this capability, making one spec exclusively a tank spec, while the other two stayed DPS.  Druids always had three specs, but the original melee spec, Feral, supported two druid playstyles and shapeshift forms.  Cat form was the druid melee DPS, while bear form was the druid tank.  Although each spec had its own talent tree, most of the abilities in the druid talent tree had caveats in the form of, "If you are in Bear form, X; if you are in Cat form, Y."  Eventually, Blizzard simplified this by making each a separate spec, resulting in druids being the only class in WoW to have four specs.

The question of how to add a fourth spec to the other classes has been a popular topic of speculation since that change.  I certainly wouldn't mind it being done, although it's not like we lack for options in the game as is.   Where I'll disagree with others when this topic is broached is in the right way to make it happen.  As I see it, there are a few principles to consider in any proposed changes to the classes:
  1. Does it fit with the lore/theme/flavor of the class?
  2. Does it require changing the mechanics of the class?
  3. Does it require changes to any other game features?
  4. Does it fill a niche, or conflict with existing archetypes?
  5. Is it intuitive to new and/or existing players?
To my mind, most of the ideas floated for new specs clash with at least one of the questions above. Some simply don't fit thematically, either in WoW or with classic fantasy tropes. Others would mandate adding a lot of new abilities to the classes, to the point that the classes might not be recognizable for it. Asking for certain pieces of gear to have more demand is fine, but generating unheard of themes for the classes is the wrong solution.

I won't say some of these ideas would never be introduced, or that it would be impossible to change the game to make these things possible, but their implementation would be significantly more complicated than many people realize.

All the same, some of these ideas aren't without merit. I'd like to address most of the most popular suggestions for new class specs. You might want to get comfy.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Community Blog Topic: The re-retaking of Gnomeregan

I still have a lot I want to say about my D&D campaign, but that series has settled comfortably on the back-burner for now. I've decided it's going to be easier to write about it after it's actually finished, and we'll (hopefully) cross the finish line in September. In the meantime, another communal topic has captured my attention.

The various factions and peoples of Warcraft have had some very interesting and well-told stories. However, some groups are more prominent than others. For example, the orcs and trolls are currently in the midst of a civil war, the completion of which will be the dominant story for the conclusion of the current expansion. Other factions have faded into the background, with little said about their activities for quite some time, at least in-game. The draenei are a frequent example, who practically vanished after the Burning Crusade completed, as are the goblins, who landed on the shores of Orgrimmar only to have their faction leaders vanish into thin air. Players want to see these stories continue, particularly if they play one of these characters and have a vested interest in the outcome.

As for me, I feel there is one race that has received the short end of the stick more than any other. For this faction, Blizzard has truly given their story short-shrift. This short-coming is epitomized in the only real attention they've received, in-game, in the entirety of the game's lifespan so far.

Operation: Gnomeregan - An absolutely wasted opportunity of storytelling on Blizzard's part.

(See the rest below the fold)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Community Blog Topic: Is leveling (in WoW) too easy?

Once again, I'm taking up a topic introduced elsewhere.  You're welcome to read the background that prompted this question.  As I said last time, I don't write about WoW much,

Starting a character is World of Warcraft really isn't difficult.  The game holds your hand through a lot of the earliest moments of the game, and that's understandable.  Bringing in new players (i.e. customers) means having a low barrier to entry.  Leveling a character isn't restricted to the starting zones (which serve the role of a tutorial level.)  Eventually you're sent into the wider world for ~70 levels of fun and adventure.

The hardest part is making a decision.
Is leveling too easy?  I think answering this question properly requires breaking down the question into three related questions:

  1. Is leveling easy?
  2. Is leveling fun?
  3. Does leveling prepare you for the end game?

See the rest below the jump

Friday, June 07, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro - Misfire

Truth be told, the current campaign is actually my second attempt to run the Mar Tesaro setting again.  The first attempt failed through no fault of its own.  Like so many games before it, real life ended up getting in the way.  After the conclusion of a prior campaign, a number of people went on hiatus to spend time with their families, and one of the interim games became the reborn Mar Tesaro campaign.  We had about four sessions or so before the remainder couldn't spare the time to play.  By the time they were ready to play again, so was the rest of the group, and it was the consensus that starting fresh would be better in the end.

The short campaign that resulted ended up having little in common with the current campaign, although a large part of that was the result of being unable to introduce the larger themes and ideas right away.  I still think what resulted is interesting enough to write about.

The two characters in the group (and I must say that running D&D 4E for two people is really complicated) were Traster Dewshining, an eladrin* swordmage who survived the transition to the new campaign, and Dertritus Grubstake, a dwarf ranger with a huge spider companion.  Dertritus didn't make the transition, and I'm rather glad.  Why?  Well, here's his inspiration: