The Alexandrian

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Character Background: Tor

Adding new players to a successful campaign can be really tricky. It doesn’t take much to muck up the strange alchemy that makes for a great group, and that doesn’t even take into account “real world” concerns like discovering that scheduling which was previously hassle-free has stumbled into a nightmare of subtly conflicting schedules that form a real impediment to actually playing.

Auditioning players can help weed out some of these problems. I know some groups will “audition” the new players by just adding them to the existing campaign as a trial run, but I’ve found that this generally causes more problems than it solves. (Even if you manage to cleanly break with a player who’s not working out, you still end up having to deal with the jagged edges of continuity left from introducing a new PC and then, even more importantly, writing them out.) I prefer running a one-shot completely separate from the campaign (although perhaps set in the same campaign world) or even a short mini-campaign that lasts two or three sessions. It allows you to assess how the chemistry of the group will work out, without disturbing the primary campaign in any way.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, of course, an open table is a big help here, largely because a successful open table will leave you with a surfeit of qualified candidates who you’re often eager to play with in a dedicated campaign. There’s no guesswork in determining whether or not someone is a good player because you’ve already seen them play; in fact, you’ve probably already seen them play with the other members of the campaign.

Keeping the difficulties in mind, however, in practice, I just don’t do it. Most of my campaigns sit five players. I generally don’t like going above that number, and if I lose a player (for whatever) reason I’m generally more comfortable letting the number of players slip to four or even three. (This is particularly true with more typical campaigns of 15-25 sessions. Usually easier to just power through to the end.)

Nonetheless, in this session of my Ptolus campaign I found myself adding two new players. I’ve described the reasons for this previously. In brief: Due to the events in Session 7, one of the original long-distance players (Agnarr) had decided to quit; the second long-distance player (Alysta, who had already been having scheduling problems) decided it was a good opportunity to also drop out; and the third long-distance player (Ranthir) had become more-or-less local.

As we regrouped in October 2007, two new players would fill the empty chairs and bring with them two new characters: Tor and Elestra.

TOR

Let’s start with the more traditional addition.

Although I didn’t “audition” either of the new players, I had literally auditioned one of them: She played the role of Abigail Adams in the 2007 production of my play John and Abigail. If I recall correctly, she had not played RPGs before, but was intrigued by the whole concept after chatting about the campaign after rehearsal one night.

I offered her the option of picking up either of the characters who had been abandoned, but as this was her first time at the rodeo she was interested in getting the full experience by creating her own character. Thus was born Master Torland Mank.

This actually ended up being, unintentionally, a great thing for the campaign. Introducing a character who was not directly tied into the mystery of the group’s lost memories ended up pulling the campaign in directions it otherwise would not have gone and anchoring it in ways that, in retrospect, were absolutely essential. Without Tor, it’s likely that everything else the group encountered would have continued playing a second fiddle to the overriding concern of what had happened to them, and much of value would have been lost.

And because Tor’s player was, in fact, fabulous, the roleplaying revolving around Tor’s introduction to the group was amazing (as you’ll see over the course of the next few campaign journals).

So, that’s lesson one here: When looking to add a new character to the campaign, try to find a new dynamic. Add something that the group doesn’t already have — a different perspective on the world, a different social class, a different set of goals, a different set of problems. (At a crude, mechanical level, a different set of abilities.) All of these things should obviously complement the existing group, but in adding a new character you have an opportunity to make the campaign richer than it was before, so take advantage of that.

This applies just as much to a new character created by an existing player.

(We’ve all seen those TV shows where an actor leaves and they replace them with a “new” character is actually just filling the same functional role as the old one, right? And we know that never works, right? The new guy is always just the slightly suckier version of the previous character? Right. So don’t do that.)

Another tricky thing to consider when adding a new PC is the hook: How do they get introduced and (even more importantly) how do they get pulled into the group?

In most cases, even if you completely screw this up the metagame will paper over the gaping cracks: Everybody knows that this is Peter’s new character, so they’ll just kind of “naturally” accept him as part of the group. But it is, in fact, this sort of “go with the flow” tendency which, for me, makes it even more important to not have it be that simple; to have the new addition to the group make sense in character.

(This is also something you can fiendishly invert: Next time Peter needs to roll up a new character, instead ask him to take on the role of an NPC that’s planning to infiltrate the party and betray them for one reason or another. The eventual revelation may do irreparable damage to the group’s metagame trust of the next PC to show up, but it’s worth it.)

In the case of Tor, as you can see in the campaign journal, I was able to take advantage of the PCs’ lost memories to just literally have them hire him. This tied him loosely to the central mystery of the campaign, obviously, and (now that I think about it) kind of hung a lampshade on the whole “of course we trust this guy, it’s Sarah’s new character” thing.

(In point of fact, as you’ll see in the next journal entry, they did not fully trust Tor and ended up concealing their lost memories from him. This is all for the good. A little intra-party friction is good stuff.)

ELESTRA

Elestra’s player was also new to the table, but her character was slightly more unusual. I’ve discussed this in greater detail in the past, but basically Elestra was originally a character named Alysta. And I retconned the campaign so that Alysta was written out and Elestra had been there all along.

I’d never done anything like this before, haven’t done it since, haven’t heard of anyone else who has done it, and will probably never do it again myself.

The reason I did it was relatively straightforward: I’d designed a mystery basically starring these five characters — Agnarr, Tee, Dominic, Ranthir, and Alysta. There was no logical way for Alysta to decide to just… leave. (For a similar reason, Ranthir’s player took on the role of Agnarr and has played both characters simultaneously ever since.)

The existence of a detailed campaign journal actually made this relatively easy: I spent an afternoon or so rewriting the existing campaign journal, replacing all references to Alysta with Elestra. This not only created a new “canon” for the campaign that everyone could agree upon, it also made it easy for Elestra’s player to catch up on all the things that “she” had experienced.

This worked surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that the group basically forgot all about Alysta. I think I speak for all of us when I say that when we think back to the early days of the campaign, we think of them as if Elestra had been there. Until writing this essay, in fact, I don’t think I’d thought about the name “Alysta” in close to a decade. Even Elestra’s player discusses the events of the first seven sessions of the campaign as if she had actually experienced them.

Beyond that, I don’t really have any general lessons to take from this, though: It was kind of a wacky idea. Despite the fact that, against all odds, it somehow worked, I wouldn’t really recommend it as something you should try.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

CHARACTER BACKGROUND: TOR

You grew up in the duchy of Anathor in the kingdom of Barund. Your father was a Royal Equiner, meaning that he possessed a royal license for the “right and true breeding of noble steeds”. The patents of lineage and seals of training which he controlled gave him the right to breed, break, and train horses suitable for the royal orders of knighthood. (He also did considerable business with the major and minor orders within Anathor.)

(Anathor is located in southern Barund, on the border between Barund and Arathia. The orders of knighthood can be roughly divided into three varieties: The royal orders, the major orders, and the minor orders. Similarly, equiners can be divided into three varieties: Royal Equiners, Noble Equiners, and Common Equiners. The only honor your father lacked was a gilted patent, which would have allowed him to breed and train horses for the royal family, the three Orders of the Lion, and other members of the highest nobility.)

While your father lived, you and your brother Ny shared in the work. Ny took to the trade work – the books, negotiation of sales, and the like – and also had a fine understanding of the intracies of royal breeding and patentage. You, on the other hand, came to love working with the horses themselves. Above all, you treasured the work of coraling and breaking and training wild horses – the creation of new lineages.

These new lineages were rarely of the sort that would appeal to your noble clients, but there was no shame in extending the work of your family to include plough-horses, militia mounts, and caravan haulers.

You married at 15 and have three children – first a boy (Jareth) and then twin daughters (Mila and Jaspin). Your wife, Fera, died a year after delivering the girls. Jareth is now 17 and takes after you. Mila was married this year to a silversmith. Jaspin shows no interest in marrying at all, but has a natural head for business. Ny and Jareth now run the family business, and Jaspin keeps the books.

All through your life, tales from across the world have reached your ears: Caravan masters out of Arathia would tell stories gathered from their trade. Nobles would share the pomp and glamour of their tournaments. Knights would speak of their acts of glory. The wanderers trading in wild horses from the Borderlands would tell tall tales from beyond the mountains. Even the farmers would share their myths and legends.

These tales always seemed distant and removed, but with the passing years you began to wonder if that meant they out of reach… or if it simply meant that they needed to be reached for.

Now at the age of 33, with the corners of your life tucked away and the legacy of your father well-secured, anything seems possible. You had often wondered if you might some day achieve knighthood, and a few months ago you decided to pursue some of the tales you’ve heard. You began teaching yourself how to read, and you also reached out to the many friends you’ve made through the years (knights, nobles, caravan masters and the like) to ask them what you should do.

The most likely course that seemed to emerge was the Arathian city-state of Ptolus. It lay on the coast of the Southern Sea, and for a few years now stories had drifted to your ears of fabulous treasures hidden in mammoth caverns and labyrinthine mazes beneath the city. There were even tales of an entire guild specializing in exploring those ancient places. If there was anywhere in the world where adventure and deeds of daring could be had, it seemed to be Ptolus.

You began laying careful plans – the type of careful planning with which you’ve approached everything in your life. But then things started happening very quickly: A letter arrived from a man named Ritharius.

Master Tor—

I recently shared the road with Sir Robilard of the Order of the Chalice, a man I believe to be our mutual acquaintance. He gave me to understand that you have recently become interested in a life of more interesting pursuits, and that you were pursuing inquiries into such matters.

It so happens that I myself have some small connection to these things, and would be honored to extend my introductions – upon Sir Robilar’s good report – for you.

I have a party of associates currently lodging at the Ghostly Minstrel in the Midtown of Ptolus. They have some need of a strong left arm, and if you were to present yourself to them before the end of Amseyl, I have been given to understand that they would have some employment for you in a direction you might find favorable. Their names are Dominic, Agnarr, Elestra, Tee, and Ranthir.

Ritharius

First Day of Amseyl

It seemed impossible not to accept such an invitation. Certainly no clearer path could have been laid for you. You rapidly finished your preparations, finished what little business still required your attention, made your proper farewells to your family, and – finally – selected your favorite mount (a true steed named Blue). On the 15th of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty you set out. It took you four days to cross the Aliyan and reach the city-state of Duvei, but from there you made quick time upon the trade roads. You reached the coast of the Southern Sea on the 22nd, and spent a long time gazing out from the sea cliffs there. Then you followed the coast road south along the outskirts of Moonsilver Forest and across the plains south of there, until you saw the famous Spire of Ptolus crest the horizon before you.

On the 24th of Amseyl, you reached Ptolus’ North Gate, passing by the tournament fields that lay just outside the wall. For a long time you could do nothing but stare up at the almost unimaginable and utterly unnatural grandeur of the Spire, but you eventually focused your mind upon your task. Following North Gate Road took you down into Midtown, and from there you made your way by Center Street to Delver’s Square and the Ghostly Minstrel.

A woman named Tellith greeted you as you passed through the front doors of the inn. She said that Dominic, Agnarr, and the others had left early that morning, but were likely to be back soon. She directed you to the common room, and you settled down to wait…

SOME NOTES ON THE ORDERS OF KNIGHTHOOD

All the orders of knighthood in Barund follow the Code of Law as laid down in the Book of Athor, adhere to the Martial Code as laid down in the Book of Itor, and honor the Seven Compassions as laid down in the Book of Crissa.

The Code of Law is your bedrock “thou shalt not” stuff: Don’t murder, steal, enslave your brother, and so forth. The Martial Code is your standard chivalric ideal: Face your opponent fairly and honorably.

The Seven Compassions are a bit more philosophically complex, and are also referred to in some commentaries as the Seven Cares. The compassions are of the self, the companion, the stranger, the task, the thought, the memory, and the true. In other words, care for yourself, for your companions, and for strangers. Take care with what you do, what you think, and how it shall be remembered. And if you can do all that, then you will know true compassion. (For most people, the Seven Compassions boil down to “be nice to people” and “think before you act”.)

Within these broad boundaries, the various orders will have their own eccentricities. For example, the Order of the Holy Sword (a minor order in the duchy of Anathor) is marked by a zealous devotion to the Deeds of Honor as described in the Book of Itor. (The Deeds are a collection of legendary tales, but can also be boiled down into a kind of “scorecard” or exemplar of heroic actions. “He lives his life by the deeds of honor” is a common saying in Barund.)

As may be obvious from the fact that their core ethos is drawn from the religious texts of the Church, the orders of knighthood have a strong religious component to their ideology. This prompts a quick discussion about religion in Barund:

The Twenty Year War triggered a religious schism within the Imperial Church. After Seyrun invaded Barund, the king refused to acknowledge the Edicts of the Novarch (as these edicts were closely associated with imperial power in Seyrun). An outright refutation of the Novarch, however, would have put the king on somewhat shaky ground: For six centuries, the Line of Kings has been recognized and legitimized as a divine bloodright dating back to the Holy Coronation performed by the Novarch in 127 YD. So what the king did, while continuing to acknowledge the Novarch as the Living Voice of the Nine Gods, was to declare the Novarch to have no secular or religious authority over the lands controlled by the divine bloodright of the Barundian royal family.

Now, the supreme leader of the Church in Barund has always been the Prelate of Barund. The Prelate of Barund, appointed by the Novarch, has authority over the regional prelates of the Church throughout Barund. The king of Barund, on the authority of his divine bloodline, promptly appointed his own Prelate of Barund. So, even today, there are two Prelates of Barund: One appointed by the King and the other appointed by the Novarch.

NEXT JOURNAL ENTRY

Review: The Strange Supplements

February 11th, 2018

THE STRANGE BESTIARY

The Strange Bestiary - Monte Cook GamesThe Strange Bestiary is 160 pages, packed almost cover-to-cover with a fantabulous array of creatures drawn from across the rich breadth of recursions found in the Shoals of Earth. While there are a few familiar faces (a handful of Lovecraftian beasties and a selection of fan favorite dinosaurs), for the most part it is a scintillating display of creative imagination.

This selection is lightly rounded out with some general advice on creature design for The Strange and a little over a half dozen specific NPC characters (like Sasha the Blade and Doctor Ceratops).

Bestiaries in all of their varied forms are, of course, a long-term staple of the roleplaying industry. After several decades of perusing them, I’ve come to the conclusion that their quality can generally be measured by looking at three metrics: Basic Utility, Art, and Scenario Ideas.

Basic Utility refers to the bestiary’s ability to fully stock a typical campaign. This category is particularly important for games in which statting up bad guys is a time consuming task. In those systems, I need a resource that will cover the basic staples. A lot of games – particularly modern and science fiction games – completely pratfall in this category, frequently failing to provide any basic utility. (A notable exception to this is Eclipse Phase, which provides the absolutely essential NPC File supplement.)

The Strange Bestiary – like the core rulebook before it – kind of flirts with this a little bit, but in offering less than a half dozen such options it’s really not trying all that hard. BUT this is largely irrelevant, because the simplicity of the Cypher System would make the exercise largely pointless: Statting up an NPC basically consists of assigning them a single number. You don’t need a supplement to do that for you.

Art should be fairly self-explanatory. The more exotic and unique the creatures described in a bestiary, the more vital I consider truly excellent art to be. As I described in “On the Importance of Art in Bestiaries”, the difference between a fantastic creature that immediately captures your imagination and one which you never give a second thought to often has more to do with the art which accompanies it than the text which describes it or the stats which define it. Furthermore, I find the ability to use high quality art as a handout at the table to be something that really enhances a session.

Like everything else Monte Cook Games has produced, The Strange Bestiary features generally fantastic art. Flipping through the book, you’re just constantly captivated by evocative, beautiful, memorable art that will make you immediately want to feature it in your campaign.

The Strange Bestiary - Pixellated ArtHowever, I am going to ding the PDF version of the book pretty severely here. I am uncertain how to explain what can only be frankly described as Monte Cook Games’ complete incompetence when it comes to producing the PDF versions of their books, but like virtually every other MCG PDF I own, the artwork in The Strange Bestiary is pixelated to the point of becoming completely unusable. In many cases, it is nothing more than an ugly smear across the page. (In the core rulebook for The Strange, this problem was so bad that maps literally became illegible.) You can see one of the less terrible examples by clicking the image to the right and viewing it at “full” size.

I’m not sure why MCG is systemically incapable of producing acceptable PDFs of their books. They certainly charge enough for them that there’s no excuse for their shoddy quality. It’s a very significant embarrassment for an otherwise sterling company.

Scenario Ideas. One of my fondest memories is sitting down with the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual for AD&D and reading through it cover-to-cover while taking copious notes for how each of its copious entries could be incorporated into my campaign world.

Above all other concerns, I believe the measure of quality for a bestiary lies in the ideas it inspires within its reader. And by this measure The Strange Bestiary is an exemplary volume: By the time I had finished perusing its contents, I had generated more than two dozen scenario ideas; enough to fuel months of gaming and probably more than one campaign.

A really fine book and one which I would heartily recommend for any GM getting ready to translate their way into the Strange.

Style: 4 (2 for PDF)
Substance: 4 (3 for PDF)

Author: Bruce R. Cordell, Monte Cook, and Robert J. Schwalb
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $39.99
PDF Cost: $14.99
Page Count: 160

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IMPOSSIBLE THINGS

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook GamesThe Encyclopedia of Impossible Things is an equipment handbook for The Strange: In addition to adding hundreds of new cyphers, it also introduces the concept of “artifacts” to the game.

First, the new Cyphers. Taking up a wide swath of the book, these are probably the primary utility of the book and, if you’re running a campaign of The Strange, almost certainly make the book worth purchasing entirely in their own right.

There’s a reason the Cypher System is named after these one-use items (which create a constant, semi-random churn of a group’s capacities and, thus, continuously sparks the game with a fresh feed of creative and unexpected play), and increasing their variety by more than six-fold is a huge asset for any game. (I’ll also note that, as far as I can tell, the crossover with the Technology Compendium for Numenera is extremely minimal, so that buying both books also represents a good value.)

My one critique of the new cyphers is that a significant minority of them are just game mechanics that are left floating around without any comprehensible connection to the game world. For example:

INFILTRATOR

Earth: Thin black gloves

Ardeyn: Amulet

Ruk: Spine graft

Effect: The user has an asset on lying, sneaking, lockpicking, falling, and resisting torture for twenty-four hours.

I get that these are basically the equivalent of skill boost magic items from D&D, but in D&D the form and function of the item tend to be obviously connected: Gauntlets of ogre strength give you a boost to Strength because they push, pull, and punch. How do thin black gloves help you lie?

This is a particularly egregious example because the grab-bag of purely mechanical effects seems fairy arbitrary. Lying, sneaking, lockpicking… yes, those are all things which would help someone infiltrate. Resisting torture, though? Seems like that’s what happens when you’ve already failed your infiltration. And having an asset on “falling” is weird since it doesn’t really sync up with the core rule mechanics for falling damage. Maybe they were thinking of HALO insertions or base-jumping?

This is a fairly minor critique, however. Although there are a significant number of such items, they’re surrounded by a multitude of more interesting cyphers. And even with these items the GM shouldn’t struggle too much to tweak them or provide forms which make their utility more interesting in-character.

Which brings us to the second major component of the Encyclopedia: Artifacts.

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook GamesIn Numenera, artifacts and cyphers were basically two sides of the same coin: Both were remnants of ancient technology inexplicable to modern understandings of the world. The only distinction was that cyphers were one-shot items and artifacts could be used multiple times before they would stop working (as randomly determined by a depletion roll).

The core rulebook of The Strange didn’t really include artifacts in this sense. Cyphers were manifestations of the Strange itself (possibly bugs, possibly backdoor features originally accessible via the alien equivalent of cheat codes or sysop privileges, possibly some remnant of forgotten network functionality), but it used the term “artifact” to mean “powerful items featuring ‘impossible’ functions that are native to a particular recursion”. So magic items on Ardeyn, crazy bio-science tech on Ruk, and so forth. The nature of these items weren’t intrinsically linked, except insofar as they were all generally modeled using the depletion roll mechanic. On Earth it included stuff like perpetual motion engines and inapposite harnesses.

But the concept was always kind of muddy, because the term “artifact” was ALSO defined to just mean “anything that’s difficult to obtain in that particular recursion”. So on Earth, for example, a pistol is equipment but a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is an artifact.

This muddiness in the core rulebook didn’t really matter because it didn’t list that many artifacts. But in the Encyclopedia the ill-defined nature of artifacts, in my opinion, bloomed into a full-blown problem. Partly this is because the utility of an “artifact” is thoroughly confused — you end up with powerful technology/magic and rare items and items that can translate like cyphers all muddled up into one big grab-bag. But also because the larger multitude of “artifacts” leads the designers to try to hang other mechanics off the term “artifacts”… except the term doesn’t actually mean anything, right?

For example:

DUPE

A physical duplicate of the user, or a touched creature or object, appears next to the user. […] If a duplicate of an artifact is created, the original may become depleted… Likewise, if a cypher is duplicated, the original may dissipate.

So the Dupe can duplicate a shotgun (which isn’t an artifact), but it probably can’t duplicate a rocket-propelled grenade launcher (because it is an “artifact”). And this sort of thing gets even weirder because the Encyclopedia deepens the muddle by realizing that technology which is rare (and therefore an “artifact”) in one recursion may be really common in another recursion (and would therefore not be an “artifact” there). So in some recursions you can’t dupe a shotgun, because they’re unusually rare/powerful there and are therefore considered an “artifact”.

It’s kind of a confusing mess. And a largely unnecessary one.

Personally, the artifacts in my Strange campaign follow the same basic paradigm as in Numenera: They’re based on the same principles as cyphers except they can be used multiple times. (Which, in The Strange, means that they’re manifestations of the Strange itself.)

There’s also other equipment which happens to use the depletion roll mechanic. (Magic wands, for example. Or strange creations of mad science on a superhero recursion.) In many recursions, there’s also technology/magic that can duplicate the function of any number of cyphers… but they’re not actually cyphers. (Just like your Earth-made pistol, they can’t translate and they can function oddly if taken through an inapposite gate.)

If you basically do the same thing, then the seventy or so pages of “Artifacts” in the Encyclopedia can be a really great resources, albeit with a somewhat chaotic arrangement.

The Encyclopedia is rounded out with a half dozen pages describing the creation of personal recursions. Basically you expend a cypher 2 and XP and you create a little pocket dimension for yourself. The concept is interesting, but, much like the rules for genesis quests and creating recursions in the core rulebook, I feel that it’s an idea which really demands more care and attention than it has so far been given in any of the published resources.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $39.99
PDF Cost: $14.99
Page Count: 160

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook Games

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 8A: Waking in Chains

In which unfortunate bargains are made in caverns deep beneath the city, and our intrepid heroes learn not to look a gift mobster in the mouth…

This session begins with the PCs waking up in chains after a disastrous battle.

There are several ways I could have handled this particular moment:

  • I could have had all the characters wake up simultaneously.
  • I could have arbitrarily chosen the order in which they would wake up.
  • I could use some sort of mechanical resolution to determine how they would wake up.
  • I could have had one of the character(s) get woken up by the bad guys.
  • I could have the character(s) wake up by themselves.

Seems like a relatively simple crux — and I don’t want to suggest that I spent a lot of time staring at my navel on this one — but the ways in which you resolve moments like this can have a surprisingly large impact as the consequences of that moment ripple out.

FettersFirst things first: I felt it was more interesting for the PCs wake up on their own. Why? Well, if they wake up on their own they have an opportunity to take actions (or choose not to take actions) which would no longer be available to them once the bad guys engaged with them. Conversely, anything interesting that might happen from the point where the bad guys wake them up would probably end up happening even if they did wake up first.

When in doubt, go for the option with a larger number of potentially interesting outcomes. (Particularly if you’re not giving anything up to do it.)

Beyond that, I decided to turn to fictional cleromancy: I made a mechanical ruling and let it determine the order in which the PCs would wake up. (In this case, margin of success on a Listen check with a relatively low DC. As the characters woke up, they were then allowed to make Bluff checks to keep the bad guys from realizing they were awake.)

Couldn’t I — as the GM — have made a better decision myself?

Different, certainly. But better? Probably not. If I had arbitrarily decided for myself, I’d probably have chosen Tee to wake up first (since she would be the best positioned to stealthily slip her bonds). That would have potentially given a big, splashy scene. But when the cleromancy selected Dominic, the scene instead gave a quiet opportunity to spotlight a character who often just “went along with the group”. And although the choice to patiently wait and see what would happen might seem like a “non-choice”, it was actually very revealing of Dominic’s personal character (both to the table as a whole and, I think, to Dominic’s player).

Which is why I encourage GMs to trust the fictional cleromancy.

It’s important, of course, to properly set the stakes for any mechanical resolution and to make sure that you (and the rest of the table) will be satisfied with the possible outcomes. There’s no reason to let the mechanics drive you into a wall.

But, in my experience, games are much, much better when you set them free and see where they’ll take you. They’ll surprise and amaze you and create moments you never could have imagined happening in a thousand years.

You can see a couple other examples of this general sort of thing in the current campaign journal. First, resolving Agnarr’s Sense Motive check to notice that his friends had been brainwashed on a graduated scale led to his hilarious attempt to conspire with Elestra.

Second, in the back half of this session, Agnarr attempts to locate a stray dog to make his own… and abysmally fails his Animal Handling check. (Resulting in me describing him giving the dog iron rations, which the dog did not like at all.)

Why not just Default to Yes and let him have the dog? Gut instinct more than anything else. Getting the dog seemed important to the character, and I felt it would be more appreciated if it had to be worked for. It paid off: Failing to attract stray dogs became a running joke for several sessions, and when Agnarr finally did find his dog, the moment was more meaningful for the path that had been walked to get there.

All of this is an art, not a science.

LEARNING FROM FAILURE

Something else to note in this session, particularly in the wake of the near-TPK in the previous session, is how the group adjusted their tactics for underwater fights. Most notably, they made a point of making sure that they stuck together even when disparate results on Swim checks would have driven them apart. And you can see the payoff as they mopped up a whole sequence of combat encounters.

They learned from their mistakes and they learned from their failure.

There’s a branch of GMing philosophy which is basically terrified of the PCs failing at something. And I don’t just mean avoiding TPKs: They can never lose any fight. Every quest must be a success. No clue can ever be missed. No mystery can ever remain unsolved. No personal goal can be frustrated.

There are a couple of major problems with this philosophy.

First, you are eliminating a huge swath of the human experience (and drama!) from your games. Go watch a movie. Read a book. Reflect on how often the main characters are thwarted; suffer setbacks; get stymied. Look at how those failures are used to raise the stakes, drive the story forward, and frame new scenes — scenes that can’t exist if failure isn’t an option.

Second, when you never allow someone to make a mistake, they never learn that they’re doing something wrong.

If you spend any amount of time in RPG discussion groups, you’ll perennially come across GMs complaining that, for example, their players always rush headlong into every fight even when they’re clearly outnumbered and outgunned.

Do you ever let them lose those fights?

Of course not!

Well… I’ve spotted your problem.

Here the group had a problem with underwater combat. They suffered horrendous consequences. And then they fixed the problem.

This is a general theme you’ll see throughout these campaign journals: Not only characters (and their players) refining their strategic and tactical choices, but also figuring how to approach problems from new angles and with alternative solutions when their first options don’t work.

Failure is, in my experience, the root of creativity.

 

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 8A: WAKING IN CHAINS

October 7th, 2007
The 24th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

Dominic woke to the cold taste of iron on his wrists. His hands had been chained above his head. He could hear people moving around him – the sounds echoed oddly. There was cold stone under him and against his back. He could feel that his wounds had been bound, but there was little strength in his limbs and it seemed as if every muscle and bone ached.

Dominic surreptitiously opened his eyes and looked around, trying not to attract attention to the fact that he had woken up. He saw that his companions had been chained up next to him (although it seemed as if Ranthir remained free). They were all in a damp cave of some sort, half of which appeared to be an underground lake. One of the serpentine creatures was just coming out of the Ptolus - Malkeen Balacazarwater, hauling a wooden crate to join a stack of similar crates. Several human workers were breaking the crates open and inspected small packages inside. He also saw a large adrak (a lizardman) with its back criss-crossed with scars and dozens of bells tied to him in a variety of ways. There were also several exits from the room: Two by way of water, a dry tunnel in one direction, and an iron door set into the wall in the other.

A man and woman were standing nearby, perhaps ten or fifteen feet away. The man was wearing robes of blue and white, with a hood that loosely covered his brown hair. He had handsome features made all the more striking by the star-burst tattoo emblazoned over his right eye. He was saying: “I didn’t want to interfere with it. When I looked at what it was doing… Well, the black tendrils were beautifully woven. I wasn’t sure what it was doing, so I left it and came back up to meet you. I thought for sure that you’d have some insight into it, Gattara. You have such a gift for such things.”

The obese woman next to him giggled, trying too hard to be attractive. “Flattery will win you everything.” She wore make-up an inch deep and gaudy Ptolus - Gattara Vladaamjewelry galore. Intricate curls of thick, red hair fell down across a bloated face of mascara and blush.

The man spoke again: “Hmm… But now she seems to have escaped. Which rather complicates things.”

The woman answered: “I’m sure it’s nothing that can’t be overcome.”

Agnarr groggily awoke just in time to hear the last of this exchange. Like Dominic he did his best to feign sleep, and it seemed to succeed (although Dominic realized his friend had awakened as well).

It made little difference, though, because the man said: “Na’haras, wake them up.”
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