Sunday, September 22, 2019

When You Don’t Follow Your Own Advice

The best advice I’ve ever seen people share about RPGs has been to solve problems in a group at the group level, not through the game’s narrative. I’ve vehemently shared examples of this myself, and spread this advice. And yet, I’ve run into a situation where I didn’t heed my own advice. I’m sharing this to help underscore the importance of the advice, and the fact that many times we know what we should do, and then forget what we should be doing in the moment.

Anticipation versus Execution

I was very excited to run Demigods, a PBTA game, at a local convention. It’s very much up my alley. It’s urban fantasy, about people in the modern world that are the children of gods, and are asked to accomplish tasks by their divine parents. A group of these demigods usually don’t work together, but sometimes when they come together to defend an important thing, a Spindle, a Weave forms around them, and they become a group of demigods that works together.

In the group I was running for, I had two of my regulars, another player whose games I have played in a few times, and another person that is a regular of my convention games. I also had a player I had not had in the past.

Overall, the first part of the session went reasonably well, but it got convoluted and difficult for me to run towards the end of the session, and I was looking for a quick way to narratively resolve the entire session so I could call it a night just after the three-hour mark.

Character Creation

Right from the start, it took longer than I would have liked for the players to pick characters. I’ll blame myself a bit for not restricting the number of playbooks that I brought. Demigods has a lot of playbooks, and I printed out all of them as options. I have gotten to the point when I run games like Monster of the Week, where I’ll only run off a limited selection of playbooks for a session, but I was so excited to get this to the table that I hadn’t done it here.

The first indication I should have had that I might have some trouble balancing the group is that everyone else picked their playbook, came up with their divine parent, and was ready to move on to the questions about the Spindle and the Tangles (the connections between characters).

The player I was unfamiliar with picked the Trickster. Then, when I asked them about their divine parent, they wouldn’t say, because “the character changes who they say it is.” I should have had a meta-discussion right here, along these lines:

“It is fine if your character withholds this information from the other characters, but if you, as a player, withholds this from the group, its harder to tell a collaborative story.”

Because it was a convention game, and it had already taken longer that I would have liked to just get playbooks chosen, I let it slide. This also meant that the parts of the playbook where the character details how they feel about their pantheon ended up not being filled out.

The Spindle
There is a series of questions that you ask about what the Spindle is, how the group defended it, what god appreciated the defense, and what god did not.

Someone in the group offered a coffee shop as the Spindle, and almost everyone agreed, except the player playing the Trickster. His comment was “I cannot conceive of why anyone would care about a coffee shop.”

I asked, “do we want to make a different Spindle, or try to explore why everyone would care about this one?”

Another player suggested that the owner of the coffee shop was a sweet older woman that everyone loves and that treats all of them like her own children. This sounded like a good compromise to me. The Trickster player grudgingly agreed.

I did stop and ask for more information here. What didn’t sink in until later is that the Trickster player never offered an alternative, just shot down other people’s ideas. I really should have specifically asked for their inputs.

Later on, when discussing the Spindle, the trickster player said, “I wish we had a more meaningful Spindle, but I guess this is what we’re stuck with.”

At this point, I really should have stopped to have a discussion about this and said:

“It would be nice to have a stronger story for the group’s beginning and their deeper connections to the Spindle, but this is a convention game, we have limited time to get going, and part of participating in a group storytelling experience is to make a character that can tell a story with the group.”

When it came to the gods that the group made happy and angered with the Spindles story, the group decided that Mercury also appreciated the coffee shop, so there were on good terms with him. The opposing deity . . . was Bezos.

I tried to bring up that I wanted more of a general “Corporate Entities Provide Everything I Need” name for the concept of trusting in modern mega-corporations, but nobody really had a good idea for a name like that. I wasn’t thrilled with using “Bezos,” since it was very specific and very on the nose, but its what I went with.

Introductory Scenes

We played out an introductory scene where all of the players detailed their characters. Two characters did a lot of interacting, and tended to be more light-hearted in their depictions of those characters. Two more were more serious, but also conveyed that they both had more of a “we’re part of the group, but we need to be the adults.”

The Trickster player added a lot of details that played up their unique part of the world, and didn’t much tie into either the Spindle or the other players.

Mercury was going to recruit them into pulling a heist on one of Vulcan’s businesses, because Vulcan decided to do business with Bezos. Mercury wanted to “outsource” the job to this group, because none of them had ties to the Greek or Roman pantheons, so he could maintain plausible deniability.

I had an idea for a half-high tech, half-magical heist, where the group deals with Vulcan’s techno-magical items and a few mythological security guards to steal a shipment of high tech delivery drones.

Then the Trickster player chimed in, in character:

“A heist is so boring. Couldn’t we do something more interesting.”

I should have taken this as the Trickster saying something in character. Or, I should have had a meta-discussion about if the player was disappointed versus the character. Instead, I added a complication. Mercury gave the group an hourglass that he stole from Chronos, and told them they could, instead, make sure the plans for the drones never got made in the first place.

The Verdant’s player, whose character was broke and unemployed, made a joke about betting on sports teams. Everyone got ready to travel to the past. They said they activated the device. Then the Trickster’s player said, “I went and purchased a sports almanac to bet on things before we left.” But in the scene, it was pretty clear they had the meeting, and then just left.

I thought the following would be fun, but it just made things confusing, and I should have just said that the session was already getting a little unfocused. Instead, I said that there were two versions of the group in the past, one where the Trickster did what he said he did, and the other where they just went straight back in time.

Time Heist

The group decided to split into two groups. One went to the muse that inspired the plans to be drawn up, to convince her not to inspire the engineer. The other went to an engineering convention to talk to the engineer to get him to not make the plans for the delivery drones for Vulcan to sell to Bezos.

Then, the Trickster player decided to head to his bookie to place bets on various sporting events.

At this point, I should have just said, in a meta-contextual manner:

“I’m okay with running two different locations, but I don’t really want to add a third location, especially not one that’s not related to the main narrative. Can we get everyone back to one of the two locations?”

Instead, I tried to “fix” the situation by introducing “time wraiths” that appeared by all of the PCs, trying to “negate” them so that the timeline would reset. In my head, this would drive everyone to check back in with each other and have them all regroup. It did not, and I should have known better.

Additionally, the Trickster character tried to pick the pocket of the time wraith that was after him. Even though I described it as a vaguely humanoid-shaped entity made of collapsing time and space. When I clarified the description, he said he still wanted to pick its pocket, and then got upset when he took harm from touching the thing made of anti-time that had just told him that it was here to negate him.

Gameplay Conceits

One thing that I think I did handle the way I should have was also a matter that was starting to wear away at my patience. Instead of describing his actions, and then letting me mention if that triggered a move, the Trickster player was rolling dice and then telling me his outcome before he even mentioned what his character was doing.

I had explained the game briefly at the beginning, but everyone present had said that they were familiar with PBTA games before. The Trickster player had even mentioned various things about Masks and other PBTA games. We were all on board with “you have to say what you are doing to trigger a move, and the GM/Fates tell you if a move is called for.”

Not only did he roll dice and tell me what his outcomes were before I called for a move, he also kept rolling dice randomly through the session.

I finally stopped and said, “please don’t roll the dice until I tell you a move is called for. Tell me what you are doing, and I’ll tell you if it is a move, and then you can roll dice.”


One of my regulars was getting frustrated with the plot not advancing, and didn’t particularly like the time wraiths. I was trying to bounce between all three scenes, and had to tell the Trickster player to not keep going when I was cutting to another scene. Eventually, I had Mercury, in the past, call them all together and ask what the hell was going on.

I wanted to come up with some kind of resolution, so I sent all of them to a penthouse where the future version of the Trickster had amassed a ton of wealth and power using the hourglass to travel through time, and the group confronted him.

I did get an amusing scene where the Trickster held a gun to his own head to threaten his future self. In the end, the Warrior slapped the Trickster down and grabbed the hourglass out of his hand. They met back up with Mercury, and went back to the present.

Mercury, in the present, told them that instead of stealing the drones or stopping the plans, he just went into business with Vulcan, but had to give him a huge cut of the profits as an apology. I thought this would have been a decent resolution, but the Trickster then grabbed the time device and decided to have more time hijinks.

At which point, I described everything flashing to a featureless white nothingness, with the rest of the demigods and Mercury the only beings in existence. Mercury looked at the group and asked, “do you suppose someone else will fix this, eventually?”

And that’s where we ended.

Lessons Relearned

  • I should have had the discussion about making a character that fits the narrative early on
  • I should have had the discussion about dice rolling sooner
  • I should have had a discussion about regrouping for the main storyline instead of fixing in narratively
  • I should have clarified that the player felt a certain way, instead of assuming that the character was expressing the player’s desires

What’s more frustrating about this whole situation is that in the morning’s Rapscallion game, we had a player that left the party, essentially became the antagonist, and had their character killed, and the whole session went really well, because we stopped to check in that the whole group was okay with how the story was going, if the captain’s player was okay with his character dying, and making sure that the group was on board with extra elements being added. 

I just failed to apply those same techniques to this Demigods session, possibly because other player behaviors were getting under my skin and I let that cloud my judgment about the best way to resolve situations.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

What Do I Know About My Campaign? Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #6

This week is super hectic, with my regular game nights coming up, as well as a convention/game day on Saturday, and work is really busy. Regardless, I still wanted to make sure and wrap up my summary of The Honey Queen before we started the next adventure in the Tales of the Old Margreve anthology commentary.

When Last We Left Our Heroes

Because of the way last session played out, I was trying to be cagier about what the gearforged warlord might be doing, because the group had been recruited by his relations, the Greymark family in Zobeck, and because, well, they just ran into a storm boar, and they like to eat metal.

Unfortunately, our gearforged warlord still couldn’t make it, so our dramatis personae for this adventure remains:

  • Scarlett, halfling warlock (Archfey patron, in this case, Baba Yaga)
  • Hrothgardt, bearfolk cleric (Moon Domain)
  • Isobel, bearfolk barbarian (Shadow Chewer)
  • Gurralt, bearfolk warden

They were currently being guided through the field of hallucinogenic flowers by Fraulene, an alseid (deer centaur) who they saved from a rampaging ogre. There is a storm boar, a monstrous boar that’s green and charged with electricity, facing them down in a field.

I Love Storm Boars

Have you ever had a monster or a villain that got locked down by PCs because they surround them, and they can’t move well, and they have to focus on one PC to get out of the way, and then they get hammered with opportunity attacks once everyone surrounds them?

Storm Boars can turn into lightning to charge and push adjacent people out of the way. They also have a jumping attack. This is one mobile electrical swine. Both the jump and the lightning are recharge abilities, and the jump recharged, so that went off twice.

The lightning charge was the scariest power for the PCs, and thankfully (especially since their warlord wasn’t present), Fraulene got two separate critical hits with her bow, in addition to what the party did to Porcine Thunder. Also, Hrothgardt unleased the scroll of Legion of Rabid Squirrels during the fight. It may not have had much impact, but there were, in fact, rabid squirrels in the fight.

Into the Hive

Fraulene led the party to the cave system where the Queen’s hive is located, and took her leave, stuffing a few of the hallucinogenic flowers in her pack for when she was safely home. The party ran into the huge bear guardian of the cave.

Baba Migori drops a hint that the bear leaves if you mention Lyla’s name. One of the players wrote that down in her notes. Another player read the reminder in my blog. They still almost forgot the clue. Remember, you can never predict how easy it is to solve a puzzle in an RPG scenario. 

Having avoided the bear fight, the PCs start their journey into the hive, which is lit by honey lamps that have their own internal glow. This place is already tempting our three bearfolk.

Lyla’s face, made of a swarm of bees, shows up to talk to them. Hrothgardt is pretty blunt with Lyla, tells her she’s a little girl that’s trapped in a dream. The bee face doesn’t seem to want to process this, and tells them they aren’t welcome in the caves and they should turn back.

Sticky Situation

The PCs find a body trapped in layers of wax in the wall, which I tried to express as a clue to look for layers of wax that might be used as traps or to hold objects. Due to poor rolls, the PCs didn’t notice that the wax layers are also built up on the floor, so they didn’t notice the sticky honey pit with the thin layer of wax, and they get trapped in one of the honey pits.

Two giant bees attack while Isobel and Hrothgardt are trapped in the honey. Isobel makes a strength check to pull herself out, but Hrothgardt’s player asks if he could make a con check to eat enough of the honey to escape, and actually, that sounds logical for this group, so I said okay.

Scarlett and Gurralt are busy with the bees, and Scarlett lets loose a Thunderwave to hit both of them. This doesn’t take them out, but I ruled that the very loud noise would be enough to chain another encounter. Most of the bees aren’t super bright in the complex, which left the mite Duxt or another Lyla bee swarm. I opted for Lyla.

Between the two giant bees, and the Lyla swarm, the fight was a bit more challenging than I was originally anticipating, but the group won out, especially once everyone had pulled free of the honey pit.

Dungeon Crawling

The party avoided a few of the side caves where there were more bee swarms lurking, and they knew what to look for when it came to the wax-covered honey pits. Near one pit, in particular, they ran into Duxt, the mite.

The encounter calls for Duxt to order the giant bee with him to attack until another giant bee can join the fight. I was inspired to have Duxt ridding the giant bee, and as soon as I had him riding the giant bee, I couldn’t help but portray him as a knight in service of the Honey Queen, but a really bad knight.

Duxt demanded to know why the PCs were in the corridors, and threatened them, and then when they recounted everything else they had just survived, they attempted to intimidate Duxt. Duxt decided that maybe he should strategically fall back to get a better idea of the defenses of the rest of the hive, meaning he ran for the queen, and the PCs followed him right to her.

Duxt then immediately tried to cover up running from the PCs by announcing them as visitors.

The Audience

As written, if the PCs don’t threaten the queen, they can attempt to change her initial attitude, and if she is moved to indifferent or friendly then they can get more out of her. In this case, the Honey Queen is a queen, of sorts, so I decided to use the audience rules from Adventures in Middle-earth, which I like a little more than rolling a few dice until she is either super hostile or super friendly.

The way the audience works, in shorthand, is one PC makes an introduction. If this goes well, the NPCs attitude changes one step to the positive.

Each character has to describe what they do during the audience, since it’s not a quick interaction. What each PC does can cause them to get a bonus or penalty to the final roll for the audience.

In this case, anything that was hostile, threatening, rude, or demanding would get a negative. Anything that was formal or businesslike wouldn’t do anything one way or the other, and anything that was specifically complimentary of the specifics of the Queen’s hive and operations would generate a bonus.

In the initial encounter, it mentions that rudeness or threats end the negotiation immediately.

In this case, the PCs made a decent enough introduction between Isobel and Scarlett. Everyone was fairly deferential to the queen, except for Scarlett, who name-dropped Baba Yaga. While this could have been seen as a threat, I felt like the nature of the mission and the fact that her patron is Baba Yaga meant that this was an exception. Hrothgardt, who is very focused on freeing Lyla, is super blunt, and imposes a negative.

The way most audiences are structured, if you meet the DC, you get a thing for which you petition the NPC. If you beat the number by 5 or 10, you may get more than you initially asked for. In this case, if they met the DC, they could get either the honey or Lyla, but not both. If they beat the DC by 5 or more, she would be willing to part with both for the same price.

They were successful in their bargain, but the party was resolved to get Lyla out if they could only get one thing. Scarlett briefly thought about parting with her token from the Bear King, but that would make the next trip they take on the Shadow Road . . . interesting.

In the end, they decided that the Greymark family would just have to be upset with them for failing the negotiation.

The Road Home

Without a guide, the party had to navigate their way out of the glen with the hallucinogenic flowers. Scarlett and Isobel failed their saves. Scarlett suddenly realized she wasn’t wearing pants, and that they were hiding behind party members and taunting her. Isobel saw the trees uproot themselves and act as an honor guard wherever the party went.

The group ran into Baba Migori again. She asked to take Lyla under her wing, now that her family is gone, and intimated that she may have been her sister when Lyla was much younger and before she fell into the honey induced sleep. The group is a little wary, but the potential familial connection made them more comfortable.

They planned a bit about what to say to the Greymark representative when they returned home, but I didn’t play that out too far, because I want to see if our gearforged will get in on this potential family grudge that is building.

Lessons Learned

The main takeaways I had this session were the following:

  • I really like monsters that are mobile and can affect more than one party member at a time
  • While I like the dark fairy tale aspect of most of the stories, leaning more into just a fairy tale style was a nice break
  • This campaign has a lot of NPCs that I am taking notes on to weave into later adventures, possibly to replace some of the less interesting, less detailed “hook providers” that are given at the beginning of several of the adventures
  • The forest now considers most of the party Guests of the Margreve, so they might get a slight boon on their trips to and from a place, which is a fun bit of extra flavor
  • Swarms continue to be fun to use as a DM, and they are one of the few things in 5e where “bloodied” matters to how they work
  • I really do like to rope in my 3rd party 5e OGL material for use when it makes sense

That’s all I’ve got this time around. Next time, we’ll be diving into The Vengeful Heart, which is a little bit less whimsical in tone.

Monday, September 16, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? For the Queen

This review is going to be a little bit different, for two reasons. The first is that this is one of those instances where I had the time to playtest a game before writing a review. The second is, much of the content regarding my actual play experience has appeared on other social media, as I was discussing the experience.

Those differences noted, let's get started.

The Queen's Court

For the Queen is roleplaying/story game in card format. This review is based on the physical game. The game is composed of 46 prompt cards, 19 numbered instruction cards, an X-card, and 14 Queen cards, depicting different monarchs.

The card backs are all gorgeous, as is the artwork of the example queens. The art style of the queens varies as much as the actual queen characters do. The prompt and instruction cards have lettering and a parchment background with no artwork on their faces.

Not only does the box feature the art from the queen cards, but the box itself is one of my favorite pieces of game packaging that I have encountered. The cards are tarot card sized, and there is an inner container that holds the card, with the outer cover slipping over the other half of the packaging.

The Game Itself

For the Queen is played by drawing prompts and answering the questions on those cards. Other players are allowed to ask follow up questions to add details, but the player answering the prompt can decide not to answer a follow-up question.

The players pick one of the queen images to visualize the queen that they are following. Each player represents a member of the queen's entourage, and each is in love with the queen, in some way or another.

There is an included X-Card, but its purpose in the game isn't just to keep the table safe, but to help edit content. While the X-Card included can, and should, be used to remove potentially problematic content, it is also included to allow players to edit cards they don't think they would enjoy answering, or to edit content that doesn't feel consistent with the story that is being established.

There is a prompt card that states that the queen is under attack, and asks the players if they will defender her. This is the final prompt of the game, and the game ends once this question is answered. For a longer game, the final card can be placed at the bottom of the deck. For a shorter game, it can be inserted halfway through the deck.

It's a very simple concept, but the key to the execution of the game is in the prompts, as well as the nuance that the different images of the queens provide in visualizing what the world looks and feels like.

Very Twisty

Many of the prompts are phrased in a way that makes you wonder if your love for the queen is a good thing. They ask questions that examine your relationship with the queen, events in your past, and how those events affect the current course of events.

You might find out about harsh decisions that the queen has made in the past, or you may find out about difficult decisions you had to make to get to where you are. These are part of the evolving idea that you have about who your character is, and if they would, indeed, defend the queen at the end of the story.

Actual Play

Because I'm planning on facilitating the game at a local convention soon, I asked my local group if we could play this at our monthly Saturday game gathering. I mention facilitating, because the game does not require a GM. In fact, the rules don't make a provision for one. The instructions are printed on cards that players take turns reading, which reinforces the concept of decentralizing the task of primary storyteller. That said, I still wanted to have a good grasp on the game before facilitating next week.

The First Game

As the prompts started to develop, we found out that one of us was her informant, giving up people that dissented against her rule, including their family, one of us was
someone continually put in situations to make them look incompetent.

The "disappointment" was a person that she kept putting in bad positions so that she could show how benevolent she was when she publicly forgave them.

Another of our group was a lady in waiting that was considered beautiful on her own, but constantly downplayed her own appearance to not draw the queen's ire. She was also in awe of the queen and was actually touched by her once.

My prompts led me to a character that was being held as a political hostage from the other nation we were negotiating with. Originally I hated the queen, but the longer she told me about how terrible my homeland was, the more I came to love her. She would have me stand in front of the nobility and apologize for the sins of my countrymen to educate everyone on the superiority of the Queen's land.

We also found out that the queen ate things that no one should see, that all of the royal butchers were blinded so they couldn't see what she feasted on, and no one close to her could remember anything from before they were in her inner circle.

The End of the Road

In the end, everyone except my character defended the queen. When she was attacked, I suddenly saw a brief glimmer of hope of returning home, and abandoned the shell that I developed to defend me from the abuse of hearing about how awful I was by association with my people.

It felt like early on, we decided this was a sinister queen, very quickly, asked most of our questions to flesh out our characters and our history with the queen, then moved towards "world-building" questions towards the back half of the game.

The Second Game

When we picked our second queen, we definitely wanted to play against type when it came to the horns. Our first player mentioned a foiled assassination attempt, and ended up being from a family that served as royal bodyguards.

We started a lot more world-building questions up front. We established that the country was a blasted wasteland where you can hardly see the sky for the crimson haze, and that it has been ruled by a hell-spawned/tiefling dynasty for centuries.

The bodyguard is part of a noble family that needed to serve for seven generations before they could return to being nobles, and the bodyguard is of the seventh generation.

Our next character to take shape was the royal chef, that the queen treated kindly and introduced to nobles at banquets in recognition of his talents. Eventually, we found out that his secret is that he is the bastard sibling of the queen.

I had to determine why I could not forgive the queen, and decided that I was a noble that was potentially betrothed to her, but she ruled in favor of a rival family that had been attempting to ruin my family's business.

I had a magical broach that I would use to defend her, with the souls of some of the lesser members of the rival family trapped within it. We determined that while the dynasty is traditionally tyrannical and cut-throat, she had her brother have been less so than their forbears.

She wants to make the country a safe and clean place, and to have respect for others. To rule through respect and service instead of fear. Which my character thought was a very quaint trait of hers, but not realistic.

Our last character turned out to be her legitimate brother, and we learned that ascension to the throne is by assassination. He loves his sister, and hated his father, but still regrets that his sister killed their mother as well.

When asked how I reconciled loving the queen, but being unable to forgive her, my character stated that all real marriages are a successful balance of love and resentment, and it is better to go into a marriage knowing what that resentment would be up front.

From the half-brother, we learned that the queen enjoys dancing when by herself, and we learned that the bodyguard danced with her once, and was shocked that she would do so. We also found out that we have magical weapons of mass destruction that she isn't willing to deploy.

The End of the Road, Part Two

When it came time to answer if we would defend her, the bodyguard and her legitimate brother did not. The brother is afraid she is too much of a dreamer to keep the nation intact, and the bodyguard wanted to back a strong family member.

The illegitimate brother/royal chef cared about her too much for all of her kindness, and I wanted to prove to her that I was a better match for her than she thought by devastating her enemies with my amulet of enemy souls.

This was the opposite of the previous round of prompts because we fleshed out a lot about the kingdom and the dynasty before we went too deep into most of our characters, and we didn't discuss much about the trip, just lives at court, and then the attack on the road.

I am really glad we had the opportunity to play more than once, because I wanted to see how the second playthrough differed from the first. I am really excited to play this game again. The prompts are very strong, and I love the different images of the queen and the structure that conjecturing about them provides.

Queens Favor

This game is gorgeous, and it feels good to hold the box and use the cards. The prompts are a lot of fun, and are good not just for the information that they ask for, but because they lead you to want to ask follow up questions. While the game would be a lot of fun with the general structure and the well-written prompts, the artwork on the queen cards adds a special layer of imagination that helps to start pushing the game in a specific direction. 

Queen's Ire

There isn't much that I can complain about this game. The worst thing I can think of is that the game makes me want more. I want more prompts for when I've played the games a few more times. I want more queens to prod the imagination. I did end up with cards that came up for me more than once across the two games, and while they can be X-carded or passed on to other players, it's slightly less exciting to get that same card again. Overall, this is a pretty minor quibble. 

Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

I had a lot of fun with this game. The only thing that could make me state my recommendation more strongly would be if the game weren't predicated quite as much on improvisation. While there are very strong, directed prompts, the game really gets good when people have a good set of follow up questions that emerge from the answers of the other players.

If you have any love of improvisational prompts, or you just want to see a gorgeous set of cards and want to read a lot of well-written content, you really should pick up this game.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Feint of Honor

I am old, and I remember things. Honestly, a lot of RPG articles could start this way. I’ll be more specific. I remember subduing dragons and the formality of it, both in settings and in mechanics. There is a certain charm to that for me, not so much in forcing a dragon to do a thing, but in that it conveys cultural details about dragons. They aren’t just monsters, they are a species that has a loose society and that society has some rules to it.

A lot of my love for dragons and subdual challenges comes from the novel Azure Bonds, and was more fleshed out by the draconic lore that was added into the Forgotten Realms setting. The formal name for a subdual challenge for a dragon is a Feint of Honor, and it became a cultural norm for dragons when elves and other species rose up against their rule and killed a lot of dragons.

Dragons basically needed a way to fight without killing each other, reserving actual lethal combat for when they were really mad. This way, dragons could settle disputes over territory, treasure, or tribute, without cutting down their own numbers.

Under this paradigm, they don’t really have to honor any non-dragon’s request for a Feint of Honor, but because of their legendary egos, they can often be talked into a Feint of Honor with mortal beings. I’ll be honest, I kind of wish that the infamous encounter with the dragon early on in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline had involved a Feint of Honor, instead of the structure it had in the adventure.

What Do We Need to Get Started

For a dragon to accept a Feint of Honor from a non-dragon, the following things need to happen:

  • The dragon has to respect the challenger
  • The challenge has to be issued in draconic
  • The dragon has to be willing to negotiate
  • The terms of the duel and the consequences have to be agreed upon before the Feint is official

The Feint of Honor isn’t really a magical pact, per se. A dragon can refuse one if they really hate the issuer, and this is even true among dragons. The important bit is that if they accept the Feint of Honor, and don’t honor the terms, other dragons know, and that means disrespect for the dragon that broke the terms.

For all of this, we’re assuming the PCs didn’t piss off the dragon so much that it refuses the Feint of Honor outright. The terms have to be something the dragon would agree with. For example, no dragon is going to give up their young, their entire hoard, or their perpetual freedom, but they may agree to part with a specific bit of treasure, a specific task or term of service, or to modify the borders of their terrain.

The dragon will require something of the challenger if they fail. Evil dragons are often amused enough to accept the lives of the characters, but they may also offer a term of service, a piece of treasure, or valuable information.

Making Up Numbers

Now, to make this a least a bit more gameable, we can assign some numbers to see if the dragon is willing to accept the Feint of Honor. For our purposes, we’ll assume there are two steps to the challenge. The Presentation of Worth, and the Recital of Terms.

The Presentation of Worth is essentially the PC convincing the dragon that they are a worthy mortal to deal with. If a single PC is going to participate in the Feint of Honor, they have to convince the dragon on their own. If a group is going to participate, this becomes a group check.

This can either be a strength (intimidate) or a charisma (perform) check. The DCs should look something like this:

  • Young Adult 10
  • Adult 15
  • Ancient 20

If the PCs making the check have the opportunity to research the specific dragon they are petitioning, they gain advantage on this check.

The next phase of the Feint of Honor is laying out terms. This is done before the formal Recital of Terms, and either side can back out at this phase (although, you are right next to a dragon at this point, without any guarantee of civility once the negotiation falls through).

In general, there is only one round of this negotiation. The PCs state how the fight will proceed, and what they want from the dragon. The dragon won’t change the terms, but may add a modifier to the condition. The dragon will then state their terms from the petitioners, and the petitioners may add a condition to the terms, but not change them.

If one of the following is true, the check is made normally. Of two of the following things are true, the check is made with disadvantage. If none of the following are true, the check is made with advantage. Additionally, if characters can spend time formally researching the draconic codes, they can make the check with advantage (which may just cancel out disadvantage, and won’t stack with advantage, as usual).

  • The PCs are asking for something of more worth than the dragon is getting in return if they lose
  • The PCs are not willing to let the dragon potentially use lethal force (evil or neutral dragons are more likely to respond to this) (i.e. the dragon can kill members of a party that outnumbers it and not end the challenge)
  • The terms of the fight greatly favor the PCs (the dragon cannot fly, use its breath weapon, etc.)
  • The PCs ask for the most valuable item in the dragon’s hoard
  • The PCs ask for a modification of the dragon’s domain that would benefit a rival dragon
  • The PCs don’t speak draconic

The actual details of the fight are also negotiated. The point of the Feint of Honor is to allow for non-lethal resolutions, so the most common term is to fight until the dragon is bloodied, or more than half of the challengers are incapacitated (possibly in a non-lethal fashion, if negotiated), or until a single champion is bloodied.

Some Feints of Honor have had more esoteric contests, such as riddle contests, retrieving a specific item, or other physical activities, but the biggest issue here is convincing the dragon that such contests aren’t beneath its concerns.

Now comes the actual challenge, issued in draconic (or not--if you want to piss off the dragon, that’s up to you). This, generally, means that the players are either going to draw on their knowledge of how these challenges have been issued in the past [intelligence (history)] or you know exactly how to phrase the challenge to get under the dragon’s skin or play on its ego [wisdom (insight)].

  • Young Adult 15
  • Adult 20
  • Ancient 25

Nature Takes Its Course

So, you’ve convinced the dragon to fight you. What now? Well, if you meet the conditions you set, when the dragon loses the contest, the dragon can always back out. What’s that you say, that’s not fair? Well, you are a lesser form of life that is only suitable to bring tribute or to provide a mildly filling snack. But have no fear--the dragon still has a good reason for not backing out of their deal.

The dragon may just follow through, but even if you think the dragon will back out, the dragon should make a wisdom save to see if they realize the full ramifications of their actions. In this case, older dragons know better what’s waiting for them at the dragon conclave so it’s easier for them to realize what their actions actually mean.

  • Ancient 10
  • Adult 15
  • Young Adult 20

A dragon that has broken its word on a Feint of Honor is eventually going to have to deal with other dragons. Even if there aren’t any witnesses left . . . well, dragons are magical, and even if they can break their word, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate. Plus there are all kinds of spirits that love to gossip.

Now, what if the players break their deal in a Feint of Honor? Well, that also carries through the draconic whisper network. No dragon will accept a Feint of Honor with the PCs after they have broken their terms. The dragon may not know they have broken the terms, but they intrinsically know these aren’t the kind of mortals to traffic with.

Additionally, players will always have disadvantage on any interactions with dragons until they have done something to atone for their actions. They may not need to make good to the dragon they wronged, but they have to do something to appease the powers that be (and maybe the DM will even let this go away with a remove curse--even then, dragons still won’t trust you in a Feint of Honor without a major gesture).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Communicating Setting Details Via Names

A discussion came up the other day on social media, which evolved into a discussion of the use of names in roleplaying games. This triggered all kinds of ideas in me about how names are used in the context of stories, and the purpose that names serve.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts, but all of this is tilted towards using names in RPGs. I hope I don’t do a disservice to the overall much more interesting and nuanced concept of names and their cultural importance, which is way outside the scope of what I could even begin to touch on.

Communication About An NPC

Even more so than in a novel or a movie, when you give a name to an NPC, it will often communicate something about the utility and purpose of that NPC. One advantage that long-form storytelling has versus short term storytelling is that you have time to play against type--if a name doesn’t suit a character, part of their character arc can be displaying that truth. Unfortunately, when you don’t control the entire narrative (such as how the PCs react to the NPC), you have a much more limited range of reactions when assigning a name to an NPC.

An NPCs name is a quick, symbolic “tag” that you give to that character. It’s not entirely unlike the costume a superhero or villain wears in a comic book.

Using comedic names define the character as comedic first and foremost. Most NPCs are not going to be enough of a fixture of a campaign to play against type long enough to eventually be taken seriously. I think it’s also worth noting that an NPC with a serious name that the PCs give a mocking nickname to isn’t the same as the GM assigning a comedic name, and if the GM wants the NPCs to eventually be taken seriously, it’s important not to adopt the player’s nickname when referring to the NPC.

On the other end of the spectrum, giving a character that “acts” comedic a “serious” name, and having that character eventually show a more faceted personality can work better than fighting against a comedic name paired with a comedic introduction.

When the “box” says “comedy inside,” it’s hard to go back later and say, “comedy and other stuff inside.”

Comedic Caveats

If you plan on playing a name for laughs, make sure you check for any cultural significance to that name. It may “sound funny” to you because you haven’t encountered it before, but the last thing you want to do is to end up ridiculing a culture because you aren’t familiar with it. It’s easy enough to Google a word and see if it comes up in the vernacular of another culture.

Names as World Building

Some naming conventions that are present in established settings help to convey a story about that setting. Using Dungeons and Dragons as an example, we have the following:

  • Dwarves (in 2e Dwarves Deep, and rarely followed up on by other designers) name themselves as “X, child of Y, child of Z, of house A,” but only if they trust or want to impress the person they are talking to, otherwise introducing themselves as “X, of the dwarves” as an insult
  • Dragons in the Forgotten Realms take on longer and more complex names as they age and become more important--until they get to be really ancient, at which point, their names often become very short due to their fame speaking for itself (for example, Klauth)
  • Kender in the Dragonlance setting often have “deed-names” not unlike dwarves in many fantasy settings, but the deeds, in general, tend to me more light-hearted or exploratory in nature
  • Gnomes in Dragonlance have long, complicated names that are generally condensed from one particular syllable within the longer name

Naming NPCs versus PCs

In general, I don’t put too much pressure on players to name their characters “the right way” for a setting. Player characters are the purview of the player, and unless a name is wildly out of place, I would rather not assert any control over the creative process. That having been said, what happens if a player adopts a comedic naming convention, but doesn’t want to be saddled with that as their only character concept.

Unlike NPCs, PCs are the protagonists. They get more screen time. Their name may say something about them, but the impetus to “code” an NPCs with what purpose they serve in the campaign is much stronger than the same drive for a PC. PCs will be driving the campaign the entire time, so, in theory, it should be easier for a PC to play against type, even when starting with a name that signifies something different than the evidence of their actions.

That said, always keep an eye on the group and the potential for other players to start defining characters that aren’t their own. I have definitely been in games where I attempted to make a well-rounded character, that was defined by other players quickly, which made it much harder for me to do what I wanted to do with the character.

Monoculture Monition

It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the line between a cultural tradition or trend in a fantasy game, and portraying an entire culture as a singular, non-varying monoculture. While it makes for quick, identifiable storytelling, it’s really easy to drift from “all members of this fictional species act this way” to “this fictional species seems like this real-world culture, and I’m presenting them as all having the same traits.” Don’t fall into that trap.

What Has A Home In the Setting

Using “real world” names that have a recurring theme may start to say something about a setting, which you may want to be aware of in case you don’t mean to communicate what you think you are communicating. For example, if you start using German names for everyone in a region, you might be conveying that cultural elements of Germany from a specific point in time are true, even if you don’t actually mean to do so.

In general, the more obscure the name, the more you are implying that the origin of that obscure word is an intentional statement. Victor is less of a statement than Sigmund, which is less of a statement than Ludgera.

Titles can also fall into this territory. Broader terms for royalty or nobility are often used because of unexamined Eurocentric bias, but digging really deep into a particular style of noble forms of address, like using Ritter instead of knight, say a very specific thing about the setting.

Zooming Out and Zooming Forward

In a setting like Star Trek, it makes sense to have a wide range of names for the humans on board a starship or at a star base. In the Expanse, there is diversity in naming conventions, but it is along a constrained band related to the history of the setting—what cultures have moved where in the solar system is part of the story conveyed by the names.

It may be even more important to keep in mind what names are saying when you start using names in science fiction settings, because if you aren’t careful, you may end up stating that some people aren’t present in the future you are portraying.