Mystery-Breaking Abilities

Say you are running a game. Encounters with monsters can be fun, but you decide to add a little mystery or intrigue, something that will start early and then be revealed later. A traitor perhaps, that helps the PCs but is later revealed to be a backstabbing jerk, plotting domination or ruination of something the PCs hold dear. You introduce the traitor as a silver tongued noble, who speaks to the PCs about doing good for the town/city/nation, but one of the PCs has the ability (a spell perhaps, or some other power) to instinctively know when someone is lying, exposes the traitor, and the PCs avoid weeks or months working with the bad guy. Your plot is suddenly reduced to nothing.

A lot of games have this ability to instantly know when someone is being untruthful, even if it is a spell, or requires a roll or a cost of some kind. Even if there’s not an ability to know when someone is lying, the players will still have an ability to force their opponent to speak the truth, which pretty much comes down to the same thing, if used correctly. I haven’t played D&D for years but I still remember the spell Zone of Truth, which changed my plot dramatically. In Scion, the ability to know when someone is lying is without cost or roll, and is absolute. There are no exceptions named in the description; not even Loki, god of tricksters, can lie to the person with that ability without being caught.

In the 3rd edition of Exalted, which I’m currently running, one PC has this ability to know when something suspicious is going on. When the situation calls for it, the player is told to make the appropriate roll. This is not the same as telling automatically if someone is lying, but it can counter any character trying to hide their intentions or identity, which again counters the mystery.

I could go on and talk about why these abilities are even included in the game, essentially breaking the mysterious sides of stories, while there are few or no abilities as accessible to instantly end a fight with a single strike. Personally, I think it’s because social and mental mechanics aren’t given as much detail as physical mechanics. But I could be wrong. This post is not about why the abilities exist, but how to work around them.

First of all, you need to understand the ability’s limits. Zone of Truth can only force you to tell the truth, not to actually tell them what they want to hear. If you’ve seen Shrek the 3rd, think about the scene where Prince Charming is interrogating Pinocchio. Pinocchio is not lying, he’s just talking around the question, telling the truth about not knowing where Shrek has not gone or where he is not supposedly supposed to not be. Also, if the target knows they are being interrogated, they could refuse to answer (“I don’t want to talk about it”).

If an ability can tell when someone is telling a lie or only half the truth, make sure if it can tell the difference. If the PCs have this ability and listen to the captain of the guards telling the thrilling story of how he fought three giant orcs while someone opened the gate to let the orcish horde into the city, their lying-detector might start ringing, but they won’t know if the captain let the horde in, if he really fought three or fewer orcs, or if they were as big as he described them, or if the captain was in truth drunk and passed out while the orcs entered through the gate he forgot to lock. In short, even if the captain is lying, he may still not be the traitor which the PCs are looking for.

Finally, abilities that can detect lies will likely not work if the subject it is used on really believes that they are telling the truth. The evil noble really believes they are trying to save the city, even if they need to destroy it and rebuild it anew to do so, which would lead to the death of hundreds. If the PCs ask them if they are really trying to save the city, their mystical lie-detector won’t reveal anything if they answer “yes”. Lies through proxies is also effective to avoid automatic lie-detection. If the noble has convinced a henchman of their lies, interrogating the henchman won’t reveal any lies, because as far as the henchman knows, he’s not lying.

If the PCs could still detect the lies, it would mean that truth is a mystical force that can be tapped into, and the PCs could thus discern facts from fiction, even unintended fiction. It would not be impossible in the fantasy realms we all enjoy, but it would affect what sort of stories could be told in that particular world. If you want to explore that option, I think it would be cool, but until then, work around the mystery-breaking abilities.

Unique Worlds – Part 1 – The People

Creating the fantasy setting for your campaign can be difficult but you usually end up with pretty much the same formula. You have your classic races, and they’re pretty much the same everywhere: Elves are immortal with holier-than-thou attitude, dwarves live under ground and are both avid drinkers and excellent craftsmen, and everyone hates the orcs. You have your magic, which usually includes the same spells and same schools and so on. Gods work the same way everywhere, and physics still work pretty much the same way as we are used to.

These are big words, and they are definitely not always true, but there is a reason why you’ll find so many campaign settings (home-made, at least) that still have pretty much the same feel to them, aside from background stuff. It’s easier to use pre-made stuff, and it’s familiar to the players. And for most groups, that’s enough. We don’t care if we have seen pretty much the exact same setting in our last game, even if it has a different history and a more exotic name. The point of the game is to have fun, and probably slay some monsters while we save the day.

But if you want to make this world truly yours, you will have to make it truly unique. I want to give you some ideas on how to make really unique worlds, and to do this, I’m going to write these posts in three parts. This first part, which you are reading right now, is about the races of your world, because that is what bores me the most about fantasy. True, sometimes I don’t mind the elves, the dwarves, the halflings, gnomes, orcs, and all the rest, but they are always pretty much the same everywhere. I don’t necessarily want them gone, but I do want a different take on them.

The Classic Fantasy Races
Or, why I don’t care for the elves

Let’s dissect the classic races, shall we? And by “classic”, I mean the elves, the dwarfs, the halflings, the gnomes, and the orcs. While we’re at it, we’ll discuss the half-elves and the half-orcs as well.

The elves are immortal, or benefit from extended lifetime at the very least. They benefit from a natural affinity to nature and magic, and they have their own culture. The men don’t need to shave because they don’t grow beards (or at least, they are usually depicted in that way), and they always have perfect hair. In games, aging rarely comes into play at all, unless the story specifically focuses on events that span decades or generations, so having the ability to live longer than others in your party is pretty much redundant. Affinity for nature is just fluff and the affinity for magic is poorly represented in most cases (I’ve not played or read any D&D since v3.5, so newer editions may represent this better). Elves are still not different enough from humans to make them into a separate race. They can even procreate with humans to create half-elves, because who doesn’t like to play an elf who is also a human?

The dwarfs are people who live under ground. They are known to be excellent craftsmen and miners, but also hefty drinkers. They are short and stout, able to see in the dark (often) and are a bit xenophobic (but so are the elves, so no worries) when it comes to people living above ground. They are, in short, an excuse to let you play a frequent drunk who dislikes other people. Even if they are not excellent craftsmen, all dwarfs like a good fight, right? And those that don’t like a good fight still like to keep a chest full of shinies. A dwarf is greedy, but they are rarely a kleptomaniac.

Nobody likes the orcs, except players who want to play a powerful warrior, but has a tragic background of mistreatment. Orcs are usually not available for play but the half-orc is commonly an option. Always outsiders, frequently some type of warriors. Orcs are basically the barbarians that everyone goes to war with, the go-to bad guys or minions of a more powerful enemy. They are stronger and smarter than your average skeleton, and there’s a whole race of them to fill your army with.

Halflings and gnomes are those little people every game seems to want to include for some reason. Halflings are like miniaturized elves while gnomes are the friendlier version of dwarfs (with jolly beards and aptitude for tinkering). Who calls themselves “halflings” anyway? From their point of view, humans would be tall-folks. But everyone likes to have the option to have a smaller person in their party, to get in through that small hole in that wall. And who doesn’t like to play the halfling rogue? Classic combination. Gnomes are just plain weird. I don’t really understand them, but my favorite character from back in the day was a gnome wizard. I just don’t really know why. Maybe it was because the fighter picked him up to use as a shield. That might be it.

Now that we’ve taken a look at the “classic” fantasy races, according to myself, and not including the pesky humans that find themselves in every fantasy world no matter how different from our own, let’s see how we can spice things up.

Replacing the Classics

One method of making the people of your world feel more unique is to replace them with races of your own design. If you plan on populating your world with fantastic and original races, please make sure that you do a more thorough job than just relabeling the classics. If you replace the elves with the Elaani people, who have natural affinity with nature, are renowned spellcasters, live for centuries and are infamous for their stuck-up nature, you’re pretty much missing the point.

Replacing the elves (or the dwarfs, or the orcs) is about removing everything about elves from the setting and putting something else in its place. Thematically, elves represent wisdom of ages and learning, hence the affinity with magic and their longevity. So let’s remove it from the game.

Let’s create the Beroom, interplanar entities from far away. They are not immortal and they don’t even live that long, perhaps even shorter than humans on average. They are tall, frail and crude, but their wisdom is unmatched. Their intellect is not based on magic, however, but focused on interplanar physics and engineering. Their method of sharing their knowledge is through poetry, and as theories advance they add more stanzas to their poems.

Another method, and one that is probably simpler, is to create an anthropomorphic race out of something else. This usually means taking an animal of some sorts, and making them into something more of a humanoid, like a feline race or a canine race, or a race of human-like birds. But you don’t have to stop there. You can pretty much take anything and create a humanoid race out of it, like the Myconid, which are pretty much humanoid fungus. What would humanoid moss be like?

The dragonborn race in recent editions of D&D does this pretty well. It is a race of anthropomorphic dragons, even though they remind me a lot of the half-dragons in v3.5, but never mind that. Half-dragons were a mix of dragons and something else, while dragonborns are their own race, with culture and what have you, as much as the other races.

Twisting the Classics

A different method is to take the classic races, even if only a handful or even just one, and adding your own twist to make them feel fresh and different. It’s easier than it sounds, because you only have to work on their cultural background and not delve too deep into their stats. Of course, you could make such a profound change to the race that you need to change their traits a little bit.

To clarify, making a different version of the race that lives in a world where the original version also lives is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about completely replacing one race with your own version of the race. Let’s take dwarfs for example.

We already know they are stubborn, live underground, and drink a lot. That’s your standard type of dwarf. So we create another type, perhaps one that does not live underground but lives underwater instead, a merdwarf. The merdwarfs are amphibious and can breathe underwater as well as on land, they drink fermented seaweed (or something) which they brew into alcoholic beverage on their floating platforms. They are just as stubborn and mistrusting of shorefolk. But in case you don’t want to play one, you can still play the standard type which live up in the mountains.

So, adding the merdwarfs into a setting as just another type of dwarfs is not really twisting the dwarfs to make them your own. And if your players don’t want to play a merdwarf but play the standard dwarf instead, is there really a reason to include them? Your story would have to take the PCs to the merdwarfs just to validate their existence, or else there’s not really a point.

What you need to do is to create your own type of dwarfs. These are not just some different version of dwarfs in your setting, these are the only dwarfs who live there. My version of dwarfs focuses on their craftsmanship. As master craftsmen, dwarfs are not born, but crafted out of stone and clay and given life by other dwarfs. Starting from that point, I worked out that dwarfs don’t need two different genders, so dwarfs are monogendered. There are no males or females, only dwarfs. Their entire culture is built from that single statement, that dwarfs are made and not born, from their caste-system to their creation of necromancy. Everything has a purpose, but more importantly, these are the only kind of dwarfs you will find in my setting.

As with my dwarfs, you can take a race that you want to mess around with and start with a major alteration. For example, what if elves were from outer space, and brought with them some of their technology? It would change their view on the world, as well as their abilities (ditch the affinity for nature, and their spellcraft is basically advanced technology), and how others view them (people from the stars, or divine beings).

 

Image source: http://scionhero.proboards.com/thread/17/genasi

 

In the next part of this discussion of creating unique settings, I’ll cover the divine and arcane, as well as genres.

Facebook as RPG Tool

Every time I start a new game I also create a new, closed Facebook group for that game. I do this for several reasons. First of all, every player is invited to join the group, and I post reminders to the group about game nights, preferably more than once, so everyone gets a chance to see the reminder. It also helps if I need to contact specific players about anything involving their characters, such as if I need to know the name of their long lost twin brother or the name of the town they grew up in.

Another thing I find useful about Facebook groups is that you can upload files and images to the group. This is especially useful for the GM to share copies of any hand-outs or maps, or for players to share copies of their characters, especially if the gaming group is using interactive pdf character sheet or if they’ve gone digital.

Finally, what I’ve found useful is the ability to pin specific posts to the group. For my group of Exalted, I’ve pinned a post with a lot of useful links. These links redirect to flowcharts, cheat sheets, name generators, my website (for character sheets) and anything I can think of that’s of use.

Other social media can be just as useful or even more so. Google offers a very useful video chat, which makes gaming across long distances so much easier. If you plan on using Facebook to connect with your players, like I do with my groups, you may have to keep in mind that it’s not always as effective if your players do not participate. Not all my players have been active on Facebook, and not everyone has a Facebook account at all. Connecting with these people requires a little more effort. If you can find some sort of social media you can all participate in, that is something you might want to look into.

Social media sites can prove to be very effective tool for your gaming group, both to stay connected with the players and keep everything the group needs to access at the same place.

Sheets for Quick Characters – EX3

I have made a sheet to use for quick characters in Exalted 3rd edition. The sheet has room for two different quick characters, and also has options to use the sheet for battle groups. The sheet can be printed double-sided, with room for notes and special abilities on the backside.

The sheet can be found here, along with more useful stuff for Exalted 3rd edition.

Exalted: As the Sun Rises – Parts 1 & 2

So…

I have this game of Exalted I’d like to tell you about. In fact, I’d like to keep a regular log about their heroism and antics. A gaming log. A GLOG! But I’m not going to tell you the story from the perspective of the characters; I’m going to tell you this story from my point of view, the Storyteller’s point of view. I’m experimenting a little bit with this game and I’d like you to hear about these experiments and how they turned out.

Our story is called As the Sun Rises, and we’re currently following the PCs’ travels from the East-most part of Bao Valley towards the Magnificent City of Bao, which is in the Western-most part, close to the sea. During our session zero, we discussed character concepts and ideas we had for the story. I wanted to build the story around the characters, and not have them make characters that fit into a predefined story. I did ask them to make their characters start with little, like only one Artifact and no Manse or Hearthstones, because I want to have this game take them from little to greatness.

We ended up with four characters. We started with five players, but one of them backed out before we got started:

  • Mango, formerly of high class from the Magnificent City of Bao. His family is renowned for their medical skills, but they secretly use them for torture and inhumane experiments. Mango helped one of their victims to escape, and is now the Circle’s resident medical man. Twilight Caste.
  • Bronze Lion was a military man in a commanding position for House Mnemon. He defied orders of abandoning a garrisoned dam and fought the horde of barbarians. Despite his exaltation, his remaining troops still follow him. Dawn Caste.
  • Wolf is a character who is still in a bit of development. His player wanted a brawling pirate kind of guy, but has altered the concept to fit a more of a stealthy assassin. I’m fine with the change this early in the story, but I’m not sure how much of his backstory has changed with him, so I won’t be sharing it at the moment. Night Caste.
  • Timoteus (Tim) is the resident gunslinger and socialite. A sort of a merchant, if memory serves, but the player missed our last session and I haven’t been able to discuss his character much. At the moment, I’ve assumed he plays the merchant with contacts, and flamethrowing pistols. Eclipse Caste.

So that’s our group. I’ve allowed the players to have a big influence on the setting and the story, as is evident in our first session.

Session 1: The Story Begins!

We started in the middle of the action: The tomb was about to come crashing down on the PCs, who were holding the priceless book of orichalcum, and the guardians of stone and metal had just been activated. It took the players a bit by surprise, but they handled it nicely. We got to try out the new combat mechanics of 3rd edition and roll some dice to avoid the falling debris.

Once the guardians had been taken care of, the Solars made their escape through a hallway filled with skeletons. The players were allowed to make a roll to examine the bones, even though everything was collapsing, because they had examined them before entering the tomb. In effect, I allowed them to make retroactive rolls for action their characters had already made, revealing information they had already gathered.

Once they had escaped the tomb, I revealed that this tomb was hidden inside a camp belonging to some bandits, who had never managed to enter it. The PCs had been asked to deal with these bandits, but they had not been at the camp when the PCs arrived. So they waited with Bronze Lion’s troops. When the bandits returned, they ambushed them and slaughtered them.

Examining the tomb’s entrance, the PCs figured that it must have belonged to Mango’s former incarnations, built for his mate back in the day, so the book of orichalcum must have belonged to him at one point too.

The heroes returned with the bandits’ loot to return it to the people of Huang, a small town where the main road left the Bao Valley to the North. There, they took time to examine the book further, and found out that it spoke of something called Pillar of Creation, a construction of immeasurable power that is supposedly located on Bao Island, the heart of the Magnificent City of Bao. Their quest is to attain it.

This session worked out pretty well. We got to try out the new combat mechanics, which is working pretty well and so much better than last edition’s mechanics. We also tried the mechanics for battle groups, which is essentially a mechanic to use when fighting against multiple opponents of similar skill and abilities. I have to say that it works out pretty well. It can get a bit confusing at times when you have to remember that you roll differently for withering damage and decisive damage, but it makes the fight feel more cinematic.

To explain a bit, you hurt your opponent with your current initiative. Withering attacks build up your initiative while reducing the initiative of your opponent. Withering damage is rolled using your Strength and your weapon’s modifier, and countered by the target’s soak (armor). This represents you knocking the opponent off balance while building your own momentum for a deadly attack. When you’re ready, you can make a decisive attack. If successful, you roll your current initiative and ignore the target’s soak. Successes on this roll is the damage suffered. This represents the lethal attack, the knockout punch, the final thrust under the opponent’s armor.

Battle groups work differently in that they do no make decisive attacks and they do not suffer withering damage. Instead, damage from their withering attacks are treated as decisive damage, and they treat withering damage against them as decisive as well. Essentially, building your initiative for a decisive attack only really helps against single opponents.

This is the gist of it, and of course, the mechanics offer a lot more you can do while in combat. Movement has been altered, attacks with range weapons is different, and more. But it’s all good changes so far, and I’m looking forward for more.

Session 2: Five Rat P**p Disease

For the second session, I wanted to try something different entirely. I didn’t want the Solar Heroes to fight a powerful enemy in a deadly fight of flashing swords and destructive environment. We could do that on any day. I wanted them to fight a disease. I wanted them to feel the drama of people dying because their own bodies failed them, not because of bandits or monsters. I wanted them to feel sorry for the poor souls in the town of Lian-Xu, where they would seek the assistance of a blacksmith on their way to the Magnificent City of Bao.

That didn’t go as well as I had planned. Possibly it was the poor preparation on my part, or maybe it just wasn’t what the players wanted, but the drama of losing new friends as they searched for a cure was avoided.

We did get to explore the disease rules a little bit, and some of the PCs did get infected, but the disease never advanced beyond the initial infection. They did find the cause of the disease, a ratlike beastman hiding in the sewers, sent by his goddess, Serpent in Silver, to spread the disease among the citizens of the town (and possibly the valley). The heroes captured him, interrogated him, tortured him for more information when their interrogation technique started to fail them, and then executed him. It was a morally questionable situation, especially for Mango, who doesn’t like killing people, even barbarians.

I also got to see how the rules for battle groups could apply to rats. Unfortunately, there are no stats for rats in the core book, at least not this version, so I made some up. Over hundred rats attacked them in the sewers, and Bronze Lion burned them all to ashes (after Mango and Wolf thinned the herd a bit).

After the fight, it was getting late, but they still hadn’t found a cure for the disease. So we made up some mechanic on the spot, to resolve it quickly. Mango’s player would make a medical roll. A single success would mean a cure was found, but more successes would mean he would find it sooner (starting at 14 days, each success meant one day less). Time was also of the essence, because people were still dying. Each day, 1d10 people would die, out of 100 remaining citizens. During the four days it took to cure the town, 14 people died. But a cure was found, so Mango got to name the disease, Five Rat P**p Disease, named after what they called the rat-person who infected the town.

It was a very crude way to conclude this. I would have liked a more time consuming method, that we could have spent our next session dealing with. But not all the players seemed at all excited about curing diseases, and spending another session doing it may not be such a good idea.

Honestly, I’m also relieved that I included the ratman for them to fight. At first, I didn’t plan to include him, which would have made this session a lot more mundane and a lot less exciting. But, although I am likely to include more investigation in my game in the future, I think my players will enjoy it more if they know they get to beat up someone at the end of it.

Conclusion

The players are all guys I’ve played little with or not at all. They are all seasoned players though, I’ve just never had the pleasure of being in many games with them. It was a bit scary, especially since I got the feeling I had to fulfill a certain standard as the Storyteller, but everything has worked out fine so far. I’ve told the players that I’ll be doing some experiments with this game, and they’ve given excellent feedback when I’ve asked for it.

We did include some house-rules. First of all, the experience cost has been altered. Attributes cost 10 XP per dot, Abilities cost 5 XP per dot and 4 XP per dot if favored/caste, and Merits would cost 9 XP per dot, according to the formula we’re using. Merits might get changed, it feels very expensive, but it hasn’t come up in discussion yet.

Another thing that I’m experimenting more with is allowing the players to name things. Half the characters grew up in the Magnificent City of Bao (and yes, if you’re wondering, the whole thing is the city’s name) so the characters should know the names of a lot of the places. At one point, we introduced one of Bronze Lion’s officers, because Mango wanted to learn how to read. I asked Bronze Lion’s player for the officer’s name, because he would have to know the name of his own officer. I settled for An’Tonyo, an crude modification of the name Antonio, which sounded a bit Roman.

Not every group is as open to provide you with names for NPCs or locations, or even much else, so this doesn’t always work. I had another group start with amnesia, and allowed them to advance their characters mid-game with the awarded XP, but only if they could provide me with a flashback of a memory from when they were actually using the ability. Eventually, I stopped requesting for flashbacks because the players just couldn’t think of them on a regular basis. And that’s just fine, it was an experiment that didn’t work out like I hoped but it might work much better with other players. That’s something you may want to keep in mind, that some ideas may not work with your group but might work with another group of players, so share your ideas in case someone else might find it useful.

Finally, here are some names the characters came across, for reference later:

  • Pillar of Creation is a supposedly a marvel of engineering. The Circle knows it is located on Bao Island, and suspect it is inside the Grand Ziggurat, which the heart of the city.
  • Serpent in Silver is the “goddess” who orchestrated the infection in Lian-Xu. In fact, according to the characters’ sources, she created the disease and gave her servant the ability to command rats.
  • Wengol the Beast is the lord of the Wengol tribes, barbaric tribes who live to the East of Bao Valley. He is said to be working with Serpent in Silver, and plans to attack the Magnificent City of Bao. Bronze Lion fought one of the Wengol tribes before.
  • Mnemon Kai, a commander who studied with Bronze Lion at the academy. She was a flunky but has respected parents.
  • Mnemon Syran is Kai’s father and a military general. Although he commands respect for his success, he has never actually seen battle. He was the one who gave Bronze Lion the order to abandon the dam and destroy it, rather than let it be captured.