While doing my first ever seminar panel at Aethercon [available here! -MM], I stumbled on a great, simplification of a principle that applies equally well to both monster design and game design in general: isolate don’t incapacitate.
My favorite example of this is the temporal filcher, specifically the time filch ability. This wonderful grappler snatches up an opponent, and the two disappear from time for 7 minutes. Toss in one per party member and you’ve just created a dynamic fighting space using time, with one-on-one combat that lets each player get a moment to shine.
Of course not everybody is ready to be filched! Maybe psionics aren’t a part of your game, your players aren’t a suitable level, or it doesn’t fit your style of play—that’s alright! You can use terrain, magic (or its equivalent), and different objectives to do the same thing!
One of my favorite games was one where I was a player; D’thul [if you’re thinking, ‘from Rise of the Drow?’ you are quite right. -MM] fought in a gladiator arena composed of platforms. Meanwhile another ally in the stands was dumping potions of true strike down the gullet of their marksman buddy, who in turn was flicking poisoned shards of glass at Dthul’s opponent. All while another party member was listening in on important discussions in the crowd, and another prepared an ambush for one of our quarry.
It was epic and unforgettable, for two reasons: first, D’thul very nearly lost his life, climbing out of an acid pit with 1 hit point and watching the head gladiator die beneath him; second, everybody was extremely engaged with the game and indeed the fight, but there was still active participation on the part of the entire party.
1)Terrain Difficult terrain can do the trick, but what about really employing some true obstacles? Perhaps the party’s enemy has prepared nearby trees to fall when struck, cutting allies off from one another, or chose a battlefield with a natural hazard to do the same. While we are indeed talking about a game with inherent teamwork, it can be extremely exciting to use the battlemap to force natural divisions between PCs, making them take to the fight on their own rather than as a group
2)Magic This is along the same lines as the temporal filcher but is a troublesome route—depending on what methods are used to get the desired effect, the PCs may rightly employ the same means to negate the whole thing! This is, of course, where conjuration effects are going to serve you best.
3) Different Objectives As illustrated in the story above, making sure everyone has a role to play can be just as important as having the right monster for the fight! There’s rarely complete balance in a combat, and one individual will end up taking the spotlight, but that doesn’t need to be the only spotlight.
All of these can easily be used within the Lands of Ludolog! Terrain naturally plays a huge role in the 2-Bit Dimension, magic is constantly at work (and GMs are strongly encouraged to make use of more invisible walls of force as they see fit!), and having simultaneous goals to finish a miniworld should be quite common.
Just remember: stunning and paralysis can be a great tool, but nobody wants to spend a fight on the sidelines because of one bad saving throw!
Mates Laurentiu was born in a small Romanian town not far from the Carpathian mountains. Self trained and dedicated to the life of an artist at a very young age, Mates has worked on a wide array of products from personal portraits for individuals to cover art appearing on many popular roleplaying game books. Most recently he was recruited by AAW Games & Adventureaweek.com as the lead artist on both the epic Rise of the Drow tome and the fantastical tale of Snow White.
Mates shows his work here moving from sketch to basic colors and finally layered colors with details and shading.
It’s great fun to be on the receiving end of these amazing works of art as they roll into my email each day.
I think my favorite part of writing and working on a roleplaying game book is seeing the art and especially the artist’s interpretation of our art requests. Sometimes we have to request changes but when it comes to Mates he’s usually spot on with his creative intuition and we’re able to use his final draft straight out of the gates.
The work Mates did on the Pure Steam campaign setting (for ICOSA Entertainment) was also very high quality and reminded me how versatile he is, moving from medieval landscapes and architecture into futuristic or advanced technology with ease. In 2015 we plan on expanding the Aventyr Campaign Setting and releasing many new adventures—Mates will be the lead artist and cover artist on many of these products so keep your eyes peeled! If you would like to see your favorite RPG character fleshed out YOU can recruit Mates via his website AvatarArt.com to draw your PC (his rates vary depending upon if you want B&W, color, and/or background).
Keep your eye on Mates, I predict that he’ll be moving over to Paizo or another large publisher within the next few years and I wish him the absolute best!
One the biggest misconceptions within many roleplaying games revolves around insanity; this isn’t to say that it should not have a place in RPGs, or implemented in one particular way, but that generally it is overzealous and harsh in the depiction of high mental states without showing the progression of the actual condition. One might argue that since these are within games, most conditions are mechanical and need to be triggered and resolved quickly. In those cases, kudos, but my concern is more of an aspect to a character’s thoughts, feelings, and general well-being after the mechanical effects are gone.
The after effects of conditions can amount to very little, or accrue into a bigger issue; it is up to the player, but as a GM I always think it is great to see the PCs grow not only with powers and abilities, but weaknesses and desperations as well. These characters are heroes, adventures, and masterminds from all walks of life. Not every single condition should deeply affect them, but after awhile every great person begins to crack. With that in mind, it may not always be a bad thing that a person gets a chill every time they come across their fears—one hero may shrug it off and rush off into a deadly trap to die a fool’s death, while their compatriot’s learned caution leads them to live another day.
What happens when psionics are mixed with insanity? There are myriad ways a psychic suffering from a mental condition could represent that aspect of their character while using their powers—the biggest thing that may happen is how the character’s powers manifest when used under stress. When creating a weapon from the characters mind, it could have images of the wielder’s greatest fear represented on the blade, or the hilt itself could embody their personal terrors. For example, a wielder with arachnophobia might have a blade that has eight moving fringes which seem to scuttle across it as the weapon cuts through the air. One of the important considerations when evaluating mental afflictions and psionics is how it changes a PCs powers regardless of whether it is a short, high, intense burst of the condition or an arduous, ongoing battle within themselves that lacks any mechanical effects that the group is likely to notice at first.
Bearing all that in mind, remember that insane characters are not stereotypes, caricatures, or cartoons; they are people with feelings, consciences, and real struggles. Playing those struggles out is far more rewarding than trivializing them, and makes for far more dynamic encounters with not only the GM, but other PCs as well.
We’ve shone the spotlight onto designers before, but artists are just as important here at AdventureAWeek.com and we wanted to show some love for our illustrators! The first on the list is a personal favorite of mine—Jacob Blackmon! [He’s doing the cover for my world, after all! 😀 -MM]
He is an amazing illustrator and continual delight to work with, his experience as a gamer (and game designer!) giving him an uncanny grip on the subtler elements of visual design that come hand in hand with the peculiarities of game mechanics.
This is of course, however, an artist’s spotlight, and we’ll let Jacob Blackmon’s work speak for itself.
Horror can be a tricky thing—anybody can be gorey, but to really have an impact there are a number of factors to consider. Who are you trying to scare? Why are you trying to scare them, and most importantly, how?
Who You’re Scaring
What kind of group do you have before you?
Do they work well as a team?
Have they experienced a PC death before and if so, how recently?
Powergamers? Spotlighters? Meticulous planners?
This needs to be your initial concern because it colors everything that comes next. If you’re playing against power gamers, do not give them mechanical foreshadowing (see “How” below); conversely, if the group isn’t very team oriented (less the “X-Men” and more the “Defenders”), splitting them up won’t do you a huge amount of good. Carefully weigh out your options and do your best to anticipate what the PCs are likely to do when things get dark—no matter how you do it, surprise is going to be a part of the equation.
Why You’re Scaring
Building to a crescendo?
An essential element to a creature or particular encounter?
To increase the general suspense of the game?
If you’re running a game in Ravenloft, the word of the day is always going to be horror! The things to keep in mind in this case is that ultimately you do want the players to win, only that their struggle be a true test against an ever present darkness. I’ve found that warm reprieves can get the trick done, but there’s a lot to be said for a long, arduous trial with truly shining moments of glory.
Maybe this is just a brief foray into horror—in this case, definitely avoid pulling punches and keep extra material around in the event the PCs are on a lucky streak with the dice! On the whole, most games are encouraging the party’s victory (Paranoia being my favorite exception) so a good way to inflict terror is to really give them the feeling that the odds have definitely gone up. You don’t have to necessarily change the numbers to do it, either (more on that below under “How”).
Of course you might just want to increase the general level of suspense in the game because you’re starting to introduce some darker themes and elements in your world and story. This is where you’re looking for a sense of balance between what was and what is; don’t go and start throwing Cthulhu nightmare at the PCs right away, build up to it! An unsettling dream every other game session probably doesn’t register as too strange (stress, right?) but if you let it grow into a greater concern over time, the average player is going to concoct something far more terrifying than what you’re cooking up!
How You’re Scaring
Via the gaming atmosphere?
Using mechanics to get it done?
The old fashioned way: with a right proper scary story!
Making a gaming atmosphere that encourages fear is simple enough: get some soft lighting (but not too soft—everyone needs to be able to read!), be (more) secretive with your notes, throw in plenty of rolls that serve no real purpose other than to throw players off kilter, and play some music in the background. Not the epic stuff either, but something dark and foreboding (I recommend Midnight Syndicate; D&D music is their thing and there are lots of spooky tracks!)
As mentioned above, the second option is not for groups with power gamers unless you are a very experienced GM. If you can handle it (and aren’t afraid of a TPK), a surefire way to give your players the willies is to start giving them really good, very specific magic items. Nobody will be suspicious about the first one or two powerful weapons or protectives, but once they get the third or fourth, concerns begin to arise. This is a tough road to hoe though—you’re literally raising the stakes. By giving PCs specialized equipment of considerable potency, you’re able to throw something extremely dangerous at the party. If things go as you’ve planned, they should be of two minds when the final battle comes: oh-my-god-we’re-going-to-die and holy-crap-we-might-win.
If you can hack it, I’ve found this to be the most rewarding.
Finally, there’s just a well-told horror story. There’s a Kickstarter going on from Louis Porter Jr. Design for the Cross of Fire saga, and all the talent wrapped up in that is in good standing to deliver a terrifying tale, but I wouldn’t count out the logically consistent river of blood in The Mysterious Peaks of Baranthar. 😀
If this is your bag, tips for telling a scary story abound on the internet, but remember: people fear the unknown more than anything else, so make use of that suspense and stretch it out to good effect!
There exist horrors in the universe incomprehensible to man. Sometimes these abominations manifest themselves within other living creatures, warping them into monsters more deadly than their ordinary selves. Creatures of this order are known as star spawn,identifiable only bythe bizarre traits that they possess. It is not uncommon for two statistically identical monsters with the star spawn traits to appear as two completely different creatures altogether.
The following template can be used to adjust the stats of monsters (the base create) that have been touched by forces beyond understanding.
Type aberration AC Increase deflection bonus to AC by +4 Size increase one step from original form (+2 Str, +2 Con, -1 Dex) Immune critical hits, bludgeoning damage, slashing damage, force damage Unnatural Intelligence (Su) The base creature is granted a +10 bonus to Intelligence and a selection of 1d4 +2 wizard spells (up to 5th level) that it may cast at will as spell-like abilities. Additionally, this increased intelligence allows the base creature to learn any five languages. Hive Lord (Su) The base creature is granted the innate ability to compel creatures of its own kind to fight for it whether the creatures are intelligent or not. No Anatomy (Su) The base creature has no anatomical structure and is therefore immune to some weapon damage and spells like magical missile. Attacks from these sources temporarily displace the struck portion of the creature for 1 round hampering it from making an action that relies on the displaced area by incurring a -5 to the AC of that portion of its body or a -5 penalty to attack rolls (as appropriate; a displaced head penalizes the creature’s bite attack, etc.).
Crafted from the flesh, blood, and bone of dead corpses, fleshdolls are miniature 1-ft. tall puppets that are animated by unwilling spirits bound with evil necromancy. Products of the fleshdoll stage, the associated curse has a myriad of effects, but none are more noticeable than this unnatural transference into one of these gruesome miniatures. Stitched and sewn, pinned, and cauterized—a fleshdoll’s physical appearance and level of aesthetic detail depends on the creativity and skill of the necromancer who created the grizzly examples of fleshcraft.The following template can be used to adjust the stats of player characters and NPCs who have had their spirits bound to a fleshdoll.
CR 1/2 of base creature Size decrease to small Type undead, construct (negate all previous racial modifiers and all race-based special abilities and special qualities)
DEFENSE AC natural armor becomes +0 hp -3 hp/HD to minimum of 1 hp/hd (no construct bonus hp), no natural healing (heal as undead) Immune undead traits Special Qualities no breath Fleshdolls do not breath, eat, drink or sleep.
OFFENSE Speed halved (minimum 5 ft.) Attacks weapons functions as two sizes larger; limited to one attack action using one weapon per turn
STATISTICS Ability Scores -10 Str (minimum 8), Con — (negate any Con-based skill modifiers), +4 size bonus to Dex Base Attack halved
Any abilities that are dependent upon the creature’s original physical form (such as racial modifiers or race-based special abilities, such as darkvision, and other qualities physically-based qualities) are negated. Any feats or special abilities that affect the creature’s Constitution-based mechanics, such as Fortitude saves, are also negated.
Spells that require a somatic component must be accompanied by a successful DC 25 Use Magic Item check in order to be cast by a fleshdoll. This is because the puppets are not anatomically accurate in every sense, and thus find some gestures and intricate movements difficult to perform. There is no other limitation on spellcasting for fleshdolls.
Fleshdolls speak as a supernatural ability. While their tiny mouths move (provided their creator crafted them one), their voices are audibly projected from the doll in the likeness of the creatures original voice, though slightly more high pitched and with a hollow, squeaky quality.
Upon entering the Macabre Manse, the PCs trigger the reverse possession effect of the fleshdoll stage. The entire house—including the areas outdoors such as the front porch—are encompassed by the artifact’s area of effect. If the PCs remain in the area of effect for the five minute activation period, they are automatically affected by the fleshdoll stage, their bodies dropping lifelessly to the floor, their helpless spirits drawn into the artifact.
The PCs remain disembodied with the foreboding sense that something terrible is happening. Though unable to communicate, each feels the sense of being bound and unable to move. Soon that feeling fades and the adventurers awaken, each sitting in a darkened area illuminated only periodically by the flashes of lightning from outside that illuminate the room from some unseen opening or window.
Madam Sutradhara has bound the souls of the PCs to fleshdolls, and they are awakening for the first time in their new bodies. She has left them set neatly upon the fleshdoll stage with her other puppets, and has retired for the evening. It will take a few moments for the party to realize that they are not in their own bodies any longer. If a character speaks, they find that their voices seem higher in pitch, and slightly hollow.
To randomly determine what fleshdolls the PCs have been bound to, use the following chart. Each member of the party should have a unique fleshdoll form, so if the roll to determine their appearance is the same as it was for another, then roll again to determine a unique fleshdoll appearance.
Random Fleshdoll Appearance
Human male in fine attire (like an aristocrat or nobleman) carrying a tiny felt tome.
Human female in a magnificent silk gown and sparkling tiara (like a princess).
Halfling male in brightly colored tights and bells with a polished glass marble in each hand.
Halfling female dressed as a swashbuckler with a daring tricord, carrying a rapier and dagger.
Elven male in miniature leather armor carrying a twine leash with a felt briar wolf.
Elven female dressed in nothing but vivid autumn leaves with a gnarled twig as a staff.
Dwarven male with tin plate armor and a fuzzy beard, dull tin battleaxe in hand.
Dwarven female wearing a cotton gown and leather apron, faux tankards of ale in each hand.
Drow male wearing tattered leather loincloth and black iron collar, mouth sewn shut.
Drow female wearing a faux spider-web dress and carrying a tiny cat o’ nine tails.
Pig wearing a lawman’s outfit, carrying a tiny club and wanted poster for a goat.
Gnarled wooden-horned goat wearing a pair of sharp leather boots and a wide brimmed hat.
Anthropomorphized donkey carrying its own pin-laden tail in hand.
Anthropomorphized chicken with articulated wings instead of arms wearing purple pantaloons and a leather falconer’s hood so that it cannot see.
The PCs are on a large stage with tall red curtains drawn shut. When they look beyond the curtains they see what appears to be a study, though everything is enormous in size as if fitted for a giant—it shouldn’t take much time for the party to figure out that they now inhabit the bodies of miniature dolls.
Awakening at generally the same time, the party likely first reconvenes behind the curtain. If the PCs are familiar with each other, they are be able to denote who is whom by their voices—though the tone of each seems more high pitched and squeaky. Otherwise, they should be able to determine who resides in each fleshdoll body by the process of elimination.
Once the PCs have spent several minutes discussing and exploring their environment they are approached by the other fleshdolls, who have been hiding in the shadows observing the new arrivals. There are five in total each elegantly crafted. There is a human maiden dressed in a vibrant red gown, what appears to be an anthropomorphized otter in a high priest’s garment, two bald halflings dressed identically with their faces painted like clowns, and lastly a long-haired, dashing hero, who seems to be in lead of the troop as he approaches in the front.
Who are the other fleshdolls? The dashing hero – Thomas Hiendlewyn (CG Male human bard 8): As the former lover of Sutradhara who she feels betrayed her to his wife, he is both the original owner of this estate as well as the focus of the masterminder’s ire. His fleshdoll has been crafted in his own likeness as depicted in his youth (when he was involved with Madam Sutradhara).
The red-dressed maiden – Alivya Hiendlewyn (NG Female human commoner 1): The wife of Thomas, it was she whom Sutradhara blames for “stealing” her lover. Her fleshdoll has been made into the likeness of Madam Sutradhara in her youth, and she has been condemned to reenact the story of the two former lovers countless times. She is emotionally broken, and frequently speaks of just ending it all, though Thomas is quick to reassure her that one day they will escape the hellish torment of the fleshdoll stage.
The bald halfling clowns – Richard and Foster Hiendlewyn (NG Male human fighters 3): Twin brothers and the sons of Thomas and Alivya, in life they both were strapping young lads, but as fleshdolls they have been reduced to bumbling half-witted clowns. Their anger towards Madam Sutradhara is unending, and they are quick to assist the PCs with any plan hatched to kill her.
The otter priest – Vencent Tolmyre (NG Male human commoner 1): Father of Alivya, his involvement in matters was mere circumstance. He happened to be visiting his daughter at his son-in-laws estate when Madam Sutradhara first arrived with the fleshdoll stage and imprisoned the family. He is often forced by the masterminder to preside over a marriage ceremony between the maiden and hero fleshdolls—a rendition of what the crone necromancer believes was taken from her by Thomas’ betrayal.
Thomas has been awaiting the arrival of several able-bodied (as it were) adventurers who could help him devise and enact a plan to escape. He knows the only solution is to kill the Madam Sutradhara and he has been plotting for many years the best way to do just that.
If the PCs can earn his trust with a DC 20 Diplomacy check, he reveals to them a compartment he has crafted in the floor of the stage. Within they find a pair of sheers (broken apart to form two sturdy blades [treat as two Large-sized daggers]) which he plans to use to kill his former lover.
If the PCs gain his trust, the group may spend the evening hours plotting the plan to overthrow Madam Sutradhara, a grisly affair which must ultimately end with her murder.
Additional Information that can be learned from the other fleshdolls:
Thomas explains how the masterminder utilizes ventriloquism to voice their roles during a performance, and how she uses her dark powers to control their movements. Through the years he has discovered with enough focus it is possible to withstand her supernatural suggestions, though it is no easy task. He suggests that the PCs play along during the upcoming performance, showing no resistance, until the time is right to strike.
The PCs are told by their fellow fleshdolls about Madam Sutradhara’s perverse puppeteers bond and warned not to wander too far beyond the stage lest suffer the fiery wrath of its curse.
Madam Sutradhara has been writing a new play, a grand performance, and until now she didn’t have enough fleshdolls to fill all of the roles. Now that she does, it is assured that there is going to be a performance the following evening.
All the collected souls of theatrical torment know the story of Madam Sutradhara; who she was before becoming a dark and twisted necromancer, what drove her to the dark arts, and how the fleshdoll stage came into being. [Covered in more detail in this Friday’s post! – JAM]
Imagine Gilligan McHammerBlood, yelling, getting drunk, and combing through his beard with an anvil-shaped comb with a large hammer in his other hand. Is this your dwarf? Is he Scottish, French or another small variation of something you see all the time? Why? We’re going to explore some examples from the core races and a new system of creating unique and interesting cultures. The first step is figuring out a key trait, or in my example, taking a common trait and expanding on it.
How does one expand and enrich beyond the stereotypes typically part of a standard fantasy race? One technique is to take a trait from whatever race you want to play (like a Scottish dwarf) and then continue the process from there. What if they talk with an accent because their tongue is thinner and they have to sound more guttural since because they can’t be more physically elegant with speech? Perhaps they don’t like to talk and enunciate because of this, and this irrational fear of public speaking has fueled the dwarves to pursue other fields of study such as combat, or crafting—anything to be out of scrutiny and the public eye.
This key trait is a physical or social attribute that you can further expand upon. For example half-orcs have ferocity, which you can use as either a physical trait (maybe they’re covered in scars and tattoos) or a social one, where they never say die and it’s one of the reasons many other races dislike them. Dwarves on the other hand are short and stocky, which is just a physical trait but can still affect their culture—they’re comfortable in heavy armor and live in small tunnels that they carve for themselves. Moving beyond the core races, such as to a sapient, quadrupedal being, you should ask yourself, “what does it mean to have four legs?”
If we assume their most defining trait is that they’re a quadruped—like we defined half-orcs by their ferocity and dwarves by their stockiness—we can say that they can gain abilities normally reserved for monstrous creatures, like natural attacks and maybe pounce. These probably make them good at hunting, but comparatively lacking in societal cohesiveness.
Then we move onto the the questions stage. Why are halflings so commonly plucky, or goblins lacking in refinement? What about the same sort of questions for our quadruped? Ones that aim to to flesh out their culture—how do they build things? How do they use tools? What kind of government would a quadruped race prefer? With just a few questions you can define the big points of their culture, and the more questions you ask the more fleshed out your race becomes as more details start to fill in the gaps in between.
Three steps; that’s my trick to fleshing out any race and you don’t have to tweak Tolkien or go weirdly alien to do it. Remember, no matter how different from human your race may be, they’re still people—something that is easy to forget. With this method I’ve created races and cultures that pique the imagination of players, fueling new and exciting adventures for intrepid groups to discover in my games. I hope it serves you as well as it has me!