Faction Friday: The Gatekeepers

Image found without attribution

Every city attracts a wide variety of religious believers, from the established to the fringe. The Gatekeepers are a canonical example of the latter.

Using only heavy white caps as symbols of their fraternity, the Gatekeepers gather at various spots around the city which they’ve identified as “universal nexus points,” or “gates.” According to their texts, these gates connect this world to dangerous outer planes, but remain closed thanks to strange purification rituals that the Gatekeepers perform. Using an insanely complicated version of numerology, adherents identify new gates and abandon old ones every year or so, making them…difficult to ignore.

The Gatekeepers believe they are awaiting the arrival of the Key, an individual who will open the gates and fight an apocalyptic battle with the evil forces beyond them. The exact nature of the Key remains a hotly debated topic within the group.

As a friendly faction, the Gatekeepers are a harmless, goofy cult occasionally found on the odd street corner of any city. Their purification rituals involve silly walks, nonsensical chants, and burning unusual items like owlbear feathers and rare plants. Fortunately for the player-characters, this means the head of the local Gatekeepers–a doughty, pleasant, somewhat addled middle-aged woman named Rem–can keep a low-level party busy for months collecting unusual ritual components and negotiating with the owner of a building that contains a new gate.

As a foe faction, the Gatekeepers are a little more sinister. They insist on invading and “purifying” places they’ve identified as gates, and instead of burning feathers and spices they sometimes sacrifice small animals and offer human teeth, fingernails, and toenails. They often delve into dungeons beneath the city looking for gates, and will race against PCs to get to any treasure first (confiscating it for the Gatekeepers’ use, of course).

You can also up the anté by actually having the Key show up. Turns out, the Gatekeepers were right all along, and a naïve teenager appears who actually does have the power to open the gates, which in turn causes eldritch horrors to pour into the world. Whether the Key can actually fight them off is your call.

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You cannot build a perfectly challenging puzzle for D&D

PragmaticFix_PuzzleBroken02 by Monica Fischer on Flickr

PragmaticFix_PuzzleBroken02 by Monica Fischer on Flickr

In most traditional RPG campaigns, PCs face broadly three kinds of challenges: physical combat, social conflict, and intellectual puzzles.

The rules of the game usually cover physical combat in plenty of depth, and most groups can navigate difficult conversations without complex rule systems.

Puzzles, meanwhile, beguile us. We imagine an ingeniously interconnected set of traps or a complex mechanism that fires the players’ imaginations and challenges their minds. We imagine our players hashing out different solutions among themselves before finally arriving at the solution.

The reality rarely matches this dream. Players get frustrated after only a few minutes, mis-understand basic aspects of the puzzle, chase false leads for far too long, and often just route around it as much as possible.

Why? Two reasons:

1) People are different. Work with me on this obvious fact. People are very bad at understanding just how different other people are from them. Others may come at a puzzle from a very different perspective than you will, making it very hard for you to find a puzzle that works for others.

2) A person who can solve a particular puzzle trivially over lunch is not in the same mental state three hours into an RPG session. After a few hours of mental gymnastics, it can be very hard to both marshal the mental resources and direct them appropriately for puzzle solving. Not only are you tired; you’re in a different mental state, thinking more about your character and the ongoing plot and what your character will do in the next room than about how to spin a set of discs so that the letters all align.

As such, you can’t build a puzzle that will perfectly challenge all your players in whatever mental state they are when they encounter it.

Does this mean you shouldn’t use puzzles in your game? Certainly not!

The key is to keep them simple. It’s better to challenge your players with three simple puzzles than one longer, complex one. You can always up the ante after your players have shown themselves ready to handle it.

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Monster Monday: Whip Vines

Assassin Vine Hangman by ProdigyDuck on DeviantArt

Assassin Vine Hangman by ProdigyDuck on DeviantArt

Whip vines drink blood. They look simply like long, very thorny green vines, but they conceal a round sac, buried deep in the ground or kept high in the air, that acts as a simple “brain” for the organism.

Whip vines sense movement with great accuracy. Any movement nearby causes the whip vines to animate, whipping back and forth, whereupon the vines do two things: open fresh wounds in the victim, and stick to said victim, leeching the blood from its wounds.

Whip sacs germinate by generating dandelion-like seeds in a separate sac that grows out of the plant once per year, growing high in the air, then bursts and distributes the seeds on the wind.

Intelligent monsters often harvest whip vine seeds and plant them around their lairs, leaving a few open spots for their own entry and exit.

Don’t worry about statting up whip vines; just steal stats from another monster of appropriate level for your party, along with a standard attack. The danger of whip vines don’t lie in their damage; it lies in the facts that they slow movement (half speed) and that the noise they cause alerts nearby monsters to the presence of enemies. Those monsters can then fire ranged weapons at the intruders who are still fighting through the whip vines, making them very effective at whittling down a group of adventurers.

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Monster Monday: Flesh-Eating Darkshade

This carnivorous plant (about 3 meters/yards tall at full height) disguises itself as a normal tuberous plant, typically growing in the wilderness and occasionally in overgrown dungeon environments. When prey nears, it reaches out with its “arms,” which secretes a numbing poison (and can swallow tiny creatures whole). Then its large, serrated mouth lowers onto its prey. With no digestive system, it instead dissolves and digests the creature while it lies semi-conscious in its mouth, usually for several days.

Darkshades rarely pose a significant danger on their own, but they are often encountered in areas that are already danger: trap rooms in a dungeon, near an animal’s lair, etc. In other words, you probably won’t face these things alone….

Homebrewery stats:

> ## Flesh-Eating Darkshade
>*Medium plant, neutral*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 14
> – **Hit Points** 80 (8d8 + 16)
> – **Speed** 30 ft.
>|12 (+1)|8 (-1)|10 (+0)|10 (+0)|6 (-2)|8 (-1)|
> – **Damage Vulnerabilities** fire
> – **Condition Immunities** blinded, deafened
> – **Senses** passive Perception 8
> – **Languages** None
> ___
> ***False Appearance.*** While the plant remains motionless, it is indistinguishable from a normal plant.
> ### Actions
> ***Grab.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit* 5 (1d6 + 2) poison damage and creature makes a DC 12 Constitution check or is *poisoned*.

> ***Devour.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target who has taken poison damage from a darkshade today. *Hit* 7 (2d6 + 2) piercing damage and target is *grappled*.


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Faction Friday: The Wild Ones (Sasquatch)

(Image found online without attribution)

Deep in the woods live a reclusive race of humanoids. Large and very hairy, they wear no clothes and live simple, peaceful hunter/gatherer lives.

But these are not simple creatures. They are as intelligent as any human, and just as capable of speech and thought. They deliberately live “in harmony with nature,” as they put it, regarding all forms of tool use beyond sticks and stones as abominations that interfere with the pure flow of emotion and thought. They love poetry and music, but their first love is the natural world, and many a Wild One will spend many hours sitting contentedly, staring at a beautiful sunset or stream.

While a Wild One can chat happily for hours and are usually good companions, they live mostly solitary existences deep in woods or swamps, pairing just long enough to mate and raise children (they invariably give birth to twins), which grow rapidly. Wild Ones grow to adulthood in about 10 years, and often live past 150. In times of crisis, Wild Ones will gather together in a “howl” to discuss the problem and work together to solve it, often formulating and executing plans with amazing speed.

While they much prefer to keep to themselves, if a person threatens either a natural landmark or a Wild One’s child within a Wild One’s sight or smell, the perpetrator should arm themselves well or flee as quickly as possible! Wild Ones attack with unmitigated ferocity in an animal rage, with enough strength to tear a creature’s arm out of its socket.

Because they spend so much time deep in natural areas, most Wild Ones develop an affinity for magic, though they never study it per se. Most Wild Ones can cast a spell or three, though they are almost always utility spells.

As a friendly faction, while the party camps in or near a large forest, a lone Wild One approaches the party. She is polite, if skittish; her prior experiences with adventurers have mostly erupted into violence. She explains that a group of “robed humans” has established a permanent camp next to a beautiful tree deep in the forest, and have carved strange symbols in the tree, which would be bad enough if they weren’t also tearing up all the land around it foraging for food. She will offer two valuable rewards: she will immediately cast a useful spell or two (choose spells that would be useful for your particular party), and upon success, the party will gain the favor of the Wild Ones, who can guide them safely through any natural, wooded environment in the world.

As a foe faction, the party runs across a rogue group of territorial, tribal Wild Ones who are on a crusade against any tool use within their domain. Upon entering this section of the woods or swamp, a single Wild One approaches the party and informs them that any use of their weapons, lighting fires, or otherwise use of tools is forbidden. The Wild One may answer a question or two but will leave quickly. If the party disregards this warning, a group of Wild Ones will appear and attack the party. Once any Wild One is reduced to less than half Hit Points, the entire group will escape, only to return later all healed up (though they will attack at most twice per 24-hour period).

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Star Wars Risus Post-Mortem

Cover from West End Games' "Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy" book by Chris Trevas

Cover from West End Games’ “Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy” book by Chris Trevas

This week, only 2 of my players showed up, so we ran a Star Wars one-shot using the Risus rules. We had a blast, and these are a few recommendations if you want to do something similar.

(For those not familiar with Risus, in brief: your character is made up of a few short, descriptive phrases called “clichés.” You distribute 10 6-sided dice among them. In a difficult situation, choose an appropriate cliché and roll all those dice, adding them up. If you’re rolling against an enemy in some sort of conflict, whoever rolls lowest loses one die in that cliché. Lose all the dice in one cliché and you’re temporarily sidelined; regain dice at intervals determined by the GM.)

Find an adventure; websites like Star Wars RPG Adventures & Modules or Fantasy Flight’s Compiled Resource List have quite a few. Don’t worry about which system the adventure uses.

Especially for a one-shot using a system that’s new to your players, choose a simple adventure with only 1-2 required combat encounters. It can be great to end your session in the middle of the story during a longer-running campaign, but if you stop just as players begin to grok the adventure, they can feel more frustrated than engaged.

Read through the module and adapt the NPCs to Risus. Basically, look at their most important attributes, descriptors, and phrases, and turns those into clichés. A nameless assistant might only have a single 2-die cliché of “mook,” while a big bad guy might have several clichés like “Bounty Hunter (4),” “Cunning (3),” “Brutal (2),” “I’m Da Leader a’ Dis Outfit! (3),” “Force Sensitive (2),” etc. In general, give simpler adversaries just a couple of dice, but give bigger bad guys lots of dice.

Then build a big list of clichés, catchphrases, and professions, and on game night, hand those out to your players. Give each player a piece of paper, and tell them to choose 3-5 clichés (or make up their own). Once they’re done, have them assign their 10 dice to their clichés.

And you’re off to the races!

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200 Word RPG of the Week: Go On Without Me

Some games are silly. Some games have hidden depths. Some games do both.

Such is the case with Wyrdsmith‘s 200 Word RPG Go On Without Me. Three or more players play characters in a stereotypical action/horror movie who are trying to sacrifice themselves. Each player identifies his/her character’s strengths and weaknesses (plus a dark secret, of course). A GM describes a scene, and each character tries to nobly sacrifice him/herself using a weakness, while other characters try to use one of their strengths to save that character. The first character to sacrifice him/herself “wins.”

Importantly, each player’s driven both to attempt a sacrifice, but also to prevent anyone else from successfully sacrificing his/her character. This means each player has to make up a creative sacrifice that can’t be handled by any other character’s strengths.

While you’re probably not going to play this game often, it will push your creative muscles collaboratively with the other players. And isn’t that a great outcome from a game?

Go On Without Me by Wyrdsmith:

The game of (ig)noble sacrifice

In this game, 3+ players portray a ragtag band of heroes in a stereotypical action/horror movie, each attempting to be the first to say, “Go on without me!” Players choose 2 Strengths, 2 Weaknesses and 1 Dark Secret. One player is the Director and begins play by describing a scene.

Players take turns (randomly or Director’s discretion) declaring their action and rolling a d6. On a 5 or 6, the action is successful. In order to Nobly Sacrifice themselves, their action must use a Weakness (something that prevents their character from carrying on). Other players may try to save them by reacting using a Strength (something they excel at). This reaction does not take up their action for the scene. For example, Jane rolled to stumble because of her weak ankles. Mark rescues her with his strong muscles and carries her. When all players have acted, the scene ends and a new scene begins. This is repeated until a hero finally sacrifices themselves.

If your Dark Secret is discovered you can only win by rescuing another hero in a scene, and then succeed on your own (Ig)Noble Sacrifice.

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200 Word RPG of the Week: Laughter or a Lit Flame

Jonathan Cook’s Laughter or a Lit Flame is a haiku game. Apparently, games centered on writing haikus are relatively common within the microgame scene, but whenever I’d come across the concept in the past, the game basically just told you to write haiku.

Laughter or a Lit Flame provides structure to those haiku, but in an intriguingly non-competitive way. Three players alternately write haiku (three lines, five/seven/five syllables) and waki (two lines, seven syllables each). The haiku describes the protagonist, while the waki describes events befalling that protagonist. Because three individuals play, everyone gets to write some haiku and some waki.

Importantly, past haiku and waki are hidden from players’ sight. This keeps players “in the moment,” focusing on what just happened.

Cook even recommends that the players also chat normally while writing their poems. This addresses one significant problem with haiku-based games: haiku are hard to write. With an encouragement to weave the game in with normal conversation, the pressure’s lifted. The poems don’t even have to be good, though I suspect that focusing them in the way that this game does will ease the burden.

It’s a fascinating, easy to play game, that can be quickly memorized and pulled out on a vacation, at a coffee shop, or pretty much anywhere.

Laughter or a Lit Flame: A Hack of Renga by Jonathan Cook:

Here I have a game:
Paper, pens, and three players.
It’s simple to play.

First Player writes a haiku
That describes a character.

Inspire love or hate.
Make us laugh. Or nod, silent.
Good haiku delights.

Player Two writes a waki,
(Two lines, both of seven beats).

Describe there events
That befall the character.
Tragic? Exciting?

Hide the haiku from our sight.
Fold it back or cover it.

The third player’s turn?
Haiku of a character,

Now hide the waki from view.
It’s player one’s turn again.

On each turn, you write.
First respond to what you see,
Then hide what you saw.

Alternate. Haiku. Waki.
Maintain silence as you write.

Or else, talk of things
Unrelated to the game
TV shows, your day.

Haikus invent the people:
Lives impacted by events.

Wakis are events
That change everything for
Our small poem-folk.

When you’ve written five times each,
Reveal all and read aloud.

Whoever read then
Sits in silence. And so
Must the other two.

The silence can be broken
By laughter- or a lit flame.

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Game Design Hour: How to Incorporate Play Test Feedback

Untitled by Magdalena Roeseler

Untitled by Magdalena Roeseler

Once you’ve completed play test, you’ll have all sorts of suggestions and advice gathered from play testers. Some of it wil be helpful; some of it won’t.

However, how much of your play test feedback will actually improve your game?

In other words, play testers sometimes give the wrong advice. So how do you sort that out?

I recommend you do three main things with your feedback:

  1. Read through all the feedback for quick changes that make immediate sense. This will include typos, rule rewrites that improve clarity, numeric scores that were way out of whack in play, and other things that both a) can be fixed in 60 seconds or less, and b) leap out as obvious improvements. Importantly, you’re not just changing everything that’s quick to change; these are changes that feel right just by looking at them.
  2. However, often, a play tester will give you the wrong fix for the right problem. They’ll see something that confuses them and will give you a change that would make sense to them, not to the rest of the world. So next, read through all the feedback and look for trends. Where are people confused? What didn’t work the way you wanted it to? Ignore the specific solutions for now and instead think about the fundamental problems indicated by those solutions. Note those problems separately, and then think about the best way to solve them. One of the play testers may have recommended the best solution, but more often, you’ll need to build something different.
  3. Finally, read through all the feedback one more time to ensure you’ve addressed everything. Play tests often generate many individual pieces of feedback, and it’s easy to miss one or two. Importantly, you can address a piece of feedback by ignoring it. Sometimes, a play tester will give you a straight up bad suggestion. That’s okay. The important thing is to think seriously about every piece of feedback, and if it’s wrong, cross it out.

Usually, once you complete this process, you’ll find that you have a significantly different game than what you started out with. And you know what that means? You need another round of play tests.

How do you know when you’re done? I’ll be addressing that in another post.

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Monster Monday: Gaxxog the Incorrigible

Gaxxog the Incorrigible

By Patrick Buermeyer – http://www.patrickbuermeyerart.com

Some monsters are simply beasts — strange, perhaps, but fundamentally no different than a panther or hyena.

Gaxxog is an abberant creature, a thing seemingly escaped from the depths of the hells.

Those who encounter Gaxxog and live to tell of it describe Gaxxog as an alternately lethargic and savage creature. It often curls up and sleeps in a swamp or deep forest, its rough skin effectively camouflaging itself to look like a rough hillock, its spines appearing to be a line of stones.

Roused, Gaxxog lashes out at anything that breathes and moves, killing indiscriminately.

Given its massive bulk, one would expect Gaxxog to hunt widely and consume vast quantities of wildlife, but explorers rarely encounter it. Gaxxog must hunt somewhere else and only occasionally make itself known in our physical world.

Gaxxog the Incorrigible stat block

And here’s the Homebrewery version:

> ## Gaxxog the Incorrigible
>*Gargantuan beast, unaligned*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 20
> – **Hit Points** 350 (20d20 + 150)
> – **Speed** 20 ft., climb 40 ft.
>|25 (+7)|10 (+0)|19 (+5)|7 (-2)|12 (+1)|6 (-2)|
> – **Condition Immunities** buzzed
> – **Senses** passive Perception 13
> – **Languages** None
> – **Challenge** 15 (3743 XP)
> – **Proficiency Bonus** +6
> – **Saving Throws** Con +11, Dex +6, Wis +7
> – **Senses** darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 11
> – **Challenge** 17(18000 XP)
> ___
> ***Natural Camouflage.*** While Gaxxog is camouflaged, creatures take Disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks to detect Gaxxog. This also applies to surprise rolls.
> ***Spiked Back.*** A creature attempting to jump onto or grapple Gaxxog must make a DC 19 Dexterity saving throw, taking 11 (1d8 + 7) piercing damage on a failed save.
> ### Actions
> ***Multiattack.*** Gaxxog makes three attacks: one with its bite and two with its claws. It can make one tail attack in place of its two claw attacks.

> ***Bite.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +13 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. *Hit:* 26 (3d12 + 7) piercing damage.

> ***Claw.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +13 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. *Hit:* 16 (2d8 + 7) slashing damage.

> ***Tail.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +13 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. *Hit:* 26 (3d12 + 7) bludgeoning damage. If the target is a creature, it must succeed on a DC 19 Strength saving throw or be pushed up to 10 feet away from Gaxxog and knocked prone.

> ***Acid Breath.*** Gaxxog exhales acid in a 60-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 19 Constitution saving throw, taking 52 (15d6) acid damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

> ### Tactics
> Gaxxog begins combat with *acid breath*. The next round, it makes a *bite* and *tail* attack, the latter against the largest creature in range. After that, it settles into *bite* and two *claw* attacks every round.

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