Show-Pieces

In the past few days, I’ve been watching RWBY, an anime-style cartoon series…and during the final episode of the second season, I had an epiphany about something to do in Dungeons & Dragons, and in role-playing games in general.

The episode features a show-piece fight, where all the important characters get to strut their stuff. I recommend that you watch the fight before reading what I say about it. Even if you aren’t familiar with the series, you should have no trouble following the action; monsters are loose in the city, and students at a school for monster-hunters have no choice but to fight them.

Here’s the YouTube link. The fight lasts from 2:24 to 8:47.

This sort of show-piece fight happens near the end of many a movie or TV season. The music starts (whether it’s the James Bond theme or driving heavy metal) and for a time, the heroes are invincible. They never miss; they can’t be hurt; and the enemies are always perfectly arranged for the heroes to put them down with clever moves. Each character gets to use their abilities in some distinctive fashion, and they all prove they’re bad-ass.

It’s fabulous. So how can we do the same in D&D?

D&D combat can be nail-biting, but it isn’t Metal. There’s too much time spent rolling dice. “I hit AC 14. Does that hit? No, I was aiming for the ogre, not the owlbear. Okay, I’ll roll damage. I role a 12. And then I’ll duck out of sight before it hits me back.”

Not. Metal.

So what’s the answer? Here’s what I’m thinking and what I intend to do in one of the campaigns I run: once in a while at an appropriate moment—maybe every four months—I’ll declare, “This isn’t a combat, it’s a show-piece.”

Put away the dice. Put away the rulebooks. Just be bad-ass.

Each character has as many opponents as they want: exactly the right number, lined up in a perfect configuration for whatever the character is going to do. Every attack hits. Every skill attempt succeeds without rolling. The enemies always miss, or if (for dramatic reasons) they connect, they don’t actually do damage. Each enemy goes down when you want it to…so if you want to take off its head with a single kick, that’s what happens. If you want to slash it twenty times in a second with your sword, and have its hacked-up pieces fall to the ground…done and done.

You can shoot five arrows simultaneously and pin an enemy to the wall. You can leap onto a monster’s back and use a dagger in each hand to dig into the creature’s hide and climb to the monster’s head. You can shoot a fireball down a monster’s throat, slam its mouth closed, and watch its entire body explode.

No dice rolls. No game mechanics. You don’t count how many spell slots you’re using, or how many ki points you spend. This isn’t combat; the player characters are putting on a show, because you’ve reached a point in the story where kick-ass mayhem ought to happen. The goal is to make your fellow players go, “Woah.”

I haven’t tried this yet in an actual game, but I plan on giving each player maybe three minutes to devise a showoff sequence: multiple actions against multiple enemies, all in a row. I wouldn’t want the sequence to take more than a minute to describe; this isn’t done in combat rounds. Player A describes their whole sequence; then Player B describes theirs; and so on.

Each sequence should use the abilities the character has right now—a wizard can’t suddenly know new spells—but everyone has unlimited uses of their powers. A wizard who knows Fireball can throw seventeen of them in a row, provided it’s bad-ass and not just repetitive.

I suspect some of you may still need guidance, so here are more thoughts:

  • The point is to show off, not to do math.
  • You can go into slo-mo when you want. Get that moment when you leap into the air and fire ten arrows before you land again.
  • Ridiculous flukes of luck are encouraged.
  • Monsters may roar, but they only attack when you want them to. This means you have time to deliver whatever dialogue fits. (See the RWBY clip for examples.)
  • Gravity is merely cosmetic. You can leap off something very high and swing your ax as you fall, cleaving a monster in two and not hurting yourself at all when you hit the ground.

Once each character has had a chance to strut, why not go through the order again, but this time in pairs on tougher enemies? Characters will team up (e.g. for Fastball Specials) to take on bigger badder opponents. Again, each pair of players will be given time to figure out a show-piece: using their abilities to beat something exceptionally scary. Maybe go through the order a second time with different pairs…and then one final super-boss-level enemy that all the characters unite to take out in some imaginative fashion.

I recommend ending with a slow-motion walk and stuff blowing up in the background.

Just remember the mantra: this isn’t combat, it’s a show. No dice, no rules. The player characters always succeed, and their enemies always fail…

…at least, as long as the show continues. Because in movies, these set-pieces often end when the real boss shows up. The wall bursts open, and in comes a monster just as bad-ass as the player characters. Suddenly, the DM puts the rules back in force, and it’s not a show, it’s by-the-book combat.

I offer this to D&D DMs (and GMs in other RPGs) as an occasional break from the ordinary, especially at dramatically appropriate moments. I intend to try it sometime soon. If anyone else tries it too, let me know how it goes!

Accelerated RPG Campaigns

I am the Dungeon Master for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and I recently had a great insight. Let me share.

Like many a DM (I think), I adapt published adventures for my players. This means I use the published adventure as the backbone of a story, then I add or modify material to meet the specific interests of players and given them an interesting character arc.

For example, one of the player characters in our group seemed to be leaning evil, and I knew the adventure I was using would eventually lead the party to a city that was a hive of scum and villainy. I therefore dropped hints that the character might be able to join an assassins guild there. When that prospect seemed to catch their interest, I arranged for the character to meet someone who told them how to contact the guild. Eventually, when the party reached the city, the character had to decide how much or how little to become involved with the guild.

The guild wasn’t part of the published adventure, but going to the city was. Thus while the party followed the plot-line of the adventure, the character had personalized opportunities that (I hope) made the game more interesting than just following the predetermined plot.

As I said, I believe a lot of DMs do the same. This approach provides a nice mix of plot (from the adventure) and character material (added by me personally).

So now my great insight: I could throw away huge amounts of the published adventure and still have a great game.

For example, suppose the adventure calls for the party to work their way through a 30-room enemy castle. Why not toss out 25 of those rooms (or more accurately make the rooms pretty much empty)? The only rooms I’d keep would be ones I found really cool, or else ones where I could insert character-based material. In other words, I could drop the “crawl” from “dungeon crawl” and distill the whole thing down to a few rewarding set-pieces.

In the old days, you crawled through a dungeon so the characters could accumulate experience points through the slow process of killing monsters. There’s some value in that—it takes a long time to achieve significant milestones, so the players feel great when they finally kill The Big Bad (or whatever). It also gives players time to learn how to use their current abilities to best effect, and to yearn for the cool new stuff they’ll get when they reach their next experience level.

But my group only meets once a month or so. Grinding through a generic battle means that no one advances their story, even if the battle is a memorable challenge. So new plan: follow the adventure’s plot, but cut it down ruthlessly to its bare essentials so that the added character material takes on a much larger percentage of the action.

Also accelerate character advancement—discard keeping track of experience points at all, and allow players to go up a level every four or five sessions. If that’s too fast, use incremental advances: let players take partial advances now and then, e.g. increasing their hit points or taking one of the new abilities they’d get at the next level. Incremental advances are a great trick I learned from 13th Age.

In this way, the campaign will make faster progress through the published adventure and through D&D levels, finally reaching the adventure’s conclusion in a reasonable time. This avoids one of the major problems of D&D campaigns: petering out before you get to a satisfying end, because the DM gets busy, or a player has to quit, or whatever.

In other words, I plan to speed things up by dropping 90% of the published material. This should let us actually reach the end of a well-rounded story, while still not feeling too rushed. I recommend the same to all DMs reading this.

Christmas Role-Playing

A week ago I tweeted the following:

Now I can explain.

I am Games Master for two role-playing groups, and with one, we’ve developed a tradition of having a special Christmas adventure every year. These are conducted in the spirit of an imaginary story, the way that DC Comics used to do: not really in the serious continuity of the ongoing role-playing campaign. Basically, these adventures are extravagant spoofs, often ending in wild chase scenes or over-the-top fights.

So this year’s adventure: “Die Hard” meets “A Christmas Carol” meets “Legend” meets “Land of the Giants“. Seriously.

The setting is the present day in a world much like ours, but with magic and magical creatures of all kinds lurking in the shadows. The player characters are all teenage mages recently graduated from a high school that is more like Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters than Hogwarts. They are currently connected with a slightly shady “talent broker” who hires “special” people for “special” jobs.

The broker was approached by an anonymous client and asked to arrange a classic Charles Dickens scenario to convert a Scrooge-like billionaire into a nice guy. They wanted the same sequence of events as “A Christmas Carol”: Marley, then the Spirit of Christmas Past, then Christmas Present, then Christmas Yet-to-Come. Such powerful spirits do exist in this world…and a powerful mage could use rituals and bargains to induce the spirits to visit a given target. The spirits themselves have plenty enough mind-altering power to reprogram an ordinary human into someone who loves Christmas.

So the job was not impossible. But when the broker investigated the situation, he found a lot of warning flags. For example, the Scrooge-like billionaire lived in a penthouse atop Nakatomi Plaza, and the whole building was enveloped in sophisticated magic shields. It’s not unheard of in this world for a billionaire to have some protection against magic, but these shields went way beyond normal. They also had embedded triggers and characteristics so complicated it would take ages to figure out what they actually did.

The talent broker decided the job was too hinky to undertake, so he turned it down. He expected the second best broker in the city would be contacted next, so he sent a message to Broker #2, warning not to take the job. Broker #1 expected #2 would take the job anyway, so #1 started making plans to deal with what might happen if things went pear-shaped. This included having the player characters on hand on Christmas Eve, just in case.

Just past midnight, everyone in the world forgot that there had ever been previous Christmases. They thought this year’s Christmas was the first ever. Yes, it looked like the Spirit of Christmas Past had somehow disappeared from the world.

So our heroes were rushed to Nakatomi Plaza to see what was up and what they could do to set things right. They stopped at the edge of the magic barrier surrounding the building, and just as they got there, all Christmas decorations in the city disappeared. Oh no! The Spirit of Christmas Present was gone too!

Before sending the heroes any farther, the talent broker gave them magical items that he promised would make them really really hard to detect by normal security systems and magic ones. He didn’t say how they actually worked, because a moment later, our heroes were shrunk to the size of ants. (In all my years of role-playing, I’ve never shrunk an entire group of players, and it’s high time I did. And if you’re going to do a remake of “Die Hard”, isn’t it more fun when the good guys are less than an inch tall?) Anyway, the broker gave them flying ants to ride, and away they all went to save Christmas.

I won’t go into many more details, but they had to deal with a host of obstacles, some of which were easy to circumvent at ant size, and some of which were tough. (The billionaire had two cats. Uh-oh.)

When the heroes finally got to the top of the tower, the place had been transformed by an abundance of Christmas energies spilling off the captured spirits. One room was full of toys…and yes, of course, since our heroes were mages, they could change the toy helicopters so the toys really flew and shot missiles. During the adventure, our miniature heroes almost got eaten by four calling birds, three French hens, and two turtledoves, and almost got stepped on by twelve lords a-leaping…but eventually the heroes found the spirits being held prisoner in Christmas stockings, chained up by Marley’s chains. A battle ensued with the heroes driving around in toys, facing off against villainous elves riding reindeer…

Anyway, we laughed continuously for a couple of hours, and much delirious action took place. (Not even gonna mention what the toy Batmobile did to the cats.) But yippie-ki-yay to all.

(Note to GMs: I strongly recommend the occasional holiday free-for-all…if not at Christmas, then Halloween or some other favorite event. Throw away the dice completely; if a stunt makes things more fun, it automatically succeeds, and if it’s a downer, it fails. Don’t forget that Chase scenes are always a great way to end.)

[Marley’s ghost and Scrooge illustration by John Leech, from Wikimedia Commons]

Blog? What Blog?

Oh yeah, this blog.

So for the past month or two, I’ve been writing gaming fiction and even some gaming crunch for The Onyx Path. I don’t know how much more I can say at the moment, but it’s kept me busy…mostly because it’s a new experience for me, so I’ve put in quite a bit of time on the work to make sure it’s good.

I get the impression that people who’ve been doing this for a while can produce material a lot faster than me; a number of them work on several projects a month. I’m not at that level of productivity yet, but I hope they’ll keep hiring me—it’s a good group of people to work with, and feedback comes more quickly than with fiction writing.

Still, I am writing fiction, every morning for several hours. I’ve also been doing some editing, and I’ll be leading workshops at When Words Collide in Calgary, Aug 9-11, and VCON in Vancouver, Oct. 11-13.

In the meantime, I intend to start posting regularly again. And as a start, let me announce that I’ll be at Ad Astra in Toronto, but only on the Saturday, July 13. Hope to see lots of people there!

Idle Thoughts on Role-Playing

I’m embarking on a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a number of people who go to the same Kung Fu school as I do. I’m the Dungeon Master, which means I’m the one who sets the stage for the players and who referees the game if necessary. Since four of the five players are beginners, I’ll also be helping them understand the rules, and orienting them a bit in terms of their odds of succeeding or failing.

(Spoiler alert: even though it’s called Dungeons & Dragons, beginning level characters should not try to slay a dragon. They will fail. However, I have a policy with brand new players: I promise that their characters won’t die in the first three sessions. If they really do try to slay a dragon, the dragon may just beat them up, take all their stuff, and leave them naked outside the nearest town. Or more likely, the dragon will singe them a bit, then say, “Okay, if you don’t want to die, you have to agree to run an errand for me…”)

As I said last week, I love planning campaigns. I love dreaming up new worlds full of wild and wonderful things. Also, since this campaign will only be the six of us sitting around a kitchen table, I love stealing stuff from my favorite books, comics, movies, TV, etc.

In my real writing, I can’t steal egregiously…but at the kitchen table, I can. So in the past, I’ve stolen from Doctor Who, Michael Moorcock, Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, and many many many more sources. For me, creating a campaign is a form of fanfic: as over-the-top as I can make it.

But one of the best things about role-playing is that the game isn’t just what I steal and what I invent on my own. It’s a joint creation of everyone at the table, all of them smart and devious. Players always invent their own goals and backstories—stuff that goes beyond what I could dream up on my own. We work together, developing the story from all that material. This means that a role-playing campaign emerges unpredictably from interactions between everyone present. Like good improv theatre, nobody knows what’s going to happen until it happens.

Role-playing is also an excuse to get together with friends. Perhaps that’s the most important feature. Of course, we could just get together and talk…but we probably wouldn’t, and certainly not week after week. Playing the game is fun, but it’s also a pretext to socialize and surprise ourselves in the process.

The next session for this group is Friday night. I may or may not report what happens; I’ll have to talk to the others about it. But if you’ve ever thought you might be interested in role-playing, I strongly encourage it. And perhaps I’ll talk more about role-playing games in the near future.

[Disclaimer: For a lot of you reading this, role-playing games are probably old hat…but given that some readers haven’t played RPGs before, I’ll write these posts assuming no prior knowledge.]

[Dragon picture by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: February 18, 2019

A rundown of what I’ve been up to recently.

What I’m Reading: The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. They’re fun middle-grade books about the demigod children of deities in the Greek pantheon. Percy Jackson is sometimes painfully slow on the uptake—I’m on Book 3 (The Titan’s Curse) and he still hasn’t got it through his head that EVERYTHING HE ENCOUNTERS IS SUPERNATURAL…but because these are middle-grade books, I’ll cut him some slack.

What I’m Listening To: Audio versions of the Goddess Wars books by Kendare Blake. You might consider these a dark YA counterpart to Percy Jackson. These books too feature characters from Greek mythology, including gods and heroes, but in a much grittier context. Gods are slowly dying in horrific ways, and those who still survive are at war each other. Interesting but nasty.

What I’m Playing on the Tabletop: One reason I’m reading the above books is because I’m running a campaign of Scion (Second Edition) from Onyx Path. Players portray the half-human/half-divine children of gods; our group includes children of Thor, Loki, Kali, Lugh, Winonah, and Cheeby-aub-oozoo. This is part of a continuing campaign that’s been going for more than ten years, having spun through multiple game systems including D&D, Ashen Stars, Mage: The Awakening, and more.

I’m also part of a group play-testing a tabletop RPG that I can’t talk about. Maybe eventually…

What I’m Playing on the Computer: Sunless Skies, a game where you fly a Victorian locomotive through otherworldly landscapes. I’ve reached the point where I don’t die too often, and therefore can follow the story-threads of my crew. It’s an odd but compelling little game. I got it on Steam.

What I’m Writing: The novel I’m calling PROJECT TECH-BRO, and a short story for an anthology that will be published in 2020. I will definitely say more about these in the fullness of time…but not yet.

Self & Character Sheets

I said I was going to write about meditation, but some tweets I saw on Twitter have aimed me in a different direction: the concept of no-self. Since this is a tricky thing to get your head around, let me come at it from an angle I understand better than Buddhist philosophy: role-playing games.

In Dungeons & Dragons, you portray a character who’s represented by a list of numbers and descriptors. One of the numbers represents how strong your character is; another how healthy or wounded you are; and so on. You also have a list of skills you’re good at, a list of what you’re carrying, perhaps a list of spells you know, etc. All this information can be written down on a few pages which are jointly called your character sheets.

Other role-playing systems also use character sheets. Different games have different information on their sheets, depending on what’s important in the game—a game about superheroes needs different information than, say, a game where you play a pirate or a spy—but all RPGs distill a character down to a page or two of attributes.

Games have to work this way because games need rules, and the number of rules needs to be small enough that people can actually remember them. Inevitably, then, games simplify life, and character sheets are severe simplifications: you can’t really sum up a complete person in a few pages.

More generally, every representation of a person is a simplification. For example, a 400-page novel is just a long character sheet. With subtext, a novel can suggests depths that aren’t explicitly on the page, but it’s still small in comparison to actual life.

Even a very long novel is short compared to a lifetime. I just took a look at audiobooks of War and Peace, and they run between 60 and 70 hours. That’s a lot of reading, but it’s still less than three days. A good novel makes you feel as if you know the characters exceedingly well, but you don’t actually “live” with them very long at all.

Now back to “no-self”. My personal take on this is that your idea of who you really are is just a character sheet. It’s a simplification that misses so much, it blinds you to reality. It’s always off-base. The truth is that we’re constantly changing; right now we may be angry but thirty seconds later, we’re wondering what we’ll have for supper, and then if there’s anything funny on Twitter, and so on.

This isn’t just a symptom of modern distractibility—the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago. The human condition is that we change from second to second. Even scientifically valid personality profiles like the Big Five are only another type of character sheet. They may be useful in some contexts (just as character sheets are useful when you’re playing a game), but they aren’t the unchanging truth of who we are.

So what is the truth? How do we get at it? The answer isn’t finding the “right” character sheet that will encapsulate our “self” correctly. The answer (according to the Buddha) is to give up trying to find an encapsulated self at all. Just pay attention to your body and mind in this moment…and in the next moment…and in the next. Avoid trying to make a character sheet of who you “really” are overall. Just know what’s happening in the moment.

And that takes us back to meditation…which I really will try to talk about next time.

{Image of Stormbringer character sheet in German from Ingo Willms, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D from Wikimedia Commons}