General Ramblings


I recently got to see Porco Rosso for the first time this week. I’ve never been as enamored with the Studio Ghibli stuff as other geeks, but this seemed like it would fit my taste for pulp-action. While there’s some of that, what I got was a movie that was a wistful romance — romance for seaplanes, romance between old friends in the form of Gina and Porco and Fio and Porco, and love of the period. It’s a great movie, but one of the things I noted was the absolute love the creators — and their characters — seemed to have for aircraft. There’s a scene after Porco’s plane has been shot to pieces that his mechanic muses it would be cheaper and easier to build a new one. His response was something like “I’ve grown attached to this one…”

Having known a lot of pilots and other forms of gearhead, it’s an affection I’ve seen in real life, and have experienced. I’ve had a bunch of motorcycles over the years — my current 2010 Triumph Thruxton (named “Trixie” after Speed Racer’s girlfriend) is hadns-down my favorite bike I’ve owned, despite others having been faster or more maneuverable. I know car guys that hang onto their favorite car long after the cost-benefit of owning the vehicle has tipped negative. I know motorcycle guys who go looking for that bike they owned 20 years ago, even though it’s technologically inferior.

For sailors, pilots, motorcyclists, and real driving aficionados, their vehicle usually represents more than just a room that moves me from point A to point B. (A ghastly trend that started with entertainment systems in cars and will only worsen with the introduction of self-driving vehicles.) “This ain’t no dead piece of metal,” Rex Racer tells his brother at Thunderhead in the much-underrated Speed Racer movie, “A car’s a living, breathing thing…” They are companions that are freedom to move and escape, they show off your personality, indicate your social and economic status.

Strangely, I rarely see this connection between role-playing game characters and their rides. Partly, this could be that most of my players just haven’t bee machine-heads, but even those that were rarely had that spark with their vehicle. Partly, it’s the lack of having an actual thing to see or use; a lot of the joy in owning a vehicle comes from that feedback you get when driving/flying/riding them. There’s bee n some connection to ships in our sci-fi games: Galactica in our long running campaign, for instance; Constitution, our Sovereign-class starship in an old Star Trek game…but no one has that “screw it, I’m staying on my dead ship” quality that you see in Malcolm Reynolds towards Serenity, nor do they send years tracking down their Millennium Falcon.

So how to foster this connection, especially in a character that is supposed to be a gearhead or pilot/diver/etc…?

First, don’t talk stats. When you introduce the vehicle, don’t focus on the stats. Focus on the way it looks, the way it makes the character feel. Have a picture of the thing…

Second, don’t talk about that stats. Talk about how the seats feel, how it sounds or smells, how it handles. For a character’s Sikorsky S-38 seaplane, I described the wicker seats and settee, the table in the passenger compartment, the old-school steering wheel on yoke, the smoothness of the engines. Really, have pictures.

Third, the GM has to think of the ship as a character. What sets this think apart? Serenity is a beat-up barely functioning tramp steamer of the stars…why is she such a draw? Because she’s a home, but she is also freedom from the war, from the Alliance, from all the things people don’t want to face. Why is Porco Rosso’s Macchi S.33 (no, I don’t care what they say in the movie — it’s not a Savoia S.21. Google it.) so important to him? It’s a temperamental, difficult to fly, aging seaplane…but it’s his escape from the world and his connection to when he was human. The escape, the freedom — look at vehicle ads — those are the power lines for getting people to buy a motorcycle, a car, a boat, or a plane.

These vehicles make their owners feel free. And that’s your in as a GM.

“Party Support: For whatever reason, sometimes you’ll want a character in the party that’s controlled by you. Party Support is the ability to integrate a GM-controlled character (GMPC) into the party without hijacking the leadership or stepping on toes. I’ve seen a lot of advice against having GMPCs, but sometimes they’re necessary and, when used properly, they can add a lot to a campaign…” Walt Ciechanowski

That quote comes from a comment on the The GM Levels Up from John Fredericks over on Gnome Stew. I have a link for the article in the other piece from today.

Your characters are rarely going to be working alone. They’re going to want some help from time-to-time from  that NPC that has skills they need, or they just plain like and want around on an adventure. Maybe your setting is someplace where they are always going to have access to this character — a starship exploring the galaxy, a military unit on patrol, a spy agency with a team assign to aid them. These NPCs can sometime take on a life of their own, and sometimes the GM gets attached to them as much as the players do their own characters. These characters can sometimes straddle the line between NPC and PC — what Walt is calling the GMPC.

We’ve all encountered it, and every GM to some extent is guilty of this: that support character you created really is your PC, just not in name. I had a major NPC in our Battlestar Galactica game who became a major plot device and was arguably more important to the story than the heroes. However, the heroes were still in charge of their lives, and still got the majority of the screen time. This character had a certain deux ex machina moment…but other than that, she rarely got to “do her thing.”

Some GMs and players hate the idea of the GMPC, but I would submit, to a certain extent, you can’t avoid it. There’s always going to be the NPC that just speaks to you as a GM and you will want to keep them in your pocket for whenever you can. If the players also took to the character — no issues. If they don’t, issues.

Example: I have several NPCs currently supporting the party in our Dungeons & Dragons group — a few of them are well fleshed out, already: Steven, the Down’s Syndrome horse wrangler who is a savant with animals and if he ever gets into a fight is gonna cream someone. I like the character concept but he doesn’t seem like a first string support character.  His father-figure is a gruff scout for the legions, but he has a soft spot for the troubled young man and recognized his talents. He even got a full name, Titus Germanicus, and a full write up. (But on the last point, so did the others…) Carona, the troublesome satyress, on the other hand is the sort that is on the cusp of GMPC — she’s teaching the bard new spells for his panpipes, and she’s a thief. She’s already a point of romantic interest for a few of the characters, and well…I like the character. She’s also the only NPC I have a visual for.

I didn’t choose her to be in the party. They did. It was originally supposed to be an encounter to have the monk have some doubts about his quest to battle demons and tielfing, when presented with something that looked like the enemy, but was — essentially — good.

That’s the points of contention, I think. If there’s a GMPC that all the players like, it’s less likely to be an issue than, say, an obnoxious addition no one wants around but the GM is always finding ways to include. The other point of failure for the GMPC is when tey start taking the limelight away from the PCs, or they are obviously “better” at things than the PC. The PCs are the ones “in the credits.”

It’s alright for an NPC to be that mentor that is better than the characters for a time. Obi Wan Kenobi should have been light years better than Luke Skywalker at, well, everything, but he’s an old man and he has a role to play. Mentors have to let the players go, at some point, or be struck down as a motivator. That’s just good drama. But if the GM is playing Obi Wan as a quasi-PC for himself and decides only Obi Wan gets to do cool stuff…well, he’s just being a jerk.

Don’t be a jerk.

I’d submit the GMPC isn’t an issue if you reign yourself in and let others play. Just like, if you are a player, you don’t hog all the air and time.

It’s been getting “meh” reviews and i wasn’t particularly interested in this series, so I went in with low expectations…but found myself enjoying Iron Fist, even though it is unquestionably the weakest outing of the Netflix/Marvel series.

The good stuff — the supporting characters are interesting and richly-fleshed out. In particular, I found Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meechum and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing to be the strongest of the bunch. Madam Gao, a recurring antagonist for Daredevil, is also nicely fleshed out. Finn Jones does a workman-like job with what he has as Danny Rand, the hero, but he’s quickly overshadowed by the more interesting Colleen Wing. The bad guys are also good — from the revenant Harold Meechum, to Gao and her nemesis inside The Hand, Bakuto (played with a nice oiliness by Ramon Rodriguez, who i vaguely remembered from The Wire.)

The “meh”: Where Daredevil used color motifs, lighting, and inspired fight choreography to play up the moral conundrums and physical pain of a vigilante’s life, and Jessica Jones played the noir detective look and feel to accentuate the themes of control and abuse, and Luke Cage used strong color palettes, urban music and fashion to craft a believable Harlem in the middle of the Marvel universe…Iron Fist is pedestrian. The fight scenes are not over the top Hong Kong Action Theater. They’re bland and uninspired. The blocking, the shot lists, the lighting, the use of color are something you would expect out of Law & Order: Superheroes. The other Marvel shows evoke the Miller/Mazzucchelli Daredevil run; Jessica Jones has that tired PI in a dirty world flavor; Luke Cage is decidedly Black America; they’re unique. Iron Fist doesn’t play up the Eastern mysticism, choosing a bland corporate backdrop.

That makes sense in some ways. Rand is a billionaire and heir to a massive company and the board doesn’t want him there. It’s a plot element that definitely should have been explored, especially as it is the motivation for the bad guys. BUT… He’s a “living weapon” from the mystical city of K’un L’un out to destroy the Hand. He’s just not dipped in the Eastern mysticism enough, whereas — for instance — Doctor Strange at least did a better job playing to that. The character does meditation and martial arts, sure, but the look of the show isn’t exotic enough to evoke that.

The “bad”: Really, it’s the focus of the show on the Meachum’s corporate machinations and the lack of fight scenes that flow and are elegant. The credit sequence should have informed the look of the fights, with loads of sweeping movement. Jones moves well, and the choreography is accurate to some of the forms used, but it’s not chop-sockey enough, and I suspect that’s what the fans wanted.

So is it worth watching? Yes. It’s a decent addition to the Netflix/Marvel catalogue, but don’t expect anything ground breaking. Substance-wise, it’s got a lot of good character development, especially in the supporting cast, and it breaks the 3rd Act Slump that all Marvel shows seem to have; unlike the others, it doesn’t have that episode 9-11 drag. But stylistically it’s weak tea.

I started work on our sourcebook for 1930s Shanghai. Most likely, this will be a system-neutral product, but may wind up having appendices for Fate and Ubiquity. Right now, I’m in the first writing pass, and this should take a week or two. After that, it’ll be nailing down any system-oriented stuff we might want added, and then a pass for possible fiction interludes and a canned adventure or two. The target page count is 80-100 pages, once art is added.

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So far, you can look forward to information on customs, communications, the nightlife of International Settlement, the expatriate communities of White Russians and Jews. There is a section on the Shanghai Municipal Police force and the Shanghai Volunteer militia. There’s going to b a chapter on the Green Gang — the criminal organization tied tightly to the Nationalist government, as well as information on the espionage agencies active in the city.

I’ve found some excellent maps that will most likely need to be worked over by a cartographer to make work for the book, and tons of public domain photos of the city.

Right now, I’m hoping on a late summer release.

I think that’s what I’m calling this volume of Dungeons & Dragons adventures: The Road to Heroism. Why? Because the Via Graiae features prominently in the campaign, thus far. They are in what is supposed to be deep inside Roman territory, 50 miles or so from the border, and all their adventures have been along the road.

This particular episode for the night was The Goblin Town. Our heroes had managed to convince the prefect of Vigiles in Ariolica to take a force and root out the nearby Vandal threat. With 80 men, 2 ballistas, and the party, they left the Via Graiae and headed into the snowy forests of the Jura Mountains. Along the way, it occurred to Quintus Marcellius — our former legionnaire, that they could use more aid, and that Jurahold, the dwarven village Carrus the Ranger is from, was nearby.

They arrived in a small valley where Juraborg, the dwarven town, is situated. Jurahold is carved into the mountain face above the picturesque village, and is a refuge against attack and the harshness of winter. On approach, the guard are shocked to see Carrus, but not their leader Smaigo the Zwergifuhr (who was killed prior to the introduction of Carrus, Icio the Monk, and Calvinus the bard in media res) a few weeks ago.

The force is invited into the hold and in the great hall, Lady Fega — Smaigo’s wife and ostensibly the new ruler of the tribe — does not handle the news of her beloved’s death well. The character’s stories are consistent, but biffed charisma roles meant that they were not given the warmest welcome at the news, but things did not go terribly. Carrus, however, was not content to be the guy that lost his tribe’s leader, and convinced an equal force of Jurazwergi to join them in the attack on the Vandal village nearby. (Benefits of a crit 20…) They stayed the night in the dwarven hold, Calvinus romanced a pair of dwarven twins while he was playing for the entertainment of all, and in the morning, they were off to find the Vandals.

As they were nearing the village, they could hear wolves baying — the goblins were not going to be surprised. Carrus and a few of his dwarves slipped forward to reconnoiter the location and confirmed an old Roman village that had been abandoned ages ago was inhabited and being repaired by the goblins. They got an estimate of the numbers — maybe 500, with 200-250 of that being children, and 100-150 women. That left about 100 warriors to worry about. They also spotted an old dwarven hold in the rockface of the hillside near the town that the goblins were operating out of. While watching the town, they saw a force of 50 Vandals leave to intercept the Roman advance and retreated to warn the others.

The decision was made to have a small force of the dwarves under the party raid the subterranean hold from the back door, hoping to find and free the prisoners, while the main force under Abrecan, the prefect, met the Vandals…maybe they were looking to talk? Either way, the main force has superior numbers and training; the smaller force would most likely only encounter a similar number in the hold. (The cleric stayed with the main force, as the player was out for the night.)

After slipping into the hold from the massive doors (we established that the dwarves always seem to overbuild…they’re on average 4’8″, but all their ceilings are 18-20 feet high; their door 12 feet tall! They walked straight into a guard and the monk dispatched him with a fantastic success on his attack. The next passage had three Vandals, and a cage full of the children taken from Timo’s Ford, the village from the first adventure. They dispatched the baddies and freed the kids, then pressed in, encountering 3-4 goblins per chamber.

The bard kept taunting the Vandals with “vicious mockery” — I’d never considered the hit points were as much a mental and physical structure; and this cantrip did hit points of damage. This led, in one of the fights, to me using that notion against Carrus. In one of the chambers, there were cages of prisoners under them, with a walkway running through the room. He had fouled an acrobat roll and slipped, nutting himself on the bars and temporarily at the mercy of one of the Vandals, who was able to strike at him. For the first few adventures, the characters have been first and second level, but the sheer numbers they’ve faced has allowed the to jump to 3rd level by this week’s game; a hit from a goblin a few sessions ago would have killed the character, but in this case only did about 40% in damage…I decided that was mostly from mental trauma: the swipe of the goblin’s scimitar lopped off one of Carrus’ beautiful twins braids of red beard! There was no damage, but the indignity of having his beard shorn off in combat was a distraction for the fight.

Eventually, they reached the main chamber where most of the survivors of Timo’s Ford were being shackled for the day’s work rebuilding the town. A half dozen or more Vandals were in the cavern, and before a fight could commence, Icio — the aasimar monk — lit himself up with the radiant soul ability: suddenly, this scrawny monk burst forth with inner light, glowing wings erupting from his back, and spouting off about the judgment of God and repenting their ways.

The goblins ran for their lives.

The towns folk were so awed by him, they started to ask about this god he spoke of while they were being released.

With the townsfolk released, they now had to either escape through the back door, or hold position in the defensible caverns of the hold and wait for their friends to arrive. They chose the latter. The Vandals made a perfunctory attempt to reconnoiter the hold, but a well placed pilum (javelin) by Marcellius drove them off. Weended the night with the Vandals rolling olive-oil covered burning barrels into the cavern to confuse and harass the party and their charges… (Yay! A cliffhanger ending!)

So, some of the things I/we took away from this: 1) hit points are both physical and mental damage…it is possible to describe a hit in D&D that doesn’t have serious effect as a distraction, or a momentary bit of fear or lack of surety; it doesn’t have to be an actual physical hit. 2) Fighters are much more bad ass in 5th edition at lower levels. 3) Likewise, low-level spells — even cantrips — are have more punch in 5e. Magic users are actually formidable. 4) The features and other customizable bits are fun, but can get a bit tricky to manage. 5) Having a rules lawyer when you’re still new to the system can be handy and annoying at the same time. (One of the guys has been running 5e for a while, now.)

We’ve been steadily building out this alternate-Roman setting, and one thing that’s been changing subtly is our initial take on Christianity, as a simple cult of Judaism, has morphed into an almost Alan Christianity: where 1) Jesus was an assimar, as was John the Baptist; 2) the rest of the story is pretty much the same; 3) Jesus is considered divine or divinely inspired, but not God, per se. 4) The cult of Jesus is still growing in strength and popularity, but is behind where it was in the real world. Even so, Christianity was still building, post Emperor Constantine, so we’re not as off the map as we were initially going to be. 5) Since I’ve established the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons and creatures exist, Christianity is locked in a fight with the other religions for believers not just in temples; these gods are trying to keep their membership rolls up. This may tie into the monk’s antagonist — a nephilim (or cursed), what they call tieflings in the Levant — and what his mission for Lucifer might be.

So for fairly simple outings — defending a caravan and a town, and then rescuing the village population — the characters get to build their game world reputations, but we are steadily building out and refining the greater world, even while remaining in an area of play that is only 50 or so square miles.

 

After four months of delays, we finally managed to finish The Death Jade. This adventure scenario is set in 1936 Shanghai. Rumblings of war are being heard in the International Settlement of Shanghai as the characters are hired to find a priceless artifact from ancient Chinese history — the Donguin jade, part of the fallen star that allegedly prophesied the end of the First Emperor’s reign, and which is said to carry his soul! The first man hunting the jade, Count Rusikov, has gone missing, and as they track his steps, they must stay ahead of Japanese and communist spies, and dodge nationalist warlords.

The Death Jade is live on DriveThruRPG.com for both Fate and Ubiquity. This 25 page adventure module costs $2.99.

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Our D&D game picked up with the characters’ caravan, led by their dwarven ranger, finding the Graian Way — the main Roman artery to the nearest real town, Ariolica. Positioned near the Jura Mountains, Carrus the ranger knows the place, and is known to the population. While the merchants are unloading and trying to trade, the characters did a quick exploration.

The players for Carrus and Marcellus were out this week, so the latter spent most of his time arranging for the arrest of the Vandal goblins that attacked them. Carrus’ dwarven connections in the town give them the lowdown on the tribe their captives are from — the Vanhalus tribe of goblins moved into the area a few months back, but supposedly there’s a much large force of them that have moved into the area. They’re close enough to be a real concern for Carrus’ town and hold. We also learn that Carrus is a local hero for pulling together the defense of a small Graeoceli village near his people’s hold; to the locals, he is “Carrus the Goblin Killer.”

They also spot a pair of goblins who are “Alemmani” — they’ve allied themselves with that great tribe of humans and they are from the “Sweda” band of goblins. They are in town as traders in fur. They know the Vanhalus and with some browbeating, they learn the Vanhalus are much larger a group that their prisoners told them. They were expecting a band of 500…these goblins say it’s more like 5000. Even with the assumed children and non-combatants in band that large, they are looking at 200-500 combatants! They also find out villagers from Timo’s Ford have not be shopped around for slavery. Why would they be holding onto the villagers? The Sweda guess they are being used to build defenses. Your Vanhalus are hear to stay.

Marcellus, meanwhile, had made contact with the prefect of the town — an Alemmani that goes by the name Abrecan Legio (the strong legionnaire), but whom he had known in the Legio II Augustus as a centurion, Abrecan Haraldus. He supposedly had died in combat, yet here he is, appointed the prefect not by the district tribune, but by the people of the town. Things are starting to fall apart for the empire, even here 50 miles behind the front.

Abrecan is convinced by the party to pull a force from the Vigiles of the city to probe the Vanhalus camp — after all, even Marcellus’ small force has done for two dozen of the goblins. With a heavy century (100) of trained fighters, their pair of magic-users, and some siege equipment, they might be able to intimidate the goblins into giving up their prisoners.

There was some role playing opportunities — the monk, overwhelmed by the mass of human contact, retreated to a quiet place to meditate; the bard and cleric hit the Temple of Apollo to pray, then went in search of female companionship; Carrus went to dinner with the town’s dwarves; and Marcellus worked with Abrecan to start putting together their expedition for the following morning.

We had a short fight where a pair of goblins from the Vanhalus, in town to trade, spot and try to assassinate Carrus, who was stumbling home to the caravan horribly drunk. Even in his condition, he was able to put down one of his attackers, while the monk ran off the last.

We ended the night with the expedition — 100 men plus the party under Abrecan, armed in Roman style, but with a pair of light ballistas broken down and being hauled by the men, heading into the snowy forests of the Jura to find this goblin settlement.

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