The Hook Mountain Massacre, Vignettes 3

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The Color of Memory (via chat with Veshenga’s Player)

It had been a few days since the retaking of Rannick. After a long day of cleaning and burials, most of the rooms on the ground floor were livable again. As Veshenga walked down the hall to her room, she passed the Captain’s quarters and could not help but notice the woman was sorting through a trunk at the foot of the bed, and a flash of color. Familiar, somehow. Until then, Veshenga had been considering a warm drink, a long bath, a good hunt. Just a few of her favorite things she looked forward to at the end. Secret little wishes that she tried not to think on for too long, as there were more important people and things to concern herself over – That was when the color caught her eye, and Veshenga turned. She strode closer to the captain, knocking on the foot of the bed as she would a door.

“Need any help, Captain?”

She glanced up, having apparently not noticed anyone. In the few days Veshenga had known her, the Captain had never displayed much emotion beyond a stoic facade in danger of crumbling at any moment. But, for a brief second as their eyes meet, Veshenga saw a flicker of relief mingled with sadness. Then the Captain composed herself once more and stowed the… scarf, perhaps… back in the trunk.

“Oh, no thank you, Veshenga. I was just sorting through my possessions. Fortunately, the ogres hadn’t gotten to them, yet.”

Veshenga smiled softly, not bothered by the few stray braids that stumbled along the side of her face. Her voice was as subtle as her smile, she nodded to the color tangled in the nest of the Captain’s belongings.

“I… do not mean to pry, but that is a lovely garment. A woman in my caravan had a skirt like that… reminded me of butterflies, now it reminds me of home.” She winced and rolled her arm, working out a stitch in her shoulder’s muscle.

The Captain nodded, moved the skirt back out gingerly, hesitantly. Veshenga had the impression that this was something that the Captain had never shown to anyone in the Fort, perhaps she only showed it now because of a shared Varisian history and an unexpected conversation. As it was pulled free, Veshenga certainly made out the pattern that she spotted, confirmed that it is, as she said, exactly like the one worn by one of her “aunts.” One of the women Danel seemed closer to than anyone else in the tribe. The pattern was similar to her tribe’s, but obviously a different pattern. “I don’t know why I still keep it… my days of dancing are long over… It’s more than useless to me in my duties. Sentiment, I guess.”

There were few Veshenga confided in regarding her own brand of homesickness. There was no terrible fit that branded her marime, or a death that drove her into a self-pitying journey. The parting was amicable, the love still there, and times like this were hard to come by. Times where there was someone else who missed home on the road as much as she did.

“I know what you mean,” a brief pause, and a smile to keep the two girls from getting a little too sentimental maybe. “You fight wonderfully, I am sure you were just as fine a dancer,” Veshenga watched her, blue eyes studied. “Maybe when this is done, you find your caravan again?”

She shook her head, kneading the skirt without realizing it as she struggled to hold back the emotions. “They’re dead, I’m afraid. And I am, too. When you come to the Black Arrows as I did, it’s better to think of your life as over. This is just penance before you go on your way. Kaven never got that, and look what it did to us. Even if there were anything out there for me, I agreed to stay with the Black Arrows until they put me in the ground.”

Veshenga’s brows furrowed. She was focused on the Captain, though the familiarity of the colorful skirt in her hands was a formidable challenge. Still, the Varisian girl did not sway from supporting the Captain whose own abilities had kept not only her remaining fighters alive, but Veshenga’s own allies as well.

“You’re a very brave woman, to do what you have done, to still persist in doing this. I,” Veshenga reached down, and held the Captain’s hands gently in the folds of the skirt. “I am sorry about what happened here. I speak for me, though my friends are a dedicated bunch, I will do what I can – anything, I can.” A suddenly bright smile flit across her features. “You are family after all!”

The Captain smiled, a bit, but did not seem convinced.

“I appreciate the thought, but I see by your colors that you’re from far away. One of the tribes near Riddleport?”

Veshenga chuckled and sat back, her spine lining the wall of the bed’s foot board. A stray silver coin splashed with blood was retrieved, and flipped idly along her fingers.

“Yes,” she confessed. “Bordering Mierani forest. Have you been there?” She shook her head, painting the memories of the trees, the rocks, and so many skies in stages of day, night, sunset and sunrise. “Beautiful place. The snow is magic,” she covered the bloody coin with her other hand, swept the fingers away to reveal a clean one now. “Melts away in the spring to show such loveliness.” In truth, she had turned the coin to present the clean side to the Captain, the bloodied side now faced Veshenga. She sighed. “Though maybe it is just sleight of hand,” she flicked the coin away, watched it roll. “And you?”

“Near Korvosa. There are many villages there with Chelish immigrants, more money than sense and happy to see a show. It’s a good performing country, or at least it used to be,” she said, bitterness crept in, “though the risk is greater than the reward, I assure you. Their Hellknights await any opportunity to punish us and the Shoanti for being the original owners of this land.”

“My father spoke of Korvosa very rarely, he said he used to ride with tribes beyond the borders. This was before I was born,” Veshenga shrugged, her fingertips idly played with the hem of the colorful skirt between them. “He is not sure he can ever go back.” Veshenga went oddly quiet, her look was very serious. A figure so usually grinning, winking, and celebrating was suddenly so stoic, calm, and her tone was firm. “What is rightfully yours should be delivered to you, if you are not in possession of it already. I see why my father grieved for our Korvosan familiars… Such a situation is,” she waved away the rest of her comment, her own disgust at the idea of the Hellknights’ behavior overcoming her speech.

“I’m simply grateful to Lamatar for saving me from their execution. For giving me the opportunity to make up some of my debt before I visit Desna’s door. The Hellknights are arrogant fools, but so was I, back then. Had I simply submitted myself to their lunacy, perhaps there would still be a tribe out there for me. I hate them, but I don’t blame them any more than I blame the traps you sometimes find in ancient tombs. Some infernal Chelish bastard made them the way they are and then let them into the world to snap shut on anyone they think fits their code… even when they’re wrong.”

“I understand you, of course, but I am still glad you did not submit, that you did not bow. Beside, we would not even be having this conversation would we?” Veshenga chuckled, trying to bring that smile back to the Captain’s lips. Maybe it would be better to change the subject? She was not sure exactly how to proceed. The personal life of the Captain was beautiful and complicated, a mixture of so many things. Veshenga related to her, though her life had not known such upheavals. Not to her knowledge, anyway. “How long have you been serving with Vale?” Veshenga smirked, her question the first bit of dialogue spent not eye-to-eye with the Captain.

She shook her head, a little caught by the switch in topics. “A few years. He’s here by choice, which baffled me for the first few months. I’ve known few better men, though he’s a bit strange. All wrapped up in his machines and studies… a bit like your friend Balekh. I guess sometimes Shoanti get like that when they leave their own tribes. I’ve never asked him why.”

“Mm,” she nodded, and listened, and to herself she smiled. The question was already a major shift from what they had been discussing, so she did not want to totally broadcast that the description of the Black Arrow that kept to himself charmed her.

What nagged at her ever so slightly was the story of Korvosa. Something about that place, much like the skirt, was a flash of color, a memory she could not put her finger on completely. It made no sense. She had never been to Korvosa, in fact her father insisted on this point. “We should move out for the hills soon. I know I cannot do much once we have parted, but while I’m here,” she met the Captain’s gaze again, a sincere lock, an earnest not, “I would like to do all I can. If that means… anything, anyway.”

“You’ve done a lot. I think your friends feel that we’re ungrateful. It’s hard, losing everyone you’ve ever known… harder twice. It’s just as hard watching a band of skilled warriors wander through and solve the problems that made you look a fool, almost killed you. But, for now, I don’t think we can ask anything more of you, save perhaps word of Lamatar’s fate. Though, I fear, your own path takes you all the way into the hills. We may need to stay here, wait for reinforcement from Magnimar, unless we can prove a clear and present danger from the remaining ogres.”

Veshenga’s empathy could only stretch so far. She truly could not imagine what the Captain and Vale had been through. Though seeing fellow rangers stretched, mangled, torn to pieces and arranged with some twisted finesse turned her stomach. She brushed a stray tear away, and cleared her throat.

“Let this be proof enough.” She stood, and held her hand out to the Captain.

The Captain puts the skirt away, and allowed Veshenga to pull her up, shaking. “You’re a good young woman. May Desna guard your path.”

“And Erastil yours, sister.” The Captain was pulled closer, she drew her arm around her shoulders and embraced her tightly. “And find a way to dance again,” she smiled, and pulled away from the embrace. The flash of color still danced in Veshenga’s mind as she moved off. The memories teased and beckoned the girl’s curiosity. There was still much, much work to do, and someone else she needed to see.

A Voice in the Wind (by Balekh’s Player)

Balehk stood in the northernmost tower of the Fortress Rannick, keeping watch on his shift in the early morning. Rain still drizzled in from the north, but it was no longer possessed the howling fury that had threatened the dam. He listened to it, as he did in his youth in the mountains, but the wind did not speak. Shamans among his people knew that all the natural elements had a voice: the crackle of flames, the slosh of the waves, the grinding clatter of stones, and the whispering dance of the winds. Listening to, and interpreting, that dance is what Balehk was raised to do.

It was the gift that Nethys supplanted.

It wasn’t that the Tamiir-Quah had exiled him. Not exactly. But without a totem, he could be no Shaman for his people, and the Shoanti would never accept one of the outsider gods as their totem. So Balehk was invited to walk outside of his homelands for a time. He was not, and would never be, invited to return. Nethys did not offer the guidance and companionship of the Shoanti totems. His god was not a personal god. Magic was like the weather, it would provide gentle rains and bounty for some, and crush other beneath it’s storms. Nethys encouraged the people to learn to guide those dark clouds, but he would not save even his own followers if they stumbled and lost their way. Nethys did not care, beyond that magic would be used.

These dark thoughts weighed heavily on him as the senseless wind snapped around him. The Theurge snapped back, growling out a word of power and flinging coruscating energy into the zephyrs around the fortress. The power dissapated, striking nothing. Balehk heard a creak on the ladder and spun. It was Vale.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked.

Balehk shook his head, “Nerves, nothing more.” He turned back to his watch, but he didn’t hear Vale go back down the ladder.

To a stranger, the large warrior could not have been more different from the theurge. Vale was all thick, corded muscle, where Balehk had thin limbs and an almost elfin delicacy to his features. The weapon Vale tossed about so casually in battle would have staggered Balehk to carry, and there was more raw knowledge in the scholars head than the ranger would likely learn in the rest of his days. In one thing only were they the same. They were both very far from home.

“Tell me of your tribe,” the big man asked, “to pass the time.”

Balehk sighed, and glanced back at Vale, “My homesickness is that obvious, huh?”

“Not to most people, perhaps. But everyone in this fort is feeling it right now, in their own way.”

“Then I’ll tell you about the mountains. I miss them. These flat southlands have too much sky. I’ve been away so long that I’d be as helpless as a newborn among the rocks back home, but from time to time I yearn for it anyway. The wind would sing through the crags, high pitched. The cold would bite at your bones if you were slow, and wolves would bite at your bones if you stopped moving. Our lands were not easy, by any measure of it, but they were ours.”

Vale didn’t ask why Balehk didn’t just return. If he couldn’t, then he couldn’t, that was what mattered. A heavy hand gripped his shoulder. “I’ll keep watch. Go be with your woman till the sun rises.”

Balehk nodded, so tired he could collapse, “Tomorrow will be a better day, perhaps. Less windy, at least.”

He climbed down the ladder back into the fort.

Random Morale Table

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Based on this post, here’s a short set of random morale rules. It’s intended to be used for unintelligent/animal monsters or for mook-type monsters (i.e., humanoids that are not fanatically devoted to killing the PCs over saving their lives), particularly when just attacking the nearest PC over and over is getting stale.

Roll 1d8 at the start of the NPC’s turn and add the following modifiers:

Enemies Outnumber PCs +2
NPC Unwounded +2
Leader Still Fighting +2
Enemies Outnumbered -2
NPCs has Less than Half HP -2
All NPC’s Allies Defeated -2

Then compare the modified result to the appropriate table:

Result
Animal Intelligent
10+ Hiss/Roar/Intimidate Gloat/Intimidate/Show Off
9 Posture/Stalk targets/No action Try fancy maneuver on nearest PC
8 Attack weakest/smallest PC Attack strongest looking PC
7 Attack tastiest looking PC Attack nearest caster PC
6 Charge random PC Attack nearest PC
5 Attack most wounded PC Attempt to buff or heal self
4 Attack last attacking PC Attack last attacking PC
3 Attack nearest PC (even if defeated) Attack nearest PC with desperate blow
2 Hiss/Roar/Intimidate/Confused Attack most wounded PC if possible
1 Charge most wounded PC Try to move to cover
0 to -4 Mindless Flight Fighting Retreat/Negotiation
-5 Play Dead/Bare Throat Mindless Flight/Surrender

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 6

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Smoke ’em Out

Taeva pokes her head through the door into the main floor, the rest of the party clustered in the stairway/storage room behind her. Cautiously, she moves down the hallway, listening at doors in the pitch black. In several, she hears shuffling, as of ogres or more of the undead they encountered below, and she catches sight of what might be skeletal patrols near the end of the hall. She slips back into the stairwell to confer with the party about whether to start going room to room or make a break to bar the front door. Unfortunately, one of the ogres nearby seems to have extraordinarily acute hearing, and there’s a muffled “what?” in Giantish from the nearest door.

Taeva and Haggor rush forward, ripping apart the startled ogre before he does much more than get the door open, but he has time to let out a death rattle that starts a reaction of doors slamming open. Another ogre sticks his head out of the next nearest door as four skeletal rangers begin moving down the corridor with bows drawn. The party fans out, gives up on stealth and draws light sources, and begins tearing apart the incoming enemies. Within a few seconds, Balekh and Shayliss grow worried about the grim-faced undead their human eyes can barely make out in the torchlight… and Balekh unleashes an arcane blast of lightning which Shayliss uses to pinpoint the target of a fireball. Hundreds of charred bones, as well as the remains of a door, clatter about the hallway, and there is no longer any chance of surprise as every door on the ground floor slams open and begins to disgorge ogres and undead into the halls.

Haggor is worried that someone will call for backup, and sprints to the end of the hall, preparing to bar the front door—he sees that it’s in poor repair after the ogres fought their way in, so a bar will be only a temporary solution. However, he doesn’t have much time to contemplate, as Balekh tosses a torch down the hall behind him and Shayliss unleashes a conflagration magic that causes it to bloom into a vast cloud of choking smoke. Haggor is now cut off from the rest of the party by a hundred feet of smoke, and enemies that intended to pour down the hallway take another path and spy a half-orc standing at their front door. He turns to face two frost wights, four skeletal archers, and three ogres as the rest of the party forms up to eliminate anything that might come out of the smoke.

What follows is a minute of sheer chaos, as arrows and spells fly past Taeva, Vale, and Kibb holding the front line, each seeking out terrible faces that appear from the magical smoke. The party can sometimes hear the sound of Haggor, distant, fighting in between cursing at Balekh for stranding him. Finally, the party clears the last of the oncoming horde, and Balekh and Kibb charge through the smoke to help Haggor as the rest of the group moves carefully to clear any remaining rooms. When Balekh finally struggles out of the smoke of his own devising, he finds Kibb with a skeleton’s head in his jaws and Haggor standing on the corpses of three ogres and a half-dozen former rangers, none the worse for wear save for frostbitten fists. He is staring, annoyed, at Kibb for snatching the last of the enemies. For his part, Balekh simply asks why Haggor was complaining since he was obviously fine. Balekh troops forward past Haggor’s scowl and arcane locks the front door.

The smoke clears, the party confirms that there are no more enemies in the abattoir that used to be a fort. Balekh patches them up, and they head to the second floor. Taeva again slips forward, and spies a mighty ogre creating grisly taxidermy in the desecrated ranger’s temple. Rather than risk being noticed again, they dash through the door, barely giving the warchief of the Kreegs time to begin raging. The assault is brutal and fast, with the ogre barely getting a swing in, but, just before he falls, Balekh moves into range and the terrible beast takes two swings, carving the theurge’s chest open with an X. Jaagrath slumps to the floor shortly after Balekh.

Haggor rushes forward to shove a healing potion down Balekh’s throat, and just as he’s groggily sitting up, the rangers in the hall call attention to another door opening. They can make out the features of a woman who must be Lucrecia. She bears a striking family resemblance to Xanesha even before she flickers out of her human guise into a towering snake-woman. Unfortunately, she is not nearly as prepared for a fight as her sister, and the furious onslaught of a hasted party makes every action a delaying tactic. Haggor smashes her over and over, Taeva bounces all over the room, never allowing her free of flanking, and magic and arrows rains through the door into the chamber she took over from the leader of the rangers. She falls without doing anything to seriously threaten the party, and Rannick is all but reclaimed.

After securing the upper floor, the party takes to the roof, brandishing the warchief’s head while lobbing fireballs at the ogres that have finally begun to assemble at the magically barred tower door. They run screaming into the hills, morale broken, and the party begins the long process of making the keep livable again. Mystery remains, however: there is no sign of Commander Bayden amongst the prisoners or the undead, nor of the giants their captive ogre said had taken over the ogre clans. Clearly, a threat remains atop Hook Mountain…

Instant Gratification vs. Phenominal Power

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I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2. Previously, I was playing a lot of Dragon Age. Bioware has crawled in and owned most of my free time for the last few months. It’s safe to say my thoughts on design have been influenced by what they’ve been soaking in.

Today, I’m brought back again to an aspect of the current level conundrum. Specifically, in how both games handle a fairly simple skill system differently as far as advancement:

  • In Dragon Age, each rank of an ability costs the same as the previous. It costs the same to go from level 2 to level 3 of a skill as it did to go from level 1 to level 2.
  • In Mass Effect 2 (unlike its predecessor), each rank of an ability costs more than the previous level. Going from level 2 to level 3 of a skill costs more than going from level 1 to level 2.

These two examples neatly sum up the dominant advancement methods in pretty much all RPGs. Some use both systems: the first during character generation for simplicity, the last during actual play (which is the core issue of the current level conundrum linked above). Others use one or the other exclusively.

They result in different player behavior when making characters in many cases. In my experience, there is little players enjoy more than rolling huge fistfuls of dice (or, in a non-dice-pool system, adding huge numbers to the roll). Or, in the case of computer games with increasing power unlocks, there is little that players like more than getting the awesome power at the end of a skill tree.

This behavior means that, in an equal-cost system, there is a substantial tendency for player skills to exist in only three states, no matter how many ranks each skill has:

  • Zero ranks, for skills the player hasn’t bothered with yet
  • One rank, for skills the player can’t use without at least one rank
  • As close to maximum ranks as the player can afford

Unless there is some other force at play (such as powers in the mid-ranks being better than at the top ranks, or some form of prerequisite or other limit), few PCs will naturally gravitate to an even spread of skills. It’s just more fun to bring huge chances of success or awesome powers to bear. The tendency is to max out as many skills as possible early, then max out the rest one by one during advancement.

The ME2/current level style of leveling scheme exists to counter this tendency. Games such as the Storyteller system will also indicate that a degree of simulationism is involved (to weight the difficulty of mastering a skill to that of the real world), but the primary impetus in play winds up being to offer a degree of instant gratification to counter the quest for phenomenal power.

Most games that use a stepped system of this kind award advancement points in small batches. In ME2, for example, each character gets 1-2 points per level, and skills cost 1-4 points for the respective ranks. Once a skill is rank 2, raising it will require spending at least one level with no advancement first. Perhaps not coincidentally, many skills unlock access to a new skill once the second rank is purchased.

A player is forced to choose to buy something lesser now, or wait for the bigger payoff. He or she also must consider whether a better chance at success or an upgraded power is worth multiple times as much as what’s gained from advancing a lower skill.

Ultimately, this is the reason to go with a current level system for experience: encouraging the conflict between gratification and power to create better-rounded characters. A flat-cost system will result in many players having few skills at median levels, unless other rules are in play to establish limits or ratios. Either result can be acceptable, as long as the system designer/GM knows and desires that outcome.

But systems that use flat cost for character creation and current level for advancement still punish the less system-minded players in any event 🙂 .

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 5

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On the Offensive

Recovering from their trip to the dam, the party is spread out around the Turtleback Ferry inn, planning strategy with Vale and the Captain. They still think that their best bet is to use the secret passages in the cliff behind the tower to cause chaos amongst the ogres and then make a surgical strike to try to take out the leadership in the base. The Captain mentions that she’s worried that the ogres have some plan beyond just holding the base, and that she thinks she’s seen evidence of ogre scouts in the woods around the town, for purposes unknown.

Veshenga and Taeva, bored with the strategy session anyway, need no further rationale for heading out into the drizzling rain and searching the woods. Veshenga quickly finds tracks that support what the Captain suggested, and the two of them follow them stealthily through the forest. Before long, they catch sight of a lumbering, giant humanoid trying to sneak through the trees. They briefly consider going to get the rest of the party, but decide to see if they can take a single ogre. Taeva climbs a tree that the ogre looks to be passing under soon, and Veshenga takes an angle down a forest path. Before the ogre even finishes his breath of surprise, Taeva has dropped out of the tree with blades flashing and Veshenga has filled him full of arrows. The ogre slumps to the ground, and Veshenga goes about stabilizing him and guarding against other threats while Taeva goes to retrieve the party.

The gnome manages to remember the twisting path through the woods, and within an hour the rest of the group has arrived. Haggor binds the ogre and Balekh heals him to return him to consciousness. As the two that speak Giant, Haggor and Taeva work to interrogate the scout, from whom they find:

  • He and a few others were sent to scout the woods and grab any townsfolk that ventured out alone, for unknown purposes.
  • The ogre leadership has been taken over by a gray-skinned giant that arrived bearing a Sihedron rune some months previously.
  • While their original leader is still in charge to some degree, he’s no longer explaining what’s going on to the ogres as a group, so the scout has no idea what the master plan is.
  • A woman matching the description of the proprietress of the riverboat casino, Lucrecia, arrived after they took the Fort, and has set up inside. The party is becoming increasingly convinced that she’s another lamia matriarch like Xanesha.
  • Most of the ogres are staying outside in the new barracks, annoyed by the smell of humans inside the Fort.

As they promised that they would free the ogre for cooperation, they let him go with the understanding that they will kill him if they see him again, and he is to proceed directly towards the dam and back onto the Storval Plateau. They don’t think they have much to worry about an ogre so thoroughly trounced and suborned going back to his commander. They gather their things back in town and then head towards the Fort.

Arriving in the middle of the night, the party counts on the ogres relying on their darkvision so being completely blind more than a couple-dozen yards away. With Taeva and Veshenga leading, the entire group is able to get to the secret door behind the Fort’s waterfall without apparently alerting the sentries, though Kibb almost gives the game away. Once inside, they explore the caves while waiting for sunrise, narrowly avoiding a nasty encounter with a pair of shocker lizards, finding a bridge that could easily fall, and finding a handful of treasure in the secret armory and on a long-dead halfling explorer. They nap fitfully in a cave for the rest of the night.

At dawn, Taeva waits until most of the ogres have stopped moving around in the barracks as the night shift returns to sleep, then slips out of another secret door directly behind the dwelling. Watching her back and using various scraps of tools and lumber, she does her best to quietly block the only door out of the barracks, cautious of other ogres still up and around. Satisfied, she slides back into the caves and Balekh creates a rolling ball of flame that he sets directly under the barracks near the door, right in the pile of lamp oil Taeva had scattered as she finished. The wooden structure quickly catches flame from all the dry lumber underneath, and the party shuts the door on the screams of burning ogres and chaos inside the walls.

Heading under the tower, Veshenga and the Captain work together to calm the warren of shocker lizards, and reach the secret door into the tower basement. The group sees ogres moving around in the room and immediately rushes in so they don’t risk alerting the guards. Haggor strides in and removes the weapon from a hapless ogre as the rest of the group moves in to attack what appears to be an ogre sorceress of some kind. They then completely take in that the basement has been converted into some kind of profane mortuary: ranger bodes lie on slabs around the room, necromantic runes are inscribed about, and a stack of onyx waits in a bin nearby.

The ogre and ogress fall quickly, but not without her unleashing a blast of lightning that singes most of the party (with Taeva and Haggor evading free). Just as they are falling, however, two of the apparent corpses on the slab sit up and begin radiating an unearthly cold, reaching for nearby party members. It takes a bit more work to put down the two frost wights, though only Vale is subjected to their life-draining touch.

After the room is secured, the group investigates the rest of the basement/prison and finds that there are still around ten rangers alive and imprisoned, in terrible shape. The party does what they can to help, Balekh including the victims in a burst of positive energy, and then shepherds them past the shocker lizards and back into the cave complex where they should be more or less safe. The group then turns to the stairs to the first floor, ready to begin their rush to try to secure the tower door against the ogres outside…

GNS in Video RPGs

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One of the core ideas of indie tabletop game design is the GNS principle/Threefold Model: as I understand it (probably not completely accurate), games can target three modes of play/preferred player styles. The styles are typically understood to be:

  • Gamist: The rules and systems are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from using the game engine. Games that emphasize cool powers, complicated rules-based play, and tactics that are to some degree metagame are often considered gamist.
  • Narrativist: The story is emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from making your game feel like a book or movie. Games that subordinate actions or tactics that don’t support the story to those that do are often considered narrativist.
  • Simulationist: The physics and verisimilitude of the world are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from treating the setting like a real world with real consequences. Games that have extensive rules designed to model reality that then ignore them if a result seems unrealistic are often considered simulationist.

These elements are often represented as a triangle, such that the more focus that is put on one element, the less that can be put on the others. A single game can rarely do all three elements well, as compromises to make an interesting game system work with a full-on realism simulator that still produces a satisfying traditional narrative tend to weaken all aspects.

I hadn’t really considered in great detail whether these elements applied to video RPGs, as most such games are forced by the limits of programming to favor certain elements over others, particularly as far as being unable to have true simulationism in the way a human-moderated game can have. However, after beginning to play Mass Effect 2 and see how different it is than its predecessor, I’ve begun to believe that there is a threefold model that can apply to video games that might be just as valid as the one for tabletop games, drawing on slightly modified principles:

  • Fun (Gamist): A game that focuses on fun is concerned with carefully balancing the game engine, skill systems, and challenges to ensure that the player is constantly having a fun and engaging play experience that is not too difficult or too easy. Most video games fall fully into this mode, but RPGs and some other genres may break away due to the other modes.
  • Entertainment (Narrativist): A game that focuses on entertainment is concerned with telling an engaging story that is almost as fun to watch as to play, and leaves players discussing its ramifications later. Many modern action, adventure, and roleplaying games focus on this mode to some extent, with varying degrees of compelling story.
  • Immersion (Simulationist): A game that focuses on immersion is concerned with creating a world that feels like a place people could actually live; barriers to travel are disguised and game elements are placed in logical rather than practical locations. RPGs, mysteries, and some adventure games strive for immersion.

Ultimately, like the tabletop model, strengthening one element weakens the others. A well-balanced and enjoyable gameplay experience often makes it hard to hide the game elements enough to create immersion. A fully-realized and entertaining story may make demands on game setup that reduces the fun of actual play. An immersive play experience often rejects the taking away of control from the player required to tell a good story.

Like tabletop GMs and designers, video game designers should be cognizant of what mode of play they want to support and support it consistently. A game will likely be far more memorable if it does one mode and does it well than if it is ambivalent about what style of play it wants to produce.

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Vignettes 2

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Rannick’s Remaining Rangers

Kibb shifted slightly as the captain leaned back against the young bear. She scratched behind his ear, realizing as she had to stretch how big he’d grown. Soon, it would be time to release him to go about his life, if only because he’d be too big to fit through the doors of the Fort.

She’d tried not to think about the Fort for the time being. The little she’d seen in her futile charge at the walls was enough to paint a vivid picture of what they were likely to find inside. Dozens of men and women, some she’d known for nearly thirty years, reduced to food and toys for foul beast men. They should have made a push to wipe them out years ago, find their fortress and raze it to the ground, but it was too late now. For the second time in her life, everyone and everything she knew was dead, and all that remained was vengeance and a crossroads.

Her sole remaining friend in the world, not counting Kibb, wandered over and settled down across from her under the tree she’d found to get out of the rain. The dark-skinned Shoanti man flashed a winning smile, but she could see that it was a show: his eyes were just as haunted as hers. Vale was one of the few Black Arrows that had joined willingly, not suffering under a commuted death sentence like her and Kaven. Seeing the order he’d believed in for so long fall must have been just as hard on him as it was on her.

“The dam stopped groaning,” Vale said, glancing up the river valley from where they’d stopped for lunch, “I think it’s going to be okay. Turtleback Ferry’s going to lose their beaches for a few weeks, though.”

“We did a good thing. I guess we should have looked at the dam years ago… a whole tribe of trolls living within an hour’s ride of us for Erastil-knows how long. Between them and the half-breeds in the forest, I’m starting to wonder what the hell we accomplished. Our new friends don’t see any reason to take back the fort—they’re not afraid of it… seeing how little it did to hold back the monsters all these years, I’m not sure I blame them.”

“Don’t say that,” he winced, “They don’t know anything. They weren’t there for the days we’d fight ogres from dawn to midnight, then have to wake up and do it again the next day. They’re from the west. They probably don’t even have a concept of all the giants and ogres living up on the plateau, just looking for a weak place to push through, raid, and wipe out whole villages. They’re adventurers, task-oriented, probably don’t like to stay in one place for too long. They heard about the dam and they dealt with the dam. Now, they’ll figure out the most direct route to putting out the next fire. They would understand if they took the time… we’re just not especially important to them, this Thassilonian business is.”

“You’re right,” she said, glancing over and making sure the gnome was in sight and occupied rather than hiding behind her, staring with that too-piercing gaze, “Every adventurer I’ve ever met was like that, though. Have you ever heard about the grand dames in the Chelish opera? Divas? Adventurers are like that, only with killing. Their lives are a constant series of challenges and cookies. They overcome a challenge, they get a cookie. With a life like that, you start to figure out how to get your cookies as quickly and efficiently as possible. It makes you divide other people into two groups: ‘obstacles’ and ‘take for granted.’ Besides the handful of peers you rely on, everyone else can lead, follow, or get out of the way… and leading isn’t really appreciated.”

Vale grinned, “sounds like you were an adventurer before you joined up?”

“No… I was a diva, or at least as close an equivalent as my people have. In my mind, my entire tribe wasn’t much more than a delivery engine that got me from place to place. And then they were dead, I was here, and I spent years realizing that I’d never known much more about them than names and faces. I wonder if the next few years will be the same with the Black Arrows… have I really changed?”

Vale started to comment, but glanced over and saw Balekh wave at them to mount up and start moving again. He nodded, helped the Captain to her feet, and simply said, “I think it might be easier if all I could remember were names and faces.” He wiped what might have just been rain out of his eyes and went to get the horses.

The Least Dangerous Game (by Veshenga’s Player)

The woods had never been such a home as they were these days. Every step she took seemed familiar, as if she had been to this forest before even though she had never set foot in it. Still, she was admiring of the natural beauty surrounding her, even as the rain came tumbling down from the sky cluttered with swollen clouds above. Leaves were glazed in rainwater, looking like the wrapped candies back in the Magnimar shops. The canopy whispered as the treetops were pet by a passing wind, stirring up enough noise amongst them to cover her own footsteps. There was game just ahead that she did not want to disturb. The sound of pattering rain, and her already silent footfalls were enough to mask her approach upon the plump hare, a tall male that had his ears pricked high, his nose scrunching up and down to smell the air. Alone he probably could not feed the whole group, but perhaps Haggor could find a way to stew him. Anyone else would probably fail out here in the woods, but he was good. He could find a way to make the soil taste like chocolate cake if he wanted to.

Veshenga was soundless and careful, but the hare still knew, and by then –

Her fingers did not release, but instead relaxed. So did her arm, and the arrow was no longer notched to the bow. Nor had it found a place in the hare. Her mind had wandered briefly, and stolen across Vale. She sighed, and sat under a tree. Back in Magnimar he had asked for her help, and to this very moment she regretted her answer. Maybe if she had been at the fort she could have lent her aid, made some sort of difference. Not only did she regret this decision, but she regretted the one that kept her from catching up with him to buy him that drink before he left.

What she needed was some advice.

“You see, he is good looking – such dark skin! Oh, and his smile…- and I like that in a man. He is also very brave. I just wish I knew him better, but I am interested. Very interested, curious, and I feel very good around him. He is not so terrible,” she scoffed playfully, “for a Shoanti man.”

Uh… you could – Oh, yes, yes! You could *tell *him. You could *go *now (gulp) and tell him.

“I know, I know,” she glanced down, and then squinted at the sunlight. “I should just say something. Normally, this is not so difficult. You know, I can have any man I want? Any man! What I do is an art, a true art. When it comes to the ones I actually like? That is different.”

You said you only saw him only a bit. So why do you like him? Go see him more right away!

“I don’t know why I fancy him…” Veshenga scratched briefly at her wrist, leaving a subtle red mark that showed on the skin beyond the black poppy tattoo. “But when I saw him at the fort – alive! Of all things, alive! – I was relieved. I was so happy.”

Fancy. Fancy. You should *go *deal with that.

“You’re right. It could just be that – a fancy. Just a passing thing. Maybe I can just ignore it?” She grinned, more to herself. The falling rain did little to bother her, in fact she enjoyed rain. Drops cascaded around her cheeks, flowed around the braids in her hair to drop off the tied off tails at the bottom of them. “Like that will work, I think about him every now and then, and very fondly too. I think after all of this I will think of him often when it rains… Still, there are so many other matters to consider first. The fort must have been a terrible loss. Maybe we can still win it back…”

Veshenga smiled at the hare sitting on the stump in front of her now. He was terrified, eying the bow and arrow, his fur matted from the rain. He had lost a few brothers and sisters to hunters. Despite the fact this hunter seemed friendly, amiable, and altogether passive did little to calm his still quivering nerves.

“You have been so helpful, you know that?”

Thanks… C-C-Can I go now? No death, please.

She frowned. Obviously, she could not kill the hare after he was so attentive. She let him go with a wave of her hand, and he bounded into the woods as fast as possible. Veshenga straightened, and returned to the forest, redrawing her arrow and notching it to the bow.

“Well… no hare on the menu today. Might have to just find some different game.”

Deep Thoughts (by Haggor’s Player)

The boat rocked as Haggor stood up and cast his line. Sitting back down on the wide flat skiff, he watched the line and patiently waited. The lake was cool and calm. A heavy fog swirled around the small craft blocking out the early morning sun. Haggor was content here in this world of swirling white and hazy sunlight. He wished the world were as calm and serene as it was here on the lake at this early hour.

He admired the new pole he had crafted. It was strong and stout with plenty of spring to it. The giant fish wouldn’t escape him again because of a weak pole. He thought back to a few days ago when he had the monster nearly in the boat. It had been a hour long struggle with the enormous pike. Every time he managed to haul the fish closer to the boat, it would fight back, diving deep, pulling out the line. The back and forth struggle tested each opponent’s strength and stamina. As Haggor brought the fish closer to the boat, the surface of the calm lake had exploded into chaos. Splashes, ripples, and sprays of water exploded as the fish fought for its freedom. It was then, just at the last moment, that the old pole had broken and his prize catch had escaped. Now he smiled to himself. Not this time, my giant friend. Not this time.

Thinking about the lost catch and the calmness of the day, he realized that his entire life had been a mix of utter calm and utter chaos. No matter how much he sought for inner peace, there was a side of him that longed for chaos. He was always seeking new ways of finding understanding and inner peace like his new found love of fishing. Before that he had learned to cook and before that was gardening. All these things he loved for they allowed him to forget about the turmoil that raged inside him.

As the sun slowly burned off the fog, blue sky peeked though the patches of swirling white. It was going to be a beautiful clear day. Even in the rolling banks of fog, serenity lay just a few dozen feet above. He guessed that even on the stormiest day, if you could climb high enough, there would be peace to be had above it all. He noted that thought to ask Balek about later.

His mind drifted back to the day before when they had cleared the dam. He remembered a moment in the battle when he had rushed an ogre and knocked the giant brute from the top of the dam, sending it crashing to the forest floor three hundred feet below. Then he swiftly swept up the fallen ogre’s club from the ground and chased the remaining ogre from the dam. The ogre took the only escape route open to him, off the other side of the dam and into the lake beyond. As the ogre swam for his miserable life, Haggor hefted the giant club and hurled it with all the strength he had at the quickly fleeing monster. He was rewarded with the sound of a solid thud and then silence. He watched the ogre’s still form slowly wash back towards the dam. He smirked to himself but then quickly contained it.

These were the thoughts that caused so much turmoil inside him. How could he seek inner calm and peace if moments like that filled him with such exultant feelings? He thrived on the challenge of combat, pitting himself against these monsters. If it wasn’t ogres it was trolls. He couldn’t help himself. When he saw a worthy challenge he felt compelled to defeat it, to pit himself against it with just his wits, strength, stamina and training. He could feel the rush of energy filling him even now just at the thought. Was it wrong of him? He enjoyed helping the people his efforts benefited. He didn’t seek to gain from his efforts. He truly did it to help those who couldn’t help themselves. Or did he? In those moments when he could feel the blood rushing in his veins as he charged some monstrous creature, he truly wondered why he was doing it.

He stopped and meditated on it. Trying to calm the swirling thoughts in his head. Seeking the black peacefulness of nothingness. Taking note of each thought as it occurred, recognizing it, and then releasing it to the void, until he was calm and serene in the utter blankness of his mind. Then he felt a tug on the line. A large grin spread across his face. Then suddenly the calm was gone again, and he could feel the blood begin to race in his veins.

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