The Dragon Hoard

This post is part of the Got Loot RPG Blog Festival. Make sure to check out the other posts under the banner of this festival!

The dragon’s hoard. The very image of a dragon’s hoard is sure to draw immediate visions grandeur to any fantasy gamer’s head. Think about it for a moment, what images came to your mind when you read the title of this post?

I remember as a kid thinking of that huge red dragon dwelling in some deep, dark cavern lit by the glow of dimming embers from some unknown source. The floor of the cavern mounded high with coins, a mound that rivaled the size of the small hill at the local park. Amidst the near uncountable coin pile were more treasures – portions of armor, shields, swords of unknown legend, rings, chests and don’t forget the gems of a dizzying array of colors.

These images of a dragon’s riches have been a staple of fantasy for a long time. Smaug from The Hobbit was the first dragon to conjure this image for me. Later reading of various D&D rulebooks and monster tomes further cemented this thought of great red dragons sitting atop piles of riches.

That was then, this is now

Of course as we gamers play the game longer some of the things that once held mystery and excitement become the mundane. After defeating the great red dragon its treasure hoard becomes simply a pile of game statistics. How many gold coins, how many silver coins? Then a series of detect magics for sorting the magical items from the non-magical items which is soon followed by a series of identify spells and spellcraft checks to figure out just how many pluses and special abilities does that glowing sword have.

Treasure becoming mundane is not just a problem with dragon hoards. It is just the prime example of if even the dragon’s hoard can become mundane, loot held by other creatures during the course of a gaming adventure has no chance.

In fact I have posted previously about this issue in my Putting the Magic Back article just a month ago. That article was a broader look at magic items becoming mundane, here we will be focusing in on the dragon’s hoard and bringing the magic and mystery back to it.

Turning it around

Where do we start as a GM? What can we do to put the wonder back into this hoard of treasure the heroes are going to get when they put an end to that evil red dragon living under the mountain?

First, as the GM you must embrace the wonderful opportunity you have to make this dragon hoard part of something much more! This is your chance to introduce plot hooks galore or simply offer ways to explore the history of your world.

The ordinary

Let’s take a look at the more predominant item in the dragon’s hoard – gold coins! Lots of them! This dragon has been the terror of this region of your world for many years, right? It will only make sense that the coins in this hoard will not be ones the party is used to seeing in day to day exchanges. There will be coins from ancient civilizations. Describe some of these coins to the party as they find them. Note unusual depictions, perhaps of great structures that no longer exist or that serve to make the characters curious. Some of the coins are likely to have the visage of great leaders, or perhaps dictators of years past. Use these coins to build depth to your world with its histories and tie-ins to your present time in your world.

The hoard is quite likely to also contain normal objects from a different era as well. Lanterns of an old style, masterwork leather backpacks with unusual cuts or design and other such items a dragon is bound to accumulate over the years. Take a little extra time to write some short descriptions for some of these items. The extra attention to detail here will help convey a sense of age to this hoard.

The magical

Any dragon hoard worth its merit will have a plethora of magical items. Take some time as a GM and give a few of these items some stories. Not every magical item needs such detail but use enough to spice up the hoard with flavor.

That bastard sword with the unusual carving in the hilt, how did it get there? Perhaps a hero that fell to the dragon’s breath many years ago? Maybe the sword has a hidden opening in the pommel to hold something of personal value to the original hero that carried it, or maybe the sword is an intelligent sword to be unlocked and recant past tales of the hero, tales that could lead this current set of characters on to other locations and treasures.

That Bag of Holding that you find in the hoard, certainly it isn’t empty. Perhaps it held the belongings of another fallen hero. Belongings that may be magical in nature, or maybe it holds a normal walking stick that has carvings from the travelers day on the road.

The near complete skeleton found at the edge of the treasure hoard, the one with singed leather armor and torn backpack. Inside that backpack is an incomplete letter back home, perhaps a letter talking of the final days leading up to this adventurer’s assault on the dragon’s lair that ended so direly for him. The current party can end up with a feeling of others who have fell to the dragon’s wrath and possibly be motivated to return these remains to the fallen’s family.

Bringing it together

I have made several suggestions on how to make the dragon’s hoard a little more mysterious and magical. The hoard can serve many roles to a GM willing to put some extra time into the details. These small details can serve as the spice to build verisimilitude in your world, to introduce other hooks for the characters and so many other things. In addition to providing the GM powerful tools to further the campaign, they can equally serve to make the dragon hoard mysterious and wondrous again!

Putting the Magic Back

Remember when magic items used to be mysterious and cool? The excitement of finding a new sword, ring, or cloak was the highlight of the evening, second only to vanquishing that pesky foe.  These days it seems we have our checklists of magic items we want for our character and if that item is not in the treasure trove we just took, we will trade that magic hammer in and get what we really wanted to begin with. It has all become routine.

I often wonder if this is because we have been playing the game for so long or simply because as we grew older some of the magic lost its luster when it came to finding new magic items. Have we become too familiar with all the available magic items that we have simply become characters with a list of necessary items to complete the build or the concept?

Why Magic Items Lose Their Luster

From the familiarity standpoint there is certainly a case to be made that many of us have been playing for a long time. We probably know the descriptions of the more popular and frequently acquired items like the back of our hand. Rings of protection, cloaks of resistance, bags of holding – all must haves and something even first level characters know they want those items. It doesn’t take much for our characters to soon just have shopping lists. This does not do much to keep the magic and mystery in magic items.

Then on the other hand we sometimes get caught up with builds of characters. Builds aren’t just reserved for the optimizers, builds are also for certain concepts a player wants to roleplay. Inevitably builds seem to come with their own shopping lists in order to complete these builds just the way we want them.

And finally there is the naming convention some of the more common magic items use. Longsword +1, Ring of Protection +3, Cloak of Resistance +2 and so on and so on. This naming mechanism really depicts the magic item for the pure mechanical advantage it is.

Bring That Shine Back

There are a lot of factors conspiring against keeping the magic in magic items for anyone that has been playing RPG games for many years. What can a GM do to help put the magic back into magic items?

Kobold Quarterly just released the first in a short series on removing the game mechanic “plus” value from the item by substituting in a name for that level of bonus. The first article talks about weapons and armor and suggests a bastion shield would note a +2 shield bonus and +1 bludgeoning weapon would be a “thumping” mace. You can of course change these designations, but the article is certainly a launching pad for coming up with your own naming conventions to step away from simply listing a numerical modifier.

Another thing a GM can do is build a little history behind the magic item. Who had this ring or cloak before? How did it end up tucked away in a trunk in the back of this orc’s cave? Perhaps there were some initials sewn into the cloak or engraved into the inner band of the ring.  The player may never fully investigate the history, but he will quite likely remember that the cloak he wears had initial sewn into it when he found it.

Sometimes the manner of getting the magic item into the character’s hands can make a difference. I had a GM give one of my characters, who at the time was a two-weapon ranger type, a finely crafted bow via a minor goddess. This shifted my character’s whole motif with him retraining feats and such to learn to use this bow more effectively.  The character even went as far to turn in a magic sword he had obtained previously to a deity’s temple so he could focus on the bow.

Most games I play in have access to the ever popular “magic shop”. Magic shops can certainly vary under different GMs though. One way to help make magic items a little more special without banning magic shops is to just limit their availability of items a bit. Do not assume that any item a character ones can be found in the magic shop. There should be some scarcity to not quite so common items. Sure, a bag of holding? Good chance the shop has that or can get one pretty quickly. A +5 Holy Avenger? Eh, not so much.

By limiting the magic shop’s supply a little you can help make going to a magic shop feel more like going to Half Price Books hoping to find that legendary Deities and Demigods book with Cthulhu rather than going to WalMart to buy a gallon of milk. The scarcity is not to punish your players, but to let them know sometimes it takes a little work to get just what you are looking for.

Summary

Tackling the lost luster of magic items is not an easy task for groups that have lost it. The GM will have to work a little harder with some of the suggestions made above to make magic items fun again. Add in that it is a fine line between keeping the player happy and trying to put the magic back into magic items the task difficulty further increases.

Still work with your players, you do not want to deny them characters they find fun. But maybe that item they desire so badly isn’t available at the corner magic shop just yet. Maybe that noble in town happens to have one that he is offering as a reward for clearing the family crypts of the undead that have infested it.  The extra effort needed to gain magic items just might make it that much more special to the character and put some of the magic back in to magic items again!

Thinking Like A Villain: Tricks & Traps

This blog post is inspired by this month’s RPG Carnival subject of villain’s tricks and traps and how does the GM effectively use tricks or traps on behalf of their villains.

I suspect many find this a fine line to walk when determining how to place traps or plan tricks. Is the trap you are planning appropriate for your villain? How do you tell? Will the players think you were unfair?

It is easy as a GM to put a trap or trick in place, but one must do so in a manner that is fair to the players and furthers the game. Blindsiding players with tricks from nowhere is not fun for anyone – okay, maybe fun for the GM, but you won’t have many players for long! Well planned, villain appropriate tricks and traps are much more fun for everyone involved.

Strategy

One strategy is to take a step back and think for a moment about the villain in question. Who are they? What are their motivations? Are they an intellectual villain or perhaps a crafty villain or perhaps a villain by chance? Are they concerned with their plans being found out and pinned to them? Taking some time to think about these things can help with the decision making process when determining what traps and tricks the villain in question would be capable of.

A villain that tends to use his head may plan out an intricate trick or trap, likely involving several layers to further themselves from being accused of the act. A less thinking villain, but cutthroat villain may rely on brute force effectiveness. The trap or trick may have fewer layers of complexity but more outright brutality and carnage.

Beyond the basics of just taking a closer look at the villain and what drives them the GM can move on to consider just how much does the villain know about the heroes. Are they being considered a genuine threat to the villain or simply an inconvenience? Has the villain been observing them or gathering information about them? These questions can further help the GM determine how thought out the trick or trap might be that the villain sets in motion against the PCs.

Villain A

Let’s take Villain A. She is a plotter and well versed in the ways of the politically correct as well as the actions that take place behind the scenes to gain her position of power. Intelligent and charismatic she is a very real threat, but has strong motivations to never be attached to her plots against others. She tends to learn all she can about her enemies and use that information to her advantage before setting her plans in motion.

Villain A is much more apt to have a much more intricate plan to trick or trap the heroes she considers a threat to her grand plan of gaining power. She has motivation to end the threat the heroes are to her while minimizing the chance of any action taken against them resulting in her being marked the responsible party.

Villain A is the type of villain the GM can really work out the intricate plots and layers to trick or trap the PCs. Organizations or gangs working as buffers between the actual villain and the PCs so that if (and most likely when) the plot is foiled the PCs still have a difficult time pinning the plot on Villain A directly.

Villain B

Now we look at Villain B. He has made a name for himself on the street. While not the most intellectual man, he hasn’t survived life in the streets without knowing how to get what he wants. Often getting what he wants is through cold acts of brutality. He lives by his reputation as a no holds barred individual. He sees a threat and moves straight to eradicating that threat with plans to do so definitively removing the need to thoroughly research the heroes before doing so.

Villain B is has very little concern about people knowing it was him or his people that exacted some form of trap or trick on the heroes he deemed a threat. His reputation demands it. For him a swift, brutal attack in an alley arranged under the guise of an information exchange is perfectly valid tactic.

The GM can play Villain B as a cold and cunning individual. The traps and tricks are simple, but effective. One is not as likely to find as many layers in the trick setup against the PCs from this type of villain, maybe a small street gang that reports to the villain, but not much more than that.

Player Reaction

By thinking about your villains and determining their mindset you can more closely develop traps and plans that are more representative of the villain. Together this helps present greater verisimilitude for your world as traps and tricks employed by your villains seem to match their mindset.

This means traps and tricks by Villain A are going to be much more deceitful and sprung with potentially much less warning or indication that what the PCs are about to walk into is a setup. Meanwhile the PCs are much more likely suspect something or at the very least not be surprised as greatly when Villain B puts his machinations into play.

This also allows the GM as range of tools at his or her disposal when plotting against the PCs. The complex plots and tricks he wishes to weave are perfectly appropriate when being orchestrated by Villain A. For times the GM wants to spring something much simpler he can unveil Villain B.

Player reaction to tricks sprung by the GM’s villains is more likely to be favorable if the GM works within the complexity and clandestineness level of the villains at play.

Summary

I have taken a brief look at how a GM can study their villains and use their motivations and style to help shape the tricks and traps set in place against the PCs. Providing examples of two types of villains there are many villain types that fall in between the two examples I outlined above. In some cases Villain A may have enlisted a Villain B type to do her work to further insulate her form being found out.

One of the most important things you can do as a GM is to really learn your villain’s aspirations. It will not only make designing tricks and traps used by your villains easier, it will help make many other parts of your game easier as well.

Game Scheduling

My group is on the brink of canceling this week’s game for what I think is the third week in a row. Next week definitely is not happening either as our normal host is out of town and his location is the most central for a rather geographically dispersed group.

This rash of cancellations comes in the wake of a hiatus from our Kingmaker campaign due to some issues that was going to cause me to miss several sessions. I felt it better to announce that to the group and get one of the other GMs to run a few things during that time so my absence did not affect the group so much. In short, it has been pretty sketchy gaming for our group since mid-July.

Up until this point though, we have been a pretty successful at having regular gaming sessions. We are a group of gamers that have been playing together for six, coming up on seven years now. We have a solid core and haven’t added a new player for a couple of years. Each of us has been playing RPGs in some form for the past 25+ years. As you can guess, this puts us all in the working bracket and several with families at home. These factors all contribute to making scheduling difficult.

We see this on various RPG forums all of the time. “I’m too busy to get together to play.” or “It is too hard to get games scheduled.” Save for our recent issues though we have had a few strategies that have contributed to our group’s success at scheduling, even with quite active schedules amongst our members.

We started out with committing to playing every other week when the group first formed. We had a set day of the week and everyone made sure to get this scheduled on their personal and family calendars. This worked quite well. Then we decided every other week was not enough and we went to a weekly schedule at this point. Again we started by choosing an agreed upon night of the week to play. Those of us with a family at home made sure game night made the family calendar.

The added component to this for between game communication is a set of message board forums we use for a variety of things – IC roleplay between sessions, OOC forums and an off-topic set of forums where scheduling can be discussed. This helps in the situations where some event does trump the normal game night. We can discuss it well in advance and if possible make other arrangements. Frequently this is accommodated by shifting the night we play for that particular week other times it does result in the cancellation of the game that week.

Ultimately the key to regular gaming in busy adult lives appears to be having a consistent set night to game on and a reliable means of communication between sessions for times something does come up for one of the players.

We do have one other rule of thumb that helps minimize cancellations. We are willing to play a character down if need be. Our group would rather play a person short than cancel a session. Over the years this has worked out well for us and certainly minimized the number of games we have had to cancel.

What strategies has your group enlisted to help with your gaming schedule in these busy times?

TPKs Aren’t All Bad

Our Heroes RestThe other week our Star Wars campaign ended in a Total Party Kill (TPK). And you know something? It was awesome!

The game was a mini campaign while we took a brief hiatus from our Pathfinder Kingmaker game. We were all having a good time with it, but the dice fell as they did and with a few poor rolls the party died while trying to rescue a young Princess Leia. Things went south with a botched stealth roll and went rapidly downhill from there, ending with explosions going off everywhere and party members going down in a hail of blaster fire. Despite that, this will be one of the games that will be memorable for our group. This will be one we look back at and laugh at how quickly that situation went downhill.

Our group has others, there is the campaign I ran that got our group together many years ago, my return to DMing. That one is memorable for the wrong reasons, it was like running the PCs through a meat grinder. Not my best moments! It took a bit of time before I was allowed to DM again!

There was our higher level game that finally came to conclusion via TPK. Once again dice rolling was not going our way and we all fell in what was close to one of the final combats. We were disappointed when it happened, but even to this day it is still a campaign we remember fondly. Even a few years later we had a different set of characters in the same campaign world that sought out the heroes from that fateful TPK.

The threat of a TPK or character death is what helps make the successes in a game that much better. With no real threat of consequence it becomes routine to defeat the evil wizards and dragons of the world as there is no risk. The occasional TPK keeps that sense of risk around which sweetens the victories characters do accomplish.

There is certainly a fine line to walk. Too many TPKs as a GM and you get a reputation of being a “killer GM”. Never having a TPK or character death and you end up on the other side of the spectrum and you are the “soft GM” that never lets the dice fall the way they may. Finding the balance can be difficult, but in the end I think it leads to a more rewarding gaming experience with some risk being a constant presence. The risk is what helps make the game heroic!

So GMs out there, if the campaign you have been running results in a TPK, let it stand. Do not be tempted to roll back the clock and have a redo. Do not be tempted to rescue them via GM fiat. Let it stand. Chances are your players will talk about the campaign and the characters in it for many years to come! And it will add even more sense of accomplishment to future games you run when their characters are successful.

Play-by-Post Gaming: Player Advice

Green DragonI have made several posts on Play-by-Post (PbP) gaming over the past week or so. Each of these posts have had a heavy GM focus where we’ve focused on pacing, narrative and props for PbPs. Today I want to talk about things you can do as a player to help contribute to the success of a PbP. One cannot expect the GM to carry all of the weight!

Pacing was one of the first areas I talked about from the GM side and the importance of keeping the game moving along at a reasonable rate. A player can also contribute to keeping the pace moving in a PbP.

Do your best to make your posts in a timely manner to keep from holding a game up. If you are going to be gone for an extended period of time, give the GM a heads up. They often just appreciate knowing and are happy to NPC your character while you are away. If things are simply very busy in your real life – and lets face it, that’s why we’re playing a PbP – then even simple one liners can be better than massive, verbose posts to keep things moving forward.

Now with that said, when the time permits do focus on descriptive posts. Just as descriptive narrative is important for a GM in his or her posts, do the same as a player. Add those extra details to your posts! They help others get a better feel for your character as well. Describe your actions and mannerisms, give people a hint as to what is going on in your character’s head. Bring your character to life! Some of the most memorable folks I have played with have posted in a form that was quite enjoyable to read.

Another phenomenon I see happen occasionally in PbP is player’s talking past each other or acting in a vacuum. Try to interact with the other players in your party. And when they try to interact with you through conversation or actions be sure to respond! Building this interaction with party members can go far to keep people engaged with the game and go far to keeping the PbP successful.

And finally – help your GM out and make sure you actions are clearly posted. Often I find putting something behind a spoiler tag as out of character that clearly states your actions can help make things a little easier for the GM. A happy GM makes for a happy PbP group!

By doing these things as a player you can help make the PbP you are playing in successful and a good time for all.

It certainly takes a combination of player support and GM support to result in a long running PbP. Sometimes the game just doesn’t work out – but I think if GMs and players start with the advice covered in this series of posts that you are well on your way to a successful play-by-post game!