It’s December, my weekly Unknown Armies game has had its annual Christmas special, and I’ve been listening to a reading of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.
As a result of one or more of these things, I’ve found myself thinking about a dungeon crawl that drops a band of adventurers in a wintry ice fortress and pits them against an evil Santa Claus and his Christmassy minions. Here are some monsters that might populate such a dungeon crawl, which you can use for a game of Dungeon World if you’re so inclined.
Mind control is a staple of genre fiction. It appears in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It’s used an awful lot in superhero stories. As such, it’s hard to avoid in any roleplaying game that tries to emulate any of these genres.
But mind control is rooted in the idea of removing someone’s agency, and playing a character without any agency is just not very fun. Ask anyone who has had their D&D character under the influence of Dominate Person for round after round after round…
Smallville RPG includes mind control, at least in part because it was based on a TV show that was chock full of mind control and other forms of mental alteration. Given Smallville RPG’s commitment to the concept that no player can ever dictate another character’s choices, mind control could have been a fascinating addition to the game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s either so weak that it can be ignored, rendering it meaningless, or it’s so overpowered that it violates the game’s core principle of protecting player agency.
In short, mind control in Smallville blows harder than Clark Kent’s super breath.
In this blog, I will describe various ways that we could hack Smallville to make mind control work better, taking inspiration from some other roleplaying games. The different strategies are not mutually exclusive, and two or more could be combined in the same game. Maybe even all of them together.
2015 was a pretty good year for my roleplaying, all told. It’s the year I started this blog. It’s also the year I started attending a monthly RPG Book and Brunch Club, which introduced me to games like Breaking the Ice, Sorcerer, and Swords Without Master (plus games I never reviewed, like Microscope). I’ve run and played a variety of games, both one-offs and campaigns.
And, of course, it’s the year I started and finished running my campaign of Dungeon World, which I started reviewing in my previous blog post.
Last night I ran the finale session of my Dungeon World campaign, and boy did it end on a high note. The first half of the session was relatively sedate and character-focused, and the second half was an all-out battle against a monstrous dragon.
There were three player characters at the end of the campaign:
- Clovis the Giant, later Clovis the Dragon-hearted, a halfling barbarian from the great desert to the north-west who longs to kill the Great Horned Dragon that wiped out his people.
- Rurgosh, a bald dwarven cleric of the god Fade, who presides over rocks and forgotten things. Rurgosh secretly longs for fame and glory, despite the precepts of their god.
- Enrico, elven bard of Lothlorenza, who is composing the Ballad of Clovis the Giant upon his father’s mandolin as they travel.
(There had originally been a human wizard named Morgan, but he left before they became famous.)
These characters, with their hirelings and a local town of (skeleton) civilians, came together in the final session to defeat the Great Horned Dragon. ‘Twas truly a tale for the ages.
The campaign started in January, so it ran for almost exactly a year. In that time, I’ve learned (or been reminded of) a few tricks not just for Dungeon World, but other roleplaying games too. Here are the top 10 things I learned from the game.
Last weekend I had my first experience of the game Sorcerer by Ron Edwards. Sorcerer was originally self-published in 1996, and it was at the vanguard of the indie RPG movement. I’m not going to discuss the game extensively, but there was one thing in particular that got me thinking.
I want to talk about Kickers.
A Kicker is an unexpected event that shakes up a player character’s life. It forces the player character to react, but does not dictate how they should react. It is the set-up for the player character’s opening conflict during play.
Kickers in Sorcerer
As defined above, Kickers are not new and not revolutionary. They are basically just plot hooks. Most long-running campaigns start with something similar, usually at the start of the first session of play, to get the players invested and the characters moving. Even the standard D&D trope of being commanded by the local ruler to sort out those bandits chop chop almost meets the definition (except for not dictating how the players should react).
But what Sorcerer did that was new and was revolutionary was this: it put the Kicker into the hands of the player.
I am a huge believer in doing group character generation at the start of a new RPG campaign. I don’t just mean getting all the players in the same place to do character generation, but actually doing it together. Of the RPGs I’ve played in, nearly all of the ones I’ve enjoyed most have made character generation a group activity.
First, a quick explanation
Traditional RPGs seem to work in this way: 1) each player goes away and makes a character, 2) the GM throws all the characters together in the first session and gives them a reason to work together. To an extent, that’s fine, but there are hundreds of stories online about games falling apart because the party isn’t cohesive. It’s not a single unit, just a collection of individuals. In a D&D context, I’m talking about the Rogue who constantly steals treasure from everyone else, or the Paladin who refuses to support the party’s “evil” actions, or what have you.
It’s because, by making character separately—even if you made them separately while sitting around the same table at the same time—you don’t know what the relationships of the characters are going to be like until you start playing. I’ve been in games in which other players have tried to tell me, after character generation was already done, what my character’s opinion was of their characters. And, funnily enough, their assumption of my character’s opinion ended up being wrong.
Group character generation is a process, before or during individual character generation (but not after), of determining collaboratively how the party will act as a unit and how the characters will interact with each other.