dragons, again

This is a good post: co-DMing a boss fight.

It’s interesting in the sense of mechanics, especially a counter-balancing of the mechanical action economy (in favor of the players) with a second DM, who can keep track of the overload of options and potential tactics available and come to intelligent conclusions while another DM adjudicates the actions called. This is doubly-true for genius-level opponents (a dragon, a lich, a beholder) rather than juggernauts (a tarrasque), where a creativity of tactics, a clever use of terrain can make a powerful, compounding difference. But, while not mentioned in the above post, such reasons also apply to fights with many smaller opponents. When one DM is running twenty goblins against the PCs, there simply isn’t enough time for that DM to step into the head of each individual opponent and faithfully replicate it. Such fights very quickly exhaust the options a single DM can keep track of, and that group of individual opponents is only thought of a mass—and a mass that tends to just charge.

But back to the post. A maximal red dragon. And how it turned into a war of dice and cleverness, a puzzle to be solved, as much storytelling and emotion as the twisting of a Rubik’s cube.1 What is more interesting to me is what it feels like to be attacked by a dragon, to go hunt one.

The closest I can come to is something like this.

Not seeing the breath weapon doesn’t make you alive again. Also, it’s even got teeth.

Imagine that swooping down on you out of the blue sky. You first saw it seven seconds ago, in a screaming dive. Something lethal will erupt from its maw, and it will be gone. Maybe you have those seven seconds to stop what you’re doing, formulate a plan, prepare yourself. Maybe a generous second-and-a-half to fight back. In other words, you have the rest of your life to figure it out.

What are you going to do? No, I mean really. You’re there. Put yourself there. It’s happening now. You look up, it’s there. Right now. What does it feel like?

Is that how you felt reading the blog post? Unlikely.

Let’s get some emotional distance. You’re hunting the dragon. Let’s continue with the A-10 analogy. A dragon doesn’t just sit in a cave. It has the time, resources, and intelligence to put itself in a safe place. Don’t think that you’ll just tromp through the woods, following footprints, and get the jump on it. I’ll posit that the A-10 can be used as further analogy. How do you go destroy that? The dragon has an area under its control, maybe like an airbase. Even when it’s at its most vulnerable, on the ground, what do you have to do to get to it? Its intelligence network has known of your plans for weeks, and probably calculated that it is most efficient just to send someone to stick a knife through your eye when you sleep. It’s surrounded by obstacles—fences and concertina wire?—and traps—mines?—and early-warning sensors. All of those are overwatched by fighting creatures, who will not only notify the dragon, but actually fight you. And they communicate: not just with the dragon, but with the reinforcements who will also come fight you. And when you get through all of that, the dragon has scrambled: it’s not where you wanted it to be, it’s behind you, in the air, raining its own death upon you. Or it just left and will be five hundred miles away in a couple hours. Now you get to walk for weeks, to start the process over.

And what if, by happenstance, you find it on the ground? Somehow pinned, somehow cornered? You still have to fight it. It’s armored. That strafing attack works just as well on the ground. And you’re going to go hit it with your sword, because it’s super-powerful when you swing it with both hands? What does it feel like to try to creep up on an armored beast that spews fire?

Save for half, I guess?

I fall back on my previous views. Dragons—and their epic-level concomitants—are best seen not as individual beings to attack, but as institutions to be overthrown.

1 Okay, you caught me. The post describes a con game specifically designed to be a tactical puzzle. Let’s ignore that. How often does your game’s combat turn into a puzzle rather than a scene? . . . Yeah, me too.


the forester’s lament

When you read, in a setting or in an adventure, about a forest, what do you picture? In your head?

Is it something like this?

The elves are hiding in the trees, natch.
Photo: debabrata

Green, pleasant . . . generic?

I know. Me too. It’s really damn hard not to. Fantasy forests are benign, commonplace. Set dressing without the dressing. Somehow, they’ve become so well-used and ill-described that an open, sun-drenched plain feels like it has more narrative potential.

But forests are interesting. In a former life hella had occasion to spend quite a bit of time—tromping through, sleeping under, getting lost as fuck in—in forests.

Sometimes they look like this.

The dwarves are hiding in the trees, obvs.
Photo: Hansueli Krapf

So what’s the difference? It isn’t just what we’re imagining—although, we are playing a game where all the action takes place in the imagination—but the actual implications are fully different. Before we were in a nice sunlit wood, not really hampered by anything: sure, there are hiding spots the bad guys can use, but nothing is really hindered or hidden. Here, we have to worry about elevation, taking the high ground; we have to worry about scree shifting underfoot; we have to worry about temperature or thunderstorms.

Above all, it just feels different. It’s a forest. But it’s not bog-standard elves-in-the-leaves sameness.

Or maybe your forest doesn’t look like that. Maybe it looks like:

No place to hide.
Photo: MeegsC

The only elves in this forest are the tatterdemalion sneakthieves of my setting.

Or what about here?

Not fog; smoke. Arsonist eucalypts!
Photo: Fir0002

Or here?

“Where’d he go?” “No, when’d he go.” “When’d he go?” “No, asshole, WENDIGO!”

The point being, when you think forests, don’t think gentle green foliage and shafts of sunshine and rabbits hopping about and sparrows flitting around. There’s so many forests—adventure in a different one.

the banality of orcs, pt. 2

A bookend to a post on why orcs are all evil. Except maybe they aren’t.

Orcs are not evil. At least, no moreso than anyone else. Orcs are merely competitors.

In a world where humans are the end-all be-all of all things, everything is seen through a human lens.1 Humans want a lot of things (every thing, depending on whom you ask). Humans want water to drink and arable land to crop and grass to graze upon and byways to traverse. They also want the same lead and copper and iron and sapphires and spices and dyestuffs everyone always wants.

And that’s the problem. Orcs want all of those things too. And of those which are needs, they need them just as much as humans do. But orcs tend toward stupid, foolhardy, and unlovely. They’re just smart enough to seriously compete with humans (and the other demihumans) for resources, but not smart enough to consistently win, or even subsist. If they were stupider, more feral and beastly, they may have carved out an ecological niche not in direct competition with humans; as it stands, however, they’re in a tough spot.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Ain’t No Party Like an Orc Party, ’cause an Orc Party Don’t Stop (1609).

Orcs are always winning battles and losing wars. They have managed to survive on grit and strength and an ability to make a hardscrabble life of places humans care least for. Their strength has allowed them to survive, but never thrive. Their life is one of war: war against the elements, against aching bellies, against pestilence, and against everyone else who wants the same subsistence as they do.

And it’s not always blood-and-billhooks war, either. Orcs tend to get the shit end of the deal in trade, both in receiving less than expected from the cleverer folk and in finding few markets for their own goods, which tend to be shoddier than others’. Even amongst those who are willing to trade with orcs, the orcs can only compete on price: their goods tend to be simple, strong, and unsophisticated.2 They tend to copy technological improvement rather than create it, and always find themselves one step behind the power curve.

Orcs are not inherently bloodthirsty, any more than anyone else is. They simply have to play to their strengths. Where they can’t compete on technological or thaumaturgical prowess, in sharp dealing or collective endeavor, they can compete with fire and falchion and ferocity. But that’s a mug’s game, and they know it. And resent it. They resent it in the shit-smelling foetid marshes, in the howling tundra of the wild north, and on the scrubbrush slopes of arid mesas. They resent it in driftwood hovels and tattered rawhide tents; they resent it in their frenzied dances and childrens’ stories and hearts. They resent it when breastplowing stony barrens and when hauling poorly-coopered buckets of fresh water and when undermining dwarven fortifications.

Humans think orcs are evil because they compete for the same resources, resources that are “rightfully” humanity’s; orcs’ consistent losses in that competition bolster humans’ self-congratulatory impulse to attribute market failure to moral failure; and because orcs are, to human eyes, ugly.3

With many thanks to Frank Trollman, who put the idea into my head that orcs aren’t bad, they’re just evolutionarily obsolete.

1 Of course. We’re humans playing a game with humans in it: everything becomes about humans. Which is why, in these complacent latter days, our elves are just skinny, pretty human dudes, and dwarves are just short, stocky human dudes. I’d prefer, of course, my elves to materialize out of hedgerows and eat the baby in trade for a peacock’s tear, or whatever high-weirdness your crazy brain and centuries of batshit folk mythology can come up with.

2 Interestingly, orc-made farm implements tend to be pretty good. That plow might be heavier than you’d like, but it’s not going to chip off when you turn a stone.

3 Ugly things are evil. Obvs. Disney told me so. Also—and I digress—I enjoy footnotes. One of the oddnesses of blogging is that footnotes and endnotes become sort of the same thing, depending on the length of your post, despite the fact that footnotes are useful and good, while endnotes are the page-flipping abominations of information design.1

1 I can footnote my footnotes. This is useful for cascading digressions.

on storyspace

The bigger the storyspace the more stories you can tell within that space. This seems pretty obvious, isn’t it? But it doesn’t seem to be—revealed preference shows us that the majority of players (and all GMs, at root, are players) prefer to limit their storyspaces rather than expand them. If this weren’t the case, how is it that that we see the same much-lamented clichés over and over, edition through edition, game across game?

A storyspace is just the range of storytelling options in your game that don’t break plausibility; that is, things and actions that can be portrayed without blowing up your suspension of disbelief. On Krynn, for instance, elves can live in the woods, they can live in glittering cities, then can interbreed with humans. They can’t have obsidian skin, they can’t chomp cigars while driving tanks. On Toril, conversely, they can do all the former things, and they can also have obsidian skin and live in caves, but they still can’t fire the main gun. On Shadowrun’s Earth, they can do all of the above, except birth half-elves. If any of those proscribed things happened on one of those worlds, all involved would pause, blink, and question what game they were playing.

The bigger the storyspace, the more stories you can tell. You could drop a BattleMech into Mordor, but that doesn’t mean that you should. (Hey, if your players are up for it, go ahead.) And so we have a tension: how far can you loosen the rules of your world before it stops being your world anymore? Anyone who’s been around for more than a day has heard the fights between those who don’t mind firearms—primitive ones, at least—in their fantasy, and those for whom they are anathema. But at least it’s a reasonable expansion of setting—Golarion is still recognizably a fantasy setting. But put just one AK-47 into it, and your setting is fantastical, not fantasy.

But you don’t need the creativity of a Patrick Stuart or Zak S. to enlarge a storyspace. In fact, you don’t need to add anything at all—adding elements is often the road to bloat and incomprehensibility. More often the best results can come from removing elements. And by that I mean, take a hard look at what you can’t do in your setting and ask “why?”

If you can’t justify that limitation, try getting rid of it.

Some of the most memorable—whether you care for them or not—characters are those that play against type, that break in the individual instance the rules of how things are supposed to be done in that world. Drizzt is a drow who rejects his evil heritage and does good in the world. Frodo leaves the Shire to go on epic adventure. Lancelot is the most puissant of knights who betrays his king in the most personal way.

Drizzt is interesting in this way.1 Drow came about as an expansion of what it means to be an elf—previously noble, fair, and just creatures. That got boring. So now we have venal, dark, and wicked elves. But they were so popular that they became trite. So, almost closing the circle, we have a noble, virtuous drow. Where that goes next, who knows—but the as the attention span wanes, as we get sick of the overdone, the circle spins.

1 Yeah, I know many of us despise Drizzt because our angsty, dual-wielding, invincible friend is so overdone and hence, boring. But just try and tell me you didn’t think he was badass when you read that first novel.

On Cursed Items

The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell ain’t half full.

Beneficial magic items often come about through intentional enchantment. Typically an enchantress will decide what sort of magical effects she desires to imbue upon an object, gather the requisite eldritch knowledge and mundane materials, and will either craft the object or saturate a pre-fabricated object with the appropriate boons. These enchanted items are nigh-always beneficial to their users, as befitting the expenditure of time, expertise, and materials required for their creation.

Very occasionally the item will be hexed, designed to cause some deleterious effect on the bearer. These are manufactured, if ever, for the injury of some remote, inaccessible, or well-protected target—the expense of common use quickly becomes prohibitive. There are far cheaper, easier ways of wishing someone ill.

Cursed items, properly, are truly cursed, rather than intentionally hexed. Tragedy, blood, and the most malign of intention can impress themselves onto the mundaneness of objects; envy, cowardice, or simple rage will also do. Any sufficiently strong or sufficiently negative emotion can quite unintentionally become imprinted on a material substrate. Such a thing becomes cursed.

As pseudo-hexes unguided by conscious intent, curses tend to replicate in effect the circumstances of their creation. Consider the man who, through derangement or demon-influence, begins thinking that his family are actually impostors, fey-placed fetches sent to torment him. He takes up his hammer and murders them in their beds. This is an act of wickedness that cries out to the gods. That hammer—regardless of the fate of the man—may become cursed. Thenceforth it will, if ever taken up again, exert a malign influence on its bearer. It may become useless for smithing, turning aside when swung in useful work; it may refuse to move in the hand if used in combat against a dangerous foe; but it may leap to grisly work when the holder sees anyone who resembles (to whatever degree of resemblance) the slain family.

No wizard enchanted this hammer. But cursed it is, and woe betide the adventurer who plucks it up as loot.

A cursed item is likely very difficult to be rid of. Let’s think back to the creation of a magic item. An enchanted item—conveying some sort of boon—is easy to transfer. Either it has been enchanted so as to be ambivalent as to its owner, or what power it contains wants to be put to its best and highest use, and ready transferability facilitates that. (An intentionally hexed item, by contrast, is probably hexed so as to be unriddable by its victim.)

But a cursed item knows in some ineffable way that it is unwanted. In the same sense that wildfire knows to spread or winter knows to be cold, the accursed thing knows that any person it touches would otherwise be likely to toss it in a bonfire or throw it down a chasm. It does not want to let go. How this manifests is individual to the object and the circumstances of its creation. The cursed hammer above may simply be impossible to set down, or it may reappear in hand whenever a woman or child is nearby, or it may ensorcel the bearer as to never desire to be rid of it. Another object, like the One Ring, may cause a pathological possessiveness in all who see it. Another may simply shadow a person, like an ioun stone that cannot be grasped or a wraith-pennant forever fluttering from the head of a weapon.

There are ways of being rid of a cursed object. There are even people who make it their lives’ work to expunge the world of them. But that is the topic of another post.

the drover’s wife vs goblins

Monsters are frightening in proportion to what they can take from you. I was recently rereading “The Drover’s Wife,”1 but instead of snakes, I was back to thinking about goblins.

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin.

“Adventuring” humans, that is. The PCs, the kind we pretend to be. Some NPCs do, too, the bigfolk, those sitting in the manor house with the bailiff delivering the rents.

Goblins are different when you don’t carry a broadsword for a living, or can’t afford the smithing of one, or haven’t ever seen one beyond the make-believe type the shepherd-boys pretend their crooks to be.

Comfortably civilized folk may think goblins are vermin, but let’s not forget that vermin kill more people than war does. If we really want to understand a setting, maybe the correct perspective isn’t that of the one-in-a-thousand who fight when they want to, but the thousand who fight only when they have to.

Say you’re a cottager, well-worn from trying to feed your wife and children off a few acres of someone else’s land, miles from the trade road and miles more from the market town. You’ve got a good oaken cudgel, a door that never does fit in the frame just right, and just enough firewood to use every other night or so. And your dog.

Your dog was lying in the garden this morning, and you had to figure out what to tell your little girl about why all those little black arrows were sticking out of it. But thankfully your wife got everyone to sleep, save you, awake with the weight of care.

Those crazed little eyes out in the darkness, whispering in the barley rows, how harmless do they feel now?

1 “The Drover’s Wife,” by Henry Lawson, a (very) short story about a mother, her children, their dog, and a snake. It hasn’t aged well, but it is quite good at conveying what it’s like when you’re poor, and the sun is going down, and the next neighbor is nineteen miles off.

elves : humans :: humans : goblins

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin. Goblins are weak, annoying creatures, dangerous in the way a rat might be. Ultimately of little concern. They live short, frantic lives, causing trouble and breeding prodigiously. They find empty or weakened niches in geography or ecosystem to populate, and when those are filled, overrun outwards, rapidly depleting the resources (food, fuel, patience, goodwill) of the places they spread. They are nearly universally despised by the longer-lived, more-civilized races, and seem just as universally ineradicable.

So why don’t elves consider humans in the same way that humans consider goblins? In most traditional fantasy settings (read: those derived extensively from Tolkien), elves are nigh-immortal elder beings, cultured and thoughtful. To an elf whose goals and experiences likely span centuries, humans must seem obnoxious upstarts, never to mature and incorrigible in their violence, dizzyingly busy and almost infinitely resilient. How could an elf ever see a human as a peer? How could an elf see human social structures as anything beyond a child’s attempt at playing civilized?

If goblins appear to humans as the embodiment of id-driven wasteful children, humans almost certainly appear to elves as forever-teenagers, discomfitingly mature in body but never able to gain the wisdom that comes with experience. At least goblins are manageably small; all else equal, they’re still only three feet tall. A human has the ability to do much greater harm, lumbering man-children given the tools of destruction but never the temperance to match. Can a human aspire to wisdom any more than a dog can aspire to song? If a goblin dies of his foolhardiness after fifteen years of life, or a human after seventy, how much difference does that make from a perspective of seven centuries? Or six millennia?