Beyond Lamentations

A little while back I posted my thoughts on the Lamentations of the Flame Princess publication “Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book”, both here and over at The Rat Hole. It was pretty well received, and of course the usual Zak and Jimmy apologists came out and were blocked, because life is short and I don’t have time for both games and playing whack-a-mole with fools.

Last week, LotFP posted the book for sale on DriveThruRPG, minus the three page “editorial” from Jimmy Raggi Number Four at the back. Apparently Jimmy has the courage of his convictions, as long as his convictions are limited to 500 copies so only a fraction of the industry will read them. And yes, I am aware because Jimmy made sure to say, the full text of the editorial is available in a LotFP fan group on Facebook. Wise to post it where the majority of the folks who will read it already agree with you. Such brave, much courage. By the way, if you’re looking for the book at DriveThru now, it has been re-titled, “An Analysis into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains”, because if Jimmy Raggi Number Four is two things, he is cowardly and pretentious.

In any case, I made my feelings know at the time, both on the DriveThruRPG product page and on Twitter. And in the moment, full of righteous fury, I declared I would not buy another thing from DriveThruRPG while that book was on their site. And my tweet took off! It got over a hundred Likes, shared pretty close to that many times. Not huge by some standards, but it had traction, and folks were getting on board with a boycott. When the CEO of DriveThruRPG posted on the product page, saying they would not be removing the book for… *check notes* …reasons, it got even more traction, and more folks were climbing on the boycott bandwagon.

Which sucks, because a boycott was not the answer, and I was a fool for thinking it was.

Let me take a tangent for a moment, that I promise I will loop back. I did volunteer emergency medical response for close to twenty years, starting in my teens. I’m also a trained Emergency Medical Responder. Through all that, I was taught to always think of the victim first, and where possible, listen to the victim. They can often tell you things you need to know in order to deal with their emergency effectively. Also, a patient on scene who is awake and coherent has to give consent to be treated. That issue of consent is huge in the EMS field, and professionals have lost their job for forgetting it.

Back to the present. See, in calling for a boycott of DriveThruRPG in the heat of the moment, I forgot my duty to the victims. After all, who is my boycott going to hurt? Zak can’t sell there any more, so it doesn’t hurt him. Jimmy does sell there, and it would hurt him a little. But his apologists have already driven that book to be an electrum best seller, because garbage people buy in packs, and no one supporting my boycott was likely to have bought it anyway. But there are folks in the industry who have been victimized and hurt by Zak and Jimmy, who still somehow and bravely create for our hobby, who use DriveThruRPG to make a living. And that’s who my righteous little boycott really hurts. To use an analogy I made elsewhere, it’s like I showed up to an accident scene and was more concerned with the car than the pedestrian it hit.

I didn’t come to this realization on my own. Someone else had to point it out, I was just lucky enough to see it, and belatedly smart enough to stop and think it through. So I have to thank @wundergeek and @machineiv, among others, for getting my head back on straight. They didn’t do it for me, but I am glad they and their words were there nonetheless.

By not listening to the victims and what they needed, not only did I cause them harm, I wasted an opportunity to help them. Like I said, my Twitter thread on the whole affair has been read and liked and shared a bunch since I posted it. Traffic to my original article, both here and at The Rat Hole, has jumped to thousands of views. There was excellent discussion going on in a very supportive RPG.net forum thread. I had the attention of a not insignificant portion of the TTRPG hobby for a split second, and I wasted it by calling for a boycott.

What should I have done instead? Taken a moment to check in with the folks victimized by Zak and Jimmy. Find out what they might want or need from this situation. Maybe that’s nothing; they don’t want to get dragged back in, and that’s understandable. But maybe there were ways I could have used this moment to help them, to help the marginalized in the TTRPG community who have always been the targets of the Zak Smiths and the Jimmy Raggi Number Fours.

For instance, as was pointed out, instead of shouting boycott in a crowded thread, I could have instead pointed folks to creators that could actually use the attention. Wundergeek and Machineiv are two of them, but there are so many others I could have shone a light on while passions were high. I’m not saying it would have changed anyone’s life, but even a few more sales for some or all of them would have been a net positive. But I’ll never know, because that’s not what I did.

But it is what I am going to do. If you stuck through and read this far, it won’t surprise you that I am not boycotting DriveThruRPG, and I don’t think you or anyone else should either. Obviously folks have to make up their own minds about that, but for me the path forward is a bit more complicated, and ultimately better. I’m still thinking things through, and listening, and thinking some more. But here are some main points for me going forward:

  • Obviously Lamentations of the Flame Princess will never see a dime from me. The only reason I have anything from them in the first place is because I grab one of everything on FreeRPG Day, and they submitted some stuff for the ENnies last year (It was never in any contention; it was laughably bad when we got it, and it fared worse by comparison as we received better submissions throughout the year).
  • I’m going to be very picky with my DriveThruRPG purchases going forward. While proximity is not guilt, I have made a list of the publishers who appear on the “People Who Purchased This Title Also Bought This” list on the LotFP product pages. It’s possible not all of them are the same level of toolbag as Jimmy Raggi Number Four. But given a choice, I think my money is better spent elsewhere. Update: since a few people seem to think this is some sort of hit list, let me be clearer. This is simply the first step in a process of being more conscious of where my money is going. Yes, there will be several large publishers on the list. Do I think they are all problematic? Of course not, but taking a closer look at them and consciously choosing where my money goes doesn’t hurt. We are past the point where brand loyalty and willful or feigned ignorance of a publisher’s issues should be acceptable.
  • I’m also going to spend more time over at Itch.io and Indie Press Revolution, because DriveThruRPG might be the biggest online distributor, but that doesn’t make them the best. Both those other sites have a really strong concentration of some of the best and brightest in our hobby today, and I plan to make them my first and second stops for games, with DriveThru coming in third. I don’t think I’ll suffer by that.
  • I’m going to be more active in finding those creators who deserve to have more attention paid to their work, checking out their stuff, and picking up the stuff that interests me. More importantly, I’m going to use the platforms I have to promote their work, to make it even a tiny bit easier for other folks to find.
  • I receive royalties from projects on DriveThruRPG and DM’s Guild. Going forward, I’m going to budget so that half my royalties will be spent over at Itch or Indie Press Revolution, to support creators there. Alternately, if a creator has a more direct way of getting their work, that delivers more of the profits to them, I’ll use that.
  • In a similar vein, a quarter of my royalties will go to supporting marginalized creators in other ways, whether that’s Patreon, Kofi, Kickstarter, or direct support though PayPal and the like.

For those last two points, I’m not swearing it will be a bucket of money going out. But it’s easy to say I support marginalized creators in my hobby. Going forward, I want to be deliberate about it, and put my money where it will do some good. If that also means less money for DriveThruRPG (except for what I spend on marginalized creators there), well, maybe they will take that as a sign. Or not, but I can hope.

I understand not everyone can make commitments like that, and I get it. But if you were one of the folks who built the barricade when I shouted boycott, I’d appreciate it if you tried something similar, within your means. Not only will this actively help the folks who would be hurt most by a boycott, but it will ultimately hit Zak and Jimmy where it will hurt the most; in their soft, fleshy egos.

Comments, questions, concerns? Talk to me below or find me on Twitter.

The Hedgicorn

I love coming up with weird, quirky things for my D&D campaign. As one of my groups is entering a pocket of the Faewylde, I wanted to create something special for them to encounter. I love faerie, because done properly they hide a frightening power behind a cute facade. So I thought to myself, how could I make something as adorable as the hedgehog a formidable encounter for my group?

Enter the hedgicorn! All the majestic power of the unicorn, crammed into a tiny hedgehog package. Protector of the small folk of the fae, guardian of lost children, indomitable alone and well nigh unstoppable when gathered in common purpose with other hedgicorns. I loved the idea so much I had my buddy Jeff Martin do up some art for it, pictured. Jeff is a fantastic artist, and I think he captured my weird little creation perfectly.

Not only is this the first creature I have created for any TTRPG that I have commissioned art for, but this now marks my first creation published on DMs Guild. It seemed appropriate, as this is the start of my Extra Life campaign for 2019, that this fierce guardian of lost children should benefit children in the real world. So in perpetuity, you can purchase The Hedgicorn on the DMs Guild for just $1.99US, with all proceeds going to benefit Extra Life.

I hope the hedgicorn will find a place at your table. It has made for an interesting beastie in my campaign, and I would love for some wizard or druid to adopt one as a familiar or animal companion.

If you do use it in your campaign, please let me know how it goes. Any feedback will be incorporated into updated versions, as tweek and adjust it through my own usage.

Lamentation’s End

It was just before Gen Con, and I had had a good run. I had gone months without thinking about anything related to Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Zak Smith. I realize that is a luxury and a privilege that some don’t have. But any obligation I had to think about LotFP was in the rear-view mirror, and I was happy to let it stay there as long as possible.

All came to a halt when I saw this tweet from Daniel Kwan of the Asians Represent! podcast, from Gen Con.

A bit of background. In February of this year four women came forward with credible allegations of abusive behaviour against Zak Smith, a loud and undeniable exclamation point to what many in the TTRPG industry had been saying about Zak for years. This caused several companies to finally cut ties with the abusive Zak Smith, among them Lamentations. What made the LotFP split different from others at the time was the “more in sorrow than in anger” attitude of Jim Raggi, head of LotFP and himself a controversial figure. While the industry was finally responding to a situation it should have dealt with years ago, Raggi had a slightly different opinion:

You all need to keep your eyes out for these snakes slithering among us, feigning compassion when they once spat only cruelty, loving what this has done to us, ready to take advantage of the situation for themselves and further erode what we’ve all collectively built as a creative community.*

Don’t let them.

And one last thing. I’d like to thank Zak for all the work and support over the years. I am absolutely crushed that we cannot continue to collaborate.

Despite this attitude Raggi seemed to be true to his word. The abuser Zak Smith was no longer profiting from LotFP publications, and would not be involved in any future work by the company.

Fast forward to Gen Con, and the tweet by Daniel Kwan, and the first sign I’d had in a while that Raggi and Lamentations were not going to let the situation go without one final heel-kicking, snot-blowing tantrum. Welcome to Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book, or as I’ll be referring to it for the rest of this article, 3W (for “waah! waah! waah!” which is all I could hear as I read it).

3W was written, obviously, with the sole purpose of giving the middle finger to the people Raggi thinks of as, “…snakes slithering among us…”. In addition to the title, there are several other subtle clues sprinkled throughout that show this is the case: the back matter which is simply the statement “He really doesn’t.”, the copyright notice attributed to “Not Zak” (with a cover-my-ass alternate copyright notice on the Credits page for Raggi), and the Credits section, which are all variations on it not being Zak. Except of course where Raggi credits Inspiration for the book directly to Zak: “Fuck…it is Zak after all, isn’t it?

For more subtle clues you have simply to flip to the back of 3W. The last three-and-a-half pages of text, entitled “A Word From The Publisher” layout Raggi’s opinions on Zak, the situation surrounding his ejection from the TTRPG industry, and how he (Raggi) intends to move forward. If Raggi seemed awfully quiet and subdued about the situation after his official announcement back in February, he wasn’t any longer. Like a sloppy drunk who seems to be holding his liquor until suddenly he isn’t, Raggi spewed his opinions all over the page. And after months of careful reflection and thought…they were very much in line with his announcement in February, just a bit more explain-y.

He makes two statements in the first several paragraphs about what he believes the role of a publisher should and should not be. Remember these, I’ll come back to them later:

A publisher’s job (or any sort of employer, really) should never be to police the personal or legal life of its creators or contractors beyond what is directly involved in the creation and production of its publications. A publisher that acts as a moral guardian or enforcer is laughable and ridiculous…

[…]

Nevermind that it is a publisher’s job, one of their most important duties, to protect their talent and their work from attack, even if it is offensive to their personal sensibilities. I completely abandoned my most important responsibility out of self-preservation. It was cowardice of the worst and most unforgivable kind.

If the end of that quote is confusing, it’s in response to the previous paragraph. One of the first things Raggi wants us to know is that he only cut professional ties with Zak because he is a Responsible Business Man:

[…] and the demands to get in line, right the hell now, or else were there. I had just a few months before taken on my first actual employees, one full-time, and the same week the allegations went public I’d been approved for the last of a series of large loans intended to be used to expand the company, I was responsible for other peoples’ lives and I was leveraged to hell and back. I was in no position to make my own decisions, let alone put up any sort of fight over it. So, I had to announce that I would no longer work with Zak.” 

He then goes on to laud Zak and credit him with the early success of LotFP (which if true is one of the lesser crimes Zak will have to answer for), and for allowing Raggi himself to be a Real Boy: 

For the first time ever in my forty years of life, I was both earning my own way and not sweating about next month’s bills. He did that for me.

I’m assuming the sentence, “And all I had to do was ignore Zak’s deplorable personality and how he treated the folks around him like shit.” was cut from that for concision. He does take an entire paragraph to compare Zak to his ex-wife, though. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will.

Then there are several paragraphs that can summed up with “Jim has a sad”, as he rails against all the horrible folks in the industry who want to ruin everything by *check notes* holding abusers accountable for their actions and removing them so the industry can flourish. Because remember, in Raggi’s own words, publishers are not responsible for employing abusive shitbags, but are responsible for protecting them. Why, what sort of industry would we have if publishers actually took a stand against abusive behaviour among their employees? Speaking for myself, and you’re welcome to agree with me or not, one without any Zak Smiths in it for a start.

And likely not any Jim Raggis either. Because in one of the most puzzling defensive maneuvers I have ever read, similar to an animal that defends from predators by punching itself in the face, Raggi tells us about the not one, but two women who are accusing him of assault and sexual abuse. You see, Dear Reader, Raggi has also felt the cruel sting of people holding him accountable for his shitty behaviour, so how could he not sympathize with Brother Zak? Let he who has not beaten, or stalked, or sexually assaulted a woman cast the first stone!

Raggi goes on to admonish us for several paragraphs about our failure to separate the creation from the creator, like life is one big centrifuge and we can spin the garbage away to keep Creation pure. Setting aside for a moment that what he’s talking about is, well, LotFP material, and the purity of that creation is questionable on a good day, there is no way to separate the two completely. Whatever form the art takes, whether books, paintings, films, and yes, TTRPG materials, creator and creation are linked. There is no process which separates them. I have heard too many artists talk about “giving birth” to their creation, that it’s a part of them made real, to let anyone slip around the side door and try to argue the opposite point. Frankly, it’s a horseshit opinion and it’s what got us here. I’d also like to note, it’s an opinion which only comes out when the artist is a ratbag; no one ever tries to separate the art from the decent, kind artists.

Because even a stopped clock is right twice a day (“What’s a clock, Grandpa Brent?” “Shut up, kid.”) I will share one quote from the screed which I think is important. Raggi rightfully brings up an important point about Zak’s work, both for LotFP and others:

And I will say again, you lavished all of those books with great sales and tons of votes for awards.

And he’s not wrong. To what should be the TTRPG community’s shame, Maze of the Blue Medusa won ENnie awards. And I spread that blame between the ENnies judges that year, and the community. The judges nominated the work (with the same attitude of splitting the creator/creation atom as Raggi, apparently), but the community voted for it. This, despite everyone knowing what the abuser Zak Smith was and is.

Don’t think I hold myself apart from this inditement. I may not have been aware of exactly what was going on. I was not hugely involved with social media beyond Facebook, and I was certainly not by any description an industry insider, but I knew there were issues. I have never purchased anything from LotFP, but I certainly grabbed the “edgy” Free RPG Day offerings they put out prior to this year, because “edgy”. So I’m not guilt free in any of this. Both I, and the community, still have work to do.

Back to the book. Raggi begins to wind down his tantrum with a couple of bold declarations:

[…]and the house must be rebuilt.

And it will be rebuilt in accordance to my wishes, and mine alone. Anyone that thinks they have a say in this is very badly mistaken. The ‘community’ will have no say in the matter, because the ‘community’ is poisonous. You’ll take what you’re given, or you’ll go away.

[…]

With this book I reclaim my power and deny the policers, the censors, the puritans, the kindly inquisitors, all those that seek [to] define for other people what is ‘proper’, and those who endeavor to enforce their moral will upon the dreams and imaginations of others and dictate what other people may and may not create, purchase, or read.

Wow, okay. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one slim volume with an initial printing of 500 copies, but dream big I guess?

So this section is the middlest finger of all, in a screed built on middle fingers. It is Raggi’s Hill He Will Die Upon™. I have to admit, the first thing that caught my eye, after the “Glorious Leader” tone of this section, was the reference to the community as being poisonous. I’m pretty sure he meant it was venomous, since that would be the condition most dangerous to him. A poisonous community could only be of concern to him if her were trying to consume the community in question, which is a bit telling. Since being poisonous seems to work pretty well in the animal world for dissuading predators, I for one hope our community gets more poisonous, not less.

Though not quoted, he says at one point that, as consumers, we have the choice to consume what is given to us, or make our own thing if we are dissatisfied. This is a pretty common point made by many who argue against “forced” inclusivity in gaming, to counter critique of a given work’s lack of same. And it’s no less a horseshit point because he took three pages to make it. Yes, of course consumers have a choice. It’s just funny (in the same way that clowns are funny) that for people like Raggi, that those choices are only ever right if it includes their work. Because as soon as it doesn’t, as soon as we choose not to support the work of writers, artists, and publishers who create a venomous community environment, we’re suddenly the Bad Guys.

It should be apparent by now that I am not a Lamentations of the Flame Princess fan. I wish I could remember who said it, because I want to properly credit them for this masterfully concise scalpel of a review of LotFP’s work, but someone summed them up thusly: “…it’s like a thirteen year old writing to impress an eight year old…” If you said this, or can point me to where it is written, get in touch because I want to properly credit you and buy you a beverage of your choice. But that’s why there is no discussion of the adventure which makes up the bulk of this book. It’s frankly not very good, and suffers at the hands of a publisher who thinks he don’t need no damn editor! I was going to make a big deal earlier about how the “Not Zak” contrivance in the credits deprived someone of due credit for their work. But in this case I think it’s for the best. Assuming it wasn’t Ol’ Raggi his ownself, better to keep this credit off the CV, and do better next time.

I can only hope that we have seen the end, in any effectual way, of Lamentations. If, as Raggi himself has said, Zak was the key to his success, I get the feeling that even Raggi knows his days of relevance are numbered, and largely with negative integers at that. I’m sure we’ll hear little noises and alarums for a bit yet. Like a child loudly declaiming dirty words so the adults will pay attention to him, expect to see some execrable offerings in the next while. With any luck those will trickle off and we can enjoy our poisonous community once again.

Calling out this sort of thing is one thing, and should be done. But pointing out a problem without offering up some actions to go with it feels a bit hollow. So going forward, no more coverage for LotFP from me. I don’t think I have ever written a formal review of anything they’ve done, so that will be easy enough to manage. As well, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the names associated with LotFP, and doing some necessary digging before I support anything else they work on. I get that freelancers often take the work where they can get it. And I also understand that a person could accept work with Raggi’s company and not realize at first who they were dealing with. But if a particular person has repeatedly gone back to that well, they know who they are working with and have decided they don’t care about the harm.

The fact is, there are more than enough creative folks in the TTRPG industry and hobby who are not abusive sexual predators, there is no excuse not to call them out when you see them. Our hobby will be fine without them. And I suspect that once we do purge them, finally, the hobby will get even stronger.

Update: For another perspective, check out this post over at Papers Falling from an Attic Window, who was kind enough to mention this article.

RPGaDay, Day Sixteen: Dreams

Dreams are often used by the Game Master to provide a spooky or unsettling moment for the players. But there are so many ways to use dreams to enhance the game for your players, and add exciting elements to your campaign. Here are some tips and things to keep in mind:

I dreamt this moment! – Prophetic dreams have long been a staple of folklore and Sf literature. It’s easy to use in stories because the writer can control the plot to make sure the dream lines up with the events as they unfold. In an RPG this can be a bit trickier, since player agency may mean that something you show as coming to pass in a dream may not play out that way at the table. If you plan to have prophetic dreams, try to keep things as symbolic and non-literal as you possibly can, so the dream suggests general directions as opposed to specific outcomes. Giving the character a series of prophetic dreams that is best way to keep them on track. This way you can dial each ensuing dream in to better fit the details as they play out at the table.

Your mind to my mind – The waking mind is a tumultuous place, and one could imagine trying to contact that mind from outside would be difficult, even dangerous. Much better to wait for a person to sleep, and contact their mind when it is at rest. This can be a lot of fun to play out, as the player starts out treating the situation as a dream, and only eventually comes to understand that someone is trying to talk to them. In fact, it’s possible that at first it is a dream, just not the character’s. Perhaps the two minds have become entangled somehow, and now they character and the NPC now share dreams. Eventually they might be able to talk to each other in their dreams, but for now they each get an insight into the other’s mind.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas – Travelling in dreams has also been a popular facet of fantasy and SF fiction. The Cthulian Dreamlands are a good example, the Thomas Covenant books would be another. Perhaps the character’s sleeping mind travels to another time or dimension, and lives out a life there in what would normally be the character’s downtime. What effect does this have on the character? Has this always been the case, or is it something new? If a new occurrence, why is it happening now. And the biggest question of all: is the character really the character, or another sleeper dreaming a different life?

Allowing the character to skip between times and even dimensions in this way is a great way to introduce information to the campaign the characters might not otherwise be able to find. Perhaps they get historical perspective on an ancient evil they currently face. Or they see that what they thought was a local problem actually spans across the multiverse. Used well, it’s a great tool for expanding the scope of your campaign world.

Whose head is this again? – One possible use of dreams is to link two characters, with the players’ permissions of course. But if the players assent, think of all the possibilities of having two characters linked through their dreams. Why are they linked? How did it happen? If it was forced on them by a third party, is that entity also linked to both of them? What if shared dreams are the common link between all the party members? This certainly expands the usefulness of dreams as a method of conveying information, or adding a different facet to the threat facing the adventurers.

Good? Bad? I’m the one in your head – As we have touched on, not everyone who worms their way into your dreams is going to have your best interests at heart. Perhaps the villain the party is working their way towards confronting has found their way into the sleeping minds of one or more characters. What sort of trouble could they cause? Misleading prophetic dreams, nightmares, attacks on the mind, all these are on the table. Even just making sure that characters get no sleep could be enough to disrupt the heroes and keep them out of the villains business during waking hours. Consider also, that none of this has to be antagonistic. If the villain truly believes in what they are doing, maybe they appear in dreams to try and sway the characters to their point of view. After all, they have a captive audience until the character wakens…

So these are just some ideas around dreams and how to use them in your game. From these I am sure you can find specific ways to introduce dreams and dreamscapes to your campaign. After all, why should the fun stop just because a character is sleeping?

RPGaDay, Catching Up!

As always, we come to the part of RPGaDay that I play a bit of catch up. So enjoy, and if you want to chat about anything I’ve written here, find me on Twitter!

Day Ten – Focus

This is something I might write a longer article about, because there has been some interesting discussion around focus at the gaming table. We used to have (and in some case, still have) this picture of the Ideal Gaming Table where all the players are laser focused on the Game Master, their attention never wavering.  But that’s a very neurotypical view of things. In reality, with things like ADHD as an example, a player may need to play games on their phone in order to be able to focus on what the Game Master is saying, or doodle, or have their headset in. Other players may need to do other things, but it doesn’t mean their interest in the game is any less. So before you lay down some draconian table etiquette rules, make sure to have a conversation with your players to figure out what everyone needs.

Day Eleven – Examine

It’s important to examine the games we play, because there are a great many holdovers from the early days of gaming that are highly problematic. They were problematic then, as well, but we were all still euphoric from the New Car Smell of the TTRPG hobby to call them out back then. We don’t have that same excuse today. There have been enough new editions of games that we can’t use the ignorance excuse anymore. The folx traditionally marginalized in our hobby have told the rest of us what the problems are. It is now up to the rest of us to get the work done fixing our shit. Or you have to finally admit, out loud for everyone to hear, that you actually didn’t care about the problems to begin with. I’d prefer the former, but the latter at least lets me know I don’t have to waste any more time listening to you.

I was involved in a thread the other day where someone posited (and I’m paraphrasing) that just because someone wrote problematic things back in the early days, does not then mean that person is problematic themselves. I disagree. Games come from people, they don’t just appear fully formed on an altar in some Temple of Games somewhere (by the way, if there is a Temple of Games I need to know now, so I can retire to that monastery). That means games contain, at their core, what the game writer believes. So if a game is problematic, it’s because the views of the game writer are problematic as well. Now, I’m willing to concede that people can change. And when you consider that many of these games were written two, three, even four decades or more ago, there has been plenty of time for those writers to have grown and learned better. But if I’m seeing the same type of writing coming from those people now, or I see them defending that earlier work and telling marginalized gamers that they are wrong? Nope. You’ve just shown me that the hobby has outgrown you. And while I can be sad about that, I don’t excuse it. Our hobby continues to grow because we examine these problems and learn to fix them. If someone can’t or won’t do that then we need to move on from them.

Day Twelve – Friendship

This isn’t a new or original idea, but TTRPGs have been responsible for more new friends, as well as long lasting friendships, than anything else in my life. I’m told that talking to someone is a key component in making friends, and as an introvert, talking to anyone is a job of work. But games give me something in common with the other folks around the table, a starting point for conversation. If we do nothing else, I will talk to and about their characters for the entire game. I may even learn their actual names, but probably not before I learn their character names. To this day there are folks I know only as their character name, and I’m lucky that they accept it as an eccentricity when I run into them at cons. I will learn them eventually, I swear.

Day Thirteen – Mystery

I’ve said it before, but my favourite game for playing out mysteries is Trail of Cthulhu. It has some wonderful rules around problem solving and finding/using clues that make the investigation part of an adventure as satisfying as the combat and roleplaying portions. I would even go so far as to say that they promote good roleplaying. The big reason I love Trail of Cthulhu is that it solves a problem common with other games not directly created for mystery and investigation; that failing a die roll can stall the players. Of course you can find work-arounds, and in fact I pull heavily from Trail to house rule other games so I can avoid that issue. I highly encourage you to pick up the core book and check it out, if you haven’t already. I’d also recommend the setting book, Bookhounds of London, as an excellent first setting to play with those rules. I consider it to be the perfect setting to highlight the Trail of Cthulhu ruleset. It also speaks to my nerdy, bookworm heart.

Day Fourteen – Guide

Besides the games themselves, probably my favourite part of TTRPGs is guiding new players as they enter the hobby. I love everything about dispelling confusion and anxiety for them, and giving them an excellent early gaming experience. I’m not going to go on an anti-gatekeeping rant here, because I have done that before. In short, gatekeeping is horseshit and anyone who plays games is a gamer. So as soon as you sit down and roll dice with me or anyone else, you are part of the hobby, and I want you to have the best time! Ask me questions, try things that scare you, play all the games! Welcome, and I hope you find as much joy in TTRPGs as I have.

Day Fifteen – Door

Lately I have been thinking about ways to make doors more interesting in D&D. Too often the players get into a rut when they encounter doors. They quickly develop a checklist that usually runs something like: I listen at the door, do I hear anything? Is the door locked? I check for traps, is it trapped? This litany is divided up by the appropriate die rolls, and either they succeed or fail. But repetition becomes tedious, and I really want to find a way to spice up what is arguably the single most common encounter in all of D&D.

Part of this process for me is making the die rolls myself, instead of letting the players make them. That small change already adds some tension back into the encounter; if the player checks for traps and I tell them they don’t find anything, they don’t know if that’s the die roll or the absence of traps. While this is a good first step it still just makes doors a dice-rolling encounter. I want to find ways of making memorable door encounters, and I’m still puzzling that out. If you have ideas, please share them.

That’s it, all caught up! We’ll see you tomorrow for your regularly scheduled post.

RPGaDay 2019, Day 8 & 9: Obscure and Critical

Yesterday was a bad brain day so no post, but my migraine/depression is your gain with a twofer today. Enjoy!

Day Eight – Obscure

As I was building my current D&D campaign world, I had to make decisions as I went as to what things would be common knowledge and what would be obscure or specialized knowledge. I have always done this in my campaigns, even when using published campaign settings, because I think it is important that there be certain lore or knowledge that the characters have to find for themselves. More than anything, I want the players to feel like their characters are discovering hidden secrets of my campaign, things that only they might be privy to.

It was especially important to delineate common and hidden or obscure knowledge, because my world had just gone through five hundred years of war followed by a cataclysm leading to almost five hundred years of devastation and isolation. I had to decide who knew what prior to the war, then figure out how the war affected that knowledge base. Once I had that I then had to decide how the cataclysm affected everything, and what happened to existing stores of lore when cities isolated themselves. But more, I also had to figure out who, if anyone, still knew the true history of the war, what actually happened to cause the cataclysm, and what happened to the Summer and Winter fey courts in all this.

But that’s good, it gives me a wonderful depth of history and secrets for my players to discover with their characters. In the one campaign, my players are already getting hints that the war may not have gone exactly as currently believed. Which then begs the question, why do folks believe it went a particular way, and who benefits from that belief? And does that affect anything now? Only time will tell.

That last is important, and for me it’s the hardest part of building all these secrets into my campaign: not spoiling everything to my players because I want them to see all the cool things I made. You’ll struggle with it, but I urge you to hold on and keep all those secrets until the players earn them. The payoff is so much more delightful and rewarding when they have worked for it, and can hold that precious bit of obscure lore in their hands. Not only for the work they’ve put in, but also because now they hold a secret, a secret they can now choose to share or keep. And that’s a wonderful gift to give your players, and your campaign.

Day Nine – Critical

I have done a fair amount of theory-crafting lately, but now I’m going to talk practical gaming matters. I have written before about pulling together my game room at home, and the process of making that a comfortable and inviting space. So let’s talk about what I think is the most critical aspect of that space. You might think I’m going to say the table, but in fact I think the most important thing for maximum comfort in the game room are the chairs.

A lot of focus goes to the table, and that’s good. It is important. It’s going to be the focal point of your gaming, plus hold all your stuff during a game, so by all means you need a decent one. But most game sessions fall into at least the 3-4 hour range, possibly longer (lucky devils!). If you’re going to be at the table that long you need good, sturdy, comfortable chairs. Otherwise, about an hour in your players are going to be more focused on their sore butts than they are the game, and that just won’t do.

I had to learn this the hard way. When I was first setting up the room I didn’t have a lot of cash, so I went with an inexpensive table and a half-dozen folding chairs. Those are sort of okay if you’re playing board games for shorter periods. But for longer games, or RPG sessions, they just don’t work. They’re uncomfortable, they aren’t very sturdy (and when you have big gamers coming to play, sturdy is important), and they’re uncomfortable. Yes I said that twice, because comfort is key!

So where am I looking for better chairs? Two places I’m checking out, and I highly recommend you do the same. The first is any charity thrift shop you have in your area. They often have furniture available, and this is a great way to grab four to six good dining room chairs cheaply. If you’re lucky the table that comes with them will also suit your needs, and then it’s wins all over! The second place I recommend checking out are architectural reclaim or reuse shops. These would be places that reclaim furniture from home and restaurant renovations, and sell them on. Usually a bit more expensive than a thrift shop. But the ideal chair, for me, is one of those very solid wooden chairs you find in steak houses and the like. They are definitely sturdy, and will sometimes also be padded, which should be considered a bonus but not essential at this point. There are ways to upholster the chairs later, so initially I just need six solid chairs I can trust to last for a long time.

I’m planning a shopping trip in the fall, so expect me to post pictures of what I am looking at and what I eventually choose. But for now, that is my one piece of critical advice for setting up your game room: don’t skimp on the chairs! 

RPGaDay 2019, Day Seven: Familiar

I love wizard’s familiars. They have been a staple of fantasy fiction for ages, and a part of TTRPG lore for as long as the hobby has existed. I love that the bookish, sometimes curmudgeonly, wizard has a cute(ish) little companion that follows them around. Occasionally they are even useful, though that doesn’t matter because in the hands of a talented player a familiar is a roleplaying gift.

And I especially like the way that the find familiar spell works in 5e. Instead of calling a passing animal to them, the wizard instead summons a spirit which takes the form of an animal, from an impressive range of choices. This spirit creature then allows the wizard to talk with it telepathically, see and hear using the familiar’s senses, and cast spells with a range of touch through the familiar. I especially like the restriction that familiars can’t take the attack action. Flavour-wise I think that’s an excellent choice, and the game certainly doesn’t need another animal companion added to the mix.

As much as I love familiars in 5e, however, I do house rule the spell a bit, both for ease of use, but also to give it a smidge more magical flavour and added utility at higher levels.

Changing the Familiar’s Form

As written, if you want to change your familiar’s form you have to recast the spell. That seemed a bit restrictive to me, as part of the usefulness and fun of having a creature I had formed out of spirit and magic would be changing its appearance and shape. In my game a wizard can change any aspect of the familiar’s appearance (colour, fur length, patterns and markings, and so on) as often as they like. Once per long or short rest, the wizard may change the form their familiar takes. This allows the wizard to have their familiar blend in better in specific situations, with the utility of changing it to a more useful form occasionally. And putting a once per rest limit on that last keeps it from being used for every little thing and turning it into a nuisance.

Expanding the List

I also don’t restrict the wizard to picking things off that list. I understand the traditional reasons for keeping the familiar as an animal, but I give wizards in my games the option to be as creative with the familiar’s form as they like, while keeping it within the general parameters of the suggested forms. But why shouldn’t a wizard fond of clockwork toys have a wind-up toy soldier as a familiar? Maybe your very young wizard has a stuffed animal familiar because it makes them feel safe.What about the wizard who was told, “You’ll study magic when pigs fly!”, and now has a flying piglet familiar just to spite everyone? It does take a little bit more discussion and work with the player to figure out how to make their familiar work, but I think it’s worth it in the end. And as a DM, all of this is a story and roleplaying goldmine.

Bigger and Better

Find familiar cast as a ritual allows me to find creative ways to expand the spell’s power, so that as they go up in level the wizards in my campaigns can use it to gain the benefit of more powerful familiars. In turn this lets me offer up magical creatures of all sorts for the wizard to draw upon, and makes it more summoning than conjuration. Instead of the wizard creating something out of spirit, they are instead calling a specific type of creature to serve as their familiar. This can give them very powerful familiars upon which to draw, but also carries extra cost and risk. Essentially what I’ve done is created higher level versions of find familiar, which increase the casting time and the cost of material components. You can see the different versions on this handy chart:

Spell Level

Casting Time (Hours) Cost in Gold Pieces Maximum CR of Familiar

First

1 10

As spell

Second

2 50 3

Third

4 250 6

Fourth

8 1000 8

Fifth

12 1500

10

Sixth 18 2000

12

Seventh 24 4000

16

Eighth 32 8000

18

Ninth 48* 16000*

20+

*Each CR above 20 will need four more hours of casting time and require another 1000 gp.

So wizards in my campaign can certainly just “buy off the rack” as it were, spending the time and gold listed to summon and bind more powerful familiars. But, if the wizard can provide me with situational additions to the casting ritual, I will allow them to bump down one level on one of either the Time or Cost tracks. In addition, if the wizard wants to remove or modify something in the base spell (allowing the familiar the attack action, for instance), the spell is bumped to the next highest casting level for each thing modified. If find familiar is cast at any level higher than first, the wizard must succeed on a caster level check with a DC of 8 + the maximum CR listed for that level, or the spell fails and the material components are wasted. Additionally, after a period of time equal to the CR of the creature in days, the wizard must again succeed on this check to keep the familiar bound. If the creature remains willingly the check is made at advantage, if the creature is unwilling the check is made at disadvantage. As well, the DC for checks on an unwilling familiar go up by 2 for each successive check.

Example: Florenia the Flamboyant really wants a riding peacock as a familiar. We talk it out and decide that the best fit is a re-plummaged griffon, which is CR 2. Great! Florenia can spend a couple of hours and 50 gp and they will have the prettiest familiar mount around. But with something the size of a griffon, Florenia really wants it to be able to protect itself from unruly creatures which might try to steal its tail feathers. She wants to change the base spell to allow their familiar the attack action. This bumps the ritual to a third level casting; now it’s going to take four hours to cast and cost 250 gp in material components. Florenia has the time, but isn’t quite that flush with cash at the moment. Not to fret, though, a little research has revealed that giant peacocks (griffons) can’t get enough of the heartfruit. As luck would have it, Florenia did a favour for a fruit merchant a while back, and can collect on that favour in the form of several baskets of precious heartfruit. As the DM I decide that is an acceptable addition to the ritual ingredients, and Florenia’s player decides to reduce the Cost back down to that of the second level casting. With the heartfruit, 50 gp in other components, four undisturbed hours, and a successful DC 14 caster level check, Florenia will soon be showing off her peacock! 

Now you might look at that chart and say, “Brent, you great doofusarus, why would I ever want my already powerful wizard, who can cast ninth level spells, to also have a CR 20+ familiar?!” First of all, mean. Second, why would you not want that? Think of all the roleplay and story potential involved in getting to a point where the wizard can even cast that spell. Assuming they do nothing to reduce its level, it’s going to take two days and 16,000 gp to pull off. Players of even the highest level characters are going to get sweaty-palmed about spending that much money all at once. And then there is the casting time to consider. Forty eight hours is a lot of levels of exhaustion! Which maybe wouldn’t matter except for, oh yeah, that pesky caster level check at the end! So now what?

Maybe the wizard has to convince the party cleric, with whom they don’t get along, to join them in the ritual and help them deal with the exhaustion. Roleplaying! Or the wizard has to research ways of making the spell easier to cast, speaking with sages, reluctant librarians, and delving into musty stacks of books. Roleplaying! The wizard has to want this big nasty familiar for a reason, and maybe that reason doesn’t want the wizard to have it. Is someone sent to “take care” of the wizard, through bribery, duplicity, or violence? Story and roleplaying!

Everything about this situation is fecund with opportunities for roleplaying, adventure, and ridiculous good times! And all from one little first level spell. That’s value for money, that is!

I hope you’ll consider these house rules for your campaign. If you do, drop me a line to let me know how it works for you. And do you have different house rules for familiars in your campaign? I’d love to hear about that as well.