Thursday, November 27, 2014

Product Spotlight: Old School Monster Classes

As of November 26th, I put the finishing touches on my latest book and uploaded it to the online stores.  Right now you can get it immediately on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow, and hopefully Paizo and D20 Pathfinder SRD in the near future.  Old School Monster Classes is a Labyrinth Lord-compatible supplement containing 14 new classes, all of them based off of existing iconic and mythological monsters such as the gnoll and the harpy.

I had the idea for quite a while, since last year in fact, but I never began the project proper until I was in the middle of designing my Playable Monsters supplement for Pathfinder Role-Playing Game.  There are many problems with monster PCs in a lot of D&D games: for one, lots of folk play them as-is with abilities intact, even if said abilities would be disruptive to the core of the game; who needs to adventure when the genie can conjure precious metals at will?  Another is due to the game's roots where monsters were primarily adversaries lurking at the edges of civilization, guarding treasure to be claimed and laying siege to villages.  It's no surprise that most monstrous beings are attacked on sight in most campaigns, and don't really have a lot of cultural detail in comparison to dwarves, elves, and halflings beyond the whims of individual homebrewers.

My two primary objectives for designing this book were to make the iconic traits of these 14 monsters in line with existing spells and class features at reasonable levels, and to give them interesting societies as fodder for role-play material and reasons for why they wouldn't be villified by the entire world.  Playing as a monster might be fun and nifty, but if their society is one-dimensional and uninteresting and one-dimensional it does not become a very attractive option.  Look at my previous post on my blog about gnolls: there's still room for the raider archetype, but I expanded their role beyond that one facet.  

Although this book might not be for everyone, the idea of playing as monsters for a change is a very popular idea in D&D which is sadly under-used in sourcebooks these days.  If you're an avid fan of B/X D&D and its retroclones, consider checking out my work and seeing if it's a good match for you and your gaming group.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

DMing Tools: the Bioware-Style Journal

DMing Tools: the Bioware-Style Journal

Image Courtesy of Moby Games

It's inevitable that the Dungeon Master of any long-running game will accumulate a healthy assortment of notes, plans, and bookmarks for their regular sessions.  Now that I've been using Roll20 recently, I have a much easier time organizing and saving relevant parts.

Going to video games, the RPGs Bioware is famous for producing (notably Dragon Age and Mass Effect series) include a "Journal" (or Codex) choice in the options menu.  Basically how it works is that whenever your character encounters some new bit of lore, be it the contents of a book in a musty library or the first encounter with a species of monster, the relevant data is added to the Journal.  What's great about it is that knowledge is gained incrementally: you won't get everything related to Elven culture when you visit one of their settlements, and the entries update depending on events which take place in the game.  Sometimes the journal entries will be in-character, with the entry on wolves written by a scribe discussing superstitions and folkore surrounding them.  Combine this utility with alphabetical entries organized by subject, and you have an easily-searchable journal full of knowledge that is fun to read.

So how can this be applied to traditional table-top games?  Well, for one, every Roll20 campaign comes with its own message board to be filled with the posts of the DM and players.  For my Arcana High campaign, I searched the chat archives and campaign journal entries when I had some free time, going over the major characters, nations, religions, and compiling them in the posts of a new thread.  I kept the entries simple, usually no more than 1 or 2 sentences.  Like my earlier style when doing "skeleton settings," I only made entries for characters, places, and events the characters encountered or heard about in the game sessions.  That way the journal's growth is organic instead of feeling like a huge infodump on the players.

Even with this brief information of a sentence or two per entry, it has been immensely helpful for my players to keep track of things.  Sometimes we can't always make it to the game, or the DM gets sick.  Simply trusting people to remember things, even important characters and events, isn't always so simple when we have real life getting in the way.

As for those not using Roll20 or other online games, compiling a "codex" to e-mail to players who ask for it can be a great idea as well.  I recommend to send them only the relevant bits they ask for in case the journal gets quite long.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adding Culture: Gnolls, the syncretic nomads

Adding Culture 2: Gnolls, the syncretic nomads

For my latest work (and for my upcoming OSR version) I designed player character-friendly variants of existing iconic monsters in Pathfinder, such as the giant and the medusa.  Many 3rd Party Pathfinder books which provide playable races create new options as opposed to drawing upon existing fantasy archetypes.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it always felt weird to ignore the myriad creatures which already exist in the Monster Manuals.

When designing new monster PCs for Playable Monsters Vol. 1, I came upon the gnolls. Traditionally they weren't much different than orcs: evil, might makes right society, enslaved those weaker than themselves, live in the wilderness, etc.  As part of redesigning their society, I decided to  make them nomadic, people born and raised among the plains, badlands, and deserts of the world.  Eventually their far-flung migrations gave them a distinct edge in trading rare goods, and many gnolls took up the art of mercantilism.

Gnoll clans also resorted to raiding in lean times, but they tended to restrict their theft towards stealth at night to avoid sparking violence and blood feuds.  As long as they took only what was necessary, gnoll clans tolerated this as a necessary evil.  Of course, this does not always end ideally, and a lot of folk who might otherwise welcome their trade fear them in times of drought and famine.

Due to their travels, gnolls interact with all manner of cultures, and as a result they learn of more faiths than sedentary villagers would.  Gnolls acknowledge the existence and influence of many deities and spirits, and often pay homage to local shrines and temples so that the deity of the region's people would grant them safe passage.  Bouts of good fortune might even turn their one-time show of respect to long-time worship, and the pantheons of many gnoll clans are a widespread combination of nature spirits, elemental entities, and deities of many races and cultures who line up well with the clan's traditions.

Note: Regarding gnoll religion, I always found the choice of limiting monsters to their own deity or pantheon odd in settings where there are so many deities of different portfolios.  As many people of campaign settings pay homage to deities in meaningful areas of their lives (like blacksmiths praying regularly to the god of the forge) and true monotheism is very rare, it would be natural for humanoids to adopt more deities into their religious rituals over time.

If this take on gnolls sounds cool and interesting, then I suggest that you check out Playable Monsters on RPGNow, or Drive-Thru RPG.  Both have full-sized previews to give you a taste of things to come.

Quasar Knight Enterprises: What I Write and What I Do

I've always wanted to be a writer since I was a kid.  From Dungeons & Dragons to the Final Fantasy series, RPGs served as ample fodder for both fond memories and engaging imaginary worlds and stories.  Three years ago I started writing reviews, homebrew materials, and the occasional article on the message boards I frequented which shared an interest in science fiction and fantasy games.  After playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder for many years, I decided to get writing on a small project in late 2013 as part of a creative writing thread on the Something Awful RPG subforum.

It was a rough start.  I had to get legal advice about the OGL to make sure I properly understood its conditions.  My computer broke down after the first month, and I had to manually extract the files to recover what I lost (thereafter teaching me to save multiple copies of everything on cloud storage and external hard drives).  I was a newcomer to self-publishing and had to juggle the writing process with finding stock art, setting up shop on Drive-Thru, Paizo, and other places, and doing the formatting myself.

After several months and a rocky start, I ended up with a finished product, the Abstract Thief, in early June, and Quasar Knight Enterprises was born.  Once that first book was released I found it easier going forward, for in 3 weeks I had another product out!  Ever since I've been working and releasing one-man projects around a monthly rate.  I've been sticking with what I know so far, which includes Pathfinder and OSR rulesets, but over time I hope to broaden my horizons by writing material for other popular games and maybe eventually my own.

When designing new projects, I always build upon potentially popular ideas which remained more or less untouched in 3rd Party Pathfinder and other OSR products.  There are boatloads of sourcebooks containing new feats, but Nice Things for Fighters was intended to appeal to those players upset with the imbalance between martial and spellcaster classes.  Death to Alignment was a rules variant which combed through existing feats, classes, magic items, and spells and redesigned them for gaming groups who wanted to remove alignment as a game mechanic (but wanted to still keep demons and paladins).  In a fandom where the number of 3rd Party Pathfinder products on Drive-Thru is 4,000 and still growing by the month, it's nigh-mandatory to make work which is original and stands out to get noticed.

My advice to would-be publishers and writers in the RPG industry is this: the first step is often the hardest.  The writing, the research, the initial fears of dipping your toes into the sea of products.  But once you get in the water, that vast ocean will seem a lot smaller.  And as a writer there's no better feeling in the world than when you put the finishing touches on your current project, uploading it to the Internet, and seeing people buy it to use in their home games.

So that's my story.  I hope that you enjoyed it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Benefits of a Skeleton Setting

The Benefits of a Skeleton Setting

A lot of folks use established worlds and campaign settings.  At their best, they serve as a toolbox of interesting locations and characters with minimal prep work.  I have many fond memories of gaming in Freedom City, Oerth, and the Sixth World, but in recent months I've taken to creating my own worlds.

I'm sure that there's an already established term for this, but my method of homebrew is to leave as much of the setting unexplored if possible, filling out the immediate factors when they become relevant and building off of my player's ideas.  I still have a lot of detail when it comes to preparing adventure material, but my setting comes to life as I go along and come up with new ideas instead of filling things out ahead of time.  Instead of a fully-fledged world, organs and all, a minimalist setting is a skeletal framework; both are structurally sound, but the latter has more room to add on and customize with minimal fuss and challenge of popular conceptions.

One of my current gaming sessions is a Pathfinder setting where the PCs are all students at a magic academy, but who are secretly masked avengers who go out and fight bad guys.  I have a central city as a home location (Brancean) and the backdrop of a wider country (Aleria), but aside from that other lands are referenced via second-hand information and backstory.

When I first created my game, half the players were overall newcomers to Pathfinder in general, but they set about making their characters unhindered by the lack of a fully-fledged framework, adding what seemed right at the time without the GM filling them in on things.  One player created a gnome illusionist, Syrasi Tumblebarrow, the latest in a long line of talented magicians.  She was ecstatic to come to Highstone Academy, not just for their stellar reputation, but also to explore the art of necromancy, a taboo subject in Gnomish culture.

Another player chose to play a dwarf, Ritti Dragonslayer, whose people worship the sun deity who is instead known as an entity of fire, justice, and war to those living in the Underdark.  The player also wanted her character to be like the dwarves of Discworld, where gender isn't considered important except for the purposes of reproduction and more or less dress identically and all have beards.

A third player wanted his PC to come from a prominent and amoral noble family, the Von Kleists.

Instead of checking up on setting lore or flipping through sourcebooks for example material to best fit their characters, these factors were decided out of the blue.  Far from being a hindrance, the bare details of setting culture allowed for more freedom for us to create our own shared world.

It did not stop at character creation, either.  I relied upon the in-character talk of the PCs to get further ideas.  While the PCs were searching Brancean's literal undercity for a dark folk priest, Ritti remarked upon the oddity of the concept of training people to become priests.  It was but a minor remark not expanded upon at the time, but it provided potential fodder for future ideas.  Did divine magic come intuitively to dwarves, then?  Where the champions of deities and spirits picked directly by their patrons, with no trials, tests, or ceremonies necessary?  Maybe all dwarves were versed in spiritual matters, making the concept of a religious occupation unnecessary?

The idea of an Undercity below Brancean was also a new idea at the time.  When designing my city I did not care to detail every neighborhood or important person, saving those things for later and building off of earlier notes.  As a person whose free time is consumed by writing future work projects and adventure ideas, I don't always have the leisure of designing settings from the ground up, but I crave the openness of building my own world.

My own designs of a "skeleton setting" were built off of the sandbox nature of OSR games, but combined with the collaborative world-building of 13th Age where the backstories of players also determine the features about the world.  It's worked very well for me, as it combines the best features of many design decisions.