Wednesday, June 29, 2022

An Alternative Humanity in Vampire: the Masquerade

Not dead, just busy. I finished another year of college, finally decided my major, read a very weird book and enjoyed it more than I can explain, have cultivated a wonderful relationship, and I've been running some one-shots in Cyberpunk RED. My only regret is that the Ptolus campaign collapsed a few months ago due to my Covid, then another player's Covid, then exams, and then entropy. It went for about 13 sessions, I'll probably write up a reflection on how I failed to execute on my vision for it.

I happened to listen to this video about Vampire: The Masquerade's bloodlines and it actually got me excited and thinking about VtM. "Golly!" I thought. "Shapeshifting Gangrels living as sea monsters? Packs of identical Agent Smith vampires that can freely shift body parts between each other? Just straight up gargoyles? Those do sound like elements of a fun game!" I went looking at the VtM 5th edition book, which I'd taken a shallow peek at before, in case any of it grabbed me. 

Or, you know, that other thing vampires do

Unfortunately not. Partly it's the book's layout and presentation, which is certainly moody (I like the opening pages which depict in-universe documents accumulating on a desk, clearly differentiated from the actual rulebook) but bloated with self-indulgent terminology. It's also the fact that the book isn't made for people like me (I was a theater kid, yes, but not goth). The underlying assumptions of modern storygames chafe, and I'm quite turned off by the book's attempts to mix the banal and modern into the grand and dark, like Camarilla members apparently saying the word 'lol' in secret communiques or one vampire referring to themselves as 'a fucking creature of the night.' 

I get what it's going for, I like the grotesque as much as anyone else, but there's more bathos than pathos here, and when vampires sound like teenagers (or young adults. Or twitter users. Or low-rate US genre fiction writers) I'm not inclined to feel horror, terror, or pity. 

I also recalled some posts by The Alexandrian and Yora (Spriggan's Den) about Vampire, specifically what a 'game of personal horror' is and how game structures, especially the Humanity mechanic, work, or fail to work, into it.

Vampire depends on a downward spiral of degeneration, the constant threat of falling to the Beast which makes a mockery of eternal life. In Vampire 1e, according to Alexander, this intent was undermined by the Humanity mechanic having very few things hanging on it, being triggered effectively at the GM's discretion, and being set up to plateau at the player's preferred level of behavior. I'm not sure how Vampire 5e's system holds up in comparison; the Humanity system has a few things hanging off it, mostly related to Blush of Life, the ability which allows vampires to appear human, and the Stains and Remorse systems seem to apply more pressure, even though the setup does seem to be the opposite of a slippery slope; the less Humanity you have, the more difficult it is to lose Humanity. 

Even so, the 5e book states that "Humanity only shifts in response to actions with major story significance." Which is kinda the opposite of what I would want for a game of personal horror. It centers the major, climactic decisions of the players, rather than the small and apparently meaningless decisions, or the slow grind of entropy. 

Hell, looking across the way to Cyberpunk RED, which I've run a few sessions of, the Humanity mechanic there serves its intended gameplay purpose much better. It's a rating out of 100, with an original maximum set by your Empathy stat, with both the current score and maximum score (usually to a lesser degree) decreased with every piece of cyberware you install. It's one of the very things which gives CPR its 'cool' factor, cybernetic enhancement, which degrades Humanity, a constant temptation to trade it for power, and the results on gameplay are immediate through its penalty to Empathy and all rolls made based on it. 

Compared to that immediacy, granularity and clarity, Vampire's Humanity system doesn't cut it. Still, I don't think a straightforward conversion. with every additional Discipline resulting in lost Humanity, would be effective.

I've never run or played in a Vampire game, so take this with the same bucket of salt you should always give any critique of a game system by one who hasn't played it RAW, but here's a little daydream about an alternate system, with a different vision for the game. 

The New Humanity

One thing I do like in the V5 Humanity system is the Touchstones element, "humans who represent what you used to value in life, someone who represents or seems to incarnate one of your Convictions. If lost, the conviction is lost as well."

That's what I like to see! A vampire in the early stages of their undeath clinging to the people around them only to gradually lose them, like sand slipping through their fingers! A few problems with this though, there's too few of them. RAW, characters start with as many Touchstones as Convictions, that is to say between one and three. Less sand slipping through your fingers, more like very large marbles. 

They're also not directly related to Humanity, they're a way to maintain your Convictions, which guide character behavior and can sometimes reduce Stains gained and thus Humanity lost. Not my idea of elegance. So, here's the idea.

When a neonate is first infected with the blood of Caine, when they first brush up against their new bestial nature, their soul recoils. No matter how depraved they were in life, the abyss stretching before them is deeper and darker than they could have ever imagined before, and they're sent screaming back to shore. But there is no more shore, only pebbles. The embraced vampire grabs onto whatever they most valued in life as a desperate defence mechanism. These are often people, family and friends, idols, mentors, students, but just as often can be other things. Institutions, ideas, ideals. If the newborn vampire was especially lonely and not very high-minded in life, wealth and property will have a prominent place there as well, the hard-won fortune and the family land. 

Let the players get abstract with this, they'll have the space for it. I think the right number would be either ten or twenty. Ten would allow you to work directly off the V5 Humanity list, twenty would allow you to incorporate the number of remaining touchstones into roll-under Humanity checks. A d100 list of examples would be useful. Touchstones, or maybe we'll call them 'Remembrances' or something, are linked directly to your humanity score, and cannot be switched out or replaced once lost.

And you will lose them.

They will be threatened, and since you start out with a bunch the GM can attack different ones without the game becoming repetitive. Trying to protect them is a constant struggle, and one ultimately doomed to failure, no matter which ones you pick or how stable they might appear to be. There will always be some contrivance ("my touchstone is the Notre Dame cathedral." "My touchstone is the environment." "My touchstone is the reliability of the scientific enterprise" well sunuvabitch). That contrivance is straight up built into the game's expectations and procedure, the GM always has an active list of player touchstones being targeted. 

God hates vampires, and the GM is His willing instrument at this table. 

A careful and competent vampire could go for a few decades before the living people on the list go out, claimed by old age even if they're protected from all other harm, and turning them into vampires or ghouls won't help. The more durable or transcendent ones will last a while longer, your family name, your nation, your ideology, your home. Eventually, an elder vampire is reduced to monomaniacal, obsessive focus on maintaining a handful of things whose relation to their original life is tenuous, their wealth, their influence, their power. They will do literally anything to protect these, more jealous of their hoards than any dragon, because if that last string is severed, they'll fall, and there's no rock bottom in oblivion.

This would depart slightly from the V5 expectations, where most neonates start out with Humanity 8, and having Hum 10/10 representing saintly behavior with according bonuses, but I actually prefer this. The idea that newborn vampires start out being almost indistinguishable from humans, the use of their powers being totally unnecessary to maintain habits like digestion, sex and daytime functioning, and slowly decay from there, fits my idea of a Vampire game much better.

What do you think? Have you played Vampire? Leave your comments below, and as always, have a good week.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Read This: Spacetrawler the Webcomic

Spacetrawler was a webcomic which ran from 2010 to 2013, featuring a cast of humans abducted by a galactic revolutionary group to free the Eebs, a species of telepathic technologists, from slavery. It was primarily comedic, and leveraged that to deliver some quite effective drama later in its run. Explosions, blaster fights, dismemberment and alien lovemaking abound. 


I quite enjoyed it when I read it years ago. I remembered and went back to it recently, and was surprised to find it actually continued in 2016 with a second series, and then a third starting in 2019 which is ongoing. 

If you're a fan of sci-fi webcomic, especially if you were previously a reader of Schlock Mercenary, you'll enjoy this. It takes its premise in an interesting direction, and rereading the original chapters knowing the ending was still quite enjoyable. 

I also find that its framing device, and the montage in which the human characters are 'recruited' might be a fun way to open a similar sci-fi game. Each player character starts out in their own part of the world, have to deal with a mundane challenge, then get shanghaied by aliens, or possibly go along willingly. Only on the spaceship do they come together. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Julius Wavestone Keeps Killing!


'The Shipreck' J. M. W. Turner


Praise for Julius Wavestone Keeps Killing:

"... an absolute DELIGHT ... better than the vast majority of S&W stuff I’ve reviewed!"
-Bryce Lynch

As a longtime tenfootpole reader, I jumped at the chance to submit an entry for Bryce's Wavestone Keep adventure contest, which just got reviewed today. The short format led me to really test how far I could push brevity without compromising creativity, evocative description and sound mechanics. The end result totaled 3 pages, one of which was a (very poorly) hand-drawn map, with 9 rooms, a bit of background and some unique magic items. I once again used Melan's formatting for Castle Xyntillan. Maybe I should expand my horizons and try to actually innovate something next time. 

It looks like I did manage to make it too short; Bryce thinks I could have added a sentence or two to each room description, and expanded the introduction with rumors/omens, more background, as well as mannerisms and roleplaying tips for some characters and some more foreshadowing and buildup for the final room. The rooms also started verging on the setpiecey side, which I'm not too broken up about. 

Overall I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. You can pick up the pdf at the bottom of the review here

For the future:

My habit with the description of each room, before bullet points, is to make it short enough that I could read it off verbatim or almost verbatim as though it were boxed text, while hiding the GM knowledge in the bullets. Maybe a better format in the future would split that opening description into 'this can be read aloud without dragging on or revealing secret info' and 'this is description for the GM'? I'm not sure how to format that effectively. I might just be reinventing boxed text. 

I still need to work on my traps, which feel by far the weakest part to me. It just seems they have so much less dimensionality than monsters, NPC interaction and treasure. Justifying mechanical traps especially seems very difficult outside a deliberately constructed dungeon, and magical traps beggar the imagination just as often. Maybe I should expand my conception of 'trap' to include more environmental effects and challenges, rather than an obstacle created intentionally? Do let me know any advice. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Secret Jackalope: Rare Bugs and Spiders and their Uses

Ro-Man! over at Multiverse of Terror has requested: Rare bugs and spiders and their dangers/uses

Excerpts from "Creepy-Crawlies and You: A Perspicacious Wizard's Guide to Practical Entomo-Arachnology"


The Greater Doom Weevil

Much despised by farmers is the lesser weevil, scourge upon crop and soil. Yet more despised is its rare and powerful relative, the Greater Doom Weevil. The antennae of these colossal beetle-like creatures reach to the height of a man's shoulder, their shell is glossy and slippery and as fit a suit of armor as any forged. And their hunger far exceeds that of their swarming little cousins. 

The reader may protest that the Greater Doom Weevil is no more than another oversized (possibly magically enhanced) pest, a beast to be exterminated like so many giant ants, and giant wasps, and giant locusts. What warrants its inclusion in a collection of rare and wondrous creepy crawlies?

Beyond its gross physical abilities, the Doom Weevil is notable for its prophetic properties. To those suitably inclined, the preserved innards of such a beast are unexcelled for the purpose of haruspicy, superior even to the guts of an albino lamb. Its entwined antennae produce excellent dowsing rods, its glittering eyes produce extraordinary, multifaceted black crystal balls. 

This divinatory power is possessed of the being in life as well, to the detriment of those who would hunt it. The Weevil has been known to pronounce exact and correct prophecies about those in its presence, though it possesses no faculties of humanoid communication in other situations, or perhaps simply chooses never to use them. These prophecies are uniformly damning to their subjects, most commonly consisting of loss of wealth and property, ill luck in romance, and grievous injury. They will continue to speak these prophecies if the subject does not depart forthwith, and they do not cease to be accurate or horrible. Our thoughts remain with the late Professor Gilliwig, God rest his soul. 


The Anatolian Hair Spider

A relative of various species of burrowing arachnids, the dime-sized Anatolian Hair Spider seeks out coiffures as its preferred habitat. Note that it is not wild, but feral; the nobility of the Ottoman Empire formerly employed tame spiders as living fashion statements, accessorizing the spiders with particular hairdos and outfits. For nearly a century, no society woman would be caught dead without a little crawler of her own racing about on her head. The Anatolian is noted for a highly concentrated venom, which though insufficient to cause much damage to a human, retains a dormitive potency, and can put its wearer to sleep at short notice. 

This trait was much beloved of its owners, as it provided ready escape from dull conversation. However, after an unfortunate incident where the mistress of the Pasha Selim fell asleep under the spider's venom during his Excellency's poetry-recital, the Anatolian Hair-Spider rapidly fell out of court fashion. Extant varieties are not wild, but feral. They are attracted to perfumes and large headdresses, and woe befalls the soldier whose crested helmet has become a lair for such creatures. Once attached to a head, the spider is loath to leave, unless the head is shaved clean or chased off with a specialized spray (its recipe now sadly lost). 

After an Anatolian Hair Spider to a new, hirsute host, 1:6 each hour that the spider's bite induces sleep, with 1HD per spider. Many spiders have been known to inhabit the same head, but only over short periods of time, as they will eventually battle with one another for territorial supremacy. They are also excellent at maintaining hair health and eating ticks and fleas. 


The Jade Locust

Folklore tells of a young girl, sent out by her mother to find food, who instead discovered a colony of locusts in the process of devastating the local crops. However, she noticed that they left behind molted shells of pure jade. She brought the shells, and no small number of the locusts, back to her mother, who reprimanded the girl for bringing back such meager insects. Nevertheless, over her daughter's protestations, she consumed them. 

That night, a whole swarm of angry jade locusts erupted from her body and puppeted her dead limbs like an automaton. This was the beginning of the rule of the immortal Locust Empress. 

Though few today grant credit to such a dramatic myth, the properties of the Jade Locusts are not exaggerated. They do indeed secrete jade dust, and leave behind delicate shells when they molt. And likewise is their consumption a deadly and dangerous affair, as the locust can survive all but the most thorough mastication and retaliate in kind from the inside. Intense pain and sickness precede death, and if the body is not cleansed and burned swiftly, a whole colony will erupt from the body, which soon comes to resemble a mummy studded with mineral wealth. 

The gentle reader may be encouraged to capture a population of such creatures and maintain a farm, by which they could possess an ever-bountiful supply of precious jade. I will not seek to dissuade, except to say that it has long been attempted and rarely succeeded for any length of time, due to the locust's strange migratory patterns. A population may happily stay in captivity for years at a time, but on some inauspicious day will seek to escape to the outside world, prioritizing escape over all other drives, soon leading them to die unless released. 

In such periods, occurring no more than eight times in a century and no less than once, the world's entire population of Jade Locusts migrates to the far east, and when it returns it is much diminished. Tales of their ultimate destination and purpose are many and specious, but one commonality exists among many of the least fictitious: the area in which they congregate is the barren wasteland surrounding an ancient peak, within which is rumored to lie the final resting place of the Locust Empress, whose immortality was underestimated by heroes of yore. 

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I hope this was to your liking, Ro-Man! Until next time, have an excellent week.

The Truth Behind the Jackalope and Those Who Hunt the Elusive ...
HAIL THE JACKALOPE! IA! IA!

Monday, March 28, 2022

Books for Dungeon Masters: The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker

I recently picked up the audio reading of J.A. Baker's The Peregrine on the recommendation of this blog. The book, published in 1967, won the Duff Cooper Prize the same year. It concerns the watching of peregrine falcons in England, and condenses ten years of observation into a readily digestible account. I doubt my readers have any interest in birdwatching (neither do I), but you should pick it up anyway for two reasons. 

First, the prose is excellent, especially in its use of creative metaphor and simile, and I believe any game master would benefit from reading it and picking up a couple turns of phrase. His description of landscapes, if cut down a bit, would make for spectacular opening narration. 

Second, it may inspire you to think more deeply of the behavior of natural and supernatural animals in your world. I imagine his words on the peregrine applied, to say, a giant eagle or even a roc, and the creature becomes so much more fantastical. What kind of lake might a giant raptor prefer in order to bathe itself, how does it spend its day in anticipation of a hunt, how does it play, how does it treat its kill? The thought of a creature that might strike from the blue, not out of territoriality or hunger, but out of cruel play, is so much more engaging. 

Of the country landscape and the nightjar, he wrote: 
"There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten. There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like green clouds. It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields. Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterise all sorrow. I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence, as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival. 
I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision. They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us. Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach. They race to oblivion. They're old before we have finished growing. 
The first bird I searched for was the nightjar, which used to nest in the valley. Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask. It's an odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the quiet sky. In the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage. If a song could smell, this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood. The sound spills out and none of it is lost, the whole wood brims with it. Then it stops, suddenly, unexpectedly, but the ear hears it still, a prolonged and fading echo draining and winding out of the surrounding trees. Into the deep stillness between the early stars and the long afterglow, the nightjar leaps up joyfully, it glides and flutters, dances and bounces, lightly, silently, away."

Of sparrow hawks:

"Sparrow hawks were always near me in the dusk, like something that I meant to say, but could never quite remember ... They lived a fugitive, guerrilla life. In all the overgrown, neglected places the frail bones of generations of sparrow hawks are sifting down now into the deep humus of the woods. They were a banished race of beautiful barbarians, and when they died they could not be replaced."

Of the peregrine:
"He re-enacts the whole process of learning to kill that he went through when he first left the eyrie. The first short, tentative flights, the longer, more confident ones, the playful mock attacks at inanimate objects such as falling leaves or drifting feathers, the games with other birds changing to a pretense or attack, and then to the first serious attempt to kill. True hunting may be a comparatively brief process at the end of this long re-enactment of the hawk's adolescence.
Hunting is always preceded by some form of play. The hawk may feint at partridges, harass jackdaws or lapwings, skirmish with crows. Sometimes, without warning, he will suddenly kill. Afterwards, he seems baffled by what he's done, and he may leave the kill where it fell and return to it later when he is genuinely hunting. Even when he is hungry, and has killed in anger, he may sit beside his prey for ten to fifteen minutes before starting to feed. In these cases the dead bird is usually unmarked, and the hawk seems to be puzzled by it. He nudges it idly with his bill. When blood flows, he feeds at once."
Of watching a peregrine dive:
"He hovered, and stayed still, striding on the crumbling columns of air, curved wings jerking and flexing. Five minutes he stayed there, fixed like a barb in the blue flesh of the sky. His body was still and rigid, his head turned from side to side, his tail fanned open and shut, his wings whipped and shuddered like canvas in the lash of the wind. He side-slipped to his left, paused, then glided round and down into what could only be the beginning of a tremendous stoop. There is no mistaking the menace of that first easy drifting fall. Smoothly, at an angle of fifty degrees, he descended; not slowly, but controlling his speed; gracefully, beautifully balanced. There was no abrupt change. The angle of his fall became gradually steeper till there was no angle left, but only a perfect arc. He curved over and slowly revolved, as though for delight, glorying in anticipation of the dive to come. His feet opened and gleamed golden, clutching up towards the sun. He rolled over, and they dulled, and turned towards the ground beneath, and closed again. For a thousand feet he fell, and curved, and slowly turned, and tilted upright. Then his speed increased, and he dropped vertically down. He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames. He became smaller and darker, diving down from the sun. The partridge in the snow beneath looked up at the black heart dilating down upon him, and heard a hiss of wings rising to a roar. In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky.

And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending, hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and show filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.

And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was the rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of his beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed."


I've only just started the book and immediately felt the need to share it with others; I have no higher recommendation. The audio version I picked up is read by David Attenborough, who brings a spectacular vocal quality to the text. Pick it up on your platform and venue of choice. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Sticky Alignments

With the release of the Elric of Melniboné audiobook, I've finally gotten into one of the Appendix N classics. It got me thinking of alignment, along with the 1e campaign I'm prepping for the day I can seduce my group to try the system.

With the usual caveats about applying game system thinking to linear narrative media, Elric is definitely aligned with chaos. The Duke of Hell Arioch is his patron after all, you're not getting more chaos-aligned than that. But at the same time, Elric isn't some crazy chaos cultist, nor, in the early stories I've read anyway, is he particularly evil. In Fortress of the Pearl he proves himself capable of great nobility and virtue, even though at the end of that story he gives in to vengeance and bloodthirst.  


I think the nature of alignment this implies is far more interesting than alignment as a category for character ethics and morality. I would rather conceive of one's alignment as faction membership, or meta-faction membership. Elric sold his soul to Arioch, but he's not a puppet, and his personal morality quite often conflicts with that of his hellish master. Alignment in this system would tell you where your soul is going, what forces have a hold on you, whether you give yourself over to them enthusiastically or only reluctantly. 

In other words, alignment is sticky. Whatever metaphysical or supernatural forces have a hold on your soul are fairly invested in keeping it, and a single action contrary to your alignment isn't going to cause a shift. Rather, an alignment shift would be the end result of a longer series of contrary behavior, or a conscious and very strong rejection of your alignment in favor of another. It's like being part of a club or organization (a religious organization is a good model here) which is quite keen to keep its members and is willing to forgive some minor transgressions and bring wayward souls back into the fold, but if you deliberately break with it, or if your actions so consistently break with policy that you're no longer worth the trouble to redeem, you'll be excommunicated, and fall into a new alignment more consistent with your behavior. 

Alignment then becomes something external to your character, something about their relationship with the world, and not just their internal state of mind. This goes a ways to making features like alignment language more sensical, and makes it easier to adjudicate things like alignment-based classes. Yes, rangers must maintain a Good alignment, but they're not going to lose their class just because some villain forced them into a situation where they were forced to make an immoral choice. I'd go as far as to say that sort of thing could never cause a paladin or ranger to fall, unless in the process they suffer a true crisis of faith and reject their alignment of their own will. 

Likewise for an assassin, which must maintain an Evil alignment, donating to charity or rescuing innocents or otherwise aiding in Good causes isn't in itself going to cause an alignment shift unless, 
a) the assassin is so personally moved that they question their own alignment and cast it aside, or 
b) the assassin so reliably acts against the interests of the forces of Evil that he is cast out.

In such a situation, losing the character class might mean that they actually lose those abilities, which implies some supernatural force granting the ability to assassinate and use poison (which doesn't make all that much sense to me) or else that the character is no longer willing to use such methods and the player thus loses access. This is a grey zone which doesn't fit as well with this conception of alignment, and which would require more detailed adjudication. 

It also gives a meaning to faction alignment or species alignment without being totalizing. The Melnibonéans are, one and all, Chaotic. This isn't because every single one has the same morality (the vast majority are cruel and do not heavily value life, but this results from the same causal factor rather than being the cause itself) but instead because they've come up in a culture which traditionally aligned itself very strongly with Chaos, and those assumptions and traditions remain even as they've weakened. There can be Melnibonéans who disapprove and want something different, who seek to align themselves with other forces, but because of the particular cultural dynamics summarized by that big C, they're very much the exception, like Elric.

And if you sell your soul, your alignment isn't changing, period. Elric has that big capital C on his sheet from the moment he makes his covenant with Arioch, and no matter what decisions he comes to about his own morality, or what lessons on justice he brings back to Melniboné, it's staying there. 

I think this is the understanding of alignment I'll use in my games going forward. How does this compare with how you use alignment at your table, if you use it at all?

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Enjoy this sort of post? Be sure to follow the blog and comment below. Until the next time, have a great week. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

Running the Campaign: The Stinger

A 'stinger' is a post-credits scene in a film or tv series. During my ongoing Ptolus campaign (we just had our 11th session and will be on break in a few weeks to come back in April, I just haven't kept up with session reports) I stumbled on a use for this in RPGs. I don't recall where I picked it up, but the idea is simple enough. At the end of a session, pull away from the PCs to show a short scene elsewhere, something the PCs do not know about. It is entirely meta-knowledge. 

An example: a few weeks ago, after the party defeated a district boss of the Killraven Crime League, Durant the Stink Man, I pulled away to crimelord Kevris Killraven's secret lair, where the remaining boss the party had let go was begging for his life. I wrote the whole thing out.
A woman sits on a majestic throne before a roaring fire, in a secret keep deep below the city of Ptolus. A portly dwarf, Dollin Ebonhome, the head of the Killraven operation in North Market, kneels at her side, bloody and beaten. 

"It was all Durant's idea! Please!"

The woman contemplates the fire, and sips mead from a goblet. "North Market was your turf, Dollin. Why was Durant acting as he pleased there, without you doing anything?" The goblet is made from a dwarven skull. 

"I just needed help making collections, he- he just got out of contro-" The snout of a gold-plated dragon pistol presses to his forehead.

"Tell me again how things got out of your control."

"MISTRESS KILLRAVEN!"

A bang fills the chamber. The dwarf's brains coat the rug. 

Behind the throne, something, something tall, with the long arms of an ape and the eyes of a goat and the teeth of a wood chipper leans down and slurps out the remains. 

"Get this to Korben in South Market. I'm sure he could use the ... motivation. Then convene the Pactlords for tomorrow night, and make an example of Durant's worms. We make our move on Godsday. And see to it that these mice don't make any more trouble."

The thing's shape melts and reforms like water, into a young woman with red hair and an impish smile—Tellith Herdsman. Then into a diminutive, wiry gnome—Anageo Quigg—and again into an elderly woman, the Administration building requisitions officer. On the table before them are four dossiers.

Jaiden Cunningham: ELIMINATION
Miranir: ELIMINATION
Dmitree: ELIMINATION
Lucien Chenier: ELIMINATION

This is much longer than I would recommend making a stinger, and now I no longer plan them out very much or write them out. Still, it worked. It gave the players some meta-information, namely that the other boss was dead, that the captured gangsters would be executed (as they found out the next morning from the newspapers) that the plot they'd been told about was ongoing, and they got a look at a secretive villain. Plus, it set up a new intermediate villain, the ogre mage mercenary KILLBOSS, who the party actually dealt with and defeated not long later, but at a high price. Without that setup, he would have just come out of nowhere, but with it, his sudden appearance in the middle of a dungeon made more sense; not to the PCs, but to the players.


This information was largely non-actionable, and I trust my players well enough not to go trying to pass this off as in-character knowledge. This allows me to build dread and tension without having to worry immediately about PC reaction. In last session's stinger, I told the party how, the very same night they were living it up in Castle Shard, rubbing shoulders with high society, a young, ragged woman in the slums was hunted and eaten by a black dragon. This is setting up yet another intermediate villain. I think that's where this technique shines best, like in the teaser at the end of a thriller series episode, taking the POV to the villain to set up the next challenge. 

Have you used anything like this? Do let me know below. 

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