Wednesday, 31 August 2016

How To Write a Good D&D Backstory

Backstories are controversial in D&D for a number of reasons. There’s a faint sniff of domineering DM about them – the gall that we understandably feel at the idea of being set homework when you’re a grown-ass adult* -but mostly there’s a persistent fear of not getting it right. Most people haven’t written a piece of creative writing since their own school-days and portraying one’s earnest efforts can be embarrassing: especially if you’re a good enough reader to know that what you’ve written is a load of absolute crap. On the other side of the table, the possibility of being faced with a Mary Sue character who had already achieved great things before Level 1 or the half-arsed hook-less “I’m-an-orphan-Orcs-killed-my-parents-fuck-off” story doesn’t get the creative juices flowing.

I’ve attached two backstories that I’ve written for characters this year. I don’t claim to be Shakespeare but they achieve the goals that a backstory should achieve: The Saga of Vegvisir and the backstory of Righteous-Fire-Scours-Clean-the-World. 

Luckily, you don’t have to be a master of the short story form to write a successful backstory, because the backstory is a fundamentally different form with a fundamentally different purpose. Whilst a story needs to be a self-contained work, and follow a definite dramatic question to a conclusion to be successful, the ‘dramatic question’ of a backstory needn’t ever be answered.

The ‘dramatic question’ of your backstory is why are you adventuring?. If you’re adventuring because your kingdom was taken over by a dragon, we don’t need a resolution: this is a conflict that is on-going, and it propels your character to believably partake in other adventures, allowing the story to emerge from play organically. Hopefully the resolution will come about in play.

In a traditional short story, a conflict emerges and is in some way resolved. This can be traditional (in Beowulf, the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel is based on Grendel’s desire to fucking eat people, it is resolved by being fucking killed) or non-traditional (in Good Country People, the conflict is between Joy Hopewell’s academic arrogance and the reality of her provincial setting, which is resolved when a nihilistic Bible Salesman steals her prosthetic leg and she is exposed as a bit of a cunt.) In a backstory, it need never be resolved, so the best form is a sort of vignette. Here’s the event, conflict, situation or impulse that made me an adventurer.

For Righteous-Fire-Scours-Clean-The-World, I needed to explain his religious calling and his eccentric name, and I did it by recounting only a few moments of his past that clarified much more than those moments. I don’t need to write ‘poverty pushed RFSCTW into the mercenary life for three years, and then he did this and then that and eventually he joined the Order and and and’ because those details are wholly unnecessary. Keep it short, keep it simple, and show don’t tell. For a model, remember that Ernest Hemingway managed to write an evocative story in just six words: “For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”  These six words are pregnant with implications -  a miscarriage, an emotional response, a surrender to childlessness – without explicitly expressing anything. (Hemingway achieves a similar effect in Hills like White Elephants, which is composed almost completely of dialogue.)

If you’re struggling for inspiration, there’s a lot to be said of borrowing from literature or history. The Saga of Vegvisir, my second backstory, is a pretty simple combination of mythic tropes: a monster, the rightful king being supplanted, the awakening of strange powers under stress. It would be wholly unoriginal aside from the tongue-in-cheek mock-heroic Norse-chic gauze placed over everything. Here are some great archetypal characters or real individuals to borrow from or steal: Inspector Javert, Aragorn, Ashoka, Macbeth, ‘the Bride’, Malcolm Reynolds, Gandhi, Boudicca, Anakin Skywalker, Beowulf, Locke Lamora, Buffy, Spiderman, Prospero, Scarlet O’Hara, Josef Stalin, Dr Frankenstein, Withnail, Miyamoto Musashi…If you’re stuck for ideas, steal them. At least as a starting point. You can get quite a lot of mileage from simply mashing genres and archetypes together: you’re Dr Frankenstein AND Inspector Javert, and your zeal is directed towards stopping people making similar mistakes to those you did: you despise constructs, undead or any intervention with the natural order of things because you created an abomination which yet lives. Or, you’re Josef Stalin AND Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’re a bank-robbing revolutionary who happens to have an unrelated epic destiny fighting demons, and you’re not sure how to juggle your busy teenage social life with slaying vampires and overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Or you’re Musashi AND Withnail; you’re eager to wax lyrical on sword-play and duelling but simply can’t catch a break and maybe, just maybe, your vaunted skill is largely in your imagination…
This German-Grammar, Lego approach to creativity can work very well, as featured on this brilliant generator. 

To make all this useful to your DM, you should include a number of connections you have in the world. If it doesn’t impinge on the structure of your story, try to include at least one contact, one ally and one rival which can be used as a basis for interacting with the world. The Saga of Vegvisir for example, contains villains, allies, locations and whole societies which a DM could tie in to adventures in some way. It also delivers a motivation: Vegvisir seeks mastery of his druidic powers, and any treasure or allies he can gather for reclaiming his birth right. Righteous-Fire-Scours-Clean-The-World has unfinished business too, in the form of his enslaved mother and an on-going relationship with his religious organisation.

A lot of players worry about wanting to express their character’s personality in their backstory, and will write little bios like “Grimnir is warm-hearted but quick to anger!”. Yawn. Either their personality emerges from the action, or it will emerge in play: you don’t go up to people and say, “I’m John, I’m ferocious in battle but kind to strangers.” You allow your ferocity and kindness combo to be known by your deeds.

Now I expect your backstory on my desk by 3pm.

*In my experience, teenagers don’t particularly like being set homework either. 

Monday, 29 August 2016

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual - 'D' - The Barbed Devil

Barbed Devil
We’ve finally moved on from Demons to the vastly different terrain occupied to Devils. Our first thorny customer is the Barbed Devil, who dates back to the very first Monster Manual in a time where the world was young and Britain’s industrial sector existed. I personally much prefer the name ‘Hamatula’, and would always use it with my players – it carries more mystery than a ‘Barbed Devil’.

I like his bitter, snarling little face and the hunched little body: I love the skittish, viper-cruel little sod that everything about this depiction implies. The artist has really managed to capture the vibe of the vengeful bottom-feeder with every aspect of it. A fundamental thorniness is implicit in every aspect of the creature. My only criticism is I can’t imagine these creature ‘resembling a tall humanoid’ or being in any-way larger than a Halfling – nothing about it connotes size. All in all, an excellent piece.

A victim of the fiend-blurb. They are perfect guardsmen, yet mercenary little buggers. This allows you to stock any dungeons with a vaguely arcane or fiendish bent with one, but isn’t terribly interesting. What does a Hamatula do, considering it never gets bored? Are they masters of mindfulness meditation, do they plot ceaselessly for hours on end, do they experience slow and fast time? How does their patience impact their normal lives? No answers, but a few hooks.

Purpose and Tactics
He’s something of a no-frills bruiser, like a more interesting Hezrou. At CR5 he can be a low-level boss, but I think he works better paired with some other creatures, as his abilities aren’t terribly interesting in isolation. He has some solid attacks, the usual Fiendish resistances and an ability that makes him damage opponents who grapple him. My players seldom grapple anyway, and I can’t see them queueing up to play Twister with Lucifer’s pet hedgehog, so this will almost never come up. I’d personally rule it also works if the Hamatula grapples you, but technically by RAW this is not the case.

If paired with a spellcaster, you can abuse the Darkness and Devil’s Sight combo to pretty deadly effect with his multiple attacks, and the idea of a spiny monstrosity lashing at you in impenetrable darkness is a good one. Most PC parties will easily have access to a spell to counter this tactic, though.

Hurl Flame also carries the ability to start fires, but that seems unlikely to ever come up unless you deliberately plan for it and have the fight occur in a flammable locale.

As a quest-giver, he’s unlikely to have the right nous in the Infernal Hierarchy to really pull strings, but there’s no reason this grasping little yuppie won’t turn his spiky coat if the right incentives are dangled.

Colonumnus the Caustic, a barbed devil warrior of renown, has embarrassed himself by falling for the most beautiful Succubus in all the Hells. How can their love ever work if any congress between them carries the risk of a 1d10 climax? Can you help Colonumnus overcome his spiky nature and win love?

Gastarii has guarded the Sepulchre of the First Sin for millennia. He knows every mote of dust in this room intimately. He’d trade all his knowledge for the chance to face a true Chess grandmaster though, as he has spent a thousand-thousand hours developing his supposedly undefeatable ‘Pandemonium Opening’.

Kucixtis is bored.  Every day he guards the same room, in the same wizard’s tower, in the same way. He’s not a Golem, you know. He has needs. Feelings. Wants. If you can show Kucixtis a good time, maybe he’ll be less than attentive to anybody sneaking past…

Verdict: A solid, spiky monster, but nothing awe-inspiring. 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

North Corner - Loquista Session 2

Session recap. 25.7.16
Callie, Halfling Ranger.
Vaina Moinen, Half-Orc Fighter/Barbarian
Rear Admiral Durlin, Gnome Wizard/Spiderperson.

Our session opened at the Grand Masquerade: and adorned in fitting masks (Wolf, Reptilian-monster and Spider-monster, respectively), mingled in the Grand Masquerade. Rather than publicly discourse with the Council of Ten, they kept themselves abreast of the major rumours in Loquista:
- Naval men had been brawling with Army men in taverns across town, with the occasional fatal incident, as a result of the murder of several of Sejuren's finest the previous week.

- Incredulously, sailors claim to have seen an enormous dragon carry off a ship carrying wages into the mountains.
- Helgerig and Zamira's war of words has intensified. 
- A number of children have disappeared in Loquista.

To advance the revolution, the party decided to disrupt the food supply in Loquista. For several days they scoped out the grain supplies in the warehouses near the docks, purchasing accelerants. The party's ships were despatched to the city of Confluence to buy an enormous amount of grain to take advantage of the spike in prices, proving that no amount of fighting a fiend can diminish the Heroes of North Corner's mercenary instinct. They decided also, to frame Rasselas, the Pirate King and rival of Blind Agni Nine Fingers, to dent Sejuren's reputation.

The plan went off without a hitch, with an invisible Durlin and Callie using Pass Without Trace to easily infiltrate the warehouses and spread an accelerant. A rapid fire Scorching Ray quickly ignited the warehouse, and the party fled into the sewers. In the sewers they came across a hive of Carrion Crawlers and a strange, inhabited area of arcane books and a room full of the picked-clean bones of young children. Deciding that discretion was the greater part of valour, they emerged at the Broken Fang Tavern, cleaned themselves up and watched white-hot flames bloom over the city like a second moon.

Having precipitated an atmosphere of dissent, they went to meet with the finicky, overworked Ratcatcher-General Lomorit, to offer their services clearing the sewers of its infestation. Lomorit offered a paltry sum and barely acknowledged the Heroes of North Corner as they steeled themselves for more action-packed time in the sewer system.

The party descended into the sewers, and quickly surprised eight Carrion Crawlers in a large cavern they had bored out of the sewer network. During this battle, a constant tide drew all towards the centre, and there were a few moments of terror as paralysed Gnomes sank into the stinking mirk and were drawn inexorably to the horror in the centre of the cavern. Whilst the party made short work of the Carrion Crawlers, an monstrosity in the middle of the room hassled the party with Counterspell and consumed any slain Carrion Crawlers. Towards the end of the battle, it revealed itself: an eight-foot tall skeleton, wreathed in a mass of endlessly scintillating worms; a facsimile of life carved from worm-meat. Vaina recognised this creature as a Worm-That-Walks - the undead spirit of a great mage or sorcerer now possessing the very vermin that consumed their corpse.

The Worm-That-Walks offered parley, and revealed his story, and his need: he had once been Nicodemus, a Vampire of the Cult of Ouroboros - until his conspiracy was overturned by Teshei and he defeated in magical combat, his corpse lost in the bay. He desired to consume the flesh of Teshei's children, and if he did so he would gain all their knowledge. Hesitantly, and fearful of Nicodemus' power, the Heroes of North Corner agreed tentatively

They returned to Lomorit soon after, delivering some recovered Carrion Crawlers. Lomorit, amused, revealed his hand - asking why wealthy merchants who owned several ships, warriors who triumphed in the arena, magi of renown, owners of powerful magical items and those who had triumphed over the horrors of North Corner would be offering themselves for such easy work - he concluded this was surely a pretext or ruse or some kind to offer themselves for more subtle tasks. The party was then offered a cache of magical weapons, including Lomorit's sword-cane Whisper, in return for that aid.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Let's Read: The Dungeons and Dragons 5e Monster Manual! - Demons.

Here is a link to the Demons of the Monster Manual. As 'D' has a lot of these categories (Devils, Dragosn etc) I thought I'd divvy them up.

As ever the original thread is here. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

North Corner: Loquista Session 1

This is the first session on the current chapter of the campaign devoted to overthrowing the Despot Teshei,a  Rakshasa who rules over a city in the campaign world with an iron fist. This post will help you with any names or details.

The Party
Arouk, A Goliath Warlock, compacted to the positive plane itself.
Eoghuan, a Dwarven Druid and member of the Order of the Resplendent Star.

The party met with Three Times Jack, their contact in the resistance,  and the two new members of their revolutionary cell: Kavarus.  (Tiefling Valour Bard revolutionary) and Vaina Moiyen (Fighter/Barbarian revolutionary). 
They briefly discussed - with liberal misuse of the gavel* - their plans for revolution. The first stage involved murdering those members of the Watch who were most cruel to their underlings to inspire the populace that rebellion was possible.
To that end, they met three of the most infamous lackeys of the Despot in the Black Swan Brothel (More commonly referred to as the Mucky Duck) and got them good and drunk with the help of Elszebet, the Madame. A sex worker (politically correct!) named Melinele assisted them with their plot to lure the guards into an alleyway, where they felt Arouk's Greatsword firsthand.
The three corpses were marked with the symbol of The Sons of Loquista, a shark, and hurled into the street to be discovered.
When morning arrived, a Wild Shaped Eoghuan spied that the corpses had been removed by first light...
The second phase involved gaining entry to the Grand Masquerade Ball in two days time to conspire with the Council of Ten. Kavoros met with Chancellor Radoslig, and agreed to help him combat Grand Marshal Tyruk ("an infamous pillow-biter") at a later-date. He was granted entry for himself and one other in Radoslig's company, provided he was suitably attired. He hinted that he would need funds for such clothing: "You no doubt will." said Radoslig, returning to his work and dismissing Kavarus. 
To gain entry for the other party members, the Heroes of North Corner vowed to test their strength in the Cathedral of Teeth; Loquista's gladitorial arena. After vanquishing The Grand Guignoll** and his underlings with aplomb they earned the respect of the Mistress of Ceremonies, Zamira. Zamira then offered them the chance to challenge Leng Shun, the Arena's erstwhile champion: a prodigious water-drake of phenomenal power. After intense combat in shark-infested waters, Leng Shun acknowledged defeat and the Heroes of North Corner were the darlings of the blood-thirsty Loquistan mob.
They briefly met with Zamira in her training-room, detecting her enchanted sword and necklace as objects of considerable power. Clunky attempts to conspire with the Mistress of Ceremonies revealed her to be a fanatical loyality to the Despot Teshei with little interest in the politics of the Ten. Arouk's attempts to seduce her were somewhat held aback by the fact that Zamira prefers the rose to the thorns.
On the cusp of the Grand Masquerade, we drew the session to a close.
"The old world is dying; the new world struggles to be born - now is a time of monsters." Antonio Gramsci, 1933.
Villains Vanquished: 8
Dragons humbled: 1
Lesbians turned: 0
Treasure acquired:
2600 GP Arena prize money
18GP from rifling through the guard's pockets

*Our gaming club has an enormous meeting-room for the local committee. We steal the gavel weekly.
** This was a Gnoll puppeteer. I really like puns, ok? 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Fighting the Good Fight

Sometimes, scenery is everything.

I’m a History teacher by trade, and one of my specialist subjects was the Eastern Crusades by the Teutonic Knights against Lithuania. This was a bizarre form of warfare, completely dominated by the season and the weather. You could only attack in summer or winter, when the swamps and river passages were steady or at least frozen, but you’d only be able to transport artillery or heavy supplies by river at certain times in certain directions. The Ordenstaat’s ability to make war was occasionally dependent on the number of foreign knights willing to come and fight for them. The entire science of war was dictated by the terrain and weather conditions despite lofty rhetoric and crusading zeal.

D&D can do beyond the rural Baltic for bizarre scenery.

The Chain Fight

This fight took place on an enormous chain, the links of which were as thicker than tree-trunks, suspended over a huge cavern in the Underdark. This chain formed a part of a mass of chains lashing a near-dead titan deep under the Earth – the North Corner player’s intention was to claim The Heart of the Last Titan by crossing the chains and entering the Titan’s eye-socket where the chain was anchored to it. 
 The players were painstakingly traversing the chain. They were intelligent enough to tie themselves together, and I pencilled down a little note of who-was-tied-to-whom. In the event of someone falling, there would be a strength check for the two players nearest them to not similarly plummet downwards. Players tied to each other could never move more than 20” from the comrade they were tied to. The whole escapade took place in perfect darkness. Progress was slow, and dangerous and death a constant possibility….and then they were ambushed by the chain’s ragtag inhabitants. 

The fight was against a hodge-podge of weird Goblins. More from the Labyrinth than Dungeons and Dragons, they were primarily armed with bolas* and daggers. There were additional Chameleon-Men and a Wererat, and other small, fast-moving or sticky creatures adept at travelling the chains. The boss was a Goblin Warlock riding on a Giant Spider, another was riding a giant luminescent psychedelic moth based on the slake-moths of Perdido Street Station. The most deadly was a Chain Golem, an enormous mass to writhing chains that simply grappled and restrained characters in an attempt to drop them straight into the Abyss.

Their entire strategy was to try and get the players to fall. Wielding spells like Sleep, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, Repelling Blast – using their bolas to make them fall prone – hypnotic wings, spider-webs, chain-golem-wrestling – it was a pretty terrifying for the players, and every player that dropped resulted in risk for other players. The players reciprocated, utilising Sleet Storm and Hold Person, using Druid Wildshapes and creative uses of skill checks “I stamp on the goblin’s hands as he hangs on….” or “I tie myself to the chain and bulrush us both off…”  The entire tactical playing-field moved away from damage and hit points towards utilising the scenery: something that the goblins were as adept at as our sixth-level heroes.

I think what made this fight fun was the complete change of tactics and the need for thinking outside the box. One of the most amazing D&D moments of my life occurred when a first-time player who’d made her character a debonair, vain aristocrat whose trinket was a hand-mirror insta-gibbed a Medusa with her trinket in her first session: it was such an inventive solution and it told you so much about her character. It might have said ‘Esyld, Half Elf’ on her character sheet but we now knew from the sheer bitchy-shade-coolness of this execution that this was BeyoncĂ© with Bard levels. Encouraging those moments is awesome. There was also a very real genuine risk of character death (the death toll for the fight was one Goliath Warlock) and that tension engages players. If you’re dangling from a rope suspended above a void, and below you your animal companion is in worse nick – and you’re 2 inches of rope from several thousand feet of falling – you’re not going to check Facebook on your phone or chat about work. You’re going to scan your character sheet for a get-out and look imploringly at other players for rescue and follow the action as though its real. +

The meta-narrative here, if you’re curious, was largely about scale: here the chain and the distance were all about vastness and size and stolidity; yet their opponents were physical small creatures using guerrilla tactics and tiny weapons; daggers, darts, bolas. This created a nice dissonance between the world they inhabited and the scale of the Titan. Hopefully this built tension.

*Just 1d6 + 4, with a DC 12 DEX save to not fall prone.