Monday, December 28, 2009

Gaming in the New Year

So, the New Year is right around the corner, and a new decade, as well. This decade has been good to gaming, and I can only hope a new one will be as good. There are some promising gaming developments on the horizon, and I think I'll try and go over a few of them.

For one, a lot of companies in gaming seem to be looking towards new means of getting their product out there. From Wizards of the Coast and their push with D&D Insider to White Wolf and their new media directions, where much of their new material will be released online (check out their New Media seminar), it seems online is the new way to go. Programs, PDFs, and other online venues are the way of the future for gaming, and I suspect we'll see a lot more of that.

In an old school area, Green Ronin has partnered up with the video game maker Bioware to create a Dragon Age boxed set, reminiscent of the old boxed sets that TSR used to put out for AD&D. It is supposed to be an introductory set, that covers just the first five levels and uses a new system designed by Green Ronin. I've heard that it isn't all that all-encompassing, covering a bare minimum of things from the video game world, but it should also be the first of several, and the ones yet to come should cover more. Put that together with the idea that Dragon Age the video game is supposed to be part of trilogy, and Dragon Age could turn out to be quite the system.

Speaking of old boxed sets, the next setting that D&D 4th Edition is about to put out is one that fans of AD&D should like: Dark Sun. Dark Sun used to be my favorite setting; it mixed post-apocalyptic madness with fantasy to create a world that was nothing like any world we had seen before. The new setting books are supposed to roll the world back to what it was just after the first edition of Dark Sun, and I find this to be very promising. I loved the old dark Sun, and I look forward happily to a new version.

A book I think will be interesting is a book being put out by White Wolf for their 'new' World of Darkness (not new anymore for the last few years, but it's definitely not the first version). That book is called World of Darkness: Mirrors, and it is supposed to be a book about alternate versions, or alternate realities, in the World of Darkness, and how to use them. I like the WoD, and I like most of the games for it, but I think it will be interesting to see new spins on some of the things that have been given to the fans and readers.

Finally, something that I hope will come out, as it has been delayed for quite a while, is the Dresden Files RPG. I've read all the books, and I think the world described in Jim Butcher's series would make a great setting for a game. It's not as dark as the World of Darkness, and has some interesting characters like Harry Dresden, Michael the knight, and many others. Hell, I wouldn't mind seeing an RPG based on Jim Butcher's Codex Alera, either.

Well, that's it for now. I'll be back with the new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Special

I am stuck with my family in Florida, using a laptop I am unfamiliar with and don't have a lot of time on, but I have had time to watch some TV, especially some stuff I have recently received on DVD. I won't tell what, though: maybe you can guess from what I'll be talking about.

It's Eberron, two years after the Last War. The Five Nations of humanity are rebuilding, still wary of each other. There are many threats that lurk in the shadows; the monsters of Droaam, the quori of Sarlona, the daelkyr and the Lords of Dust - and nobody yet knows what happened to turn the nation of Cyre into a freakish wasteland. But none expected the threat to come from something that hasn't even happened yet - the future.

Metal monstrosities cloaked in flesh, like warforged skeletons in humanoid bodies, have started to appear on Khorvaire. They seem to be singleminded in their pursuit of several individuals - but nobody knows why, as some of these individuals are children, and most have never done anything illegal or even violent. But they do not stop, do not reason, and they do not run. They seem to exist only to kill.

It seems they come from a different place, or even a different time, sent by a being known only as the Lord of Blades. He claims responsibility for the Mournland, and has promised to do the same to all human lands. He is after those who will be able to stop him, who will lead the charge against him in the future as laid out in the Draconic Prophecies - and he must get to them before they become a threat to him.

The foes of the Lord of Blades must survive. You may be among them. Help may come from the strangest of places, at the strangest of times. One never knows what the future may hold.

I just came up with this idea, and I think it would be a fun game to run, though I doubt I'll ever have the players for it. If you're interested, though, let me know - a game that may have time travel in it can always have new players dropped in.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Return!

So I have finished up all my work for my Master's degree, and I am now free to begin plotting new gaming-related ideas, at least for a while. I've had some interesting ideas while I've been studying, as well as rehashing some old ones.

One of the ones that keeps coming back to me is the idea of a sort of Castlevania-themed game. I've never really played the Castlevania games myself, but I have watched a couple of them played, and the setting always interests me, even if it is just a complex method of fighting Dracula. The idea of running a game in a setting something like that of the Castlevania games has some interest for me, not least because it brings in some interesting ideas involving horror and suspense that don't normally come up in D&D.

I've been reading through some of my old Eberron books, too, and that setting still calls to me. I don't know what it is, but the whole deal of complex national politics, diverse groups and organizations with separate goals, new takes on many of the normal D&D races and classes, and just the feel of the Eberron setting really make me want to both run and play a game in this setting.

I'm looking for a good game that involves a more Norse, Viking kind of theme. Not a game based in historical Scandinavia, but one that uses things like Vikings, runes, and traditional Scandinavian sorts of monsters to create an interesting game setting. I had contemplated this quite some time ago when I was thinking of trying to write up a setting for Magic: The Gathering's old Ice Age set, because the idea of playing in a frozen world sounded interesting to me.

Really, I just want to play in or run some sort of gamer online, so I'll take what I can get. I'm trying to recruit some friends who would be willing to play, and then maybe fill out the group with other people they know. If you have any kind of interest in playing in or running a game of any of the kinds I have described, comment here, or contact me. Even if just to talk about RPGs or video games, I'm free for discussion.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Recent Events

Lately, I've been pretty busy with other things that keep me from writing in my blog. Mainly, my preparations for my Master's degree exam have been keeping me away from any serious contemplation of gaming - which is, of course, my true love in life.

I have managed to find some time to read through some decent fantasy recently, namely the fantasy series by Jim Butcher, the Codex Alera. The sixth book of the Codex Alera came out last week, and in preparation I read through the previous five books over the Thanksgiving week. I loved Butcher's other series, the Dresden Files, and his fantasy series hasn't disappointed. It does fall victim to some of the big cliches of fantasy - namely, the farmboy who discovers unknown talents and rises to greatness - but other than that, it's a very solid series, with some very interesting fantasy ideas.

I love to read a good book, fantasy or otherwise, though fantasy and science fiction are what I prefer to read for fun - don't get me wrong, I love educational reading, and I want to get my PhD in English and teach college students, but for fun, fantasy is what I prefer. I wish I could find a way to get some fantasy discussion into a classroom, but it's hard to work something that new into the study of English - and I shouldn't talk, since my interest is in Medieval Studies, the earliest forms of English.

In any case, for the next week or two, I'll still be busy with my MA exam, but some part of my mind will be on fantasy, gaming, video games, and the like.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Heroes

What is it precisely that makes a hero? Heroes are one of the staples of our culture, those stories we are told at bedtime as children, the stories we will later grow to enjoy in books and movies and other media. Heroes are the people who choose good over evil, who take a stand and say “This far, and no further.” For whatever reason, they are people who have decided to stand in the way of what they believe is wrong and work for good rather than evil, and we immortalize them for it. That seems to be the basic premise of a hero; most heroes have little else in common. Achilles in the Iliad, for example, is a near-psychopathic killer who flies into a rage when a friend is killed, yet in the end he has mercy on the king of Troy. It seems unreasonable to compare him to more contemporary heroes such as Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, as Aragorn seems to be a paragon of virtue – he is a master swordsman and archer, he is courteous and kind, he is loved by those who are his subjects and respected by others.

So why is the study of the hero important, if they are so varied? Can characters like Odysseus be compared to characters like King Arthur? Is a person’s heroism greater or lesser because of how he goes about it? It seems there are different types of heroism, and each involves different things, though all seem to tie back to the general concept. First, the hero searching for redemption. This seems to be a fairly common heroic ideal, especially recently, with characters like Angel, or the lesser-known Skilgannon the Damned, from David Gemmell’s book White Wolf. Both of these characters have horrible deeds in their past; mostly, they seem to involve large amounts of murder, whether they felt sorry about it at the time they did it or not. Somewhere along the line, things changed and they decided to walk another path; for Angel, it was when he was given his soul, and for Skilgannon it was when he realized that his queen, who ordered the massacre of an entire city, told him that she would do it again for victory.

These sorts of heroes have a lot they want to atone for, and they try as hard as they can to do so, whether it is possible for them to accomplish this goal or not. Often these heroes are the most utilitarian, killing those who work for evil rather than trying to rehabilitate them, because they see things differently – sometimes, though, these heroes become the strongest proponents of rehabilitation, because they are trying for redemption – why can’t others? They often recognize real evil when they see it, for they have a great deal of experience, and they can be the most extreme heroes in many situations. They are probably the heroes most likely to see things in terms of shades of grey, as they have seen true evil and they know that not all bad things are Evil with a capital E.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Holiday Reading

Like I said in my last post, I've been reading a lot of David Gemmell books lately. I can read through them very quickly, as they tend to be pretty straightforward, which is part of what I like about them. I like the idea of a main hero who knows what his faults are, and doesn't tend to be arrogant about most things. Granted, most of Gemmell's books are about great warriors, but they are self-aware, to a point; they know that they are good at what they do, and also that they may not have the most complicated way of looking at life. His most popular character, Druss, has a very simple, black and white way of looking at things; he knows when something is good or evil, and will always try to choose good, even if it means pain or suffering for himself. I've even been looking into a game to try and express the kind of setting Gemmell's books take place in, and found one that seems to fit well called Barbarians of Lemuria, which lists as some of its inspirations things like Robert E. howard's Conan and Kull stories.

I'm also looking into re-reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which is the polar opposite of Gemmell's books in the fantasy world. Far from being fantasy pulp books, where one can be read independantly of the others, this series is intricate and long, with a complicated design and story that are sure to keep the mind working. Even in paperback, the shortest book in this series is over 700 pages, and there are dozens of characters and numerous storylines to keep track of. The setting is gloriously high magic, but is also not ahsamed to let major characters die, sometimes nobly, somtimes ignobly. Most of the main characters don't have a great deal of time for self-analyzation, and those that do are often confused by what they find.

These two series, along with my newfound addiciton to Bioware's new videogame Dragon Age: Origins, will likely keep me occupied for much of my holidays season. I'm already on my second playthrough of Dragon Age, and have put in close to 80 hours of play - and I still haven't managed to do all I want to, and accoridng to the game's logs, I have completed only about 65% of what is possible to do in the game. I love Bioware for their games, but sometimes I wish they weren't so addictive - every game of theirs I have bought, and I have bought most of their games, has cost me a significant part of a month, if not more. So while this is not technically holiday reading, I do spend a lot of time reading things in this game, particularly the entries that are found throughtout the game that explain more of the setting's history and cultures.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Swords & Sorcery

One of my favorite authors of all time is David Gemmell, who died in 2006. I started reading his books with Legend, and after that I was driven; I managed to collect every book he published in one form or another, and I read through most, if not all, of them about once a year. I'm currently in the middle of this year's read-through.

I think one of the things that attracts me to his books is that they tend to take place in fantasy worlds, but they are generally fantasy worlds that don't have the overwhelming amount of magic that some other fantasy worlds have. There are no super-powerful wizards or direct channels to deities in most of his books; there are a few mystics and psychics, and a couple shamans, and maybe a couple wizards or sorcerors, but these are magic-users who have to prepare to use their magic, and using their magic costs them personally. They don't lob fireballs at all their problems; mostly, they pay mercenaries or assassins to take care of things. Mostly, magic is treated as somethign the other guys, or the bad guys, have, and is something to be avoided or overcome.

then there are the characters. Sometimes they aren't very deep, but I find the way he describes them fascinating. The grizzled old legend wielding his famous two-handed axe; the eagle-eyed bowman; the soldier who will throw himself into combat in a berserk rage; the deadly weaponsmaster who moves like a dancer; the practical fighter who has no problems with dirty tricks if they help him win; the heavily armored warrior who takes blows so his companions will not. These are people whose problems aren't often solved by magic, and they have to fight to make their way in the world. They live in a world that is constantly struggling, and even if one nation declares peace, another will start a war.

I know these books and stories aren't the deepest literature around. I know that some of them owe a great deal to previous characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Something about them calls to me, though; maybe it is the way in which the mqin characters have to solve their problems, or the fact that many of the best characters live by a simple, ironclad code to do no evil, and stick to this code in the face of everythign they must fight. It would be fun to try and run a game in a setting like this, where magic is rare or a thing for the bad guys; I wonder how players would handle it, and I'd love to play in something like this.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Greek Geekery

As I have probably mentioned in other posts, I have a fondness for Greek myth and legend, as well as actual history. I'm actually the go-to guy for my mother, who is currently teaching her 5th grade class about mythology. So occasionally I get ideas to play a game in this kind of environment.

I've thought about using D&D for this before, but at times I feel that the D&D system is too limiting - even with all the classes, there are times when you can't get the kind of spread of abilities and such that you want in a character. So what I have planned in the past is to use the Cinematic Unisystem. Cinematic Unisystem is a variant on the Unisystem used by Eden Studios, who used to hold the licenses for the Buffy and Angel RPGs.

Unisystem is a points-based system, and at times it can get pretty complex; this is why for games like this, where the characters play Greek heroes, demigods, and the like, I prefer the Cinematic version, as it simplifies certain elements of the system to make things flow more smoothly - in a cinematic fashion, if you will.

I have visions of a group of characters traveling through Greece, armed with spear and shield, doing great and terrible things for themselves and for the gods, because the Greek idea of a hero is not the same as our modern idea - for ancient Greeks, heroes were simply those who did great things,whether they were good or evil. Achilles was a hero, even though he was a bastard, and so was Hector, even if he was a Trojan. Groups of heroes are even in-theme for Greeks, if you ever read about Jason and the Argonauts or Hercules and his companions.

I also would imagine the characters would follow, in some manner, the typical path of a Greek hero - they start out well, and then go on to perform a series of great deeds, each one greater than the one before. As they do so, they begin to think that they are on a plane with the gods, and that they should be one of them, and for their arrogance, the gods cause them to fall. It would be an interesting path to tread. I have at least two other games that use Greek myth as a basis, Hellas and AGON, but I would like to try my idea.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A-Gaming We Shall Go

After my last post about Dragon Age, I began to think once more about tabletop (or, in most recent cases, internet) gaming, and what I could do to get in on it, hopefully with any of my friends still willing to humor me. This has been brought to the forefront both by the experience of playing Dragon Age, which had a compelling story, and also by the release of a few products that have really made me rethink the way I look at a certain game, that being Exalted.

I first bought Exalted back in 2001, when the 1st Edition was released; I have the Collector's Edition, slipcover and all, and I really thought the ideas behind the game were cool. As time went on, the products printed for the game began to drift into an area that I wasn't too thrilled with, but then a 2nd Edition came out, and for a while, I was happy with it again - until the same drift started, and I stopped buying Exalted books. Recently, though, since I am in a somewhat oddly-timed Exalted game (once every couple months or so), and since a number of prominent Exalted freelancers post to a board I frequent (, my interest has been rekindled.

My experience with online games has been mostly good, but also rather limited; the last time I ran a game online, or participated in one, we all played in chatrooms provided by the AOL Instant Messenger service. Since my computer no longer seems to like that program, I'm looking to move on, and at the same time pick a program that won't scare prospective players (or GM, who knows) away. Currently, I'm thinking of using Gametable, a fairly simple, easy-to-use, non-graphically intensive program.

I've heard good things about Google Wave for use with gaming, but since I don't have any access to the program, I can't say much about it. Gametable is nice, but ideally I want something that can deal with two open chat windows at a time - one for in-character action, one for out-of-character stuff like rolling dice and rules discussion. If 4th Edition D&D is the game on the table, then I'd need something with a map and the ability for all the players to move their own icons, or at least see the map so they can tell me where to move them.

Mostly what I need, though, are willing players who can actually show up at a given time. This has been a problem for me in the past, and it tends to discourage me pretty easily. This is a problem because, as someone recovering from severe clinical depression, being discouraged can cause me to give up on an idea pretty quickly, and though I've been told I have good ideas, they never see play if I can't get myself to start the game. I can run a number of games and the program we use doesn't matter much, but it's no good without players - otherwise I'm just playing with myself, and our mothers all have something to say about too much of that.

(Seriously, if you know of any players crazy enough to put up with me, let me know.)

Monday, November 9, 2009


I'm one of those people who tends to go full-bore at things I enjoy. So, when I got the World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, last year, I played it like crazy - I managed to hit the new level cap before all but one person in my guild, and I was also working on several 20+ page papers at the time. This really tends to happen when the game is something that has a really cool premise, or a great story.

Most recently, this happened with a game released last Tuesday, Bioware's newest game, Dragon Age: Origins. Between Tuesday evening and Sunday night, I managed to burn through the game, earning about half of the game's achievements and spending about 40-45 hours playing the game. Yes, this is why I didn't write any blog posts last week. I'm thinking of playing it through again, too, partially because I am intrigued by the possibilities that will be opened up through the other character origins.

I am also frustrated, because while I like the game a great deal, my zeal in working through it has ensured that it is hard to discuss the game with my friends who have the game, as they are not as far into it and don't want me to ruin anything. I don't want to spoil their experiences, but it means I don't have anyone to talk about the game with. So, in an attempt to avoid spoilign the game but to talk about it nonetheless, I have the following to offer.

If you're looking into getting this game, then there are some things you should know. I bought the PC version, which is very graphics-intensive, so extended periods of play resulted in longer load-times and more skipping and pausing in play. The PC version is apparently slightly harder than the Xbox 360 version, due to the 360 not being able to render as many opponents as the PC. The combat system is fun, as it combines the best parts of the old Baldur's Gate combat, and something similar to the gambit from Final Fantasy 12 - you can give your computer-run party members instructions about what to do in certain situations, and they can be pretty specific.

There are a lot of decisions to make in the game, and many of them will have long-lasting consequences. As with previous bioware games like Mass Effect, there are options for romance, though these can be tricky - every party member you can get will have a personal sidequest, and you can't begin a romance without doing those. Pay attention to dialogue options, because they can be very important, not justslight variations on the same thing as in some games. And if you like to find out more about the game world, look at every book, scroll, and scrap of paper you see - you get a wealth of information about the world you are adventuring in, and while it may not all be useful, it can be fun to read.

Oh, and pay attention to the way your party members talk to each other. Their interactions generally don't have any long-lasting effect, but they can be very cool and/or amusing.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Thar Be Treasure!

So after a couple entries of personal stuff, I thought I'd write something about gaming again. From the very start of my gaming career, one of the best parts of gaming has been the treasure. What new kind of magical item will we get from another adventure? What strange and wondrous things will the dragon have in its hoard?

My first experience with D&D and the treasures it gave out was fascinating. The items that came out of 2nd Edition AD&D were unique and encouraged a sense of wonder; the Vorpal Sword that could decapitate enemies, the Deck of Many Things, where a draw of a card could save or damn you; the mythical Rod of Seven Parts, an artifact of incredible power that grew in power the more parts you acquired. There are so many that I don't remember, but I remember the random treasure tables, and how amazed I was every time we acquired new treasure - would it be an item that could help our group, or would it be something we would have to destroy to save others?

Things changed with 3rd Edition; the system was changed to try and make for a more balanced experience. And with those changes, came some things that went for the worse. The treasures became less wondrous, and more about what bonuses or penalties the magic items gave. With those changes, something I loved about the game was lost. The great items that were part of why I enjoyed D&D so much had become simply a pile of numbers.

With 4th Edition, magic items have changed again, though I'm not sure they've become any closer to the items I used to love so much. I think, though, that a part of the solution is something that DMs have to handle, and that is the description of the items that players get. If your average player has their character receive a +1 sword, it's nothing special, nothing magical. If, however, you give them a sword and describe the blade as 'carefully stained, giving it a fiery hue accented with coiling ribbons of black', they're going to be more interested. More show, less tell, and maybe some of the magic will come back into the game.

If you want to know what inspired me to write about this, it is an entry on a blog called ars ludi: 'Treasure Tells A Story'.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Good Guys

I've always liked playing the good guy.

Nothing surprising about that, I guess; most people want to play the good guy. It's part of what got me into reading fantasy. From my first real fantasy novels, the original Dragonlance trilogy, I wanted to be the guy who beat the bad guy. I never wanted to be a guy like Raistlin, all about the search for personal power at the cost of others - I wanted to be like Sturm, the unfailing knight, who felt so strongly about doing the right thing that he died for it.

So when I started playing D&D, and saw the paladin class, I thought, "This is it." The paladin was a beacon for good in the D&D world; he followed the gods of good, lived by a code, tried to help others, and fought evil even though it hurt him. And so that's the first character I played. For a while, anyway. As things went on, I got sidelined; I played a dual-scimitar-wielding drow ranger for a while, in shameful imitation of Drizz't Do'Urden; when the Dark Sun setting came out, they didn't have paladins, and so I played a hard-bitten gladiator, instead.

After that, I was dragged to the dark side and started playing other games, specifically White Wolf games, and ran a long Werewolf: The Apocalypse game through high school. Even though I was running it, I still kind of ran a character, and my character was the closest I could manage to a paladin, a member of the Silver Fang tribe. He lasted for a long time, fighting a great war against the oncoming Apocalypse along with his packmates. I still use his name as part of my e-mail address.

And then, in college, 3rd Edition D&D came out. It was a revolution to me, and it revolutionaized the way I saw gaming. At college, I had plenty of willing subj...err, new players, and so I ran games there, of several different systems, though D&D was at the forefront. I collected book after book, both of gaming and of fantasy novels. My interest in playing the good guy was reaffirmed - even if the paladin, the ultimate iconic good guy, was based on worship of a god or gods, and I found myself leaning towards the agnostic or atheist, depending on the day.

Even in video games, I find myself playing the good guys. In Knights of the Old Republic, I can't make myself play a Dark Side Jedi; I played a good guy in the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights games. In the Fallout trilogy, especially in the recent Fallout 3, I still played the nice guy, even when I got screwed because of it. I couldn't seem to make myself play the bastard or the bad guy. I'm not really sure why that is, but all I know is this:

I've always liked playing the good guy.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Whys and Wherefores

It has come to my attention that, even though I have written a lot about what I think about gaming, and tried to share some of my favorite things, I haven't really said much about why I like gaming. Let's see if I can address that without sounding too much like a robot.

I'm normally a very introverted person; I have very few real friends, and I have never been very good at meeting people. I was lucky enough to have the same roommate for all four years of undergraduate college, and we were introverts together, though we certainly met other people along the way. Even though I'm an introvert, though, I still look for the company of others - I'm just not very good at expressing what I want in that area.

Gaming, at a fairly early age, intersected with one of my other big interest - fantasy novels - and became one of my best ways of getting to meet people. I was the kid with the book that explained how my friends and I could pretend to be elves, dwarves, and other fantasy creatures in a world with dragons, demons, and all manner of magic. For a certain group of people, that made me cool, and I enjoyed that. I still have that first gaming book, a no very tattered 2nd Edition AD&D Player's Handbook, somewhere in my basement.

Gaming appeals to me because sometimes I get to play as the hero I read about in novels. Everybody wants to be the hero, right? He swings a big sword, or casts awesome spells, destroys monsters, evades traps, looks cool, and gets the girl. I could be Perseus in Clash of the Titans, or Prince Colwyn in Krull, or Wesley in Princess Bride - though, in all fairness, I was more fond of Inigo Montoya. It is an escape from the inane situations and banal happenings of real life, and lets me just hang out, joke with friends, and pretend to be an elf for a few hours every so often.

It gets me in touch with parts of me that I don't think about very often in day-to-day life. When I play a righteous paladin, I think about how my paladin worships his god, when I am personally agnostic. When I play a terrified monster hunter, I get to feel that fear of what is around every corner, which is refreshing sometimes - though sometimes it just leaves me locking all my doors and checking behind all the furniture before I huddle up in my bed. It lets me feel a sense of wonder I don't seem to feel often, a sense of wonder I had when I was a younger kid getting the chance to wander the castles of England and pretend that I was a knight.

I've since moved on from that first gaming book. I now have a thriving collection, one that bows the shelves of the bookcase I keep most of it on. It spans many genres, from fantasy to horror, from Western to science fiction, but they're all still games that I look at and wish I could put myself into them, to go where they go and see what they see. Gaming has informed my tastes in movies, in TV, in reading, and even in academics - on some level, I think that stories like Beowulf and the Iliad were stories where people could get a sense of what it was to be a hero from reading or hearing about those characters.

It's still good, though, to get a stack of books together, get my assortment of pointy polyhedral dice together, grab a table, and sti around it with a group of friends who, for a time, will become my boon companions on an epic quest to destroy evil.

Or, y'know, just kill things and take their stuff.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Threading the Needle

As a GM, I find that I often have to choose between two things in a game that are fairly incompatible; each choice will radically affect the way the game is run and played, so I can't have both. Part of what I have to do is try and guess, based on what I know about my players, which one to go with in order to run a game that is the most enjoyable for everyone. Ultimately, I'd like to run enough games to be able to get all of my options in play, but it's hard to do, so I think I'll just talk about some of my choices here.

One of the biggest choices when running a game is what to play. Generally, I'll just ask players what kind of game they want to play, and work with that. The choice here is not what to play, really, but rather what kind of system to use to play. There are really two kinds of RPG systems - rules-light and rules-heavy. With rules-light, there are few concrete rules, and the game is fast and loose. This depends a lot on the players, and is often much harder on them than it is on me - if you get to choose, say, five defining characteristics of your character, and use those to resolve things, what do you pick? I've seen a lot of players freeze up when faced with this, though I know some who live for rules-light systems; a system like FATE is a good one for this. Rules-heavy is often what I end up going with, because the greater body of rules helps define and codify a character more easily; a 3rd-level Ranger has a set number of abilities, and can do certain things better than, say, a 3rd-level cleric. D&D is my go-to game for rules-heavy, though there are certainly others with more flexibility - GURPS is an example.

Another question is how free to let players be when coming up with their characters. I know this sometimes treads on some toes, but sometimes I want to run a game about a group of escape prisoners, or maybe a group of adventurers who also double as a troupe of traveling performers. So the question is, do I let everyone come up with their characters separately, with no input from other players, or do I give them a set of guidelines to create their characters with? One of the best ideas I've seen for something like this is to have all the players get together for a session of nothing but character creation and let them bounce ideas off each other, but since my main gaming venue is online, this can be difficult.

Probably the bigest of the needles I have to thread is on how much to involve the players in what goes on around them. By this, I mean how much of the description of the places they go and the people they see do I do myself, and how much do I leave to them? This is a technique that goes with collaborative campaign-building; if you want the characters to get involved, let them create the situations and people they involve themselves with. If they want to talk to a street urchin, I could say "You see a bunch; describe the one you talk to." The only problem with this is if the players are expecting me, as GM, to provide all the details of the world - in that case, asking them to describe said street urchin might leave me staring at a blank face. So, do I try and get them involved in creating the world around them and risk a total lack of response, or do I just create everything myself and risk the players not being happy and not getting involved?

Being a GM can be a balancing act at times, and on the rare chance I get to be a player, I get to see what another GM chooses to do when faced with these kind of decisions. It makes me wish that I got to be a player more often - and that I could be a better GM.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I feel like crap warmed over today, so this will probably be a short one; my apologies to any readers. Like the title says, sightseeing. As a video gamer, it is one of the reasons I play games - I like to see what kind of interesting places and personalities the developers have put into the game. In games like World of Warcraft, there are all sorts of interesting places to go, from the alien mushroom forests of Zangarmarsh, with its tripod-like creatures and infestation of naga, to the simple wilderness of Elwynn Forest, with its pastoral views and trees inhabited by bandits, to the deadly peaks of Icecrown, with its ongoing war agains the forces of the lich king and the ghosts and undead that haunt its peaks. These are the kind of things I like to see in a game, and what I often look for.

In a tabletop game, it is harder to get across the feeling of being in a specific place. Without a graphical interface, the GM has to actually describe the area around you, and sometimes that is difficult to do or even remember. I am guilty of this as much as anyone; I often presume that players see the same images in their heads as I do, and so forgo the description of what they see, smell, and feel around them. But these things are important to immersion; without a clear idea of where your character is, it becomes that much harder to describe what he or she is doing, and once you lose that, it almost seems like you are playing a violence-oriented game of Pong.

So next time you are designing an encounter, GMs, think about what your players see around them. Tell them what it smells like; this is especially important to characters with enhanced senses. Tell them how the wind feels, or whether the ground is muddy; tell them how the mud squishes around their boots or feet. These details may not seem important to GMs, since we often have a picture of what is going on, but for the players to partake in the picture, they need to see what we see.

And players, if you aren't getting a picture of where you are? Speak up. It does the GM no good if you keep quiet, because he or she will assume you see what the GM sees, and will afterwards be confused when you act like you are in nothing more complicated than a text-based videogame where all you do to move around is choose a direction. The GM has probably put some time into thinking about the world you are in, and it can be hard remembering exactly what to tell players all the time. So if you want to enjoy the game more, ask your GM what your character sees, hears, smells, feels. If they're worth their salt, they'll try and show you the picture they have in their minds, and then everyone can experience it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Dark World

I think I've talked about the World of Darkness here before, and I thought I'd go over a few things. Specifically, how I view the games in the new World of Darkness, and what they seem to hold in store. This is, of course, only my opinion, and there are two games I won't talk about here (Mage: The Awakening and Vampire: The Requiem, not because I don't like them, but because I haven't read enough about them to really get a handle on them.

First for me is Werewolf: The Forsaken. Forsaken is the spiritual successor to Werewolf: The Apocalypse, from the old World of Darkness line, and that was always my favorite. In this one, you still play werewolves, but the road is nowhere near as clear. Where in Apocalypse the werewolves were righteous warriors fighting off the encroachment of insidious evil, in Forsaken, the PCs have a lot more to learn. First, the Forsaken are only one half of the werewolf equation - the other half, the Pure, are driven by the very forces the Forsaken are supposed to protect against. Then there is the duty of the Forsaken - they are essentially interplanar enforcers, trying to ensure that the spirit world and the physical world don't mix too much. They seem outnumbered and outgunned, each pack controlling its own territory to protect it from evils both physical and spiritual, and the only people a Forsaken can really, truly trust are his fellow pack members. He doesn't have to like them, but they are family, brothers in arms, and an adventuring group all rolled into one. You take your territory, and hold it against all comers, and hope that one day you succeed. It is savage, dark, and at times disturbing, especially reading about some of their enemies, and I love reading about it.

Next up is Changeling: The Lost. A far cry from its predecessor, the lighthearted Changeling: The Dreaming, Lost is about loss. PCs are changleings, normal people abducted, tricked, or voluntarily brought to the realms of the true faeries, who are beings our minsds can't comprehend. They are tortured, molded, and changed, and eventually they manage to escape - or are let go - only to come back to a world that has gone on without them. They find in their place a being called a fetch, living their former life as if nothing went wrong, and so they become strangers in their own lives. They band together for safety and camaraderie, and try not to give in to the urge to become like their tormentors. Lost is a game about suffering from, recovering from, and hopefully overcoming abuse, both physical and mental, and about what you will do and how far you will go to get revenge or relief. Are the powers you gained in your change enough to outweigh what was done to you?

Third on my list is Hunter: The Vigil. I'm currently running a small game of this, though we play only every couple of months. In hunter, you are one of the normal people in the World of Darkness until something strange happens. Maybe a child is abducted, or a relative killed, or you just see something terrible, and you decide that finding and killing whatever you saw is what you must do. You band together with other like-minded souls, and without supernatural powers or an action-hero arsenal, you go hunting the creatures of the night. Some become conspiracy nuts; some go rogue and start fighting their fellow hunters. Some join larger compacts and conspiracies and begin to get a bigger picture of the world they live in. They are the bulwark of humanity against the forces of the night, the candle lit to drive back the darkness. The only problem is, candles go out. How long can a hunter hunt the unknowable before it comes back to haunt him? Will you be irrevocably changed, or die a grisly death - or somehow manage to live to retire in old age? How long can you keep the vigil in a war where you don't even know the other side?

Finally, and most recently, is Geist: The Sin-Eaters. This game is still petty new to me, so I'm not sure I have everything down, but bear with me. In Geist, PCs are people who suffered near-death or actual death, but who were chosen by a kind of ghost - a Geist- as a partner, and brought back from the edge. The Geist inhabits your body, and while it may once have been a human ghost, it has been around for so long that it has lost who it was and now seeks only one thing, different for every Geist - though if you have seen or read The Crow, the spirit is not unlike that. Your revived character can help his or her Geist out, but you can also see the spirits of the world now, those who have died and yet not moved on, and you can become a part of that, eaither by helping ghost along, or by destroying them and feasting on their substance. You can even visit the Underworld to find ghosts in between the physical world and their final resting place, but be careful of the guardians, unknowable things that despise Geists. Essentially, your character has been given a second chance at life, and even though you are different, the question is the same - what do you do with a second chance?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Primal Power

So Primal Power is the newest book released for D&D. Like the other Power books, it goes over the classes from a certain power source, this time the Primal power source. This had previously been the power source I understood the least; martial was easy to understand (hit things), Arcane was all about using magic, and Divine was about using power given from the gods. Primal was tricky for me, though; it seemed that its power came from nature itself, but it was kind of vague on how that worked. Primal Power clears that up a bit - it notes that the physical world has spirits that act as kind of protectors, and that they acted as something of a third side in the war between the gods and primordials, trying to keep the world from being destroyed.

That helped me, because it put a face to the power that went to the Primal classes. It also gave me some cool new material to work with, because the primal spirits don't think the way people do - they aren't always interested in keeping everyone or everything alive, and the way their minds work makes them difficult to communicate with, at best. They are the wild card; the gods and primordials had easily discerned goals, but the primal spirits are unpredictable.

On the mechanical side, the new builds for each class fill some holes, including some that I didn't even notice before. For the barbarian, there is the Thunderborn, who knocks people away then beats them - and is noted as having a controller secondary role. Then there is the Whirling Barbarian, who uses two weapons, instead of one two-handed weapon to slaughter his foes. For the Druid, there is the Swarm Druid, who, instead of assuming a single animal form, can shift into a swarm of insects to harass his foes. There is a secondary build which is noted as a partial build, available for any other build to use called the Summoner, to let the Druid summon animal allies. The Shaman gains the Eagle Shaman build, which gives the Shaman a build to assist ranged allies by using his spirit to guide their attacks, and the World Speaker, which lets the Shaman use his spirit companion almost like a defender to shield others. The Warden gains the Life Warden build, making Wisdom important and allowing the Warden some secondary healing powers, and the Storm Warden, which lets the Warden uses his Constitution bonus for AC and lets him slow and slide marked enemies.

Each class is given an assortment of new paragon paths, and at the end of the book are 8 new epic destinies, all of which accentuate the flavor of the Primal power source. Besides those, there are a number of new feats for the Primal classes, including a set fo new feats which I found very neat: Tribal feats. Tribal feats are fun because by taking one, like the Four Winds feat, which gives you a +2 bonus to Athletics, you gain the bonus. But for every ally or party member of yours within a certain area that also takes the feat, you each gain another +1, up to +5. It encourages teamwork even in character building, which is something that has impressed me about 4th Edition.

Aside from that, there are all the little tidbits of information about the implied D&D campaign world throughout the book that we have come to expect. I like those little touches, because they give me insight not only into the implied world, but also into what the designers and developers are thinking. All in all, I really like Primal Power, though I wouldn't recommend it for someone just looking for story -most of the book is lists of new powers that Primal classes can take. But if you are looking to expand on what the Primal classes in the Player's Handbook 2 can do, you should pick this up.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Overused Fantasy Tropes

We've all seen them if we read much fantasy or many RPGs: the tropes that never seem to change, even when the world or author changes. This gives us ideas like elves always being quasi-immortal forest-dwellers, or dwarves always living in mountains and having Scottish accents. Sometimes, these are OK, but sometimes they just get on my nerves, and if I ever get around to trying to create my own gaming world (or entire game), I'll try to avoid or address these.

For one, tropes are the way they are because they worked, at least at first. Tolkien may be the most famous author for elves living in woods and dwarves in mountains, but things like that really seem to come from farther back, in the myths of the Norse gods. They didn't live on earth (or Midgard), but rather on some other world; the elves lived in Alfheim, and the dark elves in Svartalfheim, and neither had much to do with the big stories of Norse myth. The dwarves lived in Nidavellir, and were really only a part of Norse myth in their crafting ability. They only rarely, if ever, interacted with the humans of Midgard, and mostly only saw the gods. Tolkien brought them all together on Middle-earth (which is essentially what Midgard menat, as it was the middle world of the nine worlds of Norse myth). After that, it seerms everyone felt the need to copy him.

That kind of thing bothers me, because when everybody does it, they stop thinking about what it means. They just assign the woods to the elves and the mountains to the dwarves because everyone knows they live there. This is intellectually lazy; I want to know why the dwarves live in the mountains as opposed to elsewhere. I want to know how they survive when not much worth eating lives underground. Sometimes settings come up with interesting ideas and twists on old tropes, and these are things I enjoy. In the Eberron setting for D&D, dwarves live in mountains, but mountains are really just their strongholds; they live outside and around the mountains, too. And their bif claim to fame? Banking. Underground vaults surrounded by nothing but dwarves are hard to steal from. Elves are different, too - while some do in fact live in forests, mostly they are divided into two cultures: the Valenar, a culture of ancestor-worship, who love to fight and are the world's best skirmishers and light cavalry, and the Arenal, who live on a large, jungle-covered island, and who worship the dead, and who have their undead ancestors as leaders.

So there are a lot of things in fantasy that bother me, and if I ever use them, it'll be with a twist, or completely reworked. What kind of things?

  • Good and evil civilizations living directly adjacent to one another, when one is murderous and expansionist and the other is peaceful and sedate.
  • All the world's best stuff comes only from old, lost civilizations; nothing new is worth having.
  • Racial monocultures. Not every dwarf and elf will be the same; similarly, not every dwarf town and elf village will be the same. the USA is culturally different from Mexico, and we're both human - how come fantasy races are monolithic?
  • If the fantasy setting is medieval, almost all nations will resemble medieval England.
  • Almost all fantasy governments will be benevolent kingdoms. What, no dictatorships or republics? There are other governmental types, you know.
  • Abundance of magic. if there is a lot of magic, it would change the world. Surely some wizard ould think of magical street lighting? If magic is great and powerful, but it doesn't seem to affect the world, then I want to know why.
This and other things are things we shoudl look at when creating new worlds; fantasy author China mieville has somethign to say abotu this in his essay On World Building.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Different Strokes

No, not the TV show. What I'm talking about, at least today, is the different ways people see and enjoy the RPG hobby, and how hard it can often be to bring people with differing viewpoints together. Most RPGs I know of tend to involve two important parts in their production - the 'fluff', or writing about background, setting, characters, and such, and the mechanics, the rules that make the system work.

Fluff is very important for some people. I would imagine it is important to most RPG players to some degree, but some people find a lack of compelling story a game-breaker. I have at least one friend who likes to play RPGs, but she is really turned off by games centered on mechanical ideas, and I don't mean robots. She understands, at least on some level, that some games, like 4th edition D&D, are balanced specifically on mechanical concepts, so no one character or class is severely overpowered compared to another. But that doesn't really interest her; she loves to read, and knows that in lots of traditional fantasy, you have characters of differing power levels. she likes the story-telling portion of the RPG, and prefers games that can kind of leave the mechanical aspects in the background.

Mechanics, however, are what get other people up in the morning. They want an internally consistent rules system, one that makes sense and tries to balance out the levels of power that various players have in play. These people understand that while traditional fantasy can be about the untrained farmboy who rises to become a great warrior or wizard, that having one character in a group wildly overpower the other PCs can make the game very boring and unenjoyable for the players who don't have great powers. I think this is a category I tend to fall into, because I love reading fantasy, but in a game, I tend to feel that balance among characters makes for a more fun game, and I see story-telling as a separate, though also important, concern. For people like this, it is the game aspects that are important.

This is actually two branches of a popular gaming theory - the GNS idea, of Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist. The first I described is Narrativist, the second Gamist, and Simulationist players are those who feel that accurate simulation of a fantasy world in both mechanics and story are ore important than the mechanics or storytelling alone. They would feel that having hobbits in a Middle-Earth game be low-powered would be OK, as it fits the setting, while their cousins, halflings, in the D&D setting of Eberron are more suited to a nomadic, almost barbarian level of living. Despite the two being similar in appearance, the fact that they come from two parts of the fantasy genre means, for the simulationist, that the mechanical and story changes are fine as long as they don't affect the simulation of that particular world.

As a guy with Gamist tendencies, I find that the easiest way to try and work things out and be cool with players of other interests is too not take things too seriously. It is, after all, a game, and arguments over how to play the game should never get so heated as to make people refuse to play with each other. The three ideas aren't so unbending that they can't accommodate people of other playstyles, so if I have to move the mechanics into the background a bit more to help someone become immersed in a game, that's what I try to do. I just find it is helpful to try and identify the concerns that players have and address them before a game is driven off the track.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In-Game in the Membrane

So I play a lot of video games. This is probably not a big shock, since this blog has mentioned quite a few, and they are the easiest thing to play when tabletop gaming is not readily available. I have subscriptions to both World of Warcraft and Champions Online, and a friend has just introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons Online, which is now free. I look forward to the Star Wars MMO by Bioware, too, even though it will likely eat my soul. These games all fill a specific role that I enjoy, and recently (like, yesterday), I found a small quiz that helps to quantify what kind of gamer you are.

The quiz is found at BrainHex, and divides gamers up into seven distinct categories - Socializer, Seeker, Conqueror, Survivor, Mastermind, Achiever, and Daredevil. Socializers place being able to interact with others int their games highly, and this is what I ended up as, which is odd considering I'm pretty introverted in real life. But MMO and other multiplayer games, especially those where you cooperate with others rather than play against them, are where I seem to get most of my enjoyment these days. Seeker was my secondary category, because I like to explore and find out new things in my games - I was one of those guys who has to find every location in Fallout, or explore every zone completely in WoW. New sights and experiences are one of my big things.

The others are not too tough to decipher - Conquerors like to defeat everything that gets in their way, whether a computer-controlled creature or other players in PvP. Survivors tend to be people who really enjoy horror games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill - they get a kick out of just managing to survive horrible things in games. Masterminds like to solve puzzles, and they come in all shapes and sizes - they probably enjoyed old games like Myst or Riven a great deal. Achievers just like to do everything - they're the people you see on X-box Live who have obsessively completed every achievement in their games. Daredevils just like doing crazy things and taking crazy risks - hey, it's a video game, so why not? They probably get a kick out of games like Mirror's Edge.

I'm not sure if this is terribly useful, but it kind of goes hand-in-hand with the various tests that tell you what kind of RPG player you are (here's one). It helps to try and figure out what kind of game you might find most fun, and what kind of people might be the easiest to play with. Though conflict among players is always interesting...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Playing the Game

So, as I've noted before, I usually tend to GM the games I play. Mostly this is because I tend to be the person who introduced my players to the game, and so I am more familiar with it than they are, plus I have all the books. Therefore, I get a lot of experience running games, though not as much as I would like actually playing.

One of the things that tends to happen to me is that I tend to end up with two types of players. These aren't the kind of players talked about in the Dungeon Master's Guide, or on various DMing advice sites - I wish it were that easy. No, these are the kinds of players that drive me up the wall.

First, there is the type of player who is terrified of big, open, sandbox-type games. If you put their character in a world that is wide open, with plenty of stuff to do, they will look around like a deer caught in the headlights. They won't be able to do or say anything. This is the type of player I run into most frequently, since after some experiences early on in my gaming career, I started running more open games, or trying to. These players need to be given a direction, and then they're OK, but give them more than 2-3 options and they just can't seem to deal with it.

Then there is the polar opposite of those players - the ones who want to go everywhere and do everything. Now, at least to start, this is a fun kind of player to have, because they will go create their own adventures, and they will go off on tangents that you mention just to see what there is to do. The problem is, they won't stay on any one path long enough for anything significant to happen. With these players, I end up feeling like a quest provider in World of Warcraft, providing random quests that go random places, because the players don't want to work on any kind of story for longer than a session or two. This makes it very hard to develop a world around them, or for them to really develop their characters.

I don't play with these types exclusively - usually only one or two of any given group will end up like either of these two types of player. But that means that the player who fits either description will probably receive less attention than others, because either they can't make decisions or they try and take every decision. I prefer players who will try and follow some sort of pattern or path to develop their character, because it is something I can understand. I have never understood how, faced with a fantastic world with tons of options, you could fail to choose anything, or try and do everything at once. Kind of like life, I guess - pick something and stick to it, and you'll likely be rewarded.

Edit: This has nothing to do with tabletop RPGs, but I found an interesting test for videogames that attempts to tell you what kind of gamer you are at BrainHex. I ended up being a Socializer-Seeker. What are you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Encyclopedia Graphica

So, I read a number of comics. not as many as I used to, but a fair number, and every now and then I'll pick something up that interests me. I find that, unlike my early teens where I just picked up everything that had big guns, scantily-clad women, and explosions (Rob Liefeld, I'm looking at you), I tend to look more at the authors of a particular series when I consider picking it up. Warren Ellis, Joss Whedon, and Robert Kirkman are the kinds of writers I like to read; they tend to put out interesting material, no matter what character they are writing for.

Guys like Mark Millar, however, I try to avoid. He tends to take things that I like and make them into something else entirely. When he took over the comic book The Authority from Warren Ellis, the characters stopped really being interested in trying to be the most powerful super-beings on the planet and really seemed to be concerned with becoming slutty rock stars. His comic book Wanted was similar; the main character was so unlikeable that the transition to the big screen, and the resulting complete rewrite, made it a much more interesting story, a rarity in comic-to-movie transitions.

So, since I read a lot of comics, I am often interested in running or playing in various kinds of superhero games. My current favorite at the moment is Mutants & Masterminds, by Green Ronin; it is based on the d20 system that D&D 3rd Edition utilized, but it takes that and makes something much more flexible out of it. It makes it fairly easy to create most kinds of superhero, and to emulate most popular heroes, and the Power Level structure tries to keep all the PCs around the same level, so the Batman gadgeteering detective can be somewhat similar to the Superman-alike.

Superhero games are less about character advancement and more about the character stories. Unlike in D&D, new items and gadgets don't show up for the PCs all the time, except as plot devices; you aren't constantly upgrading your gear, but refining your use and control of your powers. Not to say that superhero games will necessarily be deeper - supers games tend to involve a fair amount of corniness, especially when supervillains get involved.

Superheroes are not the only kind of comic I read, though. I've been a big fan of Mike Mignola's Hellboy and BPRD comics for a while, and Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comic series is one of the best, if most depressing, series I read on a regular basis. There's games for that, too; I know of several zombie (or survival horror) games, but my personal favorite is All Flesh Must Be Eaten by Eden Studios. It tries to handle basically every kind of zombie movie or story, from the silly to the serious, and it, plus the various published supplements, handle this pretty well.

There are probably other comics I read, but I can't think of them at the moment, and I'm beginning to get long-winded here, so I'll leave it where it is, though I welcome comments and questions.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Divine Divinity?

Well, I'm not really sure how this relates to gaming, but I'm sure some enterprising mind will find some way to work it into a game. As I have an interest in both Greek and Norse mythologies, I sometimes think about what the two seem to have in common. One of the things that interests me is that both pantheons seem to have a tendency towards the mortal - at least, in their ability to die and their tendency towards emotional outbreaks. Both Norse and Greek pantheons have gods with very human features, which I find interesting.

In fact, from what I know of other mythologies, most cultures of the world tended towards having deities that had distinctly human characteristics. They were mortal in the sense that they could die - it seems only later religions used a deity or deities that were immortal and eternal. Why did these cultures have gods that could die? Did it mean that mortals who acquired sufficient power could ascend to the realm of the gods, if they could only destroy those who came before them?

I suppose that if you combine this with my previous entry, you could come up with an interesting story. What if the stories of our current deities, the immortal, eternal, unchanging powers who live in the heavens, aren't true? What if people of ancient cultures had gods that seemed mortal because they had once been mortal, and had proved themselves somehow, or gathered enough power to displace the previous occupants of the home of the gods?

Now, that knowledge is closely guarded, by secret societies and groups that come from both where you'd expect (like the typical Illuminati) and where you wouldn't (various churches - who wouldn't want this known because their churches would then lose power). Every now and then, someone finds out, and tries to gather the amount of power from the secret places of the world that is needed to ascend to godhood, and these societies either help or hinder them, fighting a secretive war for the path to deific power.

I'm not really sure where this idea came from, but then it is an idea I am coming up with as I write this, on too little sleep and too much caffeine. So take it or leave it, as you will.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Dark Reign of Urban Horror

In the last decade or so, it has become a staple of both science fiction/fantasy writing and horror sections of many bookstores: the urban horror/fantasy novel. Characters like Anita Blake, Harry Dresden, Mercy Thompson, and many more have become common in the shelves of bookstores. With it has come a resurgence of urban horror gaming, and White Wolf has long been the king of that particular niche.

White Wolf started the old World of Darkness back in 1991 when it released Vampire: The Masquerade, where players took the roles of vampires hiding from human society and carrying on their own culture, (un)lives, and conflicts away from mortal eyes. It was hugely popular, and several more games in the World of Darkness were released; Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Make: The Ascension, Changeling: The Dreaming, and Wraith: The Oblivion, among others. In each, you played a member of the titular group, hiding from humanity and trying to accomplsih your goals without ever revealign yourself to a world like ours, but much darker. In time, the games interacted with each other, with consequences both cool and disastrous, and eventually, in 2004, they came to an end with a huge, climactic finish.

That same year, the World of Darkness was reborn, darker than before. It started with the World of Darkness core book, which allowed you to play a normal human with some vague inkling of the horrible things going on, trying to survive in a world of supernatural creatures and terrible things. Then came Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken, Mage: The Awakening, Changeling: The Lost, Hunter: The Vigil, and most recently, Geist: The Sin-Eaters. As before, you play a member of the titular group, but this time, the creatures are less organized, their opponents worse, and overall, the horror theme has become more important for every game. It is an interesting exercise finding out what a werewolf is afraid of.

I've been a fan of the World of Darkness games for a long time, though Vampire has never been a favorite; I leaned more towards the visceral nature of Werewolf. I have run several successful games in the World of Darkness, and I am starting to do that again, albeit with fewer players this time. So I thought I'd share a few of my favorite resources for a game of urban horror.

Wikipedia: Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, is a great source of information. If you want to check the population or big businesses of a city, or look up an obscure entry on a historical figure, here is always a good place to start. Be warned, though; the entries can be altered by almost anyone, and while the Wikipedia people make efforts to try and keep things correct, they can't fix everything.

Fortean Times: A magazine published and devoted to events referred to as Fortean, this publication tracks down and finds all sorts of weird and interesting events, which are great to use as fodder for urban horror games.

Weird Science: No, not the old TV show or movie; this is a site devoted to discussing odd happenings in science, and has some really great information and links. I don't understand a lot of it, but it still makes for interesting material.

TV: TV has some great shows that are goldmines for urban horror games, though some are likely more useful than others. For an investigation game, you can try the X-Files or the more recent Fringe; for a Vampire game, think about looking up the Vampire Diaries or True Blood. A light-hearted take on Wraith? Try Dead Like Me. There was even a short-lived Dresden Files TV series from the Sci-Fi Channel.

Books: Obviously, there are plenty of these. Go look in a bookstore like Borders and you will find numerous urban fantasy/horror series; the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the early Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton, the Felix Castor books by Mike Carey, the Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine, and any number of others. They vary in quality and in amount of fantastical elements they bring to the picture, but they are porbably one of the best places to mine for good material - and some of them are just damn good books, period.

Want more information? Feel free to ask.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Devil in the Details

Lately, I've been playing Diablo 2 again online with a friend, and I have been remembering how much I like the game. It's not a terribly complicated game; you make a character, and then just wander around and click on things to kill them in various ways. But I have always loved the setting and the ambiance of the game. I have thought at numerous times about using D&D to run a game in the world of Diablo 2, and I think it could be pretty easily done, especially with 4th edition.

For one, all the characters available in Diablo 2 are human; while there has been some evidence of intelligent non-human beings in the world of Sanctuary (where Diablo games take place), they are always portrayed as evil. So humans all 'round, though you could probably reskin some of the D&D races to be different human groups.

Second come the classes that characters play. In the original Diablo, the classes available (including the Hellfire expansion) were Warrior, Rogue, Sorcerer, Monk, Bard, and Barbarian. Warrior could pretty easily be a fighter, and a sorcerer from Diablo could easily be either a Wizard or Sorcerer in D&D. The Rogue could be kind of a D&D Rogue, but was really more like a ranger, and they were female, members of a women-only group called the Sisters of the Sightless Eye. The monk (who apparently will also appear in Diablo 3) seems like it could be used with the relatively new Monk class, and the bard in Diablo could be subbed in by the D&D bard. The barbarian gets covered in Diablo 2.

In Diablo 2, there were more classes available: the Amazon, the Assassin, the Barbarian, the Druid, the Necromancer, the Paladin, and the Sorceress. The Amazon is much like the Rogue in Diablo 1, and would most likely fit in as a ranger in D&D. The Assassin, luckily, could be covered by the new Assassin class released to D&D Insider subscribers - not terribly tough, but deadly in a fight. The Barbarian fits very well with the new D&D Barbarian, a damage-focussed combat machine willing to take damage to give more out. The Druid, with its shapeshifting and summoning skills, fits in with the D&D Druid, while the Paladin fits in as a D&D Paladin, though he doesn't receive auras, sadly. The Sorceress, like the Sorcerer in Diablo 1, could be covered by a Wizard or Sorcerer in D&D. The Necromancer has yet to find a place in D&D, but hopes are high that it will become a new class in the future.

Diablo 3, while unreleased, has shown several classes from the game. Two are old favorites, the Monk and Barbarian, while two are new, the Wizard and Witch Doctor. Wizard is an obvious use in D&D, and Witch Doctor, while a difficult fit, might be best served by the Shaman class, though until the game comes out it will be difficult to say.

The setting might be one of the easiest ports to D&D. With access to the Diablo wiki, and possibly either some of the novels or the manuals from the games, you've got most of the outline for a decent setting. The demon-beset kingdom of Khanduras, the desert port of Lut Gholein, the jungles to the east where the corrupt Zakarum religion holds sway, these are all great area for players to adventure in. With the cool thematic information for the various places, but few specifics, it leaves most of the world for a DM to create. The variety of monsters in the world of Sanctuary make monster use easy, though many of the typical D&D monsters will have to be renamed or fit into Sanctuary thematically.

A D&d game set in Sanctuary shouldn't be just about killing monsters, but about the perils of evil, and how it is very easy to lose your way. Many of the greatest heroes of Sanctuary end up corrupted by the Burning Hells; the great mage Tal Rasha took the soulstone of Baal into his body, and lost the fight with the demon lord's spirit. The Dark Wanderer, the victor of Diabo 1, defeats Diablo only to later become his reincarnation. The path is long and dark, and there are many dangers on it, but if you remain true, you can triumph.

At least, that's how I see it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Finding a Game

I've always been pretty much an introvert, so I have trouble finding games. Traditionally, my best games have come from getting my friends to try out a game I'm interested in, and running with that; it has ended up in some very memorable games, though sadly, those times are beyond me at the moment.

In my time in St. Louis, I have had at least two total failures in finding a game; I'll try and relate them with as little vitriol as possible. First, we have a game whose participants I met through a fairly big gaming website. We set up a meet at a local bookstore to confirm none of us were crazed killers, then we set about getting together for a game. Initially, I was told that we would be playing Everquest d20; this is a game I had never played, but that I picked up and made a pretty cool character for. Unfortunately, when I got there on game night, one of the players was missing, and the other players declined to start without him; instead they introduced me to the Illuminati card game.

I like Illuminati, but after three meetings of nothing but this while we waited for the final player, I was getting discouraged. Then when he finally showed up, he decided he didn't like Everquest, that it was too computer-gamey. So he demanded that we play something more 'old school', and so TORG was decided on. Another new system for me, but it looked cool, so I rolled with it. Sadly, after the missing player's initial appearance, he spent another 3 weeks not showing up, and apparently, when missing another session, called the DM to say that after thinking about it, TORG wasn't what he wanted to play. I decided that this was a bad fit for me, because one player who was absent most of the time was dictating what we played and whether we played, so I bowed out.

I spent a couple years out of gaming after that; I made some attempts at online games that didn't get off the ground, and was otherwise indisposed. Last year, though, something came up again; I was contacted through a gaming network at my university to maybe play a game of Mutants & Masterminds, a superhero game run using the d20 system. I responded enthusiastically, and tried to set up a meeting with the prospective DM, but after a couple of cancelled meetings, he e-mailed me and told me he didn't think things would get together.

Currently, I'm in something like gaming limbo. I play a couple MMOs, but they really don't get me the involvement I am looking for, and I haven't been able to drum up the support in my MMO guilds for an online chat-based game that I would like. I'm a member of several online gaming communities, but none of them have really proved very helpful in this regard, at least not lately. My locan gaming stores are good places, but most of the frequent customers are comic buyers, not gamers, so it's a bit hard to get a game going from there, and in general, I tend towards the introverted. So my gaming life is pretty stagnant; I guess I should just be glad that there is plenty of good gaming material to read.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Just Relax

As a guy who has spent a lot of his gaming time GMing, or preparing for GMing, I know how much stress it can induce. You don't want to have your players walk away at the end of the night thinking the game sucked, and so you want to do everything you can to make the experience fun. The key to this?

Just relax.

There are some easy tools you can use to make your workload much smaller, and to make it seem like you spent days or weeks preparing for a game you whipped up in a few hours - if not less.

One of my favorites is simple - a name generator. I keep a short list of names I've pre-generated in the notebook where I keep my campaign notes, and if the players meet an NPC, I just make a note of that by the name I use. Using a variety of names helps, because humans and elves and dwarves and such don't all have similar-sounding names. This can go for taverns, shops, or other businesses, too - I have a half-dozen or so names to use for inns, merchant stores, or even temples.

Also, learn to keep a game face. This sounds silly, but it helps. You need to be able to react to things your players do the way you want to, not they way they expect. If you react predictably all the time, they will catch on, and it will be hard to surprise them. The caveat to this is, of course, the fake-out - react just the way they expect until the very last minute, and then fake it. You lead them along and surprise them at the last minute, and if you pull it off you will earn both their hatred (not really, of course) and respect.

Be willing to be flexible with the rules. I've been guilty of problems like this many times, but while the rules are written out for a reason, they are not the final arbiter of the game - you are, especially in tense situations. Nobody wants the GM to start looking through a rulebook when their PC is trying to launch himself off an ogre to stab the giant in the face.

To go along with flexibility, improvisation. With games like D&D, it can be easy to get bogged down with tiny details, but some things can just be hand-waved. When you throw the PCs against a group of standard human cultists, you don't need a precise total for hit points - they are just cannon fodder. In one game recently, the first fight I threw in was against cultists who were minions (a special designation in D&D, where one hit will kill a minion), and I did it just to make the players feel cool. With the big bad guys, you may want to have a bit more info, but with lower-tier guys, you can wing it for a turn or two while you find the right info - or, you could just put it all in your notes.

Above all, remember - RPG means role-playing GAME, and you play games to have fun. As a GM, you shouldn't be killing yourself or driving yourself nuts to try and provide an absolutely perfect gaming experience; you should be having fun. If it isn't fun anymore, take a step back and re-evaluate, or let someone else take a turn at the wheel.

Friday, October 2, 2009

5 Games That Will Change The Way You Play

As I have noted before, I've been playing for a long time; I'm 30 now, and I've been at it since I was 13. I think dumb luck is all that holds my old AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook together. And I have a fairly extensive collection, both actual and PDF games. I could probably hold a fairly decent sale out of just my personal collection, though I wouldn't do that - I collect stuff almost compulsively.

I picked the five games from the title out of fairly recent games, all within the last year or two. They're games I thought were the most likely to get people, players of GMs, to change the ay they played - or at least see things differently.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition: This is certainly not a new game; if anything, D&D is the granddaddy of RPGs. But 4th edition is something new, and it does not pretend otherwise. It is the first edition I have seen to try and equalize the power level between the classes, and the way they have set up encounter creation is a DM's dream. But most of all, I think this is a great edition because it is the first edition that makes me want to play every class.

Hunter: The Vigil: A game in White Wolf's New World of Darkness line, Hunter is different from the others because you don't play one of the monsters in the night - you play a normal person who belongs to a group who hunts monsters. This game is unique because of the Tier system it sets up; it gives three separate tiers to play at, depending on how far-reaching you want your conspiracies to go. Unlike Hunter: the Reckoning from the old WoD, you actually are essentially a normal human, and this does a lot to help out the feel of the game.

Greg Stolze's Reign: This game, written by Greg Stolze, is run using the ORE, or One Roll Engine, where one roll can tell you everything about whatever action you take. It is a fantasy game set in a very unusual world, and it takes some very interesting ideas and assumptions and runs with them, making for a very extraordinary world. One of the best features of the game, though, is the Company rules system; essentially it allows the PCs to be part of a group, whether a small group like a neighborhood watch or a massive group like a kingdom. Even if you don't play Reign, it is worth picking up just for the Company rules.

Hellas: Worlds of Sun and Stone
: I'm a big fan of greek mythology, and as a typically geeky guy, I love Star Wars for its space opera qualities. Hellas manages to combine the two, and do it beautifully. Essentially, the setting is what would result if every faction and sub-group in ancient Greece were, instead of a small area, a planet, group of planets, or entire solar system. The Pan-Hellenic League covers not a country, but most of a galaxy. Greeks fight with powered armor and laser spears now, and follow the gods, and the game is assumed to be generational - that being multiple characters, presumably related to one another. I loved the idea, and I wish I could run it.

3:16: No, it isn't a Bible verse, it is an RPG by Gregor Hutton. In its simplest form, you play a space marine in the elite human 3:16 Division, going from planet to planet, kicking alien ass and taking names. Well, probably nto from the dead ones, but they're dead, so who cares? The game is very simple, but it doesn't try to be anything else - which is why it is so cool. I could probably talk about this for pages, but really, if you want to know more, head to the website and check it out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


As a long-time DM, I've amassed a fair amount of resources that I find useful for when running a game. Some of them are very game-specific, but many are not, and that's what I thought I'd try and share today.

Obsidian Portal: Wikis are a new big thing, and the ability to have a source of information that people can alter if they note an omission or a mistake is great. Whether it is for a favorite RPG or a video game, they can be very handy, since they are most often created by fans who tend to provide more useful information than not. Obsidian Portal provides the ability to make your own personal game wiki, and let your players alter it as they want. How cool is that?

Encyclopedia Mythica: I have a fascination with mythology, and I like to make use of it in my games. My knowledge of mythology is mostly limited to Western mythologies, and the Encyclopedia Mythica expands my available knowledge by a great deal. Fun to use for modern games, like those taking place in White Wolf's World of Darkness.

Roleplaying Tips: Johnn Four has an immense amount of knowledge, and he sends out some of it, on various topics, on a weekly basis - and his archive goes back almost 9 years. If you're looking for some advice on a particular topic, you could do worse than checking the archive here for help.

Greg Stolze's Reign
: While I love Greg Stolze's work in general, Reign is a great game in particular. But why I provide this link is because, while the main book is for sale, all the supplements are available for free from his website, and they have some great and unusual ideas that make great places to grab some new ideas.

Name Generator: When running a game, thinking up decent names for NPCs is something I often find to be a pain, which is why I keep this link around. This site has general, specific, theme, and location-based name generaotrs, making it easy to come up with names that won't throw your players for a loop. I like to keep a short list of names around just in case PCs talk to people whose names I haven't plotted out.

Treasure Generator: I have trouble sometimes in D&D thinking up interesting treasure to provide for the PCs; magic items are OK, but items like art and created valuables aren't easy for me; I also like to use Bad Axe Games' Book of Unusual Treasures.

4E Tools for DMs: This link is to the storage area of a Google group that provides a number of useful files for DMs of 4th Edition D&D; initiative cards, condition cards, and power cards, all available for free.

Gametable: A tool for running RPGs online; it has the ability to roll dice, a map to see character movement, and a chat function. I was going to run my own game with this when complications came up, but ti still makes a good, and fairly uncomplicated, way to run a game online. If you want voce chat, I would suggest Ventrilo or Skype.

Critical Hits: A blog with a number of contributors that is devoted to trying to inform other gamers about what they see as big successes in not only RPGs, but also video games, movies, books, and other things related to geek culture. There are some great articles here; I've been trying to comment on some of the newer ones.

Dungeon's Master: Another blog devoted to gaming, while this one says it is for both players and DMs, it seems much of the advice and articles are meant to be useful for DMs, which makes them particularly helpful for me - especially when they go over parts of 4th Edition that remain unclear to me, like skill challenges.

Gnome Stew: "Written by nine veteran GMs, Gnome Stew is the most widely read game mastering blog in the world." That is how Gnome Stew describes itself, and who am I to argue? Good GMing advice, though you have to register to comment on anything.

Chasing the DM: This blog is a chronicle of a 4th Edition game in progress, and is interesting to read through just to see the kinds of situations and problems that both players and DMs can find themselves in.

At-Will: This blog says it provides inspiration, techniques, and other helpful stuff for 4th edition, and it also goes over the events of each week as they relate to D&D. If you want to keep up-to-date on what is happening in D&D, you should check here.

Have Dice Will Travel: This is the chronicle of the adventures of Keith Baker, the man who won the setting creation contest for D&D and gave us Eberron as a new setting. It's a travelogue of his travels around the world playing D&D, which makes for an interesting read - and lets me keep up on how he's doing with his latest works.

James Wyatt's Musings
: James Wyatt is the Design Manager for D&D, which means he has a fair hand into how things work, and does his fair amount of writing for the line. This is his personal blog, and while it is a bit behind on entries, it does provide some interesting insight on what he has brought to the game.

The Keep on the Gaming Lands: This is the blog of Mike Mearls, who is one of, if not the, chief designer for D&D currently. Considering his work on both 4th Edition and the work he did previous to it, I find his ideas very informative and often helpful.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


As I mention in my intro, I'm a graduate student in English. Specifically, I am a Masters student about to take my qualifying exam and hopefully proceed on to the PhD program. If I manage that, I'll be specializing in Medieval Studies, because the literature of the medieval world, especially the early medieval, fascinates me. One of my favorite works of literature is Beowulf, which is the longest surviving work in Old English.

As a fan and student of the medieval era, I am often trying to find a way to bring it together with my interest in gaming. I already have a quite large collection of fantasy novels; some of them are great, while some of them I collected while in my early teens and keep only for nostalgia. I have a growing collection of medieval literature and history, as well, especially concerning Old English and Old Norse. Yes, I find Vikings, and other early medieval Scandinavians fascinating; I once wrote a 25-page paper for a Byzantine History class on the Varangian Guard, a special contingent of mercenaries imported by the Byzantine emperor from Scandinavian nations.

One of the things I have found that works quite well trying to combine my love of the medieval with my love of gaming is the literature and writing of the Anglo-Saxons. They were a harsh people, living in a harsh time, and yes, they did invade the British Isles. But one of the things they also seemed to love was the creation of riddles. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of Anglo-Saxon riddles floating around, and many of them are very cunningly written; they seemed to have a fondness for making something sound like sexual innuendo, when in fact the answer was not sexual at all.

Luckily for me, one of the very first sites that comes up when you punch in 'Anglo-Saxon riddles' in Google is a site created by a former professor of mine from my undergraduate days; without his influence, I doubt I would have made it as far as I have today in the academic world. Riddles are not the only contribution the Old English and Norse made towards gaming, obviously, but they are one of the contributions I have found most useful in flummoxing players, as well as an interesting insight into the culture they come from. If you have any interest, look them up, and if you're looking for more, contact me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Creating Worlds

As a DM, one of my biggest problems has always been creating interesting environments for players to have their adventures in. Sometimes I spend way too much time detailing a setting, only to have players fast-forward through all my hard work, and sometimes I go with a bare-bones approach and get bitten when players suddenly want to know what happened to an innkeeper's nephew I made the mistake of mentioning. It's really a balance to try and find out what the players will and won't enjoy.

A while back, once I finally realized this, I wondered if there wasn't something else I could do. Granted, I could use pre-made settings; there are some very cool ones out there, many of them much better than what I could come up with on my own. But I realized that, when it all came down to it, I was generally the only one who had any input into the creation of a campaign setting, and that this might be the reason why I was having so much trouble engaging my players.

So, I looked into collaborative worldbuilding. At its most basic, this is where you essentially allow the players to come up with large portions of the setting - most often, where their PCs come from and where they end up going. This can be a bit chaotic, because you will have a number of people all trying to fit different things into a setting, sometimes in ways that will be highly incompatible. So there are easy ways to direct this. First, tell the players what kind of feeling you are going for with the setting; a nation of carefree, rainbow-worshipping hippy elves wouldn't work very well in a setting of grim horror. Second, establish a level of technology; this will be the highest anyone can have their group/nation/whatever's technology advance to. This avoids things like the laser-blaster-wielding mercenary in a low medieval setting, which would get messy. Decide whether the world will have one or two main groups of deities, or whether they will have separate pantheons by culture. Encourage your players to not put things like frost-bitten tundra next to searing deserts, things like that.

There are a couple of places that would be good resources for something like this. The first is a series of questions about world-building by fantasy author Patricia Wrede; as the page itself notes, not all the questions have to be answered, as they are mainly there to provoke interesting ideas and try and get people to think in the same frame of thought.

Second, and possibly the more fun of the two links I have, is to something of a game in itself called Dawn of Worlds. Essentially, the players of the game get to take turns slowly building a world, each getting a certain number of points on each turn that can be spent on things like shaping the land, altering climate, creating a race, causing catastrophes, and commanding avatars, as the players essentially end up playing as gods. As I said, this can be a game in and of itself, and groups may want to devise some rules about how turns are handled so one player's precious forests are not then inhabited cruelly by the next player's evil serpent-men. It can make for some interesting worlds, and whoever is DMing the game may want to stop when they feel the world has been developed enough.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Achievements in Gaming

4th Edition has caused me to rethink a lot of things about the way I play D&D, and other RPGs in general. In particular, I've spent a lot of time thinking about things people have said about 4th Edition's resemblance to video games in general, and MMOs like World of Warcraft in specific. I also have an Xbox 360, and so sometimes I think about what I can do to bring the two together. After reading through a number of message boards, I think I've found something I like.

Achievements, for the 360, and for WoW, are something I feel almost compelled to get when I play a game. I like the idea that I have achieved something special in a game, especially if it involves a degree of skill or finding something secret. There are something like 900+ achievements in WoW, and I have acquired about half of them. So I was intrigued when I started reading on some message boards that people were trying to implement achievements in their 4th Edition games.

Initially, it sounds like something of a useless idea - there are no real points to gain in 4th Edition, and no real community to show your score off to. But as I thought about it, there are things you could definitely do to make achievements fun and possibly even useful in a D&D game. For one, if one player earns a cool achievement, it might be something to brag about with the other players, and give the PCs more minor goals to work towards. It might also give an opportunity for the DM to hand out some minor, temporary benefits when an achievement is gained - perhaps something like an action point. Particularly worthy achievements might give the PC something to tell others about; an achievement for finishing off opponents in a certain way might translate into a nickname or other honorific.

Courtesy of a thread on ([4E] Achievements, branstorming), here are a few interesting and fun-sounding ideas for achievements.

Till the Break of Dawn - Inflict any condition or ongoing damage that a saving throw can end on an enemy in the first round of combat and keep the effect on the enemy until the encounter ends.
Only a Flesh Wound - Fail two death saving throws in a single encounter and survive the encounter.
Can't Touch This: As a warden, succeed on at least two saving throws on your turn.
Something For Every Occasion: As a bard, use powers or class features from at least three different classes in a single encounter.
Burning Up Inside: As a sorcerer, hit at least three enemies with a single attack which includes a damage type that you have resistance to.
This One's Mine: As a ranger, place your Hunter's Quarry on a non-minion enemy in the first round of an encounter. At the end of the encounter, if that enemy is dead and none of your allies dealt damage to that enemy, you gain this achievement.
Never Knew What Hit 'Em: As a rogue or assassin, inflict the killing blow on a target that is not aware of your presence.
Persistent: Miss with a Reliable power at least three times in a single encounter.
I'm Sorry, Did I Break Your Concentration? - Drop a foe with an Opportunity Attack due to using a ranged or area attack.
With my Tea Cup - Kill a minion with an improvised weapon.
Over 9000! - Hit with a Daily Attack power, with at least three positive effects on your character.
De-fense, Rah Rah Rah - End your turn surrounded by 8 enemies, and survive until the start of your next turn.
Ninja Run - Hit an enemy with a melee attack after starting your turn at least 14 squares away.
Stay Down- Knock a single enemy prone three times in one encounter.
God-botherer (Cleric)- perform 3 heal or religion checks in one encounter.
Antivenom: As a dwarf or warforged, succeed on three saving throws against poison effects in a single encounter.
Hardcore: Choose not to take a short rest after three consecutive encounters.
My Name is Inigo Montoya...: The PC makes a witty comment for each attack he attempts in a single encounter.

Really, the variety of achievements is limited only by the creativity of the people playing. A snappy name, though, is key.