Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

Dragon Age Inquisition
So, yeah, I've finally been playing the single-player campaign. I started it last November and never got around to finishing it. A month or two ago, I started playing the multiplayer with a friend of mine and we were quite enjoying it. I took the knowledge I'd learned from the multiplayer and picked a better class to play in single player. And now I'm hooked into the story.

I'll have a few pluses and minuses to list here, but the short review would be: Buy this game, it is probably the best RPG Bioware has done in 5 years. The last time I had this much fun was probably Mass Effect 2.

The pluses:

Great graphics and visual effects: All of the locations get a tremendous amount of atmosphere from the improvements in graphics. I'm on Xbox One, YMMV on other platforms. But it adds to the story telling.

Great storyline: I'm not sure how much the storyline is actually branching in a way that matters, but the appearance of making decisions that matter is actually there on this first play through. Actions and decisions have consequences. You lock some things out with your decisions.

Great characterization: All of the NPCs in your party are interesting, interact with each other more deeply, and have backstories.

Great tie-in to the lore: If you played Dragon Age and Dragon Age II, there are both deep tie-ins to what's happened before in those games and also to the backstory and lore of the setting. There was a point about 12-15 hours in where I wished that Dragon Age Origins was available on Xbox One so I could just slap the disk in and watch the OPENING CREDITS. I did find my old "ultimate" strategy guide with the 100 pages or so of setting lore. I feel like the story is deeply invested in the lore (even if I still skim the codex entries....)

I've found myself digging deeper into stuff that's been published about the setting, and wanting to know more about the world, something I felt during Dragon Age Origins, and totally didn't feel in Dragon Age II.

In particular, I would say they've managed to make the Chantry and religious side of the setting a bit more interesting. I've been RPing most of my character's responses as a devout person, and there's a fulfilling arc to that.

Deep mechanics: Comboing within the game is still a thing, like DA:O. Knowing how to spec your characters makes a huge difference. My core party of 4 is now just a threshing machine of AOE damage.

Great dragons: Every time I discover a high dragon, my heart usually skips a beat, because it is unexpected and dramatic.

Reasonably good AI for party members: Most of the party seems to use their abilities semi-intelligently. I don't have to micromanage a lot of fights.

The negatives:

Slow load times: This is true of almost any Xbox One game. There are so many media files to load, and it never seems to be quick.

Find the pixel: Every major zone in the game has at least four different "hunt the pixel" quest lines. Find the zones, fine the markers to claim, find the crystal shards, find the mosaic tiles. Outside of having a strategy guide, the chance of finding everything is vanishingly small. I still haven't finished a mosaic.

Different mechanics in Multiplayer: While they share some things, there's a lot of differences in how you purchase abilities in single player. Crafting is also very different. In particular, single player appears to force you to "waste" more points on the skill trees to get to the abilities you really are interested in.

(An opposing view: you also get access to MORE abilities in single player, meaning you can, say, make a mage character who has combos that aren't possible in SP).

Opaque mechanics: While in places the mechanics are deep, this game also suffers from the problem many of these games have, in that they throw a bunch of numbers at you without giving you all the numbers or showing you enough information to really assess whether something is an improvement or not.

Sameness to the fights: Outside of major boss fights, I'm just clearing out the trash, in the MMO sense. Most of the time, I don't take any damage now. Ho hum.

A gigantic f-ing world: All of the zones are just gigantic. While this gives the game a great sense of scope, and lets them do interesting zone design, it also means this game is probably twice as long as any of the Mass Effect games, but not with twice the story. More, twice the pixel hunting.

Little need to switch between party members: Once I got my party of 4 where I like it, I've almost never switched. Frankly, it is a pain to find or equip gear on the other 6 or so party members, so I usually just don't bother. It also means that I really have to make a dedicated effort to go back and talk to these characters for backstory.

Big-ass world: Did I mention that this game world is huge? Seriously, I didn't need to hunt for pixels in a world this big.

I figure I will finish this play through, with some minor looking at strategy guides for the locations of mosaic pieces. Then I will dig deep into a strategy walkthrough and decide if I want to play a second character through it this summer.

Napoleonic roleplaying
Duty & Honor and Beat to Quarters are giving me some good roleplaying ideas to go with my Engarde idea.

I bought these games in a bundle but never got a chance to read them. Clearly written by someone who is also a fan of the napoleonic era and related fiction.

Some of the things I like:

Reputations are a big part of the system. How the men feel about you, for example, can have an effect in combat. Reputation isn't static because...

The damage system uses identical mechanics to deal out damage to health, reputation, or to the company/ship's morale, or to the ship or company itself, or even to the character's wealth level. This matches up pretty well with my ideas for using FATE; a key tenant of FATE is that anything can be treated as if it were a character.

It uses cards to resolve conflicts, sometimes using the suit of the card to randomize effects. For example, where cannon fire hits the ship.

Interesting fog of war and combat resolution. For example, you usually plan a battle plan ahead of time. You can change the plan mid battle but at a cost.

Edited to add two more pieces:

The fact that morale plays such a big part of the system feels really important to me. So many roleplaying games gloss over the 'human' factor of morale, but I think there's a lot to be said for it in a game where the players are an important cog in a larger army or ship's company.

The other thing I really liked is that the game's core attributes are very different than most RPGs. There's no strength or dexterity. There's guts, influence, charm, and so on. Similarly, by default, combat skills are identical for PCs. You have to actually take a 'trait' to have notable differences in physical fighting ability. This is a nice way of emphasizing that other attributes -- such as leading men into combat -- are more interesting. Having someone who is notably a good shot is a distinguishing attribute. That matches pretty well with the Sharpe's TV show. All of them were good shots, but only Hagman is the best.

I've seen a couple of other games in the FATE constellation that have done things like this, and I like the concept. A notable example is Dark Star in Fate Codex 1-2. Everyone in the campaign is a crack pilot; so players customize the "how" and "why" using aspects and stunts. In other words, you can't just be a generically "better" pilot; you need to define what things you are better at. I like that focus.

Looking for game suggestions : western fencing in FATE
Okay, I've been noodling on this game idea but it isn't quite coming together. So I'll throw it up here to see if anyone else can see into my blind spots.

Concept: FATE game with a fancy and cinematic fencing system with ways for players to distinguish themselves with specific styles. Think 7th Sea, but with the story and mechanical benefits of FATE. My current inspiration is the martial arts system in Tienxia.

Mechanically, this is mostly straightforward. Stunts and aspects do almost all the heavy lifting. One challenge of working with stunts in FATE is that the more interesting designs of stunts require both creativity and technical knowledge of the game mechanics interact with each other. It is the area that I haven't seen much innovation in our local games. We usually tend to stick to book stunts.

I actually think that the entire system in Tienxia can be re-skinned and it will work just fine. Meaning mechanically similar, but thematically and stylistically western cinematic fencing.

Here's roughly the interesting parts:

1. The chi skill gives you mystical armor at the start of fights that you can use to block damage; it goes away when you use it. Western version : Elan.

2. Based on having stunts in the martial arts, you get a Kung fu rank. When fighting people of a lower rank, they can't gsng up on you and you get a free use of your martial art aspect during the fight against them. This is the grandmaster versus the crowd of mooks.

3. Martial arts in the game are formed by taking two substyles, an element and a form. So: Iron tiger, forest monkey, storm dragon, etc.

Each substyle has 3 stunts inspired by the theme. A grandmaster gets a mastery stunt that is unique to that element-form combination based on the theme of the two parts. So with 6 forms and 6 elements, they created 18 stunts for each subsystem and 36 mastery stunts - 72 total. If you made 36 distinct arts you would end up needing to make 252 stunts....

The naming of the arts is the thing I am having problems re-skinning because I haven't come up with a western sounding combination of parts. I don't know what to name the substyles.

First, two sentences from the rules that work pretty well for building out the parts:
Element substyles are about method and tactical applications of the style.
Body substyles are about execution and physical manifestation of the style.

Here are some of the ideas I have for substyles:



Name of the master...

I am mostly looking for naming suggestions at this point. Ways to put two halves together to make something interesting. Something like "iron dragon" but fitting a western fencing style. It may be that there isn't something like that and I should stop tilting at windmills.

The best idea so far is that it doesn't literally have to be a two word name - I can give it a name that plug it into a sentence: "The art of xxxx is a *approach* style that comes from *nation*." "Xxx is a *approach* style invented by *grandmaster*"

Avoiding online dating scams

This post has been percolating for a week or two, with some debate in my head as to whether I should write it. But I've been snarking about it already on facebook, and maybe getting it out of my head will help. :)

So I've been at least testing the waters of dating sites again, at the very least looking for more practice with "first dates" and the like. The sites I've been picking have both local people and people from other countries. And of course, with my Russian studies, I've always considered the possibility that I might find someone from another country to date or fall in love with. I won't debate whether long distance dating a good idea or not -- I feel like I've had that conversation with a few people and that I have a good handle on the pros, cons, risks and rewards. (From my perspective, in brief, I have an open mind: it is possible to find a good and fulfilling relationship with someone here or someone half-way around the world; I'm not limiting myself any single possibility).

But one of the risks of long-distance relationships and dating sites is dating scams -- that you aren't talking to the person you think you are, just a filthy scammer trying to take your money. That's what I'm going to ramble about today. Mostly, to describe what most of them look like and how to detect and avoid them. Yes, I've studied security thinking, why do you ask?

One of the debates about posting things like this is that it is a potential tool to build a better scam. If someone can get past these guidelines, could they scam me? I suppose it is possible, but honestly, it requires too much work to accomplish. Meaning, I would have to attract an extraordinary scammer.

To date, I've ever been successfully scammed by an online scammer. The scams I've seen someone try to pull on me are all pretty similar. They move quickly (3-5 emails), try for emotional attachment, and then try to get you to send money. Often, they use hardships to gain sympathy. I think like many scams, they prey on weakness. Much of the cure, from my perspective, is to be strong, to know what you need to believe that a relationship is real, and to rarely compromise much on those beliefs.

Briefly, the typical pattern I've seen is:

1. Spammed intro email: "Hi, I'm CUTE_EASTERN_EUROPEAN_GIRL. I think you sound like a wonderful person! Please write to me at EVIL_SCAMMER@some_domain".

2. If you write to them, they send the first letter, almost always a pre-written note. It will almost always come with 3 photos. (Rarely 2 or 4 -- I don't know why this is. I've joked that someone must sell a scammer kit). Often, the photos are model-quality professional photos.

3. You exchange 2-3 emails, each from the girl will sound like she's more and more attracted to you. Each will usually have new photos. Often, the photos will get more racy as time goes by (rarely explicit nudity tho).

Depending on the skills of the scammer, these notes will either be very form-letter like, or they might be half-and-half, meaning they will say a few things in reply to your questions/comments, and then the rest is their existing scam latter. Often, you will notice a big quality difference between the answers to your questions and these other sections. The spontaneous content is of lower quality.

4. You receive an email that effectively is asking for money. For example, "I lost my bag with all my stuff I need for work. Now what will I do?!" or "Your girl is using our translation service and can no longer afford to pay for this service. If you wish to continue to correspond, you can work with us to establish an account for her."

The thing is, this is a VERY quick escalation and ramp up. They aren't trying to keep a mark on the hook for months, they are looking for the score and the brush off.

So, how to defend against this. I've got a few thoughts here.

1. Don't look for online long-distance dating at all. Ignore all introductory emails if they come from another country. Honestly, that's the best defense.

Better to look for personal introductions, friends of friends. Hell, that's usually true for local dating also.

2. Be strong. Don't trust so quickly. Really, do you want to be with someone who is telling you how amazing you are after two emails? Real relationships take time to develop, and I think you need to see deeds, not just words.

You must keep some level of skepticism about anyone that you haven't met in person. If someone seems too good to be true, they probably are not a real person. Hell, even in person, I think people need to demonstrate their trustworthiness.

3. Use google image search on every photo. Probably 3/4 of the scams I've seen use photos of lesser known celebrities or models, so a google search finds the real person fairly quickly.

The more professional ALL her photos are, the more likely it is that this is a scam. Come on, not everyone manages to get perfect lighting in every shot. Most girls will not have professional lingerie shots.

4. Use google search on the email address she's using. There are also web pages specifically devoted to scams and tracking email and IP addresses. The scammers don't usually create burner addresses for each mark.

5. Use google image search on some of the text in the email, usually scammers will reuse some of the same text. Again, the scammers have to be efficient or it isn't worth their while.

6. Ask early to skype or use some other video chat service. This way you can see a real person talking to you. Most scammers will refuse here, saying it is too expensive or they have some other problem to prevent it.

Phone calls are a possible second place, but are still not very good at gauging whether someone is real. And I've seen at least one person that I detected using photos, but was otherwise interested in talking on the phone.

As a VERY distant third, ask for a personal photo or video that shows something specific for you. In other words, something that if they were a real person, they could go take a photo that matches some desire of yours or has a personal message in it. Something that can't be photoshopped.

My experience is that all of these attempts will fail. They lost their phone. The war has damaged the internet so they can't send video. They can't afford to pay the translation service. And so on and so on. It is distantly possible that some of these excuses are legitimate, but all of them? Unlikely.

For what it is worth, skype is not simply a good tool for detecting scammers. I think it is a great tool for establishing real relationships if you are trying for something long distance. We are visual creatures, and crave body language from our partners.

7. Time: I think most of these scammers are trying for short-term rewards, if they can play the whole scam in 2 weeks, it is a win for them. So if you are clear that you need time to build a real relationship, they will probably rush their game, send notes that are off in tone, or just leave.

For example, recently, I had been contacted by someone. I made it clear in my first email that I wanted skype. She said she didn't (internet problems). I said that there are too many scammers, and without something tangible, it would be difficult to build the trust required for a relationship. . I got two messages asking why I didn't trust her (while she of course, trusted me with all her heart), and then the scammer moved on to the "you need to pay for translation services if you want to keep talking to her). I think the last email was the only one where the scammer was back "on script".

8. Avoid deep personal information that can be used against you. Of course, you wouldn't give your social security number to anyone. But avoid other information that can be used against you. For example, don't say you are going on vacation or out of the house or anything like that.

One site I saw had a good set of rules: don't use photos on dating sites that are also used on other social media. In other words, google image search can be used against you, the mark, as well. I don't think I've seen much evidence of this in practice, but it is out there.

At some level of paranoia, use a different phone number or an anonymous email address. Or at least a different email address that you don't mind abandoning. (I use a different email address for friends than I use for dating sites).

9. Ask questions that require answers that are hard to write as boilerplate. I don't have any great examples offhand. Honestly, the best thing I've found to throw them off their game is simply to talk about how difficult trust is and to ask them to show you something real. They can't do it.

Anyway, that's a list of specific things I've considered, but also just reiterating general principles: be skeptical, be honest, be cautious. Give someone a chance to prove themselves to you, and don't accept it when they can't. (There's another lesson here in life, which is how to avoid putting up barriers that are so high that no one can get past them, but that's a different kind of problem, one I'm still calibrating for myself. Trust is like a well-cooked egg, neither too runny or too rubbery).


Grounded reality in horror gaming

Had some morning discussion about horror gaming and FATE (a system I'm poking at quite a bit right now). There's some overlap with my previous post on violence in games.

There's two thoughts I'm working on today.

#1 How to make horror games interesting without making them a gunbunny game or a pure victim game. For me, horror games should permit the players to be heroic in some senses of the word; they can decide to put themselves in harms way or try to stop something terrible from happening. This might be turning the tables on a monster stalking them, for example.

#2 Interesting hacks and gamemastering techniques in FATE to pull off a more 'grounded' approach.

I often find myself ambivalent to horror gaming. It isn't a genre I run exclusively nor one that I hate. I prefer to use horror elements in other games because the unexpected makes those elements more potent. Part of my negativity is that so many of horror games fall into uninspiring subgenres.

Gunbunny gaming is what I call a totally tactical take on horror. There are zombies/cthulhian horrors/vampires, and we need to take them out, preferably with big guns and big explosives. Many early CoC games I played fell into this pattern, because that was an era of gaming where tactical play against an adversarial GM was the norm; you were rewarded for good tactical play, not good roleplaying. We need to investigate A,B, and C, then get the dynamite, then blow up the cultists. We'll lose a character to madness, because apparently seeing anything bad causes insanity. Enough sessions with that pattern, and I needed to move on.

The other extreme generally comes when the players are made powerless against the monsters, often as a reaction to gunbunny games. Dynamite doesn't work. Guns don't work. Nothing works. Keep running. A feeling of powerlessness is critical to psychological horror, but past a certain point at the table, it stops being fun. There needs to be some way to turn the tables on the monsters.

What I want at the table is a mix of elements. The PCs are normal joes, not superheroes. The darkness can be fought, but not on even footing, and there will be consequences. You can't fight what's out there without being changed by it. Going into a situation with overconfidence will get you killed. Swagger is right out.

FATE has a reputation (somewhat deserved) as being a game that goes over the top. Some of this comes from its early incarnation in Spirit of the Century, a pulps setting. But, frankly, a lot of FATE con games also fall into a pattern: the players get beat up along the way (but not very much), there are complications based on who they are, but they make it to the final scene and UNLOAD with all the fate chips they've been hoarding. The big boss(es) wither under incredible damage rolls, because in FATE it is usually better to hit a villain with one big attack than to wear them through stress damage.

The thing is, I think you can ground FATE games without rewriting the core rules. I've seen tons of interesting ideas in FATE Codex and other FATE Core derived games. FATE is pretty flexible, and it so much of how it plays depends on how you use the tools you've been given.

One well-worked example comes from Tianxia, a wuxia game set in fantasy ancient China. The section on martial arts offers a suggestion that simply by changing descriptions and how you define zones on the map, you can either take a grounded approach (martial artists still obey the laws of physics) or a fantasy approach (players can fly from building to building). Mechanically, you use the same tools but for different kinds of scenes.

Here are some thoughts on using FATE to run more "grounded" games. I think these apply well for horror games but could work in almost any setting that you wanted to ground a bit more in reality.

Realistic aspect phrases - An aspect is "always in effect" so it represents something that is true about a character, a situation, or the story. So my first item is simply to police how aspects are named. Allowing "Psychic CIA assassin" as a high concept immediately changes the tone of the game to something more powers based. "Curious Housewife, mother of Two" or "Science Nerd" has a different tone; these are normal people! Maybe in a horror game of identity, enforcing a PC's relationships to the other PCs through aspects ends up important; something enforced during character generation. Ask for aspects related to the kinds of games you want to run. If you want the characters to be in conflict with each other, make sure they have aspects that give them differing goals or approachs.

Character's level of comfort with violence - An explicit reference to my last post: can your character act violently? How does he or she consider violence? If confronted with actual horror, will they freeze up? Again, make it an aspect, and make it clear.

Compels, Consequences, and Concessions - As far as I'm concerned, the three C's and how you apply them during play will set the  tone for a game session. In a horror game, ruthlessly compelling the PCs feels entirely in scope. When the players decide to make a stand against the truly terrible beings, maybe they should have to pay that fate point for the priviledge. Elaborating: In a normal game, often GMs only offer compels that they expect the player to take; if the players are buying off compels often, that's usually considered in a failure. In a horror game, it might be a feature.

Consequences offer the opportunity to add new elements to a person's character. Consequences open up new ways to compel a character; meaning that the PC loses some control of how their character acts and who their character is. "Twisted ankle" means you might be able to keep the character for getting away. "Startled by loud noises" gives you something to hit the character with an appropriate moment.

"Bitten by a zombie" is a fascinating aspect -- the latest FATE Codex goes into a lot of detail about some of the ways this aspect can be compelled, and how to define a zombie setting. I loved the ideas there. "Dracula's latest conquest" could also be an amazing consequence, setting up all sorts of interesting compels at the wrong time. These two aspects and things like them could easily be used to erode trust between the PCs. Keep the PCs from showing a united front!

And finally, concessions. When the heroes concede a fight, make things worse. A lot worse. It is okay to root for the villain. I touch on a few ideas related to this below.

Changing the character's aspects - I still think that the biggest innovation that Dresden Files brought to FATE was an expansion of changing a character's aspects either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often, these are the result of a situation (extreme consequences) or a choice (black magic). Use black magic enough and it starts to color your personality; you are changed by the experience.

I think any game where story is important should also have the characters changing over time. Not simply getting stronger, but getting changed by events. While I'm still not a fan of random insanities (a la Call of Cthulhu), I am 100% on board with trauma changing the characters. Make it hard for them to function. In many ways, this is taking some concepts in consquences and making them more permanent. You have changed who the character is.

Obviously, this works best if the players are on board and being creative in how they change the aspects. But given the situation, you are allowed to say "no, that's not enough, make it worse."

Megastunts - Atomic Robo has some rules for strong stunts and aspects. Make some monsters explicitly immune or resistant to common attacks. One interesting concept is that just because I'm immune to bullets, it just means the bullets can't hurt me. But a gun might let me create a boost long enough to get away. That's totally in line with horror storytelling. You rob certain actions of their power, but you don't eliminate those actions entirely.

It is okay for players to fail - GUMSHOE introduced a mechanic that guarantees success for certain player actions, namely clue-finding actions that would derail a game if they fail. FATE has a milder approach for this, which is the concept of "success at a cost", meaning the players might succeed at a task but they pay for it in stress, consequences, or other problems (you can think of this as similar to a compel). My goto examples here are "you find the clue but the bad guys are alerted", "you find the clue but are attacked", "you find the clue, but it took longer than expected, giving you less time to take advantage of it."

But...just because FATE has success with complications doesn't and shouldn't mean that every action the players take needs to be a success. Rooting for the PCs does not mean that adventures become golden paths of repeated successes. Adventures should allow the players to fail at challenges...and maybe those failures make things a lot worse. When the players get "success at a cost", the cost should have real bite. These aren't the zany antics of slapstick comedy, these costs are real losses or penalties. Perhaps only short-term problems, but still problems. The radio the PCs have to talk to their commander is destroyed. They lose all their food.

An obvious challenge of putting more screws to the players is that they WILL become more defensive and tactical. I'm not 100% certain how you get around that other than perhaps reminding them of who their characters are. When the High School Principle starts organizing troops into a pincer movement, you probably don't have enough setting buy in.

When I first started playing Spirit of the Century, I felt that one of the things it did was open the story to trusting the GM to tell a good story. I might accept a concession to move a story forward, but because I  conceeded I get a little control over how happens. Most of the control is in the GM's hands. Getting players to accept capture or loss is often hard, but concessions reward this mechanically AND can also make for good genre-appropriate stories. But it definitely requires trust in the GM to pull those sorts of compels and concesssions off.

Tihe more bite you give concessions, the harder it will be to get players to accept those sorts of concessions. I think part of the answer is that the alternative (being taken out) is always on the table also. Being taken out doesn't mean the PC has to die, but it does mean the player doesn't get any say into what happens to them. With concessions, they still have a little power to adjust things in a way that they might be able to take advantage of down the line.

But, fundamentally, I think if you are going to run a horror game and try to work in some of these thumbscrews, you need buy-in from the players and everyone needs to trust each other at the table. The experience isn't a purely tactical one; if you want that, there are about 100 zombie boardgames on the market. The goal is for the GM to torture the players (and put them into situations where they can't all agree about what to do). But the players also need to enjoy the game.

While I think the detail I've added above is helpful, I think the basic concepts can be summarized succinctly:

* Decide on the tone you want for your game and the kind of scenes and stories you want to see.

* Make sure that what you are doing is still fun. Get buy in from the players where necessary.

* Police the game elements (aspects, stunts, map zones) to make sure they fit this tone.

* Be cruel and ruthless. FATE has plenty of thumbscrews to tighten. Don't be afraid to use these thumbscrews to set the tone, advance the villain's agenda, and to damage player characters. A victory with no lasting consequences is no victory at all!

Violence in Roleplaying Games

After the con, we had a nice sit down dinner discussing violence in roleplaying games and even some interesting steps to address it. Essentially, my goal isn't necessarily to ban violence or encourage violence, but to occasionally ground the violence in the characters and the world.  It means asking, for example, how do the player characters *react* when they kill another character.

Classically, players and player characters are mostly desensitized to violence. The descriptions at the table aren't terribly graphic, there's often little cost to the characters in terms of the world, and the characters themselves aren't affected by what they do. There have definitely been games that promote alternative ways of looking at this. It is worth mentioning at least two that I can think of, even if the details are completely fuzzy.

Unknown Armies had a stat or two that reflected how inured the character was to violence and horror. Having a lower stat actually protected you from some situations, but made it harder for you in others, like when you needed to deal with people.

I don't recall a social aspect to it, but I think Twilight 2000 based some of the combat stats on EXPERIENCE rather than game stats. In other words, you could be a fantastic gymnast with a super high dexterity, but it wasn't going to affect your combat initiative, because the first time someone pulled a gun,

Also worth mentioning is a book: Violence: A Writer's Guide by Rory Miller. In some cases, this is uncomfortable reading, but it definitely gives a grounded look at how real humans approach real violence and why.

So to cut a long story short, we found at least one way that this could be addressed in an elegant way, at least in my system of choice, FATE. The solution we came up with was to require an aspect on every character (often distinct from their high concept or trouble) that reflected the character's acceptance and familiarity with violence. Combined with aspects that perhaps override this general feeling, you get a good sense of what the character has scene and how the character might react. Meaning, there can be some awesome compels in here for both non-violent and violent characters.


The housewife might have something like "Pacifist" or "I capture wasps and return them to the outdoors" as an aspect. In a violent situation, she's going to freeze. Except that she also has "I will do anything to protect my kids". Suddenly, there's an interesting potential conflict. In a situation where her kida are threatened, compeling pacifist is probably the wrong call.

The grizzled soldier might have "All I see are targets". Sure, in a combat situation, he's hot death. But suddenly when he needs to help the old lady cross the street (work with me; it is late tonight!), she could be a little creeped out by the way he looks at her. There's something definitely not right about him.

The final and important piece of this: the aspects are expected to change. And I think like in Dresden Files for practitioners of dark magic, if someone starts treating violence too casually, then asking them to rewrite one or more aspects is totally appropriate.

The goal here isn't necessarily to punish a particular player behavior although I confess I started thinking about this years ago aftertoo much play in game genres where casual death just happens. "Well our prisoner detected as evil and he's given us the clue for our next stop, so I stab him in the heart." A slowly changing set of aspects, more than a numerical measurement of good and evil, makes the gameplay at the table INTERESTING. At its strongest, it starts being a way to curb extreme player behavior. People start reacting differently around him. They don't want him around.

I'm not sure what the utility of this would be at a convention table. Our general discussion revolved around the idea that if you were going to make people's reaction to violence a THING, you'd probably need to address it in the game description and in the discussion at the beginning of the game. Because, however interesting this might be to someone looking for grounded and dramatic roleplaying, it isn't fair to someone who just wants to show up and kill orcs. Even in such a situation, I might not put a heavy emphasis on it; these are just aspects to compel just like anything else. Use them to make the story more interesting.

I'll leave with one final note: I think the key idea here is that there are many avenues to player victory. Assuming the players will only use one is a bad idea. Even pushing players towards a violent or non-violent solution isn't necessary the best idea either. Thinking of the improv classes I took, look at the "Yes, and..." rule. Yes, you defeated the enemy plan, and here are the ramifications based on the actions you tool. If they are taking the approach of being drenched in blood, and treating NPCs as punching bags, then there's a story to explore. One day, maybe someone just sucks up a compel, and they realize they aren't even thinking of these things as human lives any more. They stop thinking and just react with violence. They've become a bit of a monster themselves.

Story building for Specific Character Classes
One of the things that's consistent in D&D 3.5e, Pathfinder, and D&D 5e is that wizards pay money to scribe spells in their spell books. It is part of the process by which a wizard PC gets more effective at what he does. What makes this an interesting protruding nail is that in modern editions, there are very few classes that have a built-in money sink as part of the fundamental mechanics. Most other spellcaster classes get all their spells for free, and no class pays for training any more. About the only sink that's left is trying to be choosy about specific items (armor, weapons, stat boosts) and everyone needs some of those. What this means is that in a game where money is expected to be spent by players, a wizard falls behind the curve, because they need to spend thousands of gold on spells. If they don't, their effectiveness drops. And, from my experience, in the various 3.x style games, there's no demonstrable advantage to the wizard; most of other classes got their spell powers boosted in effectivness, with extra armor, hit points, and special abilities. There are some cleric ranged builds that are nearly as powerful as damage wizards, and most of the spell buffs are shared across multiple classes.
Basically, only masochists and story-hounds really play wizards now. ;)
The thread I want to pull on here is to take these lemons and make lemonade. I'm often looking for ways to inject story into characters. So how might wizards solve this problem in a way that doesn't hit their treasure horde?
* Patronage - it is RARE for a wizard to exist without a rich patron. Which means for a player character, the chance of dangling interesting patrons in front of them, with the complications. "going it alone" becomes a bit more of a challenge.
* Allow wizards to make more money in downtime because their spells are simply a more effective way to do things. Meaning, essentially, that money becomes less of a problem if you have useful skills. This is more of an artisan model of magic.

* Wizard allies - someone who shares spells in exchange for services rendered.

* And of course, shortcuts to power. Wizardry is a slow path to learned power. That sort of power, earned without obligations to outsiders and deities, is something that could be a threat to the greater powers. So, those powers like to find ways to hook into a character before they get too powerful. :)
Part of this last idea, if separated from the idea of focusing on players, is to allow for other sorts of magic to be added to an NPC wizard. In other words, a wizard might be powerful because he did make a bargain with something he shouldn't have. Or found some magic or location that grants him power through some other shortcut.
(An aside: warlocks are troubling for me in 4 and 5e. Not because I don't like the concept, but because it feels too orderly, and perhaps lacking enough solid hooks into the character).
Taking the concept and trying to generalize it, the thought in my head is to borrow a concept from FATE and other modern games. EVERY class should not only be an advantage for a PC, but also have drawbacks.
Wizards - finding ways to finance your power without bargaining something away.
Clerics, Warlocks - being committed to your patron's goals and beliefs. I'm not saying that such characters should always be on the edge of losing their powers, because I'm not sure that would fly well. But the pressure to perform should be there.
Fighters, Rogues - What sort of secular powers do you owe fealty to? Or something along those lines.
There's lots I could pull on here, so just listing some of the things coming to mind right now:
* Wizards have a big mechanical drawback that ultimately ties back to progression: wealth being a critical part of most D&D games.
* Turning that drawback into a story might be very cool.
* But at the same time, why should wizards have all the pain. EVERYONE should have a few interesting hooks. And maybe one of those hooks for each character should always/almost always be class based. The player chose that class for a reason.
* How do you threaten someone's class-given powers in a way that makes the story interesting? Meaning: Let's say we're talking about a warlock. You can make the patron a total tool, and threaten the player's powers if they don't agree. That works to a certain point, but really, some of that power dynamic moves away from story and ends up being something frustrating to the player. And if they decide to lose their powers, is that character effectively shut down for life?
Arguably, from a play perspective, losing ones class abilities permanently mostly means a character not worth playing. But make it a good story arc and you might be able to get away with it. Can you, say, run a player through a 2-4 episode arc where their powers are lost, with a promise of interesting story along the way and maybe even an option for something a little different instead.
* Almost all of the story stuff ends up being things I'd have no qualms about playing with in a more story-oriented system like FATE - give someone choices, change their aspects when they make big decisions, compel their aspects until the cows come home. What do you do when some things are more "hard coded" - class abilities?
* What do you do when the realities of a particular class don't match up with the play style of a particular adventure. For example, you can put time or money pressure on players -- good for drama -- but that essentially means that the class that NEEDS time or money is going to suffer, without some sort of out. And it also means if someone is playing such a character, every adventure or campaign you run with said characters can't ignore that problem. (Meaning: I could run a game where I ignored a cleric's deity because when it comes right down to it, those story elements don't affect the mechanics of how a character plays. The same rationale doesn't work for wizards; you either need to add those things to your campaign or make mechanical changes to the game system to adapt.

Per the last post I made, the story behind wizards is always something I jump on (a little) when making campaigns and story. Usually that's because putting pressure on a character can be interesting.

More threads to pull on and think about. And here I started writing this tonight because I wanted to note this down WITHOUT pulling on all the threads this evening. Hopefully I haven't just jinxed myself out of some sleep tonight.

World Building

So, given that I've got my copy of 5e D&D, I can't help but get a little into world and story building mode. At best, I expect to play a bit at work instead of a board game, but still, some creative juices are flowing.

(FWIW, also thinking about a science fiction setting again and how to make it playable, even it is possibly means a full reset of characters)

For me, some of the things that always stick in my head when building a fantasy setting is how to add some interesting mystery and majesty to some of the more fantastic elements of the setting. The problem with most D&D settings is that somewhere in the  gameplay they become too prosaic and bland.

The most common examples that always spring to mind:

* Gods and religion - how to make these beings feel powerful, sometimes accessible, interesting from a story perspective, but not overpowering the story or simply being able to blast the PCs. :)

* Magic - how to keep a mystery in magic but still allow characters to use the spells they have. (This can be more of a challenge when detect spells are at-will).

* Elves - I think because of their long lives, elves can always be an interesting fit into the setting. Near-immortal, they often have to be aloof from the setting or they have too much capacity to know or be involved deeply in its history. Meaning, mostly, that if you want a setting where parts of the background are a mystery because they happened prior to the characters being alive, that's not generally possible with the older races).

Related thought: it always weirds me out a little when you have the multi-hundred year characters around and they aren't knowledgeable and powerful.

What's interesting is I think of the last three fantasy games I ran, elves were disallowed in one of them, and were not chosen by the players in one more, and the third had an elf, but all of the PC were displayed in time and space. So all three settings gave me a lot of space to play with concepts.

Recently, I've been rereading Zelazny's Dilvish stories and one of the things that I really like in those stories is that Dilvish has a history. He's half-elf (often a more interesting space to place in), and his ancestor has an interesting and famous history. Specifically, the idea that stuck in my head was that there were certain idiosyncratic magics that were available to Dilvish because he had a famous elven ancestor.

Arguably, this isn't something that needs to be tied to elves exclusively, but doing so specifically helps add a layer of mystery to them. My thought was that if a player is an half-elf (or I suppose even an elf) to let them pick one odd thing that they can do or know. In an aspect-driven game system it might even spawn an aspect. The goal would to be to tie it heavily to a story, not a direct boost in power. 13th Age's "One unique thing" for a character comes to mind here as playing in the same space.

Some examples:

* I'm the only person who can speak to the ghosts at the Castle in the Mists

* I know a path through the Impassible Forest.

* My ancestor cast one of the Three Mighty Spells that formed the world; she taught me a word of creation. I can use it once.

The last idea also comes from Dilvish; he learned a number of awful sayings that he learned when imprisoned in hell. In power level, these are practically wishes, albeit with a heavily negative slant. I could easily see something like this as a "treasure" you might give a player. Much like a ring of wishes or some other powerful one-shot item, but not tied to an item, and with more story invested in it. And perhaps not so much control.

Anyway, the whole point is to inject more of a sense of wonder into the setting and the characters. While I'm not opposed to trying for "realistic fantasy", I'm definitely in favor of embracing the fantastic elements if you are going to play fantasy. (I've seen people complaining vociferously again about alignments and how it should not be possible for a race in the game to be "evil". My own take is that arguing as if this is some universal truth isn't quite right. Some settings should be able to embrace such absolutes and run with them.

Anyway short version might simply be: Fantasy settings should have the opportunity for fantastic elements. Elements that fit in with the rules, but are not completely bound by them. For something like D&D, I suspect this means having a firm idea of what elements of the magic work with the rules and which elements transcend them and become story elements. For a system more built around story-mechanics, like FATE, I think there's a lot of interesting ground that can be covered with clever uses of aspects.

5th Edition D&D's backgrounds definitely look like a really interesting place to explore new ideas. I kinda want to see "1001 backgrounds"; my only complaint in the main rulebook is that there were simply weren't enough of them.

Collating pronunciation feedback
General feedback on my recording was that I was easy to understand, which matches my "in person" skills at speaking Russian. My accent isn't terrible, and indeed is better than most other Russian learners I've ever talked to. People are generally improved with how far I've come, and understand me unless I get too excited and slur my words together.

Still, room for improvement. I hope I am not so set in my ways that I can't continue to perfect my listening and speaking skills.

Here's the feedback I received:

  • For me you have a Mediterranean accent. Arabic - South of Europe - very soft

  • Vowels should sound a little bit "harder", but this is a problem for almost all foreigners. Maybe this is because you stretch corners of mouth like into in smile.

  • Try to more pronounce endings of the words more clearly. And when you have Я, Е, Ё,Ю letters after a consonant (for example, соВЕтник) try to avoid double sound Y+E. Now it sounds like sovyetnik, but on russian it should be sovetnik.

  • There is a problem with soft consonants: "Far, far away ..." you say as [daleko], we're relaxed, consonant should be converted into ль [л']

  • Very nice pronunciation, everything is understandable. Your intonation seems a bit unusual though, but I'm not sure why exactly. A few advices: In words правдУ,в портУ the vowel sounded too soft (like "ю"), in words длЯ/ лЮди/ импЕратор the vowel sounded too hard, that means it sounded like а / у / э. :)

All of the things on this list are good to think about. The real trick is to figure out a way to systematically improve. Or just assume I'll get better and focus on other things first.

As a first approximation of what I can do to improve pronunciation:

  • Go back and reread descriptions of how words should be pronounced. I have multiple sources

  • Find audio files for all of the various letters and sounds -- again, I have multiple sources already.

  • Look on youtube for videos *showing* people pronouncing the various sounds so that I can visualize it more.

  • Find minimal pair words and perhaps audio files of all of them. (Or just wait til Gabe finishes up the kickstarter)

  • Go back through some of the very early pronunciation stuff in Rosetta Stone. And use their program that lets you compare the sound wave patterns of your own speech to their recorded files.

  • Record more audio of myself, as well as some videos, and use them to compare to native speakers. Video might be interesting if it really is a problem with stretching the corners of my mouth.

  • Devote some very focused time (away from distractions) to listen to slower Russian recordings. I've been trying for "faster faster faster" lately to improve my overall comprehension of real-world speech. But systematical going through some slower recordings might help me pick up a few things.

  • SLOW down the practice. Pick some words and learn to enunciate them clearly, slowly, and precisely. (Based on The Talent Code's principles of practice)


A recording of me speaking Russian.

My Russian practice in the last couple of weeks has been:

* catching up on homework
* catching up on flash cards
* texting with a couple of friends
* some nice dinners out.

This week, one of my homework assignments was to listen to a story in Russian. In class this week, I read about half of it out loud. One of the things I've seen on lang-8 is that sometimes people post recordings of themselves speaking so that they can get feedback. Tonight, I decided to bite the bullet and do the same.

Some of my friends may comment on the fact that I HATE the way my voice sounds when recorded -- I walked out of a chance to participate in a podcast once. But I'm almost okay with this recording. I stumble on just a few words--mostly new ones--but otherwise I think I'm okay. Still some room for improvement, but there's quite a number of sections where I can just read through quickly. I didn't try to touch this up or splice together multiple recordings -- I just recorded it twice and took the better attempt.

Happy to take feedback if you've got suggestions (and speak Russian).



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