Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Updated Lost Songs of the Nibelungs Character Sheet (with some notes)

New city, new face-to-face play-tests. For the occasions I updated the LSotN character sheet. For one, the play-tests with the old group had brought up some changes and ideas I wanted to give a spin, but I'm also still looking for the visual style of the layout. I think I've made some progress in both areas. But see for yourselves ...

The Sheet and the Problems

The biggest issue so far had been the combat section. There is a board game aspect to the game and I want that expressed. But it needs room. The second issue had been the attributes. A main feature of Lost Songs is that people collect scars over time. It is connected with status and will make each character an individual while gathering experience. Works well so far, but also needs room on the sheet. Add all skills and advantages and it gets quite cozy fast. This is my solution (so far):

It's all done with inkscape ...
One of the first reactions had been that it is quite busy as a character sheet. I can see how that could be a first impression. But I thought the new players handled it quite well after a very short time and that's more important than the first impression (another player said that it forces a player to take a close look and that's a good thing, too). Some explaining notes are in order.

Part I: Battle

The board game part of the sheet. This is were a player places the dice in combat to illustrate his actions. Those following the development of the game might already have a handle on what's what, but for the uninitiated I'll talk a bit about it while showing what's new.

Every character has a number of d6 Combat Dice (C.D.). All start with 2 of them, but level advancement allows for fighter types to get more. They are rolled for each round of combat. Every 1 is discarded, every six generates a new d6 that is rolled immediately and added. The sum is the initiative and each die can be used for an action in that round. Slowest character has to put his dice first.

There are three main actions a character can perform per round: (1) the Main Actions (Attack - Damage/Soak - Defence), (2) the Delay Action (delay up to 2 dice into next round, one of them needs to be declared as delayed attack/defence) and (3) the Drop Die Actions (Do, Move, Coop, et cetera). The dice a character has available for a round are the dice a character is to distribute.

Doubles and Triples will make more powerful Main Actions: if a double is used in the Main Actions, the result of the dice is doubled (so a result of 3, 3 means the dice count as a 6 each). With a triple the results are tripled (so a result of 3, 3, 3 means the dice count as a 9 each). If an attack is made, damage needs to be declared, too (so you need the dice to do so). If "Soak" is declared, at least one die needs to be on "Defence".

Base Attack (B.A.) is added to a declared attack, Base Defence (B.D.) is added to a declared defence.

Here are a few new concepts. If a character is not able to completely defend against an attack, he may decide to soak some damage instead. The result of the die he uses is the damage reduction he gets that round against one attack and reduces Endurance instead. If a character is able to use a shield, the character may use one die for soak without the need to declare a defence die, too.

The last thing that changed here is that the size and the kind of weapon one uses influences the number of Damage Dice a character may use per attack (1 D.D. for small melee weapons and so forth). There rules for ranged combat now (shooting with a bow will make as much damage as an attack is over the targets defence, distance will reduce this).

Delay Actions are a bit more free handled as they were. One die needs to be declared, all other dice are just delayed and may be used for all kinds of actions in the next round. It allows for a bit more flexibility.

There aren't many changes with the Drop Die Actions. If a character wants to do anything but fight, he has to use a die to do a D.D.A. by putting it on the respective square on the sheet. Cooperation is still one of the most important D.D.A.s, since it allows one character to give a die to another character to use (cooperation is a huge feature early in the game).

A new aspect here is "Rage". A character is allowed to use [level +1] Rage Dice in a combat by just declaring it after the initial roll of a round (adding it to initiative and so on). The rage dice he uses are rolled after the combat to reduce a characters Endurance, but the D.D.A. Regain allows a character to get the die back by spending a die during combat. Every other rule affecting Endurance got ignored so far, but this seems to work.

Part II: Scars & Roots

Not many changes here. There are two types of tasks in Lost Songs, the Ability Roll and the Save. Ability rolls are the active part and is basically a d20 + ability score vs. difficulty (skills might be added to the result). A character wants to do something, this is what he rolls. If they roll below the difficulty, they might reduce Endurance to make the difficulty after the roll. They are always able to make it, but sometimes it comes with a price ...

Saves are the passive part of the game. Characters get poisoned, stressed or see things that threaten their sanity. Stuff like that is resolved by rolling d20 plus one of the saves vs. a difficulty. If they are below, they fail and the ability connected to the save is reduced by the difference between result and difficulty. Over time character will get tired, stressed out or will have a streak of bad luck. For every ability in the Buffer Zone they get -1 to all tasks (the Buffer Zone is always 10 until a ability score is permanently reduced below 11, then it's half of the ability). For every ability in the Hurt Zone, they get -3 to all tasks. It all adds up and to keep track of it, they got the string of numbers on the left. Every damage below that reduces the ability permanently.

Roots are to illustrate where the characters come from and how they are related to the others in the group. No changes here.

Part III: Traits

All the advantages and skills a character has. I wanted this as complete as possible on the character sheet, so the only difference to the old character sheet is that all the information is on there already and Level Advancements are a separate entry now. But how characters advance is a different post (that will be up the next few days, I think).

That's it for now

I see a second character sheet in the near future, something for the back of this sheet for detailed notes and stuff like that. But that's secondary. All a player needs is on this one sheet ...

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Blog-Crosstalk-Attack: "WTF does 1HD+1 mean?!" (seen at Dispatches from Kickassistan)

I was about to do something completely different when I read +Adam Muszkiewicz's great post about Stupid DM Tricks over at his amazing blog Dispatches from Kickassistan. Was then about to write a comment, did some research (yeah, I do that at times ...), started writing and thought after a few sentences "Dang, that's a post of it's own!". So here I'm, hijacking Adam's post. I hope he doesn't mind ...
Crosstalk (biology): "In electronics, crosstalk is any phenomenon by which a signal transmitted on one circuit or channel of a transmission system creates an undesired effect in another circuit or channel. Crosstalk is usually caused by undesired capacitive, inductive, or conductive coupling from one circuit, part of a circuit, or channel, to another." [Wikipedia]
This post is only about a small part of Adams post and will answer a question he already answered as he needed it for his post. Anyway, I immediately thought there should be more to it. Well, first things first, here is the question:

"WTF does 1HD+1 mean?!"

And his answer to that is (or at least the conclusion):
"Thus, unless we start statting up monsters as 1+3 HD or other nonsense, then the "+1" really means "it's really a 1 HD creature, but it fights like a 2 HD creature;" in other words, it's 1 HD tough, but 2 HD dangerous. Now that orc and the hobgoblin are significantly, interestingly mechanically different and we know what the fuck HD 1+1 means!"
He is right, of course. But that's not the main reason for the existence of this phenomenon. It's more like a byproduct, actually. In my opinion anyway. But let me elaborate on this a bit. My point of reference will be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia since I'm quite familiar with it and my first thought after reading this had been something like "But doesn't the D&D RC state that ...". And here we go. There'll also be some stupid math ...

It's not about using monsters, but about improvising them!

Let's start with the section "Changing Monsters" in Chapter 14: Monsters (D&D RC, p. 214). It is, in my humble opinion, on e of the best sections in the book as it's one of the few occasions where the RC lifts its skirt and gives the reader a good look unto the underlying assumptions of its system. The gist of it (about tinkering with the size/experience of a monster, p. 214 and 215):
If smaller:
  • Much smaller than normal -3
  • Smaller than normal -2
  • Slightly smaller than normal -1 
If larger:
  • Slightly larger than normal + 1
  • Larger than normal (2-3 x size) + 2
  • Much larger than normal (4+ X size) + 3
Choose whichever modifier you think is most appropriate for this type of monster. For example, an ogre that is Much Larger Than Normal would take the + 3 modifier.
These modifiers are similar to ability modifiers for characters. They are used in the following manner: 
  • Hit points: Add the modifier as points per Hit Die.*
  • Attack rolls: Add the modifier to the roll.
  • Damage: Add the modifier per die of damage.*
  • Saves: Subtract the modifier from the roll.
  • Armor: Subtract the modifier from the AC.
* There should always be a minimum of 1 point per die. 
To calculate the XP value of different size monsters, take the total number of bonus hitpoints and divide by 5, rounding up fractions; add the result to the base HD total of the monster. This is the number of Hit Dice to be used when calculating XP value.
For example, a normal-sized gorgon would have: 
AC 2; HD 8*; THACO 12; Dmg 2d6; Save F8 
The largest variety of common gorgon would have: 
AC -1; HD 8 + 24*; THACO 9; Dmg 2d6 + 6; Save F8 + 3; XP Value: As 13 HD 
Tribal Leaders: Some creatures that live in tribes have hereditary leaders who gain the title by birth. The larger size of these leaders can be reinforced through the generations; most will have modifiers of + 3 based on the guidelines above.

There is so much to use right here, it's uncanny. For one it answers the question if the "+x" is added to the sum of the HD or to every one of them. It's added to the sum, BUT when changing the size of a critter the modifier is multiplied by the number of HD before it's added to the sum (in other words, added to each die!). So a Larger Than Normal Goblin  would end up with:
AC 4; HD 1+1; Dmg Weapon +2; Save Normal Man +2; XP Value: as 3 HD (35 xp)
That's tougher than an orc or even as a hobgoblin. More like a small ogre, actually. The idea is that the HD of a monster entry is merely the average of that monster, but the bigger/smaller variants don't just have more or less HD, they have more or less substance. Look at the hydra above: 8HD+24! That's 24 hp granted just for being big as f*ck. So the "+" gives indications how meaty an individual version of a monster is, with the modifier and the HD being the limit (AND the additional note, that well bred variants don't need to be bigger to be formidable specimen, see the Tribal Leader part above).
Use leader and size together and you'll end up with the fat
Goblin King from The Hobbit [by Alan Lee, source
There is also that little sentence that "these modifiers are similar to ability modifiers for characters". Let that sink in for a while. In a sense it makes the whole xHD+y scheme the worlds smallest character sheet (without using classes): xHD = Level of a creature and +y as indication for ability score bonuses beyond the average and as used above (resulting in bonuses to saves, damage, et cetera). That does a lot with very little.

And lastly: this is where you begin when you build your own monsters. How mighty is it with HD used as comparison to character levels and how well is the particular specimen developed (the "+y" used as comparison to ability modifiers). Add the "*"-system for special abilities from page 128 of the RC (every * stands for a special ability a monster has and adds to the overall xp of a creature) to that and you got a very good short-hand with an easy way to calculate xp to improvise your own monsters on the fly. I mean, come on, that's kind of nifty, right?

So yeah, what Adam said, but ...

As far as the "+/-1" for the average monster goes, it's just an indicator if those creatures usually are a bit weaker or stronger than the average character counterpart (again HD vs. Level), which means a direct impact on that modifier described above. That way the ominous 1 HD-1 goblin, for instance, results in a somewhat weaker creature than other level/HD 1 characters/monsters would get. Look at the example above. While that Larger Than Normal goblin sure is impressive, he'd have been much more so without the "-1" tweaking the result. It's subtle, but it's there.

Of course it's also important for the xp one gets for killing such a beast and it's good to have that little distinction, as it allows for a more detailed xp distribution. But there's so much more (often unused?) potential to the whole concept.

So I hope I was able to add to the discussion with this little post of mine. Anyway, nothing of this is my doing, it's all the Rules Cyclopedia. I just thought it's very well worth sharing, as some might not be aware of the rules quoted above and where the possibilities are. Now I want to play that game again ... Gotta love the Rules Cyclopedia :)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Condensed Combat (or BASTARD!ng D&D)

Told you it would be about D&D in my next post. Sometimes those things do work :-) And while I tend to meander from subject to subject and/or write too long texts for any sane person to read (and if you do it nonetheless, I really do love you with all my heart, dearest of all readers!), I thought I surprise you all and give a somewhat more focused approach a shot. So this is about one thing I did for BASTARD! (combat!) and how it worked out in play-testing (they all died!). It's D&D, but with a twist. Let's talk about it ...

Not new, but expanded on ...

There's a double meaning to that header. For one, the version of the BASTARD! Combat system I'm about to show you is just a more concise and detailed version of the one I posted a few weeks ago. Nothing changes, but it needed more information on how it was supposed to work. The other meaning would be that this still uses the D&D combat system (there's even a "How to" on the sheet ...). Same attack rolls you'd use, same damage. It works like a frame for those D&D combat systems. It's faster while being complex and with a (for me at least) satisfying system for initiative, but it's still D&D.

Anyway, without further ado, the revised BASTARD! Combat System:

Open in new tab for more detail, please.
Take a look and take your time. It's all you need to know to use it. The D&D option at the bottom gives you all you need to convert it to D&D variants up to Pathfinder (I think) and it should be easy enough to tinker with it or add variant rules as needed (a feat could give a character one more die for initiative purposes, et cetera). It is quite deadly, if characters aren't working together (countering and sharing) and dismiss using the environment in their favor (as unbound combatants would get really dangerous). But it covers a lot of ground in one round (with several attacks and actions) and is fast once you get it down. Let's have a short example ...

Short example of one round of combat:

Let's say we have 3 level 0 player characters (A, B, C; C is a Grunt and gets to bind [level + 2] enemies) and 7 enemy combatants (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). To make it easy we'll say the PCs all have 2 initiative dice each and the enemy combatants have an initiative value (Movement Rate) of 9.

Phase 1: A rolls 2 and 4 (initiative = 6), B rolls 1 and 3 (Initiative = 4) and C initially rolls a 6 and a 1, gets another die for that round, rolls it and adds a 4 (Initiative = 11). So initiatives are (highest to lowest)

C - (1 to 7) - A - B

Phase 2: For this example we'll allow them all to move freely, which means that A and B have nowhere to hide and won't move (or maybe hide behind C, who knows), the enemy combatants would engage and C would step up to confront them when possible. Actions are declared. B goes first and has to declare lowest die to highest. Which means his 1 goes first, so one enemy engages him and attacks. B counts as engaged now when declaring the 3. The DM declares to have him engaged with a second enemy, also attacking. B declares to attack one of them and is done.

For A it's the same. The 1 has him engaged immediately, the 4 gets him another enemy and another attack. His mode of action is to hit back.

With 4 enemies already engaging in combat, it leaves 3 unaccounted for. Mean bastard that I am, I decide that the three try to help two of their friends against A or B. They go for B, each of them getting one attack.

But we are still at declaring actions and C has yet to decide what he'll do with this mess. He sees B in trouble and could decide to act upon it. He is faster than the enemy and a level 0 Grunt, so he may bind 2 of those enemy combatants engaging B. He will get to attack first two times and declares, he'll focus those at one of his enemies, but he risks getting at least three attacks ...

Phase 3: This is the moment where the monkey bites into the soap, so to say. It could go several ways and people will always get an opportunity to react to the flow of combat. Resolved is fastest to slowest, so C gets cracking at the first enemy. If that first attack hits true and kills it's target, he will be able to attack the next one, even move to it, in short, do anything necessary (and possible) to resolve his actions.

So if he's (say) able to kill two enemies with two attacks, he'd still be able to bind two enemies (if he wants to) and he'd still be prone to two attacks (if unbound enemies are around). In this scenario he'd kill two and bind two more before the enemy could even act. It narrates itself without effort, I imagine.

After him what's left of the enemy gets to hit and do stuff if they are unbound and not already engaging. Which is none at this part of initiative (all are engaging and/or bound). So A resolves next lowest to highest (because slower than the enemy), which results in two attacks before he's to attack in the end.

Let's say he dies with the first attack. In a case like that it'd leave 2 unbound enemies to move and attack the next slower character (B).

This is turning out bad for most of the group, as A had to die for the example and B is now prone to three attacks (or being positive about it: B now gets only three attacks instead of 5!). If B survives those three attacks, he'll live for round two ...

So that's how it worked in BASTARD!

Yeah, we tried it that way and it worked. It seems brutal, but if the group works together and uses their surroundings to avoid getting flanked, it should be possible for low level characters to get out of it alive. It's on purpose as I really like to encourage tactical cooperative play in my games. It might take a round or two to get used to, but as long as you keep order of initiative and use the rolled dice as visual help, it actually plays down quite well.

If you like this method and even go as far as testing it, feel free to give me feedback about it or ask questions and I'll help. And as always with these things I'd be happy to get comments and thoughts about it.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Narrative Distinction 2 - Last chicken joke (I promise)

Again with the word play. Last time, for sure (for now?). It had been a strange series. Maybe I tried to many things at once? I don't know. I hope there's some advice here for those who followed it. Or at least a funny turn of phrase here and there. Anyway, I'm not apologizing here. The original problem was to define how the different aspects of a low fantasy setting interact and how a DM could handle the borders between those aspect. One thing let to another and it kept growing all over the place until it ended here. Morale of the story: we tend to use lots of pictures as a way to transport atmosphere fast, but during the game we mostly use words and there's a lot we can do with just words alone. Also, I should write a bit more about D&D ...

The other posts of this series: Introduction - Part 1 - Intermission

All right, here we go with the examples how I prepare myself for DMing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (and what I'll try to explain in the written version of the game, at least the gist of it). It's part of the does and don't I contemplate before the game and this sort of selection process helps me providing fitting setting pieces on the fly. It's a bit of an abstract method, but since I mostly improvise in my games, it's a great way to set the mind frame before I "go in".

Nothing new in Fairyland?

So I couldn't tell you anything new about this. The weird is normal here in our little niche of a niche of a hobby. Although people tend to sell creativity and simple pattern change as "weird", which really isn't true, if you think about it. Maybe we should ask what makes weird really strange ...

The only thing strange here is that this picture is from a time where
strange wasn't as hip as it is now ... it's in the public domain.
I've given this some thought and came to the conclusion that the weird has it's place in Lost Songs as a clear contrast to the pseudo-realistic Dark Ages part of the game. It's not omnipresent, it's in "that dark forest over there" or "two steps sideways in time, across a shadow's shadow" or some such thing.  You need to cross a border of sorts to encounter weird like this.

And if you tell other people about it ... well, you better don't tell people about it. People fear the dark corners of the world and when you are associated with those dark corners, they might start acting funny ... It's important that people react to such stories as they would today: with disbelieve.

Anyway, once you cross that border, it's "anything goes" the whole way through. Classic D&D monsters, Red & Pleasant Land, the shadow of a London in the 1890s (try describing that with the restrictions of the vocabulary of someone living way back in 550 AC and you'll have a whole lot of strange going ...), you name it, it's all there and may be quoted, used or ignored as a DM pleases.

Fairies don't really have a handle on time, so they might talk about things that will happen hundreds of years in the future, use items that have yet to be invented and nothing could be taken for granted, as, for example, the lay of the land changes constantly. It's a carte blanche, really, for a DM to go all in when the characters are in certain areas.

So it's Grimm's Fairy Tales mixed with Alice in Wonderland and Doctor Who (I'm aware it's nothing new). A strong distinction between reality and the realm of fairy is the important part here, I think. So those Goblins charged your characters driving a school bus? Well, it certainly seems strange and if you describe it as "a strange black and yellow war machine that roared like a dragon and bled oil ..." it'd definitely work in a fantasy game. The danger when traveling those lands shouldn't be evil but the strange and unknown.

A good example of "The Weird", I think. Also: it's frogs riding snails!
It also makes those magical creatures that manage to escape the Land of Fairy and settle down at the borders so much more scary. Especially if they actually get tainted by evil, too. Ideally a group of adventurers will be happy to get back into reality and to their families, surroundings that are relatively save compared to that wacky stuff that tends to happen when you get lost in a fog ...

The important part is that it's all neither mundane nor evil but everything else. Sure, a Ogre might eat you, but he will be very polite about it, telling you in detail how he has no choice in the matter, it's the nature of things, no hard feelings and would you please keep that apple in your mouth? while he puts some more mustard on you. Again, strong contrasts here will make The Darkness or The Reality so much more effective.

In short I'd look to produce a good distinction between the "real world" and the "Land behind the Fog". Easy stuff, like describing talking animals or a second moon. Then I'd introduce some elements from the future. Fairies talking about strange stuff players could recognize but characters wouldn't (contemporary vocabulary) and using strange items (a bike, a mobile, whatever fits the bill, time periods be damned) but trying to explain them in the words of someone not familiar with them (like with the school bus above). There's no hostility in general, but very strange (sometimes even dangerous) customs and opinions. Start with the opposite, go from there.

The third aspect (the first being "The Dark Ages" and "The Weird") in Lost Songs is "The Darkness", but:

What is "evil" anyway, baby?

Been on a Space Dandy binge lately, so that's where that's coming from because one of the first thoughts I had when I started writing this, was the battleship of those hunting the Space Dandy:

The face of "evil" in Space Dandy [source]
Anyway, a gagged Statue of Liberty is not what's evil in Lost Songs (it just makes me go into my sound-proof cellar for a hearty laugh ...). But the question remains legit: what is evil and how does it manifest in a campaign. Those of you following the blog for some time now might already have a hint or two about my take on this. To some extent it's something I want to be reflected in this game I write and narrative distinction is how it's done.

So if you check the introduction, you'll see that "evil" makes a pair with "The Darkness" and if you check Columns B and C for The Darkness in this post, you'll see in detail where this is going. The short of it is that "evil" is (mostly) separate from the (still very gritty and harsh) reality, but corrupts it's surroundings like an illness from several sources (the "What").

Corruption is the key word here. I won't start a discussion about the evil-that-is-man and I'm very well aware that it doesn't need external sources to make humans do evil deeds. It's rather a method to isolate evil as something extraordinary among the mundane or the weird. For this to work as soon as with a worlds creation it needs to be abstract so that an interpretation of how that corruption could manifest remains possible with every result.

In other words, if a result like "A Darkness coming from tragedy that is corrupting refuge" in a "labyrinthine hill landscape with lots of trees, ponds and streams" and with a "Border territory with a community under the old faith that is friendly but cautious" in the same area  (all possible results with the Basic Random Territory Generator, basically the result of 3d100 ...) a DM has several options how that evil manifests (a smith that sells cursed armor, a tavern that makes guests comfortable and kills them, all for tragic reasons or some betrayed ghosts that haunt the ruins of an old fort, stuff like that), but that source always remains exclusive.

Once a DM has all the pieces he needs for the source of the evil and the form of corruption, he can spread it. Cursed Armor will appear all over the place, the ghosts of that haunted fort will give a whole portion of a forest a bad reputation or people start disappearing because of that inn killing it's resident. And that's just the second layer. With a little work this evil could infect the whole region, getting worse from month to month ...

Evil lurks in the shadows ... by Denman Rooke [source]
The point here is to make those horrors exactly that, something worse than reality, something that sticks out like a broken bone. So instead of crossing a border (like with The Weird), the characters are exposed to some aspect of a corruption (not necessarily the source), again with reality as the contrast. Going with the ideas in the intermission post, I'd mostly use strong/crass vocabulary in those cases. To make this contrast even possible against the harsh living conditions of the Dark Ages, it helps to have a non-human source for what's happening, be it black magic, The Terrors from Outer Space or something undead.

The trick here is to keep in mind that the source for pure evil is otherworldly. Wouldn't mean that a ghost, for instance, is per se evil, but the reason for it's existence is. Dark spirits driving people mad, radiation corrupting nature or tragedy cursing a village to all eternity are all examples how a evil source could corrupt it's surroundings. Solving the problem at the source will always help against the corruption (so there are some strong adventure seeds already in the Basic Random Territory Generator ...).

Mixing it! Ending it!

Structuring all this like I described above (and in the other posts) results in language patterns that allow an easy distinction between the different aspects of Lost Songs: descriptions of an overwhelming wilderness and the harsh reality of living in 550 A.D. with all the poor sanitary standards, colorful deceases, alternative explanations of the world, Latin vocabulary and manifold opportunities to die or get crippled I can come up with for the first aspect; all the alien beauty of the realm of fairies from the contemporary popular culture I'm able to summon and explain through the eyes of a primitive barbarian of the Dark Ages for the second and all the brutal horror themes from H. P. Lovecraft to Stephen King with all the forms of corruption that come along with it for the third aspect.

They might mix and mingle, but the distinctions are clear, build randomly during world creation and in a way that allows using them on the fly during the game (with the Basic Random Territory Generator linked above) ...

And that's how I prepare Lost Songs right now. It's what I try to keep in mind when describing the different areas the characters might explore or preparing them and it's what I'm working towards when I think about all the random tables I might still need for the game and what a final random table based world engine might have to look like.

I'll test it next week in a game ...

Friday, October 16, 2015

Narrative Distinction - Intermission (And I'm back! Still no chicken, though ...)

And here I am, back again. Had internet for one day and one update and that damn virus I talked about the other week reared it's ugly head again. Windows decided to go the way of the dodo and I chose Ubuntu as my new OS. So it took me two days to get back on track instead of one. But Ubuntu does all the things I need it to do and I'm quite happy with it. Never was a big fan of ze windows anyway (and their 10th incarnation seems to suck big time ...). Anyway, back to writing about gaming and stuff! Let's get the Narrative Distinction thingie I was writing about before I changed states back on track ...

So what was this about again? A chicken, right?

Of course you could go and read The Introduction and Part 1 (again?), but I thought it'd be nice to have it all in one post (for once) and add a little to it while I'm at it and before I go on. The basic idea of this series is to talk about how a DM might emphasize themes in his campaign by restricting the narrative to relevant signs (in a semiotic sense) and I used the game I'm working on (Lost Songs of the Nibelungs) as an example ...

In short, if you use the word "chicken" (for example) often enough in the context of your narrative, people will start thinking about chickens sooner or later. Try this at home and you'll find people will order chicken related fast food more often than not with your next food order during the game. If it works in advertisement it stands to reason that you can make it work for The Game, too. Right?

Right. The next line of thought had been that words have a different strength and by choosing those words carefully, a DM will be able to produce a very nuanced narrative, evoking the feel he wants to have in the campaign in general or a specific scene. Most people will do this automatically. Just as we imitate speech patterns of others to make them like us, we'll use specific vocabulary to describe things and go the extra mile if we want to impress people. Which actually comes in handy when DMing a game. Know the words and you'll use them. Use words you might need to explain and it'll have a special place in your narrative.

Say, the players are in a forest and instead of being general about it, the DM decides it to be a beech forest and goes at length describing the slender and grey-skinned hardwood trees with the small green leaves, how they are typical for the area and how the locals use the nuts in their cuisine. He does this once at the beginning and keeps using the word "beech" for the scene in the forest. Maybe he puts some variation into it, like describing a beech hit by a lightning or of a particular shape, but as long as he'll use that word "loaded" with the context of the narrative on the beginning, it'll influence how the players remember the scenery ...

Picture by Malene Thyssen [source]
Using "strong" words works somewhat the same, you just don't as much explain them as you specify them in context. Same principle, different approach. Say you want some cannibalism as part of the narrative. Everybody knows that word, so there's no explanation needed. And still, if you use it within the context of the adventure, (subtly) hinting towards connections and/or behavior during the game, you'll make it's presence felt. Like you see Hannibal cooking and you immediately start to think: "It may taste like chicken*, but is it really?!" All you need is one scene in context (Hannibal actually butchering someone for the meat) and it'll be there like a foul stench. Use that.

Weak words, on the other hand, are only used occasionally and might always need short explanations. Mostly they are used to enhance a theme of a setting. Easiest example to explain this would be using dead languages a historical setting. So the Romans called the common soldier "gregarius"? Use it. It's explained in one short sentence. You might have to explain it every now and then, but that's not the idea here. The word won't occur that often. What will work, though, is using several weak words with the same theme. If Latin is the thing, use Latin words and phrases whenever you can. It gives you the opportunity to talk a bit history and the mass of weak words will in toto produce consistency in a narrative.

One thing to produce narrative distinction in a campaign would be by loading weak words over time with meaning, making them strong in very specific cases. It's something writers use regularly to give their characters distinctive and recognizable speech patterns or just "calling cards". Helter Skelter is a good example how words without meaning get loaded and start to mean something in popular culture. Making something like this happen in a campaign is hard work (if it doesn't happen by accident) but very well worth the effort. Basically you "invent" a word for something, then you start using and explaining it regularly until it catches on.

Or you use a word within a different context that way until the additional meaning is accepted as equal to the original (in the context of the game, at least). The result will be the same: you develop a vocabulary for your gaming group. That's what role playing games do anyway. We all have our own vocabulary to "talk business" and I'd encourage every DM to emphasize this with his/her own vocabulary, because shared words are strong bonds that get players more involved. Make those distinctions happen for a setting and you'll get a strong narrative and the atmosphere you wanted without the need to use a picture. It's all in the mind's eye.

So much for the theory

That's all I can come up with so far. What's next? Well, I'll give more examples how this will play out in Lost Songs. A post that is long written and just needs a little polishing, by the way, so it should be up tomorrow. It's also the last installment in this series and you can read it here.

And now some excellent use of words to close for today (from the fantastic Asterix comics):

Open in new tab for all it's glory [source]

* Okay, I'm pushing it a bit. Might get some chicken myself later today :D