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Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.1: Street Mercs

The two small groups of gang members were facing off in the middle of the wide paved boulevard just outside of the Caskroom Tavern (#15 on the Map). It was a chill evening and the cobblestones pale and moist with fresh filth. Rag pickers, the occasional wagon, and the odds and ends of Tanglewood society were still trafficking the street in unhealthy droves that parted their unstoppable course to make room for the hooligans.

The whole scene partially lit by a few candle lanterns outside of the rough establishment was bathed in warm yellow half-light. On one side were the Bronze Boys, a gang of 20 humans each with a torque of bronzed thorn vine. Opposing them were the Troll Boys, a gang of 10 humans with a white troll facemask baring its fangs painted on their worn tunics. Their leader was big and appeared to have troll blood in his veins.

Without warning, the street thugs fell upon each other using their fists, feet, and daggers. Meanwhile from the shadows the two ratling, Afheesh (played by me) and Wufcor (played by Isis), and the human duelist, Pabstcan (played by Jenn), watched the fight. It was Afheesh’s plan to wait a little bit and then approach the leader of the losing side offering to assist for a price but both sides seemed evenly matched. Four Bronze Boys had fallen and only a single Troll Boy lay in the dirty street.
Impatient, Pabst stepped from the shelter of the shadows and shouted a challenge to the trollish leader of the Troll Boys.

Pabst (played by Jenn)(brandishing her scimitar): “Come and meet your doom by my blade!”

He ignored her as he smashed in an opponent’s face with the pommel of his short sword. Afheesh took it upon himself to dash into the fray approaching the Troll Boy leader. The big brute accepted the ratlings offer but would pay after the fight was won. Afheesh dashed back to the befuddled and slightly miffed Pabst and the agitated Wufcor. As soon as he delivered the message, the other two lunged into the fight against the Bronze Boys.

Jenn started to giggle.

Cris (the GM)(with furrowed brow): “Why you laughing!?”

Jenn: “Because I picture them as a bunch of blonde and tanned surfer boys without shirts.”

Isis roared with laughter.

By the time the thuggish trio joined the fight there were 11 Bronze Boys and 6 Troll Boys still standing. Afheesh charged the Bronze Boy leader slashing savagely at him with a paired weapon blow. He tried to parry with his dirk but fumbled badly stepping into the blows. The gang leader dropped dead into a puddle of his own blood. Wufcor moved around behind a gangster occupied with staving off an attack from a larger Troll Boy and stabbed him in the back horribly wounding him. Pabstcan hacked at a “random @$$#ole” but was easily parried.

The skirmish continued for about another 15 seconds until all of the Bronze Boys were dead and only two Troll Boys and their Leader stood in the middle of the carnage. The adventurer trio all gave the last gangsters toothy grins expecting a monetary reward. The three gang-members turned and began to walk away.

Troll Boy Leader (casually waving his left hand in a gesture of dismissal): “Get your pay from the corpses.”

The trio exchanged glances and charged while the three gang-members had their backs turned. The leader suddenly spun around and nailed Pabst in the chest with his sword. Afheesh struck one of the other two who dodged one blade but hit by the other wounding him badly. Wufcor tried to stab the same target but missed. He retorted with his dagger but missed. The third Troll Boy also struck at Wufcor with his dagger but missed by a mile.

Afheesh struck at the untouched Troll Boy dropping him with a nasty double blade strike. The leader swung again at Pabst but missed. The other thug fumbled and dropped his dagger while trying to slash at Afheesh. The ratling Quickling sank his twin blades to the hilt into the second to last gangster standing.

Pabst yelled out that she “declares a duel” against the last Troll Boy. The gang leader parried Pabst’s scimitar. Afheesh readied his blades should Pabst’s self-declared duel go badly. Unheeding of Pabst Wufcor flanked the Troll Boy leader and sank his dirk into the man’s side nearly killing him in a single blow.

Afheesh hung back from the fight and Wufcor sank back into the shadows. Pabst engaged her foe one-to-one once again dropping him with a critical chop through the ribs. The butchered corpse flopped onto the cobblestone street. The ruthless group immediately fell upon the corpses and collected the loot. They gathered up 17 dirks, 90 bronze thorns, 10 suits of soft leather armor, 17 pair of bronze bracers, 8 saps, 4 short swords, and 7 pair of greaves.

That was when the trio was aware that they were receiving applause. A group of mercenaries in black was clapping. They had greatly enjoyed the show and invite d the three to drinks in the tavern. Embroidered on their chests was a red rose pierced diagonally by a curved sword with a drop of blood coming from its blade tip. The trio of sweaty and blood spattered adventurers gladly accepted. Especially after some guardsmen who had also been watching prevented Wufcor from violating the Troll Boy leader’s corpse.

The group had just barely begun to wallow in their victory and had only waded through the first round of frothy ale before a group of guards burst through the saloon doors. One of the guards pointed right at the trio and shouted, “Arrest them!” The mercenaries around the adventurers, members of the Bleeding Rose, melted away to other tables.

Jenn (looking at Cris): “Aw man! Already!?”

To Be Continued…

 

Tabletop Meditations #19: Murder Hoboes Inc.

Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC thatMurder D20 has any words with them, and they loot every corpse. In fact, loot is just one excuse they use to participate in the slaughter of unfortunate NPCs. What you have on your hands is every GM’s nightmare, a gaggle of Murder Hoboes.

The problem of murder hoboing is as old as fantasy roleplaying games themselves. A problem best dealt with directly in-game though out-of-game preparation can help to mitigate its appearance. The term itself comes from the commonality that most adventurers are essentially homeless wanderers looking for wealth and power through fighting enemies, participating in expeditions, and general adventuring.

Murder hoboing is a problem because it can derail an adventure by killing off of important NPCs thereby disposing of any important information they were to relay to the PCs, cause utter chaos in game rendering all the prep work a GM has done fruitless, and may squelch the fun of those actually trying to engage the game world. Ultimately it rests with the GM to work with the offender to get things back on pace. However, direct confrontation might not be the best or effective way to go about things instead attempts from within the game should be tried first to gently coerce the Player through their character. Every group has had a player that has done this and often groups do go through these types of phases early in their existence.

However, not all adventurers are Murder Hoboes though the majority seem to be itinerant by their very nature. A Murder Hobo is essentially an adventurer that simply goes around killing everything in their path in order to reap experience points (XP) or to loot the corpses of their victims. They often do not discriminate between villains, allies, monsters, animals, innocents, and criminals. If it exists within the game, worth is broken down into loot or XP.

On the other hand, Murder Hoboing is the behavior manifesting from the previously mentioned outlook by a Player using their Player Character (PC). A player may hold this simplistic view due to boredom, a long lull or inactivity in the game, or lack of immersion leading to said boredom. This can also come from playing a character that has been built solely for combat and nothing more in a game that consists of little or no combat or has long stretches between the actual fighting and the other RPG elements.

There are three major strategies or courses of action that can be used to mitigate murder hoboing that do not directly target the Player. The first called the Session Zero approach strives to construct a set of rules and understanding that will set up the boundaries for Players and the GM. This is a preemptive strategy.

The second strategy is to require a Backstory from each Player for their character in an effort to invest the Player in the fate of their character. Hopefully inspiring them to not misuse them to derail the game. The last approach is to Bait the offender and essentially use the potential fate of their character to send a warning to them that their attempt at having fun stomping all over everybody else’s’ will only end in frustration for them. This is still an indirect approach but is very close to being directed at the player him or herself and if misused that is exactly what it will feel like to them, so use this last approach with caution.

Session Zero is the pregame where the group gathers to generate characters and where the general rules and expectations of the group can be discussed establishing a general code of Player behavior. The GM can give their input in character builds so that players can create characters that can participate in as much of the play as possible thereby avoiding the boredom and over-specialization that can lead to the adoption of the murder hobo mindset. Typically, a Session Zero is a meet up to generate characters and discuss table manners before the next actual play-session. This preliminary session also gives the players a chance to come up with and write backstories for their characters.

Players that have worked on a backstory will have more invested in their characters. Thus, they are less apt to go on uncharacteristic killing sprees or randomly murder NPCs. Granted that their character is not actually a homicidal maniac. A backstory also allows a GM to integrate a character into the game world and even into the main thrust of a campaign by linking elements in their backgrounds with adventure and campaign elements. This also gives the GM ammo when a PC does go berserk and needs to be reined in allowing for in-game story options to do that if only as a distraction.

This brings us to baiting. This strategy involves using a situation or NPC that appeals to the worst nature of the Player(s) in order to lure them into a confrontation. The bait of course is much more than can be seen, they are characters designed to prey on the weaknesses of the offender(s) as well as defend against their strengths. Either this forces the offender’s compatriots to join them or back away during the fight. If they survive that encounter then bait them again to send a warning shot across their bow in order to let them know they may not be able to tell a bait-NPC from the average NPC.

Whereas the previous strategies do not directly target the offending player(s), remember the bait tactic means the player(s) has to take it, there are effective strategies that do. These techniques directly oppose the PCs in game and if over-used may cause players to resent the GM. They may come to believe the GM is laying tracks (as in railroading) or just deliberately beating up on their characters, so try not to over-use these techniques. I suggest that these strategies should be utilized when the characters start exhibiting or carrying out murder-hobo behaviors. These tactics are the Boss Strategy, making use of diegetic Power Structures, and deploying an Avenger.

A one time-tested strategy to handle murder hoboing has been to insert increasingly powerful NPC’s (paladins are common) to act as adjudicators and avengers essentially using the Video-Game Boss Strategy. A boss in this context is an NPC that functions as a roadblock to the endeavors of the players. Sometimes they can also function as a landmark, especially as an indicator of player power level. An example is an NPC showing up early in the PC’s career that beats the hell out of them and gets away.

Eventually the PC’s catch up to this NPC and are able to defeat them in a later confrontation allowing players to demonstrate not only their characters’ increased powers and abilities but also (hopefully) their better teamwork and maybe ability at planning and strategy. Bosses are ideally effective combatants up to the point of defeating the players, that is they are hard to defeat but are not overwhelmingly or impossible to knock down.

The Boss strategy can keep the murder-hobo(es) on their toes focusing their attention. It also has entertainment value so eliminating murder hoboing due to boredom. The Boss should inspire the PCs to track them down where NPCs with information become important to that goal. A murder hobo would lose the ability to get their claws into the Boss by not sparing the “throw-away” NPCs.

A better strategy, one that increases the depth of the setting, is to impose a socio-political hierarchy (feudalism etc.) that is defined and useable in game with the NPCs holding these positions not having to be super-charged or even particularly unique. The structure will ensure that even the players eliminate those in charge there is always a replacement and all the powers above them will see the players as threats to their persons as well. Thereby hiring and sending out the boss-types not only reinforced with the authority to deal with them but with back-up coming from all angles which includes ordinary citizens as informants or even poisoners or entrappers. These people who not only believe in the system which can by themselves be enough but those who also have stakes built into the system or at least those who believe they do are very dangerous.

Overarching structures are more effective being very big and complex such as the Feudalist Hierarchy, which is basic but can be complex very quick as can succession to any of its offices. Smaller self-governing structures such as Guilds are more common but are also attached in some way to the overarching political structure by agreements, contracts, laws, and money. Meaning certain parts of the system will awaken to protect the whole as well as those parts that will see the murder-hoboes as their answer to political expediency and try to use them as such. This method can turn murder-hoboes into true role-players very quickly especially if they care anything about their characters. If the PCs still randomly murder the NPCs then an avenger may be called for.

An Avenger or Nemesis type NPC has the power and resources to hunt down and be a definite threat against the offending PCs. This type of NPC will definitely try to get them alone in a duel-like situation and will have no mercy convinced that they are the good guy and may very well be in this situation. It should be obvious to the Players that this character is too powerful to confront directly and there should be clues dropped in the game to demonstrate this and clue the Players in. There should also be in-game moments when the PCs know a superior enemy is stalking them. This helps to focus the murder-hobo(es) on something other than murder hoboing.

Murder Hoboing can drag a game down into pure boredom with the GM paralyzed due to a vital tool being broken. The ability to put clues and raw information into the mouths of NPCS is extremely important to running a game. It also boils roleplaying games down to simple number crunching as murder hoboing often involves greed for XP but this is not always applicable. However, there a ways to mitigate and fight this lazy approach to RPGs that some players have or may fall into.

The more passive and preventative approaches are running a preliminary session (Session Zero), require character backstories from each player, and do not be afraid to bait troublesome player characters.  These should be attempted before the more direct methods are used. The more direct methods to combating murder-hoboes are employ increasingly powerful NPCs as adjudicators, make use of in-game power and political structures, and sending out avenger or nemesis type NPCs directly at the PCs. Note that the GM should never overuse these direct tactics as players may take it as direct attacks on them by the GM, so use sparingly.

Of course, if all else fails maybe it’s time to let go of the troublesome player or try to adjust to the group’s method of play if it is the entire group and a new one is not an option. Maybe such a group is better at being the villains.

 

The Cabal of Eight Pt.16: Fight for Sleep

The young mages had split their take from the Under-City Vaults and looked to hide the undivided booty someplace in the cabal room. After thoroughly searching the chamber Gornix (played by Gil) was able to find a small alcove behind a false brick in the hearth. They stashed a bag of gems (3 diamonds, 3 sapphires, 2 jade pieces, 1 emerald, and 3 moonstones) there along with some dragon’s teeth and the lotus seeds.

While they had done this they failed to notice that the amazon Athfonia (played by Perla) had slipped away just after they split the talons. The Ferenoi had absconded with her fair share of the gems and currency so the young mages simply shrugged her absence off.

Concerning the gear, Excor (played by Cris) took the Platinum Key encrusted with diamonds (Level 12, Knock 3/day used by inserting and turning the key, Passdoor 1/day used by tapping the key on the door), 1 healing potion, and the Jet Amulet (Level 5, Shield at will 1/day). The Jet Amulet won in a roll-off between Cris and Jenn.

Fauna (played by Jenn) took the polished bronze dagger with the carved jade grip (Level 8, +2 magic modifier, +4 to Luck level while being wielded), the mantrap seeds, the mandrake root, 1 Neutralize Poison Potion, and 1 Heal All Potion.

Gornix took the Electrum Ring with black enameled runes (Level 20, Call Nature’s Ally [Eagle] 2/day) and a Heal All Potion. Excor put the heavy bronze spiked mace under his chair as nobody wanted to actually continue carrying the weapon around.

Szoosha (played by Isis) took possession of the ruby-studded Copper Bracers inlaid with silver (Level 16, Armor Bane at will 1/day, +2 magic modifier to hand strikes and to bracer parry), 1 Neutralize Poison Potion, and 1 Claws of the Beast Potion.

Equipped with their new gear and their purses fattened with their shares of the loot the young mages decided to accompany Gornix to his apartment since he was still carrying the Amber Bee. It was still night though the wee hours. Black storm clouds filled the sky.

As the small group of mages walked through the city streets the lighting flashed and thunder cracked across the sky. They were about half-way to Gornix’s apartment when Fauna spotted the dark outlines of four winged imps following them.

Fauna: “Guys! We have company!”

Excor pulled his Copper Spike and shot a lightning bolt at the lead red imp barely scratching it. The third imp flew up to Gornix to smash its tiny split-hooves into his face as lightning flashed the sky. Fortunately he parried. The first imp exhaled a cone of fire catching both Fauna and Szoosha in the area of effect. Fauna lucked out and took no damage (Natural 20) but Szoo was badly burned and stunned by the blast (forced a Recovery roll so he didn’t die).

The second red imp did the same catching Szoo and Excor in its fiery breath. Szoo dropped into unconsciousness from the burns. Excor lucked out and took no damage (Natural 20’d it as well). Fauna forced her Heal All potion down the Naga’s throat. The fourth imp blasted its fire breath at the young mages singing them all. Gornix whacked imp number three with his staff but dealt no damage.

The first imp kicked Excor in the head drawing some blood. The second imp kicked Fauna in the face whom walked right into the blow while trying to avoid (she rolled a Natural 1). Fauna was stunned and bleeding from the monster’s nasty hooves, she was forced into a Recovery roll to stay on her feet. As Szoo got up imp number four kicked him in the face with a critical blow (N20) horribly injuring the black-scaled naga. Gornix unleashed Chrono-Missile at number three, twice, significantly wounding the small demon.

Imp number one burst into flames (it’s Blazing Aura [fire] ability) as did number four. Szoo cast Elemental Half-Plate Armor [fire] on himself. The flames coursed over his scaly flesh and hardened into strange looking plates of a mystical nature. Excor leveled his spike at number one slightly nicking the demon with his lightning bolt. Imp number two and three ignited their blazing auras as well. Gornix blasted the third imp again with his chrono-missiles horribly wounding it. The first imp kicked at Excor’s head drawing some blood.

Cris: “Damn these things! I’m hurt BAD!”

The fourth imp tried to kick Szoo in the head but missed. Excor quickened a lightning bolt on imp number one but only slightly scratched it again. Szoo cranked back his staff, swung a mighty blow at imp number four, and nearly threw his weapon away as lightning flashed overhead. Luckily he snatched it back before it fully escaped his grip. Fauna slung a lightning bolt at number two dealing some damage to the little monster. Number two responded with a fearsome face kick but was parried easily by Fauna. Gornix again shot chrono-missiles at number three finally blasting it into oblivion. He then cast close wounds on himself.

Fauna cast another lightning bolt at number two dealing some damage to it. Number four tried to fly over and kick Szoo in the head again but locked its hooves with his staff. Excor leveled his spike at number one hurting it some with an electrical bolt. Number two tried to smash Fauna in the face again but she parried. Number one tried to cast Pox on Excor but he was able to resist the curse. Gornix took some time to check his array of wizardly knowledge about the imps (his Dark Knowledge Wizard specialist class ability) shouting out to the others where the creatures’ weaknesses lay. Szoo kept the fourth imp’s tiny hooves locked with his staff.

Jenn: “Gawd! These things are tough!”

Cris:  “Yeah! No duh! These are TOUGH, there’s still THREE of ‘em! I’m BAD with hit points how’re you?”

Jenn: “I’m hurt!”

Fauna cast a lightning bolt at number two severely wounding it. Imp number four tried to break the lock with Szoo but couldn’t break loose. Number two tried to kick at Fauna but missed horribly and fell to the ground from the air. Number one tried again to stamp its hooves into Excor’s forehead but was parried due to pure luck (Cris rolled a natural 20 parry). Gornix swung his staff at the imp on the ground but missed. Szoo maintained his lock on imp number four. Gornix made another swing with his staff before the fallen imp could leap into the air and bashed its skull.

Gornix swung again at number two’s head cracking its dome. Fauna cast lightning bolt at number two but the creature avoided the bolt. Number two leapt into the air and kicked at Gornix but missed. Excor used his spike again at number one adding to its multiple abrasions. Number one failed to cast Pox at Excor. Number four failed to break Szoo’s lock. Szoo, overpowering imp four, swung his staff and slammed imp four into the ground.

Gornix swung his staff at number two again but the blow was easily parried. Fauna launched another lightning bolt at imp number two and finally blasted it to bits. Number one kicked at Excor again but missed. Imp number four tried to break the naga’s grapple again but again found itself too weak. Szoo maintained his grip. Gornix used his electrum ring to summon an eagle and sent it to attack number one. It missed.

Isis: “Ugh! I want to STAB this guy so BAD!”

The Other Players (in unison): “NO! Maintain your grapple!”

Excor leveled his copper spike at number one again but did no damage. Gornix attempted to perform a coup-de-grace on number four but he only slightly wounded it. As a result of Gornix’s strike it got free of Szoo’s grip. Imp number four jumped up into the air and took wing. Fauna cast a lightning bolt at number four dealing some damage. Szoosha dropped his staff and unsheathed his dagger. Number one tried to kick Excor again and again missed.

Gornix cast chrono-missile at number four which it tried and failed to dodge. It was somewhat wounded now. Fauna tried but failed to cast lightning bolt. Szoo tried to stab number four but wound up flinging his dagger about 10 ft. away. Number one again tried and failed to kick Excor in the chops. Gornix’s eagle struck at number one again but its talons were parried. Gornix then pegged number four with some more chrono-missiles.

Cris: “S#@%! I’m on K.O. points!”

Excor cast Close Wounds on himself. Gornix’s eagle again struck at number one but missed. Gornix let loose another barrage of chrono-missiles at number one finally blasting it from the stormy sky. Fauna cast lightning bolt on number four wounding it. Number four went to kick Gornix in the face and he took the damage and simul-attacked (using his Battle Magic feat) with the chrono-missile spell finally killing it. Excor found Szoo’s lost dagger. All were badly wounded, nearly out of magic and the vitality needed to work it.

The mages limped back to Gornix’s apartment as fast as they could. They barricaded the door and secured the window shudders. Gornix cast Close Wounds on himself and Fauna applied healing salve to everyone including herself. They figured they were safe enough to not set a watch, as if they could if they wanted to.

To Be Continued…

Necromancing Xuun: Intro

Well, after the unintended (I hope) ending of the previous campaign A Giant in Xuun, Cris decided to give another go at GMing since he “had a lot more writing” left over that our characters never even touched on. So, Jenn, Gil, and I wrote up some new “evil” characters for further adventures in the coastal swamp City of Xuun. I decided on a necromancer from the Deadlands from far side of the world of Eu.

Bozhívostró JielínvoNecromancer Jien

Also known as Jíen or Xinn, he is a native of the Deadlands born to poor but landed farmers. He took the surname of his step-father (Bozhívostró) whom officially adopted him shortly after marrying his mother not long after Jíen’s birth. His true father’s identity is unknown to him though he is very aware of his adoption.

His adoptive father and his mother survive on their poor farm growing herbs & vegetables in the poor soil of the Deadlands. Both are somewhat ineffectual towards Jielínvo favoring instead his two younger brothers, the true heirs of his adoptive father’s property. In a vain effort to please his parents Jíen thrust himself into books and learning diving straight into an academic life even having shown enough promise to be recruited and examined by the provincial temple where he was allowed to study the necromantic arts.

A few days after his final exam and as he contemplated a life of civil service, his step-father took him to the docks, tossed him a small coin purse, and pointed out a ship. “That’s your ship”, he said and left the young necromancer to his fate. He had been indentured by his step-father to the ship’s captain as an apprentice Zombie Master. This black vessel, the Silver Owl Mercantile, would be his home for the next 5 years.

The Silver Owl

The silver owl is a fair sized ship with a junk rigging, crimson sails with the white face of an owl painted on the main sail. The ship is equipped to haul trade-goods (mostly noxious alchemical raw materials, slaves, and zombies). It is outfitted to handle a small number of living slaves in the holds and what is called a ‘Bone-Castle’, a chamber in the fore-castle used to store corpses & skeletons.

Jíen’s duties included keeping the active and inactive zombie crew well-brined as well as assisting the ship’s Zombie Master in controlling and combating the undead and any unfriendly spirits that may endanger the ship.

During his 5 years of contractual service he served mainly as the ship’s Apprentice Zombie Master but was occasionally called upon to take on the duties of a regular crewman whenever the need arose. The ship hauled its cargo to trade under cover of darkness to privately owned Hyvalian ships while in the Solkang Ocean. It also acted as an officially licensed privateer vessel along the Chengorré Coast in the Dread Sound.

The ship skirted the Imperial Seas going southeast and harbored in Crescent Moon for a time. From there it sailed back west to such parts as Tower Town and then south to the Mere to act as a slaving vessel. The acquired slave-cargo was then sold off in cities along the Serpent Coast. From the Serpent Coast the ship transported a few strong boxes, guild-marked, to Ezmer along with a couple of mysterious passengers.

Costing an Arm

A failed attack on a smaller Creschan vessel resulted in significant losses among the regular crew, thusly Jíen had to serve out-of-capacity as a sailor during a particularly nasty thunderstorm. As a result Jíen’s right arm got tangled in a rope and tore from the shoulder by the flailing rigging. It was nearly a month before the Master Necromancer could fully repair the damage. The young necromancer’s arm however was lost to the warm waters of the Great Outer Ocean.

It was while the ship was ported in Ezmer that Jíen’s contract was up and even though he was offered a standard contract to remain as one of the crew he decided to part ways with the ship disembarking to seek his fortunes in the bustling streets of Ezmer. Here he was able to find various jobs and made a few contacts including knowledge of a powerful slaver named Korvo-Doom, a name he was already familiar with as the Silver Owl often did business with Korvo’s associates in the Screaming Demon Company.

Traveling to Xuun

When things stagnated in Ezmer and the authorities began to take notice of him he decided to travel further north to Xuun on the first available trade caravan. He also heard of rumors among Ezmer’s mages of a powerful Naga mage known only as “Shadow-Scale” whom may be lurking in the city of Xuun as well as the contact information for another well-connected mage named Korfin. He had hoped that his contacts might provide some kind of employment opportunities fit for one of his talents, if anything he was confident that he could find work in the charnel house.

Dress for Undeath

The emblem Jíen wears on the chest of his black robes, puts on his spell books, and uses as his maker’s mark he took from an engraving on a nameless tombstone. It is of an owl & raven back-to-back facing left & right respectively with a lidless eye balanced between them. Over his robes and in addition to a grey waist-sash he wears a high-quality magic rhino-hide belt studded with moonstones and a blue-steel buckle that he had come upon on a lucky trade. He still wears the seaman’s seal-skins over his legs tied above the knee and a dagger with a serrated blade and spiked pommel dangles at his side.

On his face he wears a carven leather face-mask fashioned after an owl’s stylized countenance with a lidless eye carved at the center of the forehead. That he wears mainly to disguise the fact that in place of his eyeballs are two pools of lifeless shadow due to his Eldritch Ability of Eyes of the Dead. This ability has its advantages for a necromancer but renders the world at large a misty, grey, lifeless, and lonely place. Following him is his skeletal minion hidden in an identical black robe and a grey cloak and cowl.

Enter the Necromancer

Not long after arriving in Xuun, Jíen found himself sitting at an ale-soaked table in a smoky dive called the Whiskey-Troll Tavern. The place was over-crowded with gladiators and their managers/owners among them adding overloud business-chatter to the drunken clatter. Across the damp board from the one-armed necromancer sat a couple of rough customers. A short red-haired guy in black studded leather armor with a bronze facemask fashioned after the likeness of a lamb named Trantox, an assassin (played by Jenn) and a bigger guy in bronze armor painted black with a disfigured face named Dravor, a black guard (played by Gil). Both were ruffians from Posionwood. All three dark candlelit and pipe-smoke-limned figures awaited their mutual contact to show while they soaked in the reeking ambience of the place. They were waiting for a bard named Rantcor (former secret contact of the late Cantra).

To Be Continued…

Death

Mentioning the grim reaper conjures up the gruesome image of death, a worm-eaten skeleton cloaked in rot-black and bearing a scythe used to cut-down the living like chaff which manifests personally or through its followers especially in the fantasy realms of role-playing games. Whatever its guise it is inevitably an inescapable force as present in the fictional universe as it is a process in the actual and it is inevitable that Player Characters (PCs) will die on occasion. How should the player, the Game-Master (GM), and the adventurer group as a whole handle it when a Player Character (PC) is cut-down in their prime?

When characters are killed regardless of the cause or where the fault may lie and ignoring such phenomena as DoDs (Dungeons of Death) and Killer GMs, it can have an emotional impact on the player and on the course of the campaign in general. The player’s feeling of loss probably originates from losing something that they have in effect birthed directly from their imaginations and possibly spent quite some time molding, building and adapting. Players in other words tend to specialize in their characters making all transitions to new characters, not just due to death either, fairly difficult. The intimate knowledge the player has of their character has to be let go, partially forgotten in order for them to move on. Such options as building a character of a different race, culture, or character class than their former character can help as well as preventing them from consciously or unconsciously recreating their old character.

The player may also feel the emotional impact of sudden loss which is comprised of surprise, disappointment, and what amounts to the sting of ‘losing the game’. Of course as individuals, players will feel any combination of the previous and at varying degrees. Any shame or scorn the group heaps upon them due to their negative reaction or visible disappointment will only magnify these negative feelings and will discourage new players from returning and may give them second thoughts about joining any other gaming groups they may encounter in the future. A sensible amount of sensitivity in these situations is usually called for although if a character dies in a bizarre, stupid, or just plain comedic way, then laughing at it or telling stories about it in good humor are typically not out of line. Criticism of how the player directed their character can wait however allowing for a little time to pass (probably until the next game session) and should come in the form of helpful non-condescending advice.

When PCs die it has the most immediate and most emotional impact on the PC’s player but it also can throw a major wrench into the GMs plans and send the campaign head-on into a dead-end or cause it to tailspin into chaos. This occurs when the dead character was involved in at least one important unresolved plotline. Even unimportant plotlines can have a cumulative effect on the campaign if the number of unresolved plots tied to a dead character is numerous. Some of said plots will be simply cut-off essentially being resolved by the character’s death unable to continue but may still leaving behind a feeling of irresolution. This sense of incompletion can be used by the Game-Master to generate some new hooks. This remains true for those threads that are vitally important to the campaign as well. The sense of needing to have an end to these loose-ends is an opening and chance to catch the attentions of the living PCs.

In the advent of character death the GM needs to make a quick assessment as to exactly which plotlines have been cut-off and which simply leave the group with a feeling of emptiness and which are necessary to steer the campaign. The GM needs to think of ways to reattach the important threads back to the surviving members if they have not already done so in the course of play up to that point. At the very least, the GM needs alternate lines, back-up plans, to work around the loss or drop clues so as to cause the survivors to seek out the loose threads. The GM, with the player’s permission, can also use this as an opportunity to clue the other PCs in on certain hidden aspects of the dead character letting them get to know the deceased character in an indirect way adding a little more deepness to the game.

This all rides on the assumption of course that death is not something that is easy to overcome. In role-playing games and especially those in the fantasy genre, the settings tend to alter the nature of death itself making it in some situations more an inconvenience rather than the ultimate fate of a living being. This is reliant on how death is treated in the setting material, by the GM, and by the player group. Magical resurrection is typically the solution to “bring back” dead characters so any dependent plots are only temporarily stalled taking some of the difficulty from the role of the GM reducing death to a simple narrative device. Of course, there are other implications to this approach both mechanically and sociologically/philosophically in respect to the game world. The effects on the attitudes of the world’s occupants can range from complete indifference to the phenomena of death to outright non-morality when it comes to certain actions such as murder. What does it matter if the victim will be resurrected easily even though there may still be psychological damage to tend with after suffering such a trauma? Mechanically the questions to answer regarding resurrection are its availability, its difficulty, and stipulations (if any). All three points can and should be regulated by the GM but if the GM is using material authored by a third-party such as a purchased setting and/or supplements their hands may be tied, especially if the group objects, the alteration may ‘break’ the setting/world, or the GM has already set an in-game precedent (probably for plot convenience).

There are 3 basic mechanical approaches to the nature of death in an RPG: Resurrection, Permanent Death (also referred to as Perma-Death), and No-Death. The thrill of narrowly avoiding death is a great motivator for players and is the primary (and for the GM easiest) source of suspense in dire situations. Precluding death of any kind when regarding the PCs eliminates this and in effect does reduce the fun a bit although it will make all the players feel “safe” foisting more weight onto the shoulders of the GM to set-up the thrills. Another trade-off to this approach is that the GM doesn’t have to worry about random deaths throwing a wrench into their plans. Players should feel that there is risk in the game world concerning their characters. This opens an easy avenue for the GM to create tension. But the GM should stop short of just “knocking one off” just to send a message to their players. Done right death will be a palpable presence in the game whenever the players pick up their dice in a risky situation. Death also opens the possibility of death-defying heroics and the potential for self-sacrifice. Characters can suffer near-death experiences and players can enjoy or suffer the excitement of escaping the slavering jaws of death some may even make it a habit to tempt death whenever they can precluding the need to make an “example” out of anyone. However, this approach can elevate emotions and exacerbate player reaction if a PC bites it at the height of the action.

Permanent death may heighten the tension but it in my experience it seems to cause the players to tread a little too lightly especially if they’re attached to their characters they tend to want to err on the side of caution every time bogging the game down and reducing the potential for action immensely. Permanent death should be a shadow hanging over the PCs imaginary heads but there should always be a possibility for reversing the course (often magic or divine intervention become the narrative devices in this mode) though this option shouldn’t be easy or readily available to just anyone for reasons discussed previously.

Another aspect of in-game death that can become an issue is its level of apparent randomness. Random death is a real possibility when including death in the game (the dice do fall where they may). Basically this happens when without intending to the GM presents a situation where a PC is killed and the GM had planned otherwise. This is also true of NPCs though a dead NPC is easier to “write out” and find a way around their plotline also the emotional component is much less pronounced as well even if the NPC is well-liked maybe even beloved by the group. The players, without much need for sensitivity can treat NPC-death as a role-playing opportunity. Players should however mind the GM’s pride in such situations. Of course, death shouldn’t appear as too random to the point that players feel it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re just going to die anyway. If the players begin to take that attitude then the GM may have made things a bit too difficult and may need to pull it back a little.

The nature of death in TRPGs is largely determined by the participants and secondarily by the published materials that they are using. This is also largely true of what amounts to the afterlife of the deceased character as well. Sometimes a setting, usually fantasy settings, will have a literal afterlife for dead characters to progress into and possibly adventure through (sometimes even while their still living). This essentially creates a no-death situation when viewed at certain angles but generally disengages the sense of loss that should accompany death even if the separation from the in-game living may be there, it usually can be breached if it hasn’t already especially concerning certain RPG character archetypes. By the breaching of the barrier between life and death I do mean the actual ability to communicate with the dead, travel into the dimensions of the dead (the actual afterlife), or otherwise have a factual or working knowledge that there is indeed an afterlife and perhaps even its nature is also known. If the barrier remains intact and even if communication with the afterlife is possible, its nature remains ambiguous then the main question is about what has the dead PC left behind.

How is the dead character going to be remembered, what is the in-game legacy that they’ve left, and how long will it remain?  Players can treat the death of their characters as the final character development; in essence it is exactly that. It should be determined how they are remembered and how the NPCs that knew them will react such as building a monument, composing a song, the character’s name figuring into a legend or song of the event especially if there are witnesses. Also do not discount the heaping of scorn onto their name if they died foolishly and perhaps a divisive tract authored for manipulative purposes. What is the nature of their commemoration? If the character has relatives or offspring will they carry on the legacy of the dead character? The group as a whole with the GMs guidance should take some time and figure out what the legacy of the dead character is. This ad-hoc eulogy may also help to bring home the loss to the group providing for a somewhat solemn role-playing opp.

The legacy of the departed character consists of the lasting opinions of the NPCs that have encountered them or that had relationships with them including relatives and descendants. These opinions and whatever personal anecdotes a character, especially NPCs, carry may only last as long as the character themselves particularly if nothing was recorded or commemorative works composed with respect to the game world. It will also include any leftover material wealth which will definitely come to the attention of their companions probably more immediately than the GM would like. Any dwellings or items and literary works that the character has created or influenced in-game will stand as a testament to their existence within the game-world even leaving a legacy in the form of a uniquely customized item or weapon which can at least carry their name onward if not standing as a reminder of their story/legend. But as with most stories it’s the most sensational bit that will burn its image into the minds of the players, PCs, and NPCs. Probably the most critical part of the deceased’s legacy, the bit that will be the most likely remembered, is how they died.

With the inclusion of death as stated before there is the potential for the glorious heroic death and the potential for self-sacrifice. Critically this allows players the opportunities to commit their characters to the Good Death. Players should never be forced or pushed into sacrificing their characters; it should be their choice. The good death is a death that happens on the terms of the character for the most part and from their death the potential for something good and lasting to come of it. This can mean the player chooses to have their character face death with discipline and bravery and eyes wide open or have them fight to the bitter and all too obvious end. The good death is the player’s choice and that which plays to their character either displaying their personality, serving as a redeeming development, or a heroic end. The Good-Death in an odd way contributes to the wholeness of the character. Any way you cut it, it is the end of that character’s personal story but an end with a flourish that will be remembered (if there’s a witness to remember it that is).

A good death should carry some kind of meaning as well not just for the character themselves but especially for the player whose character it was. Hopefully this meaning carries over to the group as a whole and at its best will influence the campaign in a positive way. If nothing else it should inspire some interesting war-stories. A good death can help to soften the personal blow that the player feels as well. Of course, if the character dies randomly their death may just be a fact of in-game life.

RPG-Death should be reasonably random in nature and be somewhat defeatable under special circumstances. Death in role-playing games doesn’t and in most cases shouldn’t follow the parameters of Perma-Death and definitely not seem to be entirely random. It should serve in its primary capacity to add a definitive element of thrill and risk into the game as well as provide opportunities for the PCs for a Good Death and as the final character development rather than merely the bitter end of a character. Where the players may have to deal with the death of a character in personal terms the GM has to deal with the death of PCs and the sudden deaths of NPCs in primarily mechanical ones.

The GM must keep track of their plot-points and the threads which wind and braid throughout their campaign and have backup plans for the important plotlines as well as a finely-honed talent for quickly and neatly tying together severed plotlines when necessary especially when confronted with a sudden and unexpected character death. The GM should also keep in mind the mechanical capacities of the PCs so as not to have to experience the unintentional extermination of the entire adventuring group in what is known as the Total Party Kill (TPK) phenomena. There is no recovering a game from a TPK as everyone is probably going to have to generate new characters that will probably not have any meaningful connections with the previous characters at all though it is possible to generate PCs that are related in various ways to the former not to mention the use of apprentices, protégés, and squires. These may pick-up any dangling threads left over by their predecessors but will definitely not be able to pick back up every single one to reboot the previous campaign. Also GMs shouldn’t use character death to punish players or as an excuse to penalize them though there should be consequences (which can invest the players in their current or new characters even more if handled correctly). Basically, don’t intentionally try to kill PCs especially since sometimes Random Death can still rear its ugly head when you least expect it.

Death like most other components of TRPGs is an opportunity to deepen the game and add to the experience of all of the participants. It is a component which contains thrills, risk, and strong emotions in strange and varying amounts and which leaves an indelible mark on the memory. It is a very heavy subject even where concerning RPGs and is almost a living part of them as sometimes it can be just as unpredictable and out of the GMs hands as in real-life but the nature of which can be altered and borders regulated to maximize enjoyment and make the most of the game.