Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. – My Take, Episode.068

After a considerable hiatus, I have returned to continue writing as I am inspired.

His decision was critical as his companions faced certain doom.  The black dragon reared its huge head in preparation of unleashing its fiery acidic breath blasting down upon the unprotected heroes.  Meanwhile the infamous necormancer, Pyrex, grinned maniacally from high above as he neared completion of his resurrection spell that would bring back the fallen the heroes had just slain.  The decision was critical or his companions were surely dead, but he couldn’t decide who to focus on…..so he brought out two pipes and played them in unison for he was the Grand Master Bard.

I am among those who resented the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast published in 2008.  Although I adored playing MMO video games such as World of Warcraft at the time, the 4th edition books felt too close to those when I wanted to play more of a traditional role playing game that reminded me of the older editions.  Perhaps I am an old man who doesn’t like change, but the game play mechanics simply did not fit my style and preference.  So I was hesitant on even giving 5th edition a try when it was released in 2014.  In took me a year before I sat down with a group to experience it for the first time.  I will say this – I am very impressed with the effort and result that Wizards of the Coast put forth in the books.  Very impressed.

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For one, there doesn’t seem to be as much necessary crunch as before.  While I would say that 3rd and 3.5 editions were built to be more of a strategic role playing game, utilizing the innovated battle maps and miniatures, 5th edition feels more akin to the 1st and 2nd editions.  These were less of a visual game play and more of the mind.  While maps were still used back then (and even pewter miniatures were frequently sold), the maps were mostly drawn on-the-fly by the players as they ventured through dungeons.  There were few times when a top-down view of the immediate surroundings was drawn and miniatures were placed strategically on the battle field.

Fifth edition allows for battle maps to be used if desired for those who enjoy or need a better visualization on how the fights are laid out.  It caters in this regard to the 3rd edition lovers.  It isn’t necessary, however, to use them, and in fact many times I have gone through entire fights without them.

Another feature that I really like is the advantage/disadvantage system.  This is a simple but very effective way for a Dungeon Master to make a challenge difficult without having to do much math on adding modifiers to a roll.  On either account, you roll 2 D20s rather than one, but depending on whether you have advantage or disadvantage, you take the best or worst roll of the two.  There are still options to add the thousands of modifiers to a roll if desired, which was very common in 3rd edition, but if you wish to just give your players a little edge or challenge to their roll without having to over think it, this feature gives a quick result.  And that makes a good point in that streamline and pace, which I have talked about numerous times on how important they are, can be maintained with this feature.  Dungeon Masters need not look at a chart on their screen in front of them and hunt for the right situation modifier that will probably wind up being +1, +2, or +3 to their rolls.

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Short and long rests are a wonderful addition to the rules.  All too often the typical “rest” that a party faced in the past would result in an 8-hour stoppage of adventuring.  This would be mostly for the magic-users to regain their spells after blowing them all.  I always felt that it bogged play down and hindered magic-users a bit too much.  I would often find myself being very hesitant on casting a spell at an enemy because it was “early in the day” and I didn’t want to use up my 4 spells so soon.  Instead, we now have a short rest, typically 30 or so minutes of downtime for the characters before continuing on.  One of the classes fairly new to the list of Dungeons & Dragons game is the Warlock, which benefits greatly from this feature.  Although they are severely limited to the number of spells they can cast per day, they are given the ability to regain all of their spent spell slots after just a short rest.  This allows them to cast theoretically as many spells or more as a wizard or sorcerer if the party takes necessary short rests throughout the day.  Warlocks could then regain the spell slots right before a fight and concocting a plan of attack with whatever spells he knew.  Wizards would have been stuck with whatever they studied the night before and face possible expended spells used earlier that day.

Cantrip spells have become more useful.  Spells like Eldritch Blast now unleash considerable damage for magic-users who don’t want to spend any of their hard hitting spells but wish to contribute during common encounter fights.  There are even “bonus spells” that allow magic-users to cast more than one spell during a turn, giving them more options.

One of the most annoying rules that 3rd edition introduced was Attack of Opportunity or AOO.  This came into play when a character or opponent would pass by close enough to a target who could attack them.  There were ridiculous options and feats to this that really made players have to talk out the results on whether or not the situation even called for an AOO.  In 5th edition, AOO is only granted when an engaged combatant leaves their opponent’s melee area.  As long as they stay within that zone, they can move about as freely as they wish.  Just having to pay attention to characters leaving combat zones is much easier.

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And then there is the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I have only gotten to work a bit through.  However, what I have seen so far is even more impressive.  There is a good portion of the book dedicated to people who want to become a Dungeon Master, which is to be expected in a book like this.  I have been asked many times by people wanting to know how to step into the Dungeon Master’s chair, and this book is a great start.  It works on NPCs, which honestly is an unnecessary task of creating and working with since many times they are here-and-gone in an encounter.  Creating monsters and spells is another area that Dungeon Masters like to produce, and both are thoroughly explained in the book.  Monsters are more modular, in my opinion, being able to swap abilities among other monsters for unique experiences.  If one monster has a sting ability but you want that ability on another monster, it can be done and the calculations of its improved difficulty is a snap to follow.

There’s a section to make random dungeons on-the-fly by dice rolling.  This is almost exactly what can be found in the 1st edition.  It provides all kinds of listings that can be rolled and sought out, allowing you to not have to really give a lot of thought into whether a turn in the corridor is a good idea here or if a 10×20 foot room is needed and with what to fill it with.  If anything the book is inspirational for Dungeon Masters with a lack of experience or a lack of ideas.

In the end, we all have our own preferences when it comes to what we enjoy playing.  You may not even like the fantasy genre and focus just on RIFTS, Shadowrun, or Traveller.  You may just focus on the Weird West of Deadlands.  You may only wish to play Paizo’s Pathfinder because you still have a sore attitude towards Wizards of the Coast for releasing a “3.5” edition only 3 years after releasing their 3rd edition (even though Pathfinder plays much like 3.5 and you paid $50-60 on a book after refusing to buy the 3.5 books, thus ironically doing the very thing you said you wouldn’t do).

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Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most flexible systems I have ever played.  Wizards of the Coast allowed for gamers to voice their opinions on what they wanted in a rule book, and the publishing company actually listened and made the book for them.  The result is satisfying (and if it didn’t become successful, it was the gamers’ fault because it was their creation essentially).  You can play it like 1st edition with charts and exclusively with the mind or you can crunch it up with modifiers and battle maps like 3rd edition.

I encourage those still with hesitation from 4th edition to find yourself playing the game in the future.  Empty your mind and biased feelings of any previous editions you didn’t enjoy and focus on the features this new set of rule books has to offer.  You may be surprised and have a new system to spend your money on and clutter up your already cluttered bookshelf.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Creating an RPG Campaign Bible: Places – Part 6 Episode.066

Next on the list is probably going to be the most fun out of the entire campaign bible: important places and events.  This is where your world will shine the brightest.  You can put literally anything in your world.  Anything!  Don’t let your pop culture knowledge restrict your imagination.  Just because it was in Lord of the Rings doesn’t mean it has to be in your world.  Make orcs civilized instead of barbaric.  Give elves an evil twist to their nature by making them sadistic in sacrificial rituals.  Let the dwarves have industrial technology.  Provide dungeons with spectacular events like the walls, floor and ceiling suddenly breaking apart and floating in a void causing the players to jump along or fall to a lower level.  Bring life to your world by making the decisions you want to do.

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In Zatra, there are already tons of places to explore despite the fact that most people are living underground and sealed in the Chambers.  I want to make each region or location interesting and intriguing to the players by giving a little twist if possible.  The more typical and predictable the region is, the less likely they will want to explore it.


Important Places & Facts

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The Dwarven Chambers.  First designed in 1043 by a Dokaleer architect named Ludvig Shadowholm, Chambers are a complete ecosystem with the purpose of being entirely self-sufficient for living creatures within.  These structures are underground fortresses, chiseled and designed by only master craftsmen dwarves, and sealed off for protection.  The idea was to bring in only those who are not carrying the Touch disease in order to quarantine the healthy and keep the world from being wiped out.  There were originally 30 in total, but rumors have begun spreading that several have been discovered and breached.

Each Chamber has a secret one-way tunnel that leads to an underground cavern that’s connected to the surface.  The knowledge of its whereabouts and the trick to pass through it unscathed is only with the three dwarven kings and their 2 advisors within each of the 3 Dwarven Kingdoms.  These tunnels can only be used once as the last obstacle along the way causes a complete cave in.  Each of the 30 Chambers is governed by a Rystar, or knight, who is responsible for the wellbeing of those residing inside.  Generally communication between Chambers does not occur because of the danger of an outside source intercepting the message and, thus, discovering the location of either.  Only one of the 3 kings can give permission for a message to be sent by means of spells.

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Unhallowed Necropolis.  Formerly called Lut Gotain, it was once the shining jewel of the eastern coast of Zatra in the kingdom of Remes.  Strengthened by the advantageous geography of the land and sea, it remained untouched by enemies for centuries.  It was known to be the wealthiest and most powerful city along the East Coast.  So much so that an enormous vault was built high above the land, suspended by magic and tethered by thick, spell-bound chains.  Anyone passing within dozens of miles can visibly see the floating building waiting for someone to bravely climb the chains or find a means to lower it to the ground.  Lut Gotain was famed for the rich tobacco called mamiya used in meditational fires and smoking pipes.  Another well-known memory of the port city was the high vertical sails of their ships, some having masts over 300 feet tall.  These colossal sails were capable of producing speeds of up to 45 knots on the open sea, which allowed goods to be traded at an astonishing rate.

Sadly the only enemy that ever breached her walls brought her to ruins.  The accepted story is that a lone traveler from the far north brought the Touch unsuspectingly into the city without the guards checking.  Now the city of Unhallowed Necropolis is an extremely deadly location to venture, filled with hundreds of victims who fell to the curse.  It is peculiar, however, in that a rumor is known of a powerful person or creature that took control over the city and found a way to command the Touched to his bidding.  Some believe it is a member of Nub Sumat, but others believe it is another entity unrelated to Koz or his followers.

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Valashra. It stretches from east to west and divides the world into halves by its sheer size and range.  The mountain range Valashra was an unnatural phenomenon, created exceedingly quickly due to a massive explosion below the earth’s surface.  To this day, no one really knows for sure what caused the explosion, but for centuries it is wildly believed that a rare race of gnomes lives somewhere far, far below the surface.  Although some claim to have seen a gnome, most notably the dwarves as they dig forever deeper, there is no documented evidence that they exist.  Scholars believe that if there is a mystical race, they live much farther underground than the deepest the mountain dwarves have ever dug before.

The mountain range has an unusual feature that is found at either end:  a cave entrance.  While the duration has never been fully traveled, it is believed that the tunnel eventually leads from one coastline to the other.  A few tests have been conducted by sending glass bottles into one end and discovering it to exit on the other over a year later.  On one peculiar incident, the bottle was slightly tinted blue and had a piece of parchment containing unknown symbols that have yet to be deciphered.  Copies were made and placed in each of the 30 Chambers as well as several surface cities.  The original copy is on permanent display in Chamber 1 where King Wolvar Thunderharm resides.

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Ming Ki. Very little is known of the monk monastery.  Those unwelcomed attempting to locate it almost always finds their fate sealed before their eyes lay upon the fortress.  It is well hidden among the mountains high above in Valashra for mysterious reasons as no one knows why the monks require such isolated privacy.  Those who leave seem to already have their purpose determined, and none of them ever surrender any information about what went on during their training.  Some people believe the monks go through extremely torturous exercises, fasting for days while being burned or pierced.  The size of the complex is also only rumored.  Many scholars feel the fortress can hold hundreds of inhabitants, but being so high in the mountains, little in terms of vegetation can be grown.  So the mystery continues as to how they provide nourishment.  The only people who journey down from the mountains are the messengers, but they only recruit a new person without acquiring any goods.

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Ulopia.  One of the remaining surface cities in existence, Ulopia is protected by some of the world’s most powerful wizards.  Many of them formed the enclave over a century ago when it was clear the Touch was a global threat.  They were innovative with their spells, fusing and reforming new ones that far exceeded historical expectations.  A dome of energy was created over the entire city, giving off a light pink hue to those observing it from miles away.  The focal point comes from one of the most powerful hubs of multiple Leeways in Zatra, which was a fortunate coincidence to the founding location of Ulopia.  Unfortunately the dome comes at a price.  Within the dome, essentially no energy comes from the Leeways.  This includes all plant life as well as magic.  As a result, farmlands surround the dome.  The engineers of Ulopia designed fascinating structures that allow the fields to be elevated ten feet off the ground to help prevent dangerous creatures from harming the farmers as they work.  Water is drawn up and carried through aqueducts from within the dome to the surrounding countryside.  Still, patrols are on duty all hours of the day outside of the dome on an elevated, circular walkway that follows the circumference.

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K’leshima. Consider yourself lucky if you lay eyes upon the great floating fortress of K’leshima unless you are a sky elf.  This nearly impossibly accessible city slowly floats above the surface of Zatra as the wind blows.  Spiraled in the foundation of the city through solid rock are four massive iron chains tipped with anchors that are lowered to the ground below during troubling winds or storms.  The center point of the city is the citadel known as Malistima (Muh-lee-stemuh), a mighty building of deep historical purpose to the sky elves.    It is here that only the Sacred Nine are permitted to conduct elemental experiments and execute decisions that reflect all people of K’leshima.  Numerous smaller rock formations are tethered to the main portion of the city and hold smaller structures including windmills.  These are powered by the wind as the city travels across the country, fueling the city’s need for advanced technology: electricity.  There is no other race or person besides the sky elves that know how to produce or harness such power.  All believe it to be simply another form of magic as certain spells are capable of creating similar effects but for a brief moment.  Only in K’leshima will you find artificial illumination, and the city is a speechless, breathtaking sight at night as it explodes into a sea of lights that can be seen for hundreds of miles away.  Transportation between the floating islands is conducted either through floating wind- or electric-powered ships or bridges.  Ships ride on magnetic currents from the planet’s core and are capable of traveling up to 150 miles per day without recharging if powered by electricity.  Sailing vessels, on the other hand, are more common but extremely expensive and difficult to acquire.

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Keldia.  Covering a large portion of the southern lands is the bog of Keldia.  Despite the feeling of death and decay throughout, Keldia is home to the hill dwarves and plays a vital role in the ecosystem of Zatra.  The origin of Keldia stems from the hands of the Nub Sumat when Koz granted them the power of weather effects.  But the flooding that created the marsh fields resulted in very soft saturated soil that happens to be ideal conditions for peat moss.  Once cultivated, the peat can be used to produce numerous valuable resources such as luxury sealing wax, growth acceleration chemicals for farming, and the purification of water.  This crop grows for dozens of miles in every direction, giving the residents of the bog a lifetime of work.  The need to purify water came several centuries ago when a contamination directly resulting from a collecting of wizard spells reached a large portion of Zatra.  At the time, powerful Clerics were able to restore the tainted aquifers, but the duration was immensely long.  With the discovery of peat moss being used to purify groundwater, the process takes considerably less time and money.

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Northern Lands. The Northern Lands are not for the weak.  The region is a cold, dark formidable area covered in some areas with over a hundred feet of snow, plagued with white out blizzards that last for weeks, and riddled with extremely dangerous creatures.  Those who reside in the region are among the toughest in the world, capable of withstanding extremely dangerous temperatures and battling the most ferocious beasts.  All of the Northern Lands are covered with some snow or solid ice, and the majority has enough that tunnels are the only means of travel and survival.  These interlocking systems are carved by giant animals or by the humans who call it their home.  It is rumored that the Northern Lands was once home to a thriving civilization not of this world before the humans made the journey over Valashra and claim it for their own.  Any evidence of this ancient people has been buried deeply under the frozen ground.


I’ll cover an interesting section of the campaign bible in Part 7 with character and class origins.  I particularly enjoy this section because it adds a better reason in selecting your race and class during the creation process.  Instead of simply saying “I like playing dwarves and I like playing fighters, so I’m a dwarven fighter,” you can say “I really like the idea of coming from the frozen Northern Lands and being well adapted to survival as well as being a member of one of the barbarian tribes there.  I’ll play a dwarf from there, completely white skin and slightly bluish beard who is covered in tribal tattoos and carries a giant battleax as a fighter.”

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Exploring Gen Con’s Dealer’s Room Episode.061

If you haven’t had the opportunity to see the Exhibitor’s Hall at Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana (USA), it’s an eruption of sights and sounds that beg you to strain your neck in 360 degrees.  Things will catch you out of the corner of your eye, someone will invite you to play a game for free, and vendors will be handing out free trinkets to lure you in.  It is no surprise that 3-5 hours can be spent in what is commonly referred to the Dealer’s Room.  Some people ignore the majority of the booths and go straight to their favorite location, planting themselves at the demonstration tables and play games all day.  You can do that.  Fantasy Flight and Mayfair Games especially offer entire sections of tables where you can sit down with a sales representative and learn the basics of the game before you buy it.  And under no obligation are you held to doing so after you play it.  While it is easier to walk away from the larger booths where dozens of people are milling about, the smaller booths cause a greater sense of guilt for not buying their game after they took the time to show you how it’s played.  You are wise to be comfortable saying no.

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I find it hypnotic as a sight of wonder as I make my way through the aisles of merchandise.  I generally do my best to start at either end of the room because it is beyond colossal in size.  Two football fields could fit inside the hall side by side.  The hall is so massive they have to drape giant banners above each aisle signifying what number it is.  There are approximately 25-30 aisles total.  It is very easy to get distracted or disoriented without keeping a good eye above.  And not all of the aisles cut entirely straight through.  Many of the booths are so huge that they cannot fit width-wise between two aisles and cross right over it.  This makes it more of a challenge as you aren’t able to just walk right through these areas since they are assigned for gaming demonstrations that sometimes have long lines.  You must walk to the next aisle over and come around on the other side of the gaming area.  If you’re easily distracted, this simple task will be quite difficult.

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The crowds are another factor.  Several things to remember is that this convention handles over 50,000 attendees, many of which are in the Dealer’s Room throughout the day.  One of the biggest complaints with the massive crowds is parents who bring strollers in with them.  I’m sure they are not having any more fun than I am trying to wedge the wheeled contraptions with their children through thickly crowded aisles.  They take up space, and they force the already jammed packed crowds to push their way to one side in order to give room.  While the convention is family oriented, these tight, congested areas really are not suitable for strollers.

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Despite what the convention asks, people still stop in the middle of aisles and intersections to either visit, take a picture of someone in costume, or just gawk at something.  It’s perfectly suitable to take a detour from your path over to the side and do those things all you want, but when the aisles are so crowded that you have to literally shuffle your feet no more than 6 inches at a time, it’s horrifically annoying when the whole “train” comes to a stop because people are blocking the way.

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But regardless of the few annoyances you’ll see when it comes to any large group, you’re in for an experience that you can’t quite prepare yourself for.  To begin with, the doors open at 10 a.m. each day and close that afternoon at 6 p.m.  They do this Thursday through Sunday, and if you are lucky enough to either slip past the door nazi or have a friend who’s a vendor, you can actually get in Wednesday evening to have a look around though nothing is for sale at that point as vendors are finishing up on setting their merchandise out for the next day.

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If you want a specific thing that has a chance of selling out, you need to be prepared to show up well before 10 a.m. on Thursday morning.  By 9:20, you are going to see the start of what will become an enormous buildup of a crowd gathering outside the hall.  By 9:30, most of the hall will be full of people packed in.  The area is so congested that staff volunteers have to force people to make paths through them in order for others to walk.  When 10 a.m. rolls around, the doors open.  At this time, the hall has 3 groups of doors at various intervals along one of the walls.  Each group consists of about 6 double doors.  You have to present your badge in order to get in, which I think slows up the flow of traffic initially, but that is the convention’s way of demanding you pay to spend money like a Costco or Sam’s Club.

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It’s really a good idea to take the trip twice for many reasons.  First, you’re going to probably miss something.  Second, vendors will bring out or change merchandise throughout the weekend.  Third, sales will begin really picking up on items by Saturday afternoon and into Sunday.  Fourth, the traffic begins to thin out as the weekend goes and people have spent their money and bought the things they came for.

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There’s no doubt that with the entire amount of stuff to look at in the Dealer’s Room, there are things that are going to be overlooked.  So a second look doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re interested in finding something that just interests you but you weren’t expecting to buy.  Discovery is a big word in there as you stumble upon things you never knew existed.

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Items get rotated throughout the weekend.  Things are sold out, and other items are brought in.  The smaller vendors will have a more static arrangement of merchandise, but the larger vendors sometimes have a cycling schedule where some new merchandise is brought in later in the weekend to entice customers to return to their booth.

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Although a fairly obvious statement, merchandise can be heavy.  The amount of things that even the smaller vendors bring to the show takes up space and is a bare to load back into their van or truck to hall back home.  Many companies, especially the smaller ones with a lot of books, will drop their prices or be willing to make deals once Saturday afternoon rolls around and especially on Sunday.  Feel free to request bundle packages with things and don’t be afraid to haggle a bit.  There are obvious times when vendors aren’t going to mark their merchandise down.  The larger the vendor, I’ve found, the less likely they will come down on an item.  If they are brand new items, it’s tough for them to justify already lowering the cost, but if you offer to buy multiple things and then ask if $5-10 can be knocked off, you may be surprised to get that.

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Usually on Saturday there are a tremendous amount of events going on from private parties hosted by some of the vendors to live concerts to huge tournaments.  This takes up a good number of people’s time and generally has an effect on the numbers in the Dealer’s Room.  Sunday is usually the emptiest because a huge group, mostly those traveling, will be back at the hotel packing and taking taxis to the airport or driving home.  You’ll find more success by then as long as the merchandise is still there.  That is always a risk when dealing with any retail store, however.  If there are enough copies on Friday, you should be okay by Sunday.

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While I do have numerous opinions about the convention and its growing size previously talked about, there are still benefits and good things about the place, especially the Dealer’s Room.  However, keep in mind this final thought.  Unless there is an item that is being released just at Gen Con and limited supply, chances are you can buy it online for the same price or cheaper.  There are quite a lot of vendors I notice year after year who sell their books for the same price they sell it year round.  Books that were out last year have the same MSRP as this year without giving any deals.  The used items like former editions of Dungeons & Dragons are usually on sale with the option of a better offer given.  But unless you absolutely insist on buying that new copy of Shadowrun that came out last year or the  year before, just buy it on Amazon for much less.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Our Perception of Reality Affects Our Gaming Episode.058

“What’s that?” you ask as the blip on your tracker comes to life.  You look to your left through the thick jungle brush and squint as if that will allow you to see more clearly.  All that’s in view are smooth bark trees, hanging vines, and some of the deadliest insects on this planet.  Gesturing to the others of the expedition to wait, you pull out the cold scanner and run a track in an arc.  Although faint, there is something about 200 paces off the animal trail you’ve been following for hours.  By now the expedition lead has made her way back to you requesting what’s the hold up.  After a minute of explaining the data you’ve found, she sighs and nods over in the direction of your detection, giving you the go-ahead to take two others and catch up as soon as you can with the rest as they continue on to Mesa Giarde.  With trepidation you call out for Richard and Boz to follow behind as you step through the jungle to discover what lies just out of sight.

I’ve recently gotten heavily involved in more science fiction settings since Monte Cook’s Numenera and Green Ronin’s Titansgrave have come out.  One reason is because I have a wider range of development to discover.  What I mean by that is in a traditional fantasy setting, even if something the players stumble on is 1000s of years old, it still has to look primitive or else you risk bringing them out of the medieval setting immersion.  Structures must be built using stone, wood, or mud because steel beams would not fit the setting or any years prior to it.  Although one could make their setting a true “dark ages” by creating a world that has become primitive after all knowledge of technology was lost, similar to Numenera, but even that eliminates the true fantasy feeling because sooner or later someone is going to discover ancient tech.

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Those who are educated enough in history often automatically relate to any setting we play in to our own conception of history.  In other words, if we are playing a fantasy setting, we generally will feel we are in Western Europe around 1100 A. D.  Our minds lock in that the Industrial revolution hasn’t occurred yet even if that has nothing to do with the setting’s future.  Our imagination may be strong to come up with amazing wonders, but when it boils down to it, we have to associate everything in our mind to perceptions of reality.  Even when we think of the most outrageously fantastical thing, we are drawing in things we already know and have seen to create the image.

For example, try to imagine a color that doesn’t exist in the color spectrum.  You can’t.  Why not?  We have imagination, don’t we?  It’s because until we witness or experience something that we can associate with it, it is impossible for us to truly create something that has absolutely no connection to anything we have seen already.

Returning back to the subject at hand of science fiction settings, we have a wider spectrum of ideas to create our world’s reality.  The farther we are in the future, the more history we have in the past.  If an expedition comes across an old castle in ruins, even though you’re in a science fiction setting, players will accept that discovery easier because we associate our own history of the Middle Ages being at some point in the past.  Otherwise, we might hesitate and pull ourselves back out of the immersion we have of the setting.

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One of my favorite discoveries to throw at players is an abandoned structure.  I tend to feel that abandoned structures in a fantasy setting have become legendary and well known with a story behind it.  Sometimes you may come across an abandoned house or the like in the middle of nowhere, but I definitely feel a difference in atmosphere between stumbling upon an abandoned building in a fantasy/medieval setting and one in a science fiction setting.  I usually have to add atmosphere outside the building in a fantasy setting such as thick fog or darkness to make it eerie.  An abandoned structure in a science fiction setting is ominous any time of day because generally something went terribly wrong to those who used to dwell inside.  The same thing happening in a mansion in broad daylight doesn’t quite have the same sense of dread as you enter it.  Again, it may associate with our perception of what to expect from a fantasy setting.  Dungeons may remove that as you can enter one during the middle of the day and have a sense of dread as the light grows dark rapidly once inside.

Let me give you an example.  In the movie Pitch Black, a group of crash victims on a deserted planet stumble upon a house with a broken shuttle outside.  The sun is out, it’s a bright, hot day as they explore the facility.  Clues are strung about the building as they slowly find new pieces to the puzzle of why this place is now empty and what happened to the previous residents.  There is no ominous atmosphere like darkness or fog here.  It’s the reason of the abandonment that makes it feel eerie and foreboding.  It’s an extremely creepy feeling that builds up during the scene.  And yet, there isn’t really anything that is scary or creepy to be scene.  It’s what’s lacking that makes the skin crawl.

Structures from a setting of the future generally don’t involve dungeons although they could.  Usually we expect inhabitants or former inhabitants with a level of intelligence that allowed them to create the place.  When their presence is removed, then mystery follows on why that occurred.  If you remove expectations from any situation, you create mystery for your players.  Something else now inhabits the facility, something deadly harmed the inhabitants, a threat forced them out, or they simply grew too large for the facility and relocated.  Whatever the case, you’re given plenty of room to cause intrigue and fear among the players.  A sense of wonder can follow as they slowly discover the truth behind the place.  This is especially true when their expectations are thrown out the window.  An abandoned structure gives them a quick list in their minds of what possibly happened before they even step foot inside.  Once they begin exploring, however, their jaws can drop open if you give them some twists in the discovery.  Perhaps the building really is to cover the entrance for an underground military base.  The building could have been constructed to hold something imprisoned that confuses the players whether it needs to be imprisoned or freed.  It could be an interstellar staircase to an orbiting satellite or even a passing object that is only accessible every 134 years.

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It’s really on how you perceive things.  If you can remove metagame thoughts associating them with our perception of reality, we are able to accept the abnormal and unusual easier.  Roman era with hover cars, for example, would make most players raise an eyebrow and think “…okay” instead of accepting that that is how this particular setting is laid out and embrace it.  Remember that when you’re playing any game, your character is not you.  Something may seem strange to you, the player, but your character is in a world that is as typical to him/her as you are to your world.  How strange would it be to an alien who does not have to sleep to witness millions of people laying down and going into some catatonic state for several hours, becoming unresponsive?

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Campaign Concept: A World of Hope Lost Episode.053

Just a thin mist greets you as you pierce through the old worn town sign, its name long since eroded away.  Crickets and frogs harmonize with cicadas as the crisp but eerie sounds echo off the dark and silent buildings on either side.  Though these sounds fill your ear, the lack of the usual sounds you would expect from a village drowns them out.  This is a town that has been touched by a curse.  Be wary of your footsteps and be vigilant for you are not alone in this seemingly abandoned community.  It is clear the Touch has reached here despite its isolation and remote location closing in on the country’s border.  It would seem the entire country has lost the battle.  You grip the handles of your Warhammer and mace, knowing the things that now dwell here will soon grow bold and come for a closer look of your flesh.

One campaign I particularly enjoy running is those of hopelessness and loss.  I find it more challenging for players and rich for story.  Instead of having champions of some deity or king as the players’ character, instead I set out for creating a low-magic (or low-fantasy) setting where the players are at a disadvantage beyond having a lack of skills and power.  These characters must struggle while they find their name in the world while facing impossible odds.  There is always some form of challenge in every campaign (assuming the GM has an idea), but when you are pitted against the entire world rather than whatever encounter the GM throws at you, then suddenly you approach the campaign with an appreciation and respect.  There are not as many “I burst through the door” moments.  There is a level of cautiousness that allows players to reconsider and form a better strategy before moving forward.

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My idea is not original, but is a concept I have had on paper for a while.  The characters are in a declining world – one where the Age they are in is drawing to a close.  For years, a sickness or curse has befallen the land, causing some kind of change in behavior, looks, abilities, etc. in everyone who succumbs to it.  The plague and zombies are often turned to when campaigns think of widespread epidemics, but I think my campaign would be a different effect.  Chris Perkins, senior producer for Wizards of the Coast (co-creator of 3rd edition), through the unique feature that everyone in his world had Wild Magic that allowed everyone to cast at least 1 spell which would amplify on certain days.  While this would not cause despair in a country, I like the idea whatever the case may be changes on certain days or time periods.  A harvest moon, lunar eclipse, etc., could be frequent enough in the world that it will matter.  The world has become extremely dangerous because of this phenomenon, making monsters even deadlier and mundane people dangerous enough.  Mutations would be a possibility as long as their minds have become animalistic so they act on instinct and anger and have no chance of being talked out of a fight.  This will put the players on guard more and lessen the frequency to parlay with enemies, but there will be moments for that as well.

The premise is the cause is brought about by either one man or a collection of people who are working to gain favor for a brand new god who appeared.  This god has granted a list of progressively more powerful abilities and spells the more the collection of people can convert the world into these creatures or entities the deity is demanding.  There’s a percentage that increases as the players discover new areas have been affected.  This grants the collection more abilities to do on the country that changes the very physics of the world such as sunlight hours, weather, gravity, and time.  These events will occur throughout the campaign to give change and challenge to the players.

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They’ll find towns filled with converted people, mostly seeming abandoned.  Actual untouched people are now below ground.  Somehow the dwarves are more resilient to the Touch, as it is now called, than any other race.  They were aware of the collection of people behind this phenomenon and allowed those unaffected to come into their underground kingdoms.  These areas became sealed vaults to the outside world, completely self-sufficient unless breached.  This concept is directly from the Fallout video game franchise.  I like the idea of the last remaining few to be hiding and the players will have to find certain ones who are key in stopping the Collection.  Some vaults are breached and have been ransacked, though players can venture in to scavenge and find potentially hard to find magical items left behind depending on what creature breached the vault.  The creatures may use the vault as their home now though they have no use for the items left within.

The Touch can’t be lycanthropy or a zombification.  Those are used so much.  However, both have the characteristics I want in the phenomenon: a lack of a conscience mind and some metamorphosis.  Fingers and teeth become elongated or they become ethereal or corporeal.  Perhaps they adapt a black tissue that covers part of their body and causes them to act violently or angrily like Venom’s symbiotic suit.  It wouldn’t be the entire body, pieces of it and different parts of the body.  Perhaps the legs are covered, causing the person to move incredibly fast almost like teleporting that makes him hard to hit.  One arm could be coated which makes the fingers extremely long and sharp.  Their head partially covered over one eye or the mouth brings their teeth longer or their eye to glow red and can see better in pitch black.

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Some could be completely coated, and these have been granted a more powerful set of abilities, perhaps even some semi-intelligence.  The idea of the blackness would be that it is linked to a living creature that is far below the surface.  It’s ironically well protected in the Dwarven kingdoms because it is considered an avatar of their god.  This avatar is actually one of the Collection’s members, having been granted the ability to mimic almost demi-god like powers to fool the dwarves.  This would allow the Collection to send assassins and specially trained creatures and people after the vaults to gain access through trickery.

So the goal of the group would be first to explore the world a bit to understand nearly the entire world is lost to the Touch.  Danger is everywhere now with creatures and people affected.  That would be the first story arc.  The few remaining are hidden in vaults scattered across the land, giving the players things to seek out.  They will encounter random assassins and things working for the Collection, having a rival group especially that tries thwarting them.  Once they discover the dwarves and vaults, they will need to discover the false avatar god tied in with the Collection though they have speculation rather than facts.  This would be the second story arc.  So they must discover somehow that there is a handful of people who possess the ability collectively or the knowledge of locating and destroying the Collection.  The players must locate each one in the vaults (one perhaps not being in a vault, just isolated), and bring them together in a final showdown.

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This is more ramblings of brainstorming, but it’s essentially how I work on brainstorming for a campaign.  I am not scared to steal ideas right from other sources because I’m not selling it for profit.  The familiarity sometimes is laughed at when the players identify a “rip off” segment, but that familiarity allows them to relate to it better and imagine it with a clearer picture.

Having said all that, this is nothing more than ideas that I happen to be interested in.  It’s not fleshed out, there aren’t any villains created, the world itself is not imagined, the cities have yet to be built, etc.  A one or two page idea is one thing, fleshing it out where it’s ready to be run is another.  It’s best to break your campaign into story arcs, that is, little chapters.  Take the first one and focus JUST on that.  Don’t worry about creating the dwarf vaults or fleshing out what avatar the dwarves worship because the players aren’t even going to discover that for a while.  Worry about creating some countryside villages filled with weird strange monsters or people.  For the climax, a particularly large or powerful creature that’s demise would ease a bit of the danger in the area.  Then create a little snippet of information where it leads to them seeking out the dwarves and the vaults (perhaps finding a small nook of a vault with dwarven architecture).  A campaign is made in bite sizes just like you run it in bite sizes.  Otherwise you’ll get overwhelmed and bogged down with too much work and the players will have little focus.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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Bringing Back Balance To Your Game Episode.052

“How much?” he asks as he holds the jeweled pendant in his hands in front of the drooling merchant, anxious for a big sell today.  “For you, I will part with such a rare item for three quarters of a hundred thousand.”  The man looks up with an emotionless expression on his face. “Fine,” he replies and places a heavy chest on the counter with a thud and a deafened jingle from within.  The merchant wets his lips at the sight, never having seen so much money at one time…and all for him.  He looks up to thank the buyer, offering his hand, but his shop is completely empty.  The little bell above his door never once rang when he left.  “How did he move so quickly?” thought the merchant, and then shrugged his shoulders as he eyed the chest and worked at the latch to open the container.  Outside moments later, bystanders heard a shriek of horror and pain from within the shop.  By the time someone investigated, they found nothing more than a pool of liquid beside the opened chest, a burning sizzle rising from within the container that had a spring-loaded acid trap, now spent.  The only one who knew of the mysterious man’s existence was now dead, but the world would know of him very soon.

One thing that always baffled me are players who find enjoyment for long periods of time playing characters who are clearly overpowered for the game in rpgs.  While it is very satisfying and rewarding when you work hard to build a character from very little to a very powerful character, the latter half should still be as challenging, just on another spectrum.  Challenges, obstacles, or bumps in the road make up any storyline and create interest.  If you were to take out those setbacks or achievements that need to be accomplished, then you are living essentially a “slice of life” story where it is merely a segment of one’s life in everyday living that just happens to have little to no difficulties.  We may live ordinary lives every day, but they are still filled with challenges both great and small.  We can think that life would be so much better if we lived in a utopia where there was no work and all play, it would lose its value and enjoyment.  If we don’t mix things up, we lose interest.  Those living in paradise eventually get used to living day to day there and it loses the charm.

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So what brings on the charm of being so powerful in an rpg you find little to no challenge in each session?  It may be fun to enjoy dominating an encounter, rolling extremely high numbers (ridiculously high, in fact), but just how far can the enjoyment of that go?  Sooner or later, repetition is going to sink in, and you will find yourself going through the motions rather than the joy.  The excited rolls of big numbers will eventually become “why bother rolling?”  As a GM, it becomes more difficult to find challenges for players who prefer to become more powerful than they know what to do with.  Generally the two areas of power a character can get are money and equipment.  The former brings the latter unless you accidentally give them the opportunity to acquire the equipment.  I find that if you are able to limit the amount of gold and reward what they get as they progress, you will be able to control their power.  This is much easier said than done.  In fact, there are charts in most guides for GMs explaining how much reward you should give a group depending on their level (not just fantasy rpgs but in general).  It’s so easy to just dump a large amount of gold at the players.  When they get powerful enough to hunt dragons, for example, or attack corporate companies that have Swiss bank accounts, that’s when you need to be on you’re A Game.  But let’s say you made a mistake and allowed the party to either have too much gear or money too soon.  How do you bring it back to a level playing field without you having to tell them point blank you need to remove some things from the game?  Here are a few suggestions to get your brain storming started:

  • Curse Items – This is for fantasy settings when things like magical gear are available. It won’t be as critical in modern day or future settings.  However, in a setting where they are present, cursed items can really help bring characters back on a level playing field although it is only a temporary fix.  If they acquired their gear by money, they probably still have a ton left.  However, keep in mind that curse items that cause your gear to go mundane is extremely powerful and should be in a logical area.  It can also cause your players to up and quit the game (had one do that in a fit of rage).

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  • Give them opportunity to buy cool things that are essentially worthless. Strongholds are the best that come to mind.  These can produce gold, but not as quickly or as much as the wealth they have on hand.  Building structures takes lots of workers, tons of material, and constant protection until it can properly defend itself.  Once built, then it takes time for people to move in and be taxed.  Tax them too high and a GM can choose they begin leaving.  Let them build their own traveling vessel like a ship.  Just because the price “in the book” says a value doesn’t mean that is how much it is.  YOU are in charge of your world.  It’s your baby.  Different parts of the real world have varied prices depending on inflation.  Pure economics will dictate and allow you to choose the values of things.

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  • The countries they are in can hold a ton of options on reducing gold or valuables. It can be a highly taxed environment that does an outstanding job of keeping an eye on everyone through scrying means.  There could be a form of IRS that is a collection of wizards working for the king who use their powers to spy on every single person in the kingdom and makes notes of who pays and who doesn’t, then sends a powerful group of assassins or adventurers after them to collect or soften up.
    • The country could be very anti-magic to the point the entire country (or a large part of it) is domed with an anti-magic field, rendering their weapons mundane. Instead of the entire area being a neutral area, you could introduce anti-magical weapons.  These pieces of equipment could be enchanted with a means to negate the enchantment of the weapons the party uses.  Armor could essentially work as damage reductions, negating the magical bonus the weapons have, and their anti-magical weapons could cut through their enchanted armor.
    • Not every country uses monies to buy and sell things. Bartering could be an option, and when they have to come up with something valuable enough to acquire that very expensive magical item, it may be a challenge.  Often bartering doesn’t have a price or value.  It is based on what the two need.  The man with the weapon may have a need for a cow, but they are in the desert where cows are extremely hard to find.  The country may be against the country where they acquired the gold and refuse to accept or exchange it, calling the coins “tainted.”

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  • Another possibility is for actual theft. This is a bit tougher to pull off because just about any gaming party is by nature extremely paranoid because they know whatever they are capable of doing other people are just as aware and capable.  But not everyone is at the same level of skill as the party is.  Just because they are around the 4th level (or whatever equivalent in the system) doesn’t mean everyone in the world is the same.  Much more prevalent in a more realistic, living campaign world where the party can and will encounter all kinds of danger, they can often be reminded that the world is a dangerous place.  Just because they are overly cautious doesn’t mean they are completely safe.  As a GM, you can compare the situation to hackers in modern day where no company can guarantee their systems are safe.  No matter how careful the party is in keeping an eye out, if someone wants your stuff bad enough, they are going to take it.  This can lead to having a reoccurring villain or villains who continue to thwart the party as they try to catch them.
  • Finally, always keep track of encumbrance when they acquire too much gold.  Carrying 150,000 gold pieces takes up A LOT of space!  If they then choose to put it in a bank, it’s not like modern times where we can wire money from bank to bank.  Where it is held is where your money can be accessed.  Then you have the threat of it being stolen.  They could put the money in a dungeon they have cleared, but then it’s a cleared, unprotected dungeon.  Putting the gold all on a wagon is fine, but think about that for a second: a wagon filled with gold jingling anywhere is bound to attract constant attention.  They definitely can’t carry it all on their bodies without being highly unencumbered, too.

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It is tempting to reward your players too quickly and by too much.  This is especially the case after the party accomplishes a very difficult task, and you feel that they should get a considerable award for their achievement.  Be very careful with awarding treasure and rewards on the fly!  I can’t stress this enough.  If you know something is coming up, prepare yourself beforehand by making a list of things they will acquire if they complete a task.  However, if you are suddenly working on-the-fly, making things up off the cuff because the players are going a different direction than you had planned, there is nothing wrong with you making a note to the players the reward will be given later.  Yes they may be belly-aching because they want to know now, but leave it as a cliffhanger if you want.  “After vanquishing the beholder and gaining access to its secret chamber, you open the door to see….” And make them wait until next session.  It will make them anxious to come back to find out, and it will give you enough time to clearly think of a fair and balanced reward for them.

Take your time, think things through, and proceed with caution and wisdom instead of being zealous or careless.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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Inanimate Objects As Characters Episode.049

Cedric took his feet off the console and stretched his legs moving out of the bridge and down the lonely corridor.  The bird was on her last leg though he hated to admit it.  It bugged him to think after all the travels he had ventured with her, he was going to have to say goodbye.  Tradition typically involved the crew saluting as she was set to be destroyed, but it had been months since he had even a skeleton to run the ship.  He turned the corner and walked into the engine room where her heart was quietly purring still.  Running his hand over the shell reminded him of a few close calls where that old and now obsolete engine saved his life getting out of a jam.  The intercom squawked from the docking bay master informing Cedric deconstruction was ready to begin once he exits the ship.  He sighed heavily with one last look of his old friend and started walking out.  A few steps before he reached the ramp, however, his eyes spotted a flickering light in one of the side wall panels.  It followed no pattern, and he never remembered ever seeing it lit up before.  Curiously he opened the panel up and realized it was coming from the ship’s main analytical system, essentially the ship’s brain.  It was an aftermarket chip he had installed himself to give the ship a sense of intelligence that recorded, calculated, and gave generalized suggestions to various occurrences.  Although his next ship would not be compatible with the chip, he placed it into a small steel locket and hung it around his neck.  The ship may soon be gone, but he knew she was close.

For some players in a role playing game, inanimate objects sometimes are personified by various ways such as unique situations or their level of value in service.  It could be a sword that seems to make you roll very well when you absolutely need that Natural 20 or it could be a space ship that gets you out of a sticky situation when all hope is lost.  Whatever the case may be, something gives life to what would otherwise be a lifeless item.  They tend to become part of you, the family or the party.  A rag doll that was given to the party by a little girl who they saved could become an iconic symbol for the party’s mission, but it could also become the group’s mascot even though it does little more than lay on the ground.

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These things generally acquire the same personality and perspective towards it as a household pet.  We view them as entities that can be expected to respond to situations or at least give us the perception to do so.  A vehicle truly responds only when someone or something interacts with it, yet we often will thank the vehicle for getting us out of trouble.  The actual machine gave us the opportunity to escape from danger, but it was not done from its own power or free will.  This way of thinking comes from our natural thought process of human interaction.  We generally feel that ordinary, non-living things cannot readily achieve the unthinkable.  A rock cannot actually save our lives because it would do nothing unless it was put into use by someone.  It may be in the right place at the right time to block something from hitting us, but the rock itself did not do anything other than happen to be there at that moment.  The latter part of that sentence even put some personality into the rock by implying it had a choice in the matter to be in that spot when, of course, naturally occurring phenomenon such as rock slides from erosion moved the rock into that place.

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And it’s interesting to analyze what it takes for us to begin perceiving objects as living beings.  Compare a castle with a space ship you designed.  The former will protect you from incoming invasions, withstand catapults, keep out wildlife, provide shelter from harsh weather, and give a sense of comfort having something to call home.  Yet if the place is razed, you probably would not be so concerned with the idea of the building “dying” after what it provided for so many years as you would be disheartened to have to come up with the resources and time to rebuild the thing again.  A space ship, on the other hand, does almost exactly what a castle can do in its own environment (protect, shelter, etc.), but we tend to give it a name, take special care in its condition, and feel truly disheartened if the ship were to ever be destroyed.  We see it as a living thing instead of a ship and the castle as just a structure yet they are very similar in purpose.  Even if you were to name the castle, it probably won’t hold a candle to the character the ship will have to you.

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The same goes with a sword.  It literally is a piece of metal that does nothing unless someone picks it up and uses it as a weapon.  It has the same principle purpose as a rock can have if used similarly.  Yet the rock is unappealing to us, ordinary in its own right.  The sword is an extension of our arm, the very tool we need to easily defend and attack someone if need be.  We give it a wild and exotic name.  We begin to rely upon it to get us out of trouble.  Once again, our notion of an object takes on life, and it may be relating closer to things that tend to save our lives and protect us.  Then again, we don’t usually give shields names or think of them as we do for swords.

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In the end, it boils down to our own way of viewing things.  We think squirrels are cute but despise rats though they are both rodents.  A castle has no “character” like a space ship.  The castle is made of cold stone walls, hard iron, and could even be considered “too large” to have personality.  Think of the giant capital ships in Star Wars, and they feel just like a machine.  Yet the Millennium Falcon was practically another character in Star Wars.  Having said that, Luke’s X-Wing took him all over the galaxy and was wrecked into a bog on Dagobah, but we think of it as an X-Wing like the others that Red squadron flew.  So it’s more the experience the item has that gives it the life that we take it to have.

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A volley ball is just another ball to play with, but draw a smiling face on it and suddenly it becomes Wilson, Chuck Noland’s best friend while stranded on a deserted island in Cast Away.  He wouldn’t have done such a thing living back home with his family, but in that situation and experience, the ball is given life.

It’s interesting to see what brings character and life into lifeless things.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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