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Monday Music: Ave Satani

Ave Satani

Source: The Omen soundtrack (Amazon)

Mood: Evil, pervasive, fanatical cultists, grotesque, foul ritual

Summary: Probably one of the most classically "evil" songs I can think of. Hell, the title means "Hail Satan" so you know what you're getting. Great gregorian chant singing (which always sounds biblical and ominous), mixed with a plodding, foul musical score which builds to an eerie crescendo. It's quite disturbing, especially how the singing voices continue to raise in pitch and harshness right up to the song's finish. Also, when the instruments start in at 0:32 (a bassoon, maybe?), there's just something about it that screams corrupt, bloated, obscene least to me.

It would be perfect for:
• A demonic cult performing a ritual for their loathsome master
• An evil temple or church
• A plane/realm of nightmares or madness

I always find music works well in parallel. I don't foresee working this song into my game, but if I did I would probably have the party encounter or be imprisoned by a cult set on summoning their demonic master. "Ave Satani" would play during the ritual, but the demon lord might still escape (maybe in partial, weakened form) and then the party would have to fight it. Or, they might have to pursue the demon back into its own realm and slay it there. Regardless, when they fought it I would switch to the following song, a more rocking version of "Ave Satani" by a group called Gregorian. This style of music isn't for everyone, but it's perfect for my group.

Great idea resource: Paizo's RPG Superstar

Paizo is currently in the midst of their 2010 Paizo RPG Superstar contest, where they have gamers submit a number of concepts and finished ideas to their staffers for judging and criticism. I believe the winner last year won a writing spot on one of Paizo's products, possibly their Pathfinder line? (I don't remember exactly).

Over the course of the contest, the contestants must design a number of varying entries - a wondrous item, a monster concept, followed by its stat block, a location complete with map, and finally a full adventure proposal. The field of entries is narrowed down to 32 writers in the first round, and then halved each round after that until only one is left standing (writing?).

While this is certainly very cool to any aspiring RPG writers, I find it to be a great source of ideas and inspiration for my own personal GM toolkit. Every GM I know is constantly on the lookout for cool ideas or novel concepts, and this contest is an incredible think-tank of creativity. Obviously you can't pluck someone's adventure proposal out and get it published, for blatant legal and copyright issues. But in your own personal game? Go for it!

One of the best things about looking at such an unrestricted field of entries is the huge variety you see in the entries. Some people submit simple and conservative ideas, others might have bizarre necromantic elements in everything they do, others might have a cosmic/starfarer slant to them.

My favorite category is the first round finalists - 32 wondrous items that made the cut past Paizo's judges. The nice thing about any of these 32 items is that you already know that they are mechanically sound and not game-breaking/overpowered, since those are some of the criteria the judges looked at. However, even the items that didn't make the cut are worth checking out. Even if you don't use the item as-written, you're bound to find some fascinating and truly imaginative things you could implement into your own games.

The only negative for 4E players is that the contest is for Paizo's Pathfinder universe, which uses the 3.5 rules. Even if you can't use the exact crunch of some of the applications, you can always reskin them for 4E, or simply view them as raw, undeveloped concepts and ideas.

Some of my favorite wondrous items from this year's finalists, which I intend to stat up for 4E and work into my game:

Amulet of Sparkling Deceit by Jeff Spencer (amulet that distracts a nearby enemy, making it grant combat advantage to the wearer)

Batrachian Helm by Matthew McGee (a frog helm with a tongue attack!)

Tankard of the Cheerful Duelist by Matthew Morris (tankard that buffs AC a little while worn, but more when carried in offhand)

Adapting to your players

As a GM, one of the best tools at our disposal is being able to smoothly adapt to our players' actions, desires and expectations. I'm not talking about reacting to attacks and decisions, or even to the bizarre randomness that always occurs. I'm talking about shaping the flow of the game around them.

In my opinion, an ideal GM will not only always have a quick answer for unexpected questions, but will find a way to convincingly work whatever the players can come up with into the story. When pulled off successfully, a skilled GM can turn a seemingly random and half-joking question into a tantalizing plot hook that gets the party excited, thinking they've stumbled onto a secret bonus or clue.

During a routine dungeon crawl of a deserted gnomish city, the party stumbled upon a cauldron that needed no external fire to cook its contents. For some reason (who knows how players think?) they immediately latched onto it as if it were an invaluable artifact, and lugged it about for the rest of the crawl, despite its encumbrance and weight. I took note of their random attachment to the cauldron for later.

A few levels later it returned to prominence when a prestigious cooking contest was held in their city, as the final event in an annual festival. Naturally, they wanted to win. While researching exotic recipes, they discovered that centuries ago the cauldron had belonged to the now-deceased town founder, a powerful archmage, and that he had been an outstanding chef!

They used a speak with dead ritual, and not only enlisted his culinary expertise, but also found out that that when "heated" with magical fire the cauldron would add extra flavor and deliciousness to its contents. Naturally, they went on to win the contest, all the while excitedly talking about how lucky they were to have grabbed the cauldron way back then, how fortunate they were to discover that the founder had loved to cook, and how clever they were in convincing his ghost to help them. It was one of the most enjoyable sessions of the entire campaign, and everyone had a great time concocting all sorts of terrible meals for the contest.

Of course, what they didn't realize was that nearly all of it was improvised.

The cauldron was real but insignificant, garnering only a single line of text in the book.

The cooking contest, on the other hand, had been added by me, to let the party indulge their bizarre cooking desires (they had also converted a subdued ogre into a chef at their tavern.)

And as for the culinary expertise of the town founder? Entirely a spur-of-the-moment plot hook, after someone rolled a critical success while researching local cooking history at the town library. He had just been looking for recipe ideas, but I felt that a critical success deserved a special reward. So I told them the founder had been a skilled chef, something they definitely hadn't expected, and their eyes lit up at the new possibilities.

Suddenly these random, unrelated bits all came together - the cauldron, the cooking contest, the city itself and this famous historical figure who they had only heard of previously. It was like the big moment of revelation at the end of a mystery novel. I was able to spread the seeds of numerous story pieces and plot hooks, and the player who had gotten the critical success got to bask in the glory.

"Maybe the cauldron was his!" said one enthused player. That's not a bad idea, I thought. And so it was.

All this led into impromptu skill challenge where they spoke to the founder's ghost (laying the groundwork for great plot exploration later on) and "discovered" the cauldron's magic fire property, which - you guessed it - was also invented on the spot.

Letting the players "invent" clues and advantages was great fun for everyone at the table. I got a kick out of letting their decisions and actions dictate what happened next, and was able to almost sit back and let them write the story themselves. And because I maintained a confident, unhesitating front, they were thrilled, believing that they had discovered this secret, hilarious loophole path to victory.

As a GM, it's easy to screw up this potential through the simple act of saying No. It would have been all too easy to say "the cauldron is bolted down" or "the cauldron loses its magic outside of this room." And was the town founder actually a chef? Of course not, but changing this fact sure made for some fun and interesting roleplaying. You want to encourage and stoke your players' creativity, not stomp all over it! Don't be a wall that stops your players a doorway that opens up into new, interesting paths.

On the other hand, you have to be convincing. When I told my players that the founder had also been a skilled chef, I was calm and almost amazed, like I was impressed that they had managed to dig up this obscure bit of information about him. I may have even pretended to be referencing a special page in the book. Players are like wild dogs - they sense fear. Had I been hesitant or nervous, they would have known that I was making it up on the spot. Not only does this rob your players of their sense of discovery and accomplishment, it's also discouraging, as it seems like you are patronizing them.

Finally, if a quick improvisation job blows up in your face, don't fret about it - it's bound to happen sooner or later. Remember, you're hanging out with friends, not giving a presentation at work. If you're stressing out about making on-the-fly decisions and dealing with unexpected things, you're putting way too much pressure on yourself. At the very worst, you admit you screwed up or got some facts mixed up, you get some ribbing from your players, and you move on. The potential benefits are well worth the risk.

Monday Music: Phantom Forest

Phantom Forest

Source: Phantom Forest - Final Fantasy VI: Grande Finale (Amazon)

Mood: Solemn, mournful, mysterious, tranquil

Summary: A haunting yet regal song, full of tragedy and tranquility. The first part feels like arriving, and passing through, some otherworldly gate or door, while the rest feels sorrowful and peaceful.

It would be perfect for:
• Entering a ruined kingdom where all the people are trapped as (non-hostile) ghosts
• Floating down the River Styx, seeing images and memories of the past flicker around you
• Exploring an ancient and deserted, yet still sacred-feeling temple

It's from Final Fantasy VI, so huge nostalgia points right away. But even better, it's not the exact version from the game, so players who've played the game (let's be honest, who HASN'T played it) might not even recognize it right away.

Monday Music: Assault on New Avalon

Because I focus a great deal on music in my campaigns, I've decided to post a cool song or two each Monday, what kind of mood it sets, and where I intend to use it (if I've planned that far). Today's song is "Assault on New Avalon" from the World of Warcraft - Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack.

Assault on New Avalon

Mood: Chaos, war, epic scale, overwhelming evil

Usage: This will be used near the conclusion to the entire campaign, when the party's home city is attacked by an army of demons and a gate to a terrible demigod from the Far Realm begins opening in the sky. The PCs will be dispatching a foe either underground or out of town (somewhere not directly on the city streets), and will receive an urgent magic message telling them that the city is under attack. This is the music that will play when they arrive on the scene and take in all the destruction - thundering black sky, razed buildings, streets erupting in fire and smoke...and up above, a foul, monstrous form slowly rippling into view.

GameMastery NPC Decks

I was randomly perusing Paizo's online store yesterday and ended up in their GameMastery Cards section. I own a few of their item card and critical hits decks, so I figured I'd see what new item sets they had for sale now.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover a new deck product by GameMastery, NPC decks - cards with full-color face illustrations of NPCs. There's even a deck devoted to villain pictures.

This is a BRILLIANT idea! Often have I lamented that a particular NPC is not coming across in very memorable fashion, and wished that I had a picture I could show my players. These cards seem like the perfect solution.

First of all, they're inexpensive, which is always nice ($10.99). If the quality is anything like the item sets/critical hits decks, then the art will be great and the cards nice and sturdy. The cards have blank space on the back to write notes, so parties or DMs will be able to jot pertinent NPC info down for easy future reference. And since the cards are standard trading card size, they will fit in protective sleeves - great for extending their durability and allowing notes to be written on the sleeves without wrecking the cards themselves.

I instantly became a fan of these cards. I see them being greatly beneficial to any DM, as it will help players remember NPCs more effectively, and also allow them to record important notes or information about said NPCs.

Scenario #1, without cards or pictures
DM: You walk into the tavern and see Sheila the Red at the bar, who waves you over.
Player 1: ...who?
Player 2: Was that the mage who helped us escape the catacombs?
Player 3: No, wasn't that the evil sorceress we were trying to find last month?
Player 4: Is she hot?
DM: *cries*

Scenario #2, using the sample picture on the NPC deck box
DM: You walk into the tavern and see Sheila the Red at the bar, who waves you over. *hands over card*
Player 1: Oh right, her! I remember that ridiculous hat.
Player 2: *turns card over, reads notes* Hah! That's right, she was the one who beat you in the drinking contest!
Player 3: Grrr...I hate her so much! Write that down. I'm serious!
Player 4: Oooh, she's pretty hot!

Great-looking, affordable NPC gallery AND information database, rolled into a set of portable, convenient cards? SOLD!

3.5 Reskin: Magic Sniper Rifle

All the simple monster re-skinning in 4E made me think of a simple yet effective reskin I used in a 3.5 campaign a few years back. My players were tasked with stopping a master assassin who had been killing political figures by magically sniping them from incredible distances away.

When they eventually tracked him down, he was on a rooftop (the party was on the ground), wielding what looked like a heavy crossbow minus the bolt and bowstring mechanisms. He opened fire on the party, shooting shimmering magical shots with unfailing accuracy. Each of his shots did 1d20+10 damage, which made for some great reactions around the table...

Me: (after rolling and confirming a hit) Okay, that's a hit so...  *rolls d20*
Player: What? He gets two shots?
Me: No, this is his damage roll.
Player: What?! HE DOES d20 DAMAGE??

The players scattered for cover but he still shot them with pinpoint accuracy, no matter how low I rolled, before making his escape. Afterwards the shaken and nervous party revised their "yell, charge and bash things until they die" methods to properly combat this terrible challenge.

Seems unfair? After all, a weapon that does d20 damage? That's ridiculous!

Until you consider that the "sniper rifle" is just a slightly modified 9th level wand of Magic Missile.

For flavor, I made it do 1d20+10 instead of five 1d4+1 missiles, which upped the damage range to 11-30 dmg instead of 10-25 dmg, but balanced it by making the shooter only able to target one creature.

The never-miss aspect of Magic Missile is what made the trick really work though, and convey the feeling of a master sniper with amazing skills. I rolled attack rolls for the assassin, but this was simply for show and to mess with their heads - nothing wreaks havoc with a metagamer's head like seeing the DM roll a 2 and still hit a rogue taking cover behind a tree.  ;)

If you wanted to extend the rifle theme further, you could have the shooter change "clips" by ejecting the old wand and inserting a new one for a fresh 50 shots. Or have the wand utilize the Enlarge Spell feat to double its range to ~400 feet of sniping accuracy.

Achievements in D&D

I'm thinking about implementing an Achievement system into my 4E campaign, much like the achievements in Xbox 360 games or World of Warcraft. I believe that achievements, while meaning a bit of extra bookkeeping/tracking on my part, will enhance the campaign in a multitude of ways.

Recognition. Extremely heroic or awesome actions will now be rewarded not only with in-game victory, but also out-of-game recognition and celebration.

Permanency. Each achievement will be in the form of a cardstock card or slip, that players will be able to keep with their sheet - tactile reminders of the adventures they've had.

Consolation. Achievements for really bad luck, such as 5 failed saving throws in a row, will (hopefully) lighten the mood and help an unfortunate player get back on his feet.

Humor. Many of the achievements will add humor to the table, either through weird requirements (such as drowning a flying monster) or funny titles referencing running/inside jokes.

Redemption. I haven't figured out how this will work, but players will be able to "cash in" achievement points they have earned for favors in-game. Not like a store, but more like...divine favours, like the gods themselves are rewarding them for their feats. Rerolls would be the simplest exchange, but maybe also things like a permanent bonus to a skill or defense. Minor boons.

Some achievements are easy to plan out - kill X enemies, deal over X damage in a single attack, etc. I've written up plenty of those already. The harder part now is coming up with creative achievements that will suitably reward a player doing something bizarre and unexpected. In other words, exactly what someone should get an achievement for.

Here are some sample achievements I intend to use:

• Kill an enemy with a power that does not deal damage or ongoing damage.
• Kill an enemy with a utility power.
• Roll a natural 20 three times in one encounter.
• Fall 100 feet and survive (only attainable in Heroic tier)
• Knock an enemy off a ledge, cliff, etc., where it dies from fall damage.
• Perform an area attack that includes at least 2 friendly targets where you miss every friendly target but hit every enemy target.
• Have at least 3 players at the table wearing pop boxes on their heads at the same time.
• Miss three attack rolls in a row.
• Go an entire game night without taking any damage.
• Survive an encounter while wearing armor you are not proficient with.

One potential drawback of achievements is people getting carried away with them and "achievement-hunting," but this won't be an issue because the achievement list & requirements will be secret, and each achievement will only be attainable once. So players won't be able to intentionally try for achievements.

Another drawback will be trying to keep track of achievements that are bestowed for things like 100 kills, or like in the list above, surviving an entire night without taking damage. I'm considering making a graph with each character's name on one axis and achievements the character qualifies for on the other axis. That way, I can tally kills or put an X in a character's box when they no longer qualify for an achievement. Not sure how well this will actually work, but it seems a decent method in theory.

I've ran the idea by a few of my players and they were very excited about the idea, so it should be fun to see how they react when the achievements start popping up!