Let Me Tell You About My Sword

We're fighting giants, y'all, in an encounter that doesn't actually function given standard combat rules.

We’re fighting giants, y’all.

The Angry DM put up a good post regarding combat in role-playing games. You should read it. I’ll wait.

Pretty much all of his points are spot-on. I’m very much looking forward to his followup article.

I learned much of what he talks about in the crucible of GURPS, due to the nature and flow of GURPS combat. I learned, through necessity, that your game will not suffer if you allow your players to look for ways around and out of combat, and that you don’t need to let everything go on to the bitter end, taking full combat turns the entire time. Your players will have more fun, you’ll have more fun, and things are generally improved.

Let me tell you about GURPS combat: In D&D, if a goblin hits you in the arm with a sword, you take damage. If you take 5 damage, and you have 20 hit points, you now have 15 hit points. In GURPS, if a goblin hits you in the arm with a sword, you take damage. You might also have that arm crippled or severed. You might still be down to 15 hit points, but your sword arm might also now be useless for the rest of your life. It gets even worse when you play games with firearms and lasers. Being out in the open is pretty much a death sentence against trained marksmen.

The end result is that, in GURPS, even winning a combat means people on your side are wounded, maimed, crippled, or dead. And since in roleplaying games your side is typically made up of your players, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

What it did do for me, as both a GM and a player, is to drive home the fact that combat needed to be the resolution to a conflict, not the conflict itself. Because of the sheer lethality of that combat, a natural flow in the game developed. As the game matured, it became natural for players to question, first, the purpose of combat, strongly weighing the potential risks against the rewards. Should combat be chosen, it was then to the players’ advantage to setup a battle in which they’d have an advantage against their opponents. This forced me, as a GM, to work hard at developing encounters as opposed to developing combats. I could never count on combat breaking out, but if it did, my players always wanted it to break out on their terms.

The other characteristic of GURPS combat is that it’s mind-numbingly complex, meaning that it’s mind-numingly slow. There’s a spreadsheet developed by The Mook that helps guide you through the combat process. While it was originally developed as a playaid, it’s also a useful humor device at the overly-complex combat system. It’s 53 tabs worth of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style pathing (that is, you don’t use all 53, but they’re there!), and you’d run through that for every character’s combat turn. Oh, and it doesn’t even include sourcebook rules such as the quite-popular GURPS Martial Arts or the amazing GURPS High-Tech. That’s frankly absurd.

Because the combat is mind-numbingly complex and slow, it becomes mind-numbingly boring for the other 5 people at the gaming table. It’s even worse when GM-controlled characters are acting, since a huge amount of the time doesn’t involve actually interfacing with the players. As a GM, you need to have a great feel for this. All the complexity is somewhat subsumed when the combat is in doubt, and laser beams are cutting back and forth across a battlefield, and players are hoping a lucky (or unlucky) die roll doesn’t result in their head getting blasted off while they secure the shuttle landing spot. But as soon as combat becomes uninteresting, as the players are mopping up stragglers, that complexity will lose to cell phones with Twitter.

Again, what it did for me, as a GM and a player, is to understand when combat had ceased to be a meaningful driver for conflict. Wading through a 53 tab combat spreadsheet in order to mop up injured and retreating goblins that just watched a bunch of their comrades die isn’t fun for anyone involved. Yes, technically one of those goblins might score a lucky hit on the players as they mop them up, but actually that’s stupid. Recognition when the conflict has been resolved and moving on with your game helps keep things moving.

None of what The Angry DM said, or what I’ve affirmed above, is system specific. I learned my lessons from my experiences with GURPS because it was necessary for survival. A game where characters wade into every situation swinging swords and shooting arrows is a game where you’ve got a constant carousel of new characters, because the old ones are retiring maimed or dead. And if that game also includes the tedium of “complete combat resolution,” you’re not even going to have to worry about that problem, since your players will have long since moved on to more fun endeavors, like stabbing themselves in the thigh with a knife.

The problem is that “modern” roleplaying games don’t encourage such variation. D&D 3.5e, 4e, and Pathfinder are all notorious for their “crunch” when it comes to combat rules, but they never reach the level of absurdity that will train people to use those rules sparingly. Rolling initiative becomes a Pavlovian response when miniatures are placed on the board, everything is hacked at until it’s dead, and if that accomplishes whatever it was that was supposed to be accomplished, good. If not, well, we get XP for it anyway because we killed things, right?


Why, Thank You?

What’s the best (or rather, worst) backhanded compliment you’ve ever received? If you can’t think of any — when’s the last time someone paid you a compliment you didn’t actually deserve?

Great Job

Great job! You did at least as well as a creepy disembodied head with floating glove hands could have done!

I’m terrible at accepting compliments. Absolutely terrible. So I tend to view every compliment as being either backhanded or the beginning of a joke.

For example, “Hey nice shirt,” will immediately be followed up with, “did you get dressed in the dark this morning?”

I come by it honestly, though. There’s an amazing dearth of self-esteem welded to a grandmother who was the master of backhanded compliments. Any time you visited grandma, you were sure to come away wondering if she loved you deeply or despised the interruption in her day. In truth, it was probably both, which is okay.

Writing When You Don’t Want To

We all go through moments of writer’s block. Either lack of ideas, lack of time, lack of motivation, or whatever bugs you will slowly creep into your life and prevent you from making the progress you need to make. This can be especially devastating when you’ve got an upcoming gaming session that requires your attention and brain, and all you can think about is how great a nap could be.

First off, take stock of what the upcoming session means to your campaign at large. I’m never a fan of outright cancelling a session. Cancelled games tend to be deadly infections. You cancel one game, and suddenly you’re cancelling two, and suddenly, you don’t play that game anymore. People will naturally find other things to do, and you’re suddenly not at the top of the priority. That being said, not all game sessions are created equal. The session where the party confronts the paladin of Torm who has been secretly aiding research into the creation of demonspawn is more important than a session where they’re mopping up the last of an isolated band of cultists who were hired for extra muscle.

Once you’ve determined how important the session is to your game, you can react accordingly. Combat encounters will fill more time with less GM prep than non-combat activities. In a typical game session, you can expect each of your players to take no less than 30 minutes to decide which action their character will take for the next 6 seconds, so with a typical party of five, you actually don’t have to write much, and might even get a nap in. If the session really is filler, having a set of stock combat encounters that you can use is handy: Just pull the card with the group of cultists on it, send them hurtling toward your party, and enjoy.

If that doesn’t fit your needs, however, you’ve got to find other ways to get around your writer’s block. One of my most popular adages is to remember that, “something doesn’t always have to happen.” There’s a tendency to consider the characters in your game somewhat like a virus: Whenever they enter an area, infecting it with their very presence, things start to happen. This is not only the hallmark of bad campaigns—I’ve played in several campaigns where actual, notable events never happened unless the PCs were there to see it—but difficult on you as the GM. Sometimes, it really is a quiet day in the city, and its up to the party to figure out what to do next.

Which leads into the second point of easing your tension: Exploration and discovery. These take remarkably little preparation, as you can simply create locations on the fly using your knowledge of the world and environment. Forcing the players to take the reigns to figure out where the next interesting piece of content is not only gives them strong feelings of agency and empowerment, but also prevents your world from feeling like a stage they’re playing on.

My final and worst option then, is the dreaded premade adventure. Let’s face it: Most premade adventures are pretty bad. And by “most” I mean “all” and by “bad” I mean “terrible.” But when you’ve not the time to write your own, they’re a safety net and an inspiration. As you gain experience as a GM, you should, without having to break through your own writer’s block, be able to avoid the long stretches of box text, railroading, uninspired and restrictive combat encounters, and contrived endings that most premade adventures feature, but again, all of these are still preferable to cancelling a game outright.

In the end, writer’s block strikes us all, but it doesn’t need to endanger the future of your campaign. With some practice and ingenuity and some player agency, you should be able to still hold a passable session, keep the game rolling, and hopefully find some inspiration to pick up your pen once more!

Santa Claus is Dungeon Crawling

There are two universal truths.

The first is that players are terrible when it comes to putting together equipment “wishlists.” Regardless if your game has a formalized wishlist, like the type that you’d push into a stocking in the hopes that your parents would really get you that 450,000 piece LEGO set that represented the DMV, or if you have a game where your characters’ equipment wants and needs are built into their characters, their players are never going to be good at creating that.

For example, I was recently asked to create a wishlist. I never got to it, because—like all players—I’m terrible at it. And for reasons I’ll later elaborate on, I should be better at it, thanks to the effects that it causes.

The second is that I’m a terrible giftgiver. In the context of being a GM, this means that I’m terrible at doling out loot. Even in the rare event that a player puts together a wishlist, I’m still dangerously bad at it. It’s a combination of being overly sensitive—will they like what I give them?—and wanting to make sure those items fit both the character’s goals and the theme of the campaign.

So I’ll agonize for, sometimes literally, hours over creating treasure handouts for upcoming game sessions.

I should note, as an aside, that I hate random loot. I know that the law of averages state that it’ll average out and be functionally the same as tabled loot. But I don’t trust those laws of averages, especially when you’re getting so few dice rolls for each level. And I like being able to tailor my loot distribution both to the scene and to the characters’ need.

So how to overcome my foibles when it comes to giving away loot? It’s hard, but it kind of ties into all the things that make a GM good.

First off all, make sure you’ve defined, between yourself and your players, how loot is going to be included, tracked, and used in your game. For example, in my games, I tend to regard and reward proper inventory management. If you head off to the Dark Cave of Many Sheer Drops, you’re going to have a bad time if you don’t think to bring torches and ropes. In return for that, I willingly take on the burden of tracking my characters’ inventory habits. I feel that it’s a fair tradeoff for not handwaving ropes and pitons in a case that matters.

Second, know that as a GM, you can set the flavor of how items, especially magical items, affect your campaign. If you allow your characters to craft and upgrade their own equipment, that flavor will produce a different dynamic than if they’re finding items you’ve provided for them. As a GM, you need to either be prepared or accept that the campaign might drift away from your initial vision.

Lastly, remember that you can always use magic items to create tension and drama in the game. Modern GMs are typically strongly averse to intra-party conflict. It’s baked into modern RPGs that you shouldn’t fight, explicitly or otherwise, your own party. Generally, that’s good advice, but a few nuggets of conflict can help things along. A magic item that might be good for two players creates tensions that, when properly fanned, can actually work to the party’s benefit.

The key, then, to playing Santa Claus is giving with purpose. Don’t simply pick items out of a hat, but make the items an integral part of your games. Your characters will enjoy it, your game will benefit, and it might make it easier for you to select items to be found in a dark corner of the dungeon.

Edge of Disappointment

Matters of Taste

When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow

Oh, how I hated Edge of Tomorrow.

General consensus between critics and people I know ranged from “good” to “really good” to “great.” They hailed it as “exciting” and “unexpected” and “interesting.”

I’m going to admit, I liked 95% of Edge of Tomorrow. I don’t have a problem with time loop stories as long as they avoid the campiness that plagues most of their ilk. For example, Groundhog Day is a bad movie, because it’s just cheesy and dumb and the reason for the time loop other than, “LOL Bill Murray,” is never explained. Edge of Tomorrow actually built in a smart, sexy, and decidedly alien reason into its movie for its protagonist’s looping ability. Heck, they even made it very clear that the ability was not only transient, but helped the enemy as much as it helped our heroes.

That’s smart. The movie also plays on a few of the natural black comedy cases that can occur when you’re effectively immortal, but trapped in a hell of repeating days. When you know you’ll just wake up after dying, you can get very dark. That was also very well done.

Then, of course, there was the ending. Spoiler alert. I suppose you don’t really have a choice at this point: If you ever want to get to the point of this post, you’ll have to eat a few spoilers.

The end of the movie has one final reset. All of our heroes, many of which died, are resurrected by this last, bigger, reset. It’s an enormous cop-out, one that stripped the rest of the movie of the sacrifices and heroism that marked the final act. And until that moment, I have to admit, the final act was staggering in both its stakes and its execution. But all of that meant… nothing.

Hollywood loves a happy ending, but the fact of the matter is, not everything needs a happy ending. This was a perfect example of that. What made the movie poignant and tense at the end was that, through evolution of character and sacrifice, soldiers were willing to die—forever—for our hero, who had also become mortal. In the end, they sacrificed themselves for something noble. In the end, the world is still almost completely destroyed, but at least the hero and heroine get to have an awkward reunion. It’s funny because they’ve never actually met, but they have, before the time loops, and, oh, for fuck’s sake. It’s just maudlin bullshit.

And it completely ruined the sharp, witty, exciting movie that had come before. Apparently the critics left early to beat traffic.

The Challenge of Skill Challenges

I like the concept of skill challenges in role-playing games.

For those unaware, skill challenges were an encounter “type” that rose to some prominence in D&D 4th edition. It pits the characters against some task, requiring them to achieve a number of successful skill check rolls before a number of unsuccessful skill check rolls.

The problem, then, with skill challenges is in their execution, hampered by a lack of rules clarity, a lack of narrative structure, and general human nature. First off, it’s never explicitly stated if skill challenges are supposed to be run like combat, with each player taking a turn, or if they’re supposed to be freeform. And it’s never really explicitly said if you’re supposed to tell the players the list of skills relevant to the skill challenge. While I supposed any constellation of options is possible, there is a severe lack of creative freedom when you tell your characters flat out what skills to use. Heck, at that point, why not just roll the dice for them; they’re no longer active participants in the session anyway.

The second problem is that the majority of skill challenges in published adventures are horribly written. Continuing on their efforts to reduce “imagination” and “active participation,” most skill challenges seem to assume that the skill check result tells the player what they did, not the other way around. This just adds to the horrible nature of skill challenges, as many GMs will use published adventures as their “training wheels,” leading to them learning badly.

Lastly, human nature makes skill challenges a decidedly bad proposition. If you succeed on a check, you progress. If you fail, you regress. If you do nothing… nothing happens. As such, players, being human beings that are risk-averse, will do everything in their power to not fail the check. Again, this limits creativity and interaction.

So how do we fix skill challenges? You integrate them better in the game. You make better win conditions. You use a smarter skill check system (in this, I’ll admit I cribbed liberally from some smarter GMs than me, such as Angry DM).

First, the skill check system. There are a lot of good ways to modify the default skill check system, but one of the best ideas I’ve ever come across is to force players to stop thinking of skills as this discreet list of actions they can perform. I don’t want to hear you say, “I make a Stealth check to sneak into the tent,” I want to hear you say, “I quietly slip around the back of the tent,” to which I’ll respond, “Make a Stealth check.” See the difference? “I make an Intimidate check,” is different than, “I remind the guard that we’re duly appointed members of the Order of Torm.” The hidden added benefit of this is that it drags players, kicking and screaming sometimes, away from sorting their skill list by the size of the check bonus number and only using the top 3 skills. If the situation demands stealth instead of Stealth, even the chainmail wearing Cleric who would (and can) wake the dead might try it.

Once you’ve got a better skill check system, you need better win conditions. This is in terms of individual checks and the challenge in general. Consider that, in the rules-as-written implementation, a failed Diplomacy check with a guard would count the same as a failed Diplomacy check with a king. That’s madness. There also have to be degrees of success and failure: Flawlessly finding the hidden temple to Bhaal might not allow the enemy any time for reinforcements. Completely botching the search, alerting the cultists, would allow that time. But a few missteps along the way may or may not substantially change the outcome.

Which goes to a minor point: Not every skill check has to add to the success or failure counter. Not every action is relevant to the skill challenge, and if it’s irrelevant, it shouldn’t count. Note that I’m not advocating rolling irrelevant skill checks, I’m just saying irrelevant to the skill challenge. If it’s relevant to the game world at large, then yes, by all means, roll those bones. But it might not progress toward your goal; heck, it might hurt, since it’ll take time you might not have. Those cultists have Amazon Prime, and their new zombies are being delivered soon.

Lastly, and the biggest change, is how to integrate skill challenges into the narrative. Instead of having this awkward, check-based exercise, you might think about better options. And one of the options that might seem good is the developement of “arena” or “levels.” If the players successfully make checks in the first arena, they move onto the second. If they make certain choices and succeed in the second, they go to the third, or maybe the fourth, since we can create branching paths. That’s a staple of dungeon and adventure design, so why not just apply it to skill challenges, right?


Players are stupid unpredictable. Your carefully crafted tree of investigation and skill check locations will be burned to the ground faster than a pine tree on a pagan midwinter holiday. Players will take a look at the dead body, with the mayor’s personal sword stuck through it, and the bloody footprints leading 10 feet to the door of the mayor’s house, and decide to head to the tavern to see if anyone had a problem with the victim. But as a GM, we don’t want to limit players’ creativity. Because for every set of bloody footprints they don’t follow, they’ll think to just pull down the mindblasting statue with a rope instead of destroying or disarming it, since it’s a freakin’ statue and isn’t going to change the aim point on its blasting attack.

So, instead, populate your skill challenges with what I’ll call “nodes.” Each node is a piece of information that you want the characters to have (and may or may not be required to win or progress the skill challenge), why it’s important, and where the characters might be able to obtain it. Use the classic journalism questions of “Who, what, etc.” with the addition of who has that information. Keep the answers simple. One node from the last skill challenge I had read like this:

What: Disappearances.
Who: Merchants and orphan children.
When: Over the past 3 months.
Where: Bridge camp.
From: Merchants or orphans. NOT paladins.

Note that a few of those things aren’t filled in. That’s okay; in fact, that might be the whole point of the adventure. And it’s okay to have a few curveballs in there, as long as you justify them. In this case, the paladins are completely oblivious to the disappearances because they don’t like the merchants and orphans to begin with, so fewer of them is a-ok with them. They’re not great paladins.

Now, you start making your skill checks. Let the players’ natural exploration and creativity come out, and when they get to somewhere where a node might be in play, such as speaking with a merchant, they have the opportunity to get the information on that node. If they stray off your map of nodes, that’s okay. Let them continue to explore, with consequences. If there’s a ticking clock, make sure it’s ticking loudly as they get drunk in the tavern instead of investigating the disappearances. Once they have all the nodes you’ve created for a skill challenge, or that ticking clock stops ticking, end the challenge and move on.

What you have, then, is a far more organic and creative experience in a part of the game that’s notorious for bogging things down and causing players and GMs frustration and angst. Information is achieved, effects on the world are resolved, and your players can get on with the adventure at hand!

Ganked 127: We Are Legion

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take part in Ganked 127: We Are Legion. The theme for this week was Beam Lasers, with various fittings of Amarr ship suggested. I decided to roll into town with the provided Zealot fitting. While not my “standard” Zealot fitting—which is somewhat misleading, since the Zealot is no longer the ultimate Heavy Assault Cruiser—it brought back some good feels. The Zealot was the reason I trained up for HACs in the first place!

[Zealot, Ganked 127 Beams]
Damage Control II
Adaptive Nano Plating II
Armor Thermic Hardener II
Armor EM Hardener II
Energized Adaptive Nano Membrane II
Power Diagnostic System II
1600mm Reinforced Rolled Tungsten Plates I

10MN Afterburner II
Tracking Computer II, Optimal Range Script
Sensor Booster II, Targeting Range Script

Heavy Beam Laser II, Imperial Navy Standard M
Heavy Beam Laser II, Imperial Navy Standard M
Heavy Beam Laser II, Imperial Navy Standard M
Heavy Beam Laser II, Imperial Navy Standard M
Heavy Beam Laser II, Imperial Navy Standard M

Medium Ancillary Current Router II
Medium Energy Collision Accelerator I

Gleam M x5
Imperial Navy Standard M x5
Imperial Navy Radio M x5
Aurora M x5
Nanite Repair Paste x100
Optimal Range Script x1
Tracking Speed Script x1
Targeting Range Script x1
Scan Resolution Script x1

(Yes, I’m a SeBo whore. But in larger fleets, locking time becomes more important than improved tracking.)

Despite the doctrine being one of engaging at range due to the tracking issues of beam lasers and afterburners, we found ourselves brawling quite a bit on the roam. Luckily, Gleam-fitted beam lasers don’t track horribly, but you’re still engaging outside of the preferred engagement envelope. We exploded a gatecamp, and then got run down by fleets of Harpies and Proteuses. My shiny Zealot went boom when the Proteus fleet turned its railguns on me, but not before I’d had a fantastic time.

To Be The Very Best

The Eighth Sin

Remember the seven cardinal sins? You’re given the serious task of adding a new one to the list — another trait or behavior you find particularly unacceptable, for whatever reason. What’s sin #8 for you? Why?

Participation Trophy

Merely participating isn’t a victory. It’s a loss.

I’d definitely add underachivement.

But it’s definitely a tricky one, especially since avoiding it will dance very closely to pride. And there are larger, society issues at play.

I opined to a friend the other day that I’m not at all happy with how “work” is treated here in the United States. It seems that, more and more, work is treated not as something that interrupts our lives for a few hours each day, but as life itself. It’s been this way for most of my adult life, however, and I’m not about to get into some deep social theory discussion on when it started, root causes, and if it’s the “right” or “wrong” way to exist as a society. The fact of the matter is that’s how it is, and that’s how it’ll be.

But are we happy with our “work?” It seems like a disproportionate number of people aren’t actually pleased with the activity that, depending on your perspective, is their life, or interrupts significant portions of their life. They bitch and moan and complain. And to me, this might be the worst part of the deal. Therefore, if you’re not using your full potential, get out there and do it.

I’m not saying that you need to be the best in your field. That would be idiotic. There’s a good chance that you and almost everyone you know is solidly within that fat middle part of a bell curve that signifies “average.” But you need to at least strive to be the best, to your ability, each and every day. If you’re not occasionally bumping up against your limitations and boundaries, you’re probably doing it wrong.

I’m also not saying you need to go into or stay in a certain profession. I’m a better writer than I am a fisherman, so I should probably be a writer. I’m also probably not all that good at corporate governance, so despite the fact that’d pay more, I’ll stay a writer. Why? Because my capacity to be a good writer is better than my capacity in all other arenas. At this point, the no one reading this post will roll their eyes and say, “Right, ‘good’ writer,” sarcastically.

The risk, then, is that delicate thing that organizational behavior experts like to call, “work-life balance.” Most organizations will pay mere lip service to work-life balance, claiming to promote and encourage it while at the same time asking you to work 50+ hours a week and come in on Saturdays to catch up on paperwork and not take any vacation time in months with more than 29 days. Achieving your full potential, however, doesn’t mean sacrificing the life you want to live; in fact, it applies to things outside of work. Are you going golfing this weekend? Try to get better. Sometimes, being the best you can be means doing less work, more play, and enjoying life a little bit more.

All I ask, then, is that you strive for the highest in everything you can do. That might sound familiar to you (except, as we’ve covered, you’re no one) as the motto of Kappa Kappa Psi, the National Honorary Band Fraternity. If you’re not putting full use of your talents to your work, it’s a net loss. So get out there and achieve.

It’ll Never Work

In a post over at The Mad Adventurers [sic] Society, The Angry DM makes a good point when deciding to what to do in a roleplaying game. He argues that players should never “mechanics themselves out of an idea.” And he’s right on.

In one of the games I’m currently running1, this exact thing came up. The players were tasked with finding the whereabouts of a wizard-possibly-lich who had gone to ground, and given the opportunity to traverse the streets of a merchant hub to attempt to find his trail. One of the first things that the players did was reject questioning merchants, on account of their player class and their affiliation.

A little more background might be in order. The players are currently operating within a theocracy, and are members (with one exception) of the holy order that operates that theocracy. Two of the players are also paladins, obviously to the god of the theocracy. They used this as justification to limit their own options. They had, as Angry stated, “mechaniced” themselves out of an idea.

One of the hardest things for players, no matter how new or experienced, to do in an RPG is to think of themselves as actual characters within the story instead of a collection of numbers arranged into stat blocks. For all of the things I like about D&D 4th Edition (go ahead, get your pitchforks), one of the pitfalls is the meticulously arranged, formulaic block actions, called powers, that dominate any 4e character sheet. You look at that and think those powers are everything you can do.

Unfortunately, human nature works against us in this regard. First off, humans are necessarily risk averse. We have built in subroutines that want us to avoid taking actions that are going to fail. This applies even in a post-subsistence existence where we’re taking on the role of warriors in a fantasy land. Players don’t want their characters to fail; they’d rather do nothing than fail. Secondly, humans are a tool-using species. That’s why we have knives, guns, cars, and guns. So when you present the humans with a bag of hammers shaped like a discreet list of skills and powers, they’re going to see every problem as a nail that should be pounded on with one of those hammers.

As such, my players limited what they could have accomplished, simply because they decided it wasn’t possible.

“But,” you might ask, “shouldn’t paladins of the theocracy receive a different reception than, say, an underworld thief?” The answer to that is yes, of course, in a certain context. The paladins aren’t going to be able to walk straight into an illegal opium den and start getting answers out of the patrons and proprietor. But walking around the streets, asking for information on a wizard that passed through town in the past day or two? You’re going to find enough people who support the regime to find success.

Furthermore, the players never even asked if this was an option! They simply assumed it would fail, and moved on. Remember, again, that the GM is meant to be your eyes, ears, and sometimes brain in the game world. A decent GM will never force you to expend resources or punish you for simply asking setting questions. A paladin of the theocracy will know where she can and where she can’t go in the city to find the best results, and as a GM, I’d be loathe to punish the player and character for asking that.

The end result of players thinking too much about game mechanics and not enough about the world they’re supposedly acting in is that games end up as a puzzle instead of an interaction. Players tend to think of each challenge, each combat, and each interaction as a game in which picking the right skill will move the needle closer to success. Improvisation and natural reactions are replaced by cold hard math, which can lead to dull games and frustrated players at the end of a session. So my suggestion is to stop thinking about the powers, the math, the skills, and the consequences of failure, and start thinking about how a hero of your caliber would react, for better or worse!

1 Am I currently running it if we haven’t played in almost 2 months?

Cultural Differences

This piece is considered Flash Fiction. For more information on what Flash Fiction is and how it relates to the core project, see the Project Overview.

The generated words were: Bag, Gate, Direction, Cushion, Plague

Alarnoche Criellyllync grimaced as the smell of spices and frying meat wafted into his nose from the direction of a nearby restaurant. It was good fortune that he could smell once again; the illness that had stuffed up his sinuses and prevented him from smelling anything had finally broken last night. It was bad fortune that it happened just before he had to sit here, in Plaza Anton, suffering under the odor of Matari food. What they were doing to that meat should have been criminal.

Criellyllync considered the Matari a plague upon the Gallente Federation, an ally of convenience instead of value. When the Amarr Empire’s former slave race had risen up in revolt and carved out their own empire, the bleeding hearts that ruled the Federation had rushed to their aid and protection. Countless trillions of credits, men, and materiel were sent to prevent the great Amarr military machine from rolling over those who had once been slaves. Money flowed to the Matari, and refugees flowed back.

It was preposterous. How many of the Federation’s own citizens could have benefited from that huge expenditure? Would their homeworld still be ravaged by years of war and occupation by the Caldari State had some of those resources been directed at defending what was the Federation’s, as opposed to defending someone else’s freedom? Why should the Federation help others before helping itself? If a single Federation citizen was starving, who cared about feeding the Matari their spicy, overcooked food?

This was not a popular opinion, but Criellyllync was adept at plying the waters of politics. He kept his opinions discreet and short. Spreading that opinion to a wide audience would undoubtedly corrupt his original concerns—the security of his beloved Federation—into something twisted and evil. The media would crucify him, and the backlash would undoubtedly impact his employer, the Federation Senate. That just would not do. Criellyllync would happily lose his job. But if the Senate were weakened due to the comments of a high-ranking, non-political employee, that would be disastrous to his Federation.

Criellyllync saw his contact enter the courtyard. The dark-skinned Matari wore a white shirt and what might have passed for a pale blue business suit, had it not been so ill-fitting and rumpled. The double-breasted coat hung lifelessly over the man’s shoulders, and the pants showed no visible crease. A well-worn bag of some dark leather, lacking any ornamentation, was clutched in the man’s right hand.

“Mr. Alarnoche?” said Matari, sitting down on a cushion opposite Criellyllync. Criellyllync grimaced slightly, but was not surprised. Despite having their own ward here on the station, centered around Plaza Anton, many of the Matari refused to pick up on the nuance and language of their hosts. Spicy, overcooked food and the pidgin that passed for the Matari language suffused the air.

“Mr. Criellyllync,” he corrected. The Matari nodded, not seeming to understand the difference, and repeated Criellyllync’s surname back to him. It wasn’t even close to the correct pronunciation, but Criellyllync wasn’t here to give language lessons. In fact, the sooner he concluded his business and walked out of the gate to Plaza Anton and back to his own offices, the better.