Law A – Campaign Songs

I’ve talked about how I use music to help me flesh out story and character dies, but I haven’t shared what those ideas are. I think even my players don’t know a lot of the songs behind the campaigns unless I make them very explicit. But with all the work I’ve been doing on the Eight Arms wiki, I’ve considered how or whether to put those songs somewhere on there. As long as they’re on my mind it’s as good a time as any to list them.

In case you’re reading this on mobile and don’t feel like loading a million videos, the rest of the article is behind the link.

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Railroading (the Good Kind)

In the process of putting together the world map for the Eight Arms campaign setting, I’ve also learned about some of the things that make a world go. It’s forced me to learn more about geography and politics than I did before, and I think that’s made the setting more interesting. That is, of course, my focus: I’d rather have something fun and dynamic that lets me set up good stories than something that cleaves to realism but plays drier than a desert. This means if you’re from the Worldbuilding subreddit and you expect me to say something like “I made sure all the mountain ranges followed local arrangements based on my world’s plate tectonics”, prepare to be disappointed.

So far the most interesting part for me has been trains. The Eight Arms campaign take place in a technologically-advanced version of D&D, an industrial revolution where mechanics and other non-magical opportunities are ramping up and nobody has yet stopped to consider whether it’s a good idea. Heck, the entire first campaign started when somebody said “Hey, I bet with a strong enough power source and sufficient gumption we could create a brand-new inner plane”. Nothing says “let’s do neat stuff and handle the consequences as they come” like a big, loud, powerful box belching smoke into the air of a world where we already have teleportation.

In that respect trains are very different from Eberron’s lighting rails, which are relatively clean and some weird hybrid of magic and science. I think they’re neat as anything, but that’s not what I wanted the setting to do. I was looking for something more like Final Fantasy 6 or maybe 5, a setting that’s a step beyond medieval fantasy, but also where nonmagical airships are a thing.

Initially I’d pictured trains as something rare, used primarily for long-distance travel across national borders, and the country in which the first Eight Arms campaign took place was something of an anomaly in that it had more towns connected by more rails than any other. But in looking into actual historical information about railways, I’ve found I was drastically undershooting how connected everything was. I’m still not going to link every little borough with each other, but I can at least connect every major city in most countries without worrying about turning disbelief on its ear.

This actually makes me happier, not because it makes it easier for players to get around but because it makes it easier for everybody else. Trade, and culture can bleed out farther and faster, so it’s not that weird to find people or things far from home. It alleviated one of the big problems I had with the setting, that I, who has frequently railed against race-based rules, built an entire setting around race-based cultures. Now that travel is faster and safer, countries are more like ancestral homelands. A human can say “I’m from dwarf country on my father’s side, and my mother’s is more of a mix” as easily as an American can say “I’m mostly Irish” despite never seeing Ireland more closely than a calendar photo, and both are equivalent excuses to drink.

I’m still of two minds on the “safer” aspect, though. If they’re safe enough for an average person to use them for regular business or personal travel, they’re too safe for a party to expect a combat on one. I’ll probably have to engineer a reason for a fight to break out, and knowing me I’ll split the party so the tough, strong characters are outside the train and the softer ones are inside, each fighting a different wave of bad guys, and the more I think about this the more excited I get.

The point is that railroads started as a bit of window dressing and a potential set piece, but with a little research grew into the most visible example of the setting’s differences from standard D&D. It’s actually kind of alarming how many ideas you can get from the most mundane sources. I could do an entire post on how song lyrics have built campaign villains, and I still have half a mind to run a campaign based on the Year Without a Summer. Of course, mine would have a magical, preventable cause because this is a high fantasy story, not a climatological study.

If I have any actionable advice from this, it’s to always keep your ears open. Inspiration isn’t something that happens to you as much as it’s something you find by looking for it.

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Houdini and Doyle (the Show, Not the People [Well, Kind of the People])

After all the gushing I did about Lucifer I thought it would be fun to compare it to the show that moved into its time slot, Houdini and Doyle. As it turns out, that’s the only fun thing about the show.

I can forgive the writers playing fast and loose with historical accuracy; it seems they’re just about right on with Doyle’s timeline, so they had to make some sacrifices to shoehorn Houdini into it. I can forgive the incredibly unsatisfying explanations for the mystical elements; they had to do something spectacular in the early episodes to hook viewers, even if the answers were a bit of a cheat. I can forgive how it’s fairly terrible at being a mystery series because they don’t give the viewer a fair chance at figuring out the solution; most ostensible mystery series don’t. I can even forgive the bad acting; I liked Painkiller Jane so I don’t really get to complain.

What I can’t forgive is how the advertising pitched the show as a bromance, when as far as I can tell it’s nothing of the sort. Our male leads don’t compliment and respect each other; they bicker relentlessly, denigrate each other’s opinions (and facts), and interact more meaningfully with their police liaison than with each other. It’s exactly the opposite of what I wanted and what was promised. I can understand taking some liberties with advertisement, but if viewers are explicitly told they’ll get one thing and but delivered another, I would expect those viewers to complain about it to anybody who will listen. I have to imagine this is a worse fate than disinterest. It’s the difference between “didn’t get good ratings” and “had one terrible but popular episode, then didn’t get good ratings”. At least you can build an entire career on the former.

The point is that Houdini and Doyle isn’t good, but more than that it’s not what I signed up for. I can tolerate a lot of problems if I’m at least getting what I want out of something, whether it’s a movie, a TV show, or a campaign.

Consider the One Piece campaign*. We snarkily called it “the hallway campaign” due to the number of battles that took place in a one- or two-square-wide area, something that has happened maybe twice in the source material. The campaign conflicted with the established setting fairly frequently. Several NPCs erred on the side of “goofy for the sake of goofy”, a recurring issue I have with the DM’s style (re: Slogg Sexipants, half-ton ladies’ man). And none of this takes into account the little problems I had week-to-week, like when the DM decided my character was going to charge down an elevator shaft so he could weld me to the floor so I couldn’t participate in the first stage of an arc-ending battle. It wasn’t perfect.

But the campaign was very good at giving us the feel of One Piece. We had arc villains who would pop up, do something bad just in time for us to arrive to stop them, and fight us on even footing. We had fantastic islands and creatures, including an actual giant enemy crab. We had naval combat as much about our weird powers and teamwork as about grid movement and turning radii. We had shounen abilities and growth arcs and hilarious arguments. And really, when I look back on it, the canon violations weren’t that bad, and they expanded the setting more often than they contradicted it. For the most part, it was exactly as advertised, and I think highly of it for that exact reason.

Contrast The Eight Arms and the Memento Mori. I pitched it to the players as “fight giant monsters”. They built characters to fight giant monsters. I came up with a plot that let them fight giant monsters and a villain who could control giant monsters. But as soon as the campaign started, it changed to a mission of diplomacy where the players wanted to understand and help every enemy they met. At one point we went four straight sessions without a single battle. That’s neat, and the players liked it, but it wasn’t what I signed up for. I wasn’t happy, and I still consider it one of the worst campaigns I’ve ever run.

I’m one of those people who judges something not by how good it is, but by how good it is compared to how good it could have been. If something exceeds my expectations I’m over the moon about it, even if my expectations are very low. If something fails to meet those expectations I don’t like it, even if it’s very popular or objectively good (links intentionally omitted; I’m not starting that fight). When you promise me something, I set an expectation for that thing. If you break that promise, you’ve failed to meet that expectation.

This is why I like having the occasional touchstone for long-running campaigns, where we step back and consider whether the campaign is still doing the job it set out to do. If it is, great, double down. If it’s not, we have to consider if it failed to meet its expectations or if the expectations have changed over time. It’s how we head off that sensation of falling out of love with a campaign and make sure everybody’s still having fun. It’s kind of like having a Session Zero, but between arcs rather than between campaigns, and it hits all the same points. If there’s a disconnect, it’s good for the campaign, the players, and the DM to catch it early.

So yeah, I’m really not a fan of being told I’m getting one thing and instead getting another. The best way to avoid doing that is to make sure your campaigns make promises they can keep, or at least don’t make promises you know they can’t.

* — There are a lot of links in this post. If you’re at work or on mobile, I apologize. If you’re at home and relaxing, you’re welcome.

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Eight Arms Setting Map

I haven’t done absolutely nothing over the last month while the A to Z Challenge was going. I’ve gotten started on some articles that will post at various times, including a few about the Zelda campaign that will post when it ends sometime this summer. I also finally hunkered down and did something I’ve been promising to do for a few years: making a world map for the Eight Arms campaign setting.

I followed a very nice tutorial at http://imgur.com/a/6K80W, which I think I found by way of the normally-far-too-deep-for-me Worldbuilding subreddit. I couldn’t do everything exactly as the tutorial recommended because I have Photoshop Elements 8 instead of Photoshop for Artists and Expensive People 2018, but I think I managed:

This is just the general map, with no cities or non-geographic landmarks, to lay out roughly how the countries work together. It also does what I promised I would do by integrating the elemental races into the continent proper. There’s no scale intentionally because I don’t want to be beholden to a travel time or distance I previously defined. I’d rather leave it vague so I can work it to the story at any given time.

In more boring news, I also finally got the campaign wiki to work with picture uploads, so I can start the legitimately thrilling process of getting character portraits done for the various Eight Arms characters. If you happen to know or be anybody who can art, let me know.

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A to Z Challenge Postmortem

The Blogging from A to Z Challenge was a lot more fun than I expected it to be. Going over all of my campaigns to pull out characters was a neat historical exercise, and figuring out which ones were interesting enough to warrant five hundred words got me thinking about how my gaming style and the styles of my players have evolved. I may go back and do some retrospectives for other characters, too. About fifty characters didn’t make the cut, and several of them really deserved an article but didn’t get one because their letter was taken by someone else. If nothing else, writing about them will give me something to link to whenever I say things like “half-ton ladies’ man” or “kobold werepanther ranger/sorcerer raised by goliaths”.

I will admit to failing one portion of the challenge, though I also admit no wrongdoing in that failure. See, one of the points of the challenge is to visit other blogs. The managing blog put it pretty well on day G:

One of the best things about the Challenge is meeting new people and finding cool blogs that are super-interesting. However, the only way people will know you’ve visited is if you leave comments on their blogs. That not only says that we’ve dropped in, but that we were engaged enough to introduce ourselves.

I tried to do this, I promise, but every time I tried to leave a comment something technical got in the way. One blog banned all comments from anybody who wasn’t signed into a Google account. Another pretended to let me comment, but when I tried to submit my comment it took me to a separate login page and erased what I had written. I’m not sure a technology designed to foster communication is doing its job if it limits that communication only to a subset of the audience. I ended up following a few blogs for the entire challenge, but I specifically want to give a shoutout to Fuzzy’s Dicecapades; it has a lot of interesting things to say that merit discussion, but its commenting system means I am in no danger of saying so on each post.

I also didn’t want to get into the habit of commenting along the lines of “yep, this post sure was a post”. I feel like if I’m not contributing to the discussion I don’t need to assert my presence in it. It’s why this blog doesn’t have many posts about updates on my campaigns or their settings unless they pertain to some greater conversation about gaming (or I just want to show off my swank Zelda maps), and why every post in April had to involve something about how the character made me an angrier a better DM. If there’s no advice in my comments I’m doing a pretty poor job of representing an advice blog, and if there’s no actual commentary then what’s the point?

Accordingly, if you made a comment here this month (or ever, really) just to say “my keyboard works, here is a link to my blog” and you’re wondering why it didn’t get approved, there you go.

I’m already trying to figure out whether I’m going to do this next year and, if so, what I’ll talk about. I thought about covering the most fun NPCs and villains I’ve run, but that feels like a month of patting myself on the back for being amazing. Another option is to spend each day telling a story about some monster in my campaigns. I know I have stories about a xorn, a zombie, a qlippoth, an umber hulk, and a jyoti, so that’s half the battle right there. Apparently the other half will be wrestling my auto-spellcheck into submission.

What I definitely won’t do is another month of characters in my campaigns. Even though I enjoyed it, I only had one options for F, H, N, O, Q, U, X, Y, and I’m not planning on asking my players to run characters only in the disused section of the alphabet. Since my next two campaigns are going to use mostly characters from earlier campaigns, I just won’t be able to get the volume I need.

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