Themes: Entertainer

Both of my ongoing campaigns ended within the last few weeks, and we’re a few weeks away from starting the next ones. I don’t have a campaign to work on for what feels like the first time in years. It’s a weird sensation. I don’t think I like it.

But as long as I’m suffering under the burden of free time, I might as well add some of the themes I’ve been kicking around but never got a chance to write.


ENTERTAINER

You base your life around performance. You eat, sleep, and live the show, and nothing thrills you like having an audience in the palm of your hand. Whether your lute gives injured listeners the peace they need in trying times, your caustic oration spurs an army to overthrow their kind if ineffective king, or your dance attracts legions of followers to obey your every whim, you’re only truly happy in the limelight. Other may dismiss you as a distraction at best and a meaningless frivolity at worst, but you know emotions are the strongest forces there are, and you manipulate them at will.
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Campaign Songs: Contract of Barl

I’ve spoken before about our campaign theme songs, but only for a paragraph or two. Since one of my campaigns had ended recently, it’s a good time to talk about one in more depth.

The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl is another campaign in our Edwardian-era fantasy setting. In the first campaign, one of the characters, Barl, asked to start the campaign in debt, which gave me the idea to base a story around needing to pay it. Over time that changed into something similar, where the character had made a contract with some powerful extraplanar entity, and his creditor called him in for some dangerous, immediate task. The party consists of his allies and their planar guide, searching the planes for him and trying to shoulder as much of the onus as possible without accidentally contributing to the instability of the universe.

Our campaign songs usually aren’t about the players themselves. They’re more about the villains, both because I want to set the mood and because I have some control over what they want and say and do. Sometimes they’re also about what I’d like the campaign to be about or what I think the plot is before the players completely ruin it for me. And in something that’s definitely more for me than anybody else, I try to match the rhythm of the song to the campaign pacing. Most songs aren’t a perfect fit, but some closer than others. This one was really good.
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One-Shot Characters in Ongoing Campaigns

One of my favorite tropes in media is the individual face-offs between antagonistic teams. That is, I love it when the good guys meet the bad guys, and the good guys have a genius magician but the bad guys also have one and you know they’re going to fight, while the big guy fights the evil big guy and the comic relief fights the villain’s pet wolf or something. I’ve tried to work it in my campaign several times, sometimes playing it straight like when the half-dragon orc barbarian went toe-to-toe with the eldritch giant, and sometimes subverting it like when I spent a full session establishing a rival party then killed them just off-screen to set up the real big bad. I had something like this in mind when the players in my current campaign met the minions of one of the campaign villains, and the players knew it. When the party finally caught up with those minions during a trip through Hell, they immediately requested (nay, demanded) that they split up to fight their destined battles.

Of course, a one-on-one battle is incredibly boring in Pathfinder. In my experience they’re rarely tense, clever encounters where the combatants continually one-up each other’s power and strategy. It’s far more likely that one person will run roughshod over the other because of one specific part of their build, usually mezzing, defense, or damage, in that order. A single character also loses out on all kinds of combat options, like positioning and flanking. It takes a certain, rare kind of character to make the fights dynamic, and the more you try to force them into a dynamic mold for a set piece battle, the more that battle resembles a skill challenge rather than the fight you advertised. Worst of all, while one player is fighting, the others sit around and watch.

It’s not fun because that’s not what the system is designed to do. The system, Pathfinder especially, is designed for party-on-party rocket-tag violence. If we want destined battles, we have to find a way to make them group affairs.
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Live GameScreen Available for Download

Over the years I’ve gotten several requests for Live GameScreen, the session-management software we use in our games. I’ve extolled its virtues before, and I’ve finally gotten a chance to use its networking capabilities in a campaign (verdict: …eh, but that might be something in our firewall settings). But for a good while now it’s been unavailable because the site that hosted it went away.

As such, I’m hosting it here. Technically I think I’m legally allowed to do this. You can find download links to Live GameScreen on its new page and in the header bar.

I’m also using this chance to show off our new icon hotness. The default icons with Live GameScreen are lackluster, and we know it. I’ve uploaded some new ones here. They follow a simple pattern: the icon in the middle is what’s happening to you, and the background color is its severity. A red background is a bigger penalty than orange or yellow, blue is a better bonus than green, and black means you’re probably taking damage.

All of these icons use resources from Game-icons.net, which has them available via Create Commons license, so you can use them however you want or make your own. We’ve been using custom ones for specific characters so we know when our dwarven defender is in stone stance or when our swordmage is literally on fire, and nothing quite beats laying so many penalties on an enemy you can’t even make them out any more. Give them a go.

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The Subjectivity of Quality

I’m going to start with something incendiary and explain it later: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a bad movie, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a good one.

Our recent guest post accidentally raises an important question: what makes something good? That is, how do we determine which players, characters, DMs, campaigns, encounters, and monsters were worth our time and which disappoint? We like to say that something is good or bad, but those words don’t mean anything in a vacuum. Something must be good or bad as compared to something else. Whether that’s a set of objective qualities (a good monster has numbers within this acceptable band, because the goal is mechanical balance), a similar work (this character is like my last one, but more involved in the plot), or personal opinion (I thought this campaign was fun) depends on who’s judging it how and when, and often what they’re judging in the first place.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think I measure things the same way other people do:

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…when you promise me something, I set an expectation for that thing. If you break that promise, you’ve failed to meet that expectation.

The most important step here is that I set my own expectations. They may or may not be what the creator intended and they may or may not be fair, but they cover both what I want from media and what I think it will give me. This is how I determine whether something is good or bad regardless of its actual quality and sometimes regardless of my opinion of similar works. Say I play in a campaign with a loose story, constrained travel and class choices, little character growth, and occasionally blistering difficulty. These are all things I’m normally against. But if you tell me the game is based on 80s video game RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, then I know what I’m getting into and I made my decision based on the things I wanted to get out of that game. Its most detrimental aspects become either ignorable or part of its charm, and its best aspects (highly variable environments and monsters, elaborate dungeons, strong power growth, and the satisfaction of killing dangerous creatures to end their arcs) are more important.

This is why I’m going against popular opinion on the movies I saw this week. Going into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I expected Guardians of the Galaxy, a funny team-based superhero movie about a group of highly capable people who trust and love each other despite their circumstances and who defeat incredibly powerful villains with the strength of their bond and elaborate CGI. Instead, I got an overt comedy movie that sacrifices pacing, characters, and mood to spam the audience with bad jokes hoping some of them will hit their target; about a group made of one character we’re not supposed to like, the hero who doesn’t learn anything though he pretends he does, and three characters who don’t grow in any way and mean nothing to the plot; who argue and snipe at each other until they split up ten minutes into the movie and don’t gather in the same room again until the credits; who defeat an incredibly powerful villain with the strength of pure luck and one person being equally powerful for poorly-explained reasons; with CGI so heavy it distracted from everything else. Almost everything I expected and wanted out of the movie wasn’t there, and if I had known what it was going to be I would have skipped it.

For King Arthur, however, I expected a fun-but-not-great movie about an English guy and a bunch of people around him who don’t matter so much, with a lot of sword fighting and not a lot of color, a tacked-on love story that doesn’t impact anything else, that sacrificed historical accuracy for plot where it could be justified and mood where it couldn’t, all in the style of Guy Ritchie. What I got was exactly that but with more color, no meaningless romantic arc, and a couple of meaningful side characters (and an overbearing, distracting soundtrack—nothing’s perfect). That’s better than what I expected, and I walked out of the movie thinking it deserved my money and attention.

Certainly more people are enjoying the former movie than the latter, and it’s going to make more money, and those are the measures by which we consider a movie a success. But success in and of itself doesn’t make something good and failure doesn’t make it bad. One could argue that the success is actually irrelevant, as you can make good decisions with a bad results and vice versa. One could also apply intention; if you tried to film a drama and people laughed at it, did you make a bad drama or a good comedy? How much does the critical consensus matter? What if it’s lauded by consumers you hate for a subtext you didn’t see or plan? How do we know whether something is good or bad?

We kind of don’t, because those terms have no meaning. In our circles we often use the terms “objective good” and “objective bad” for consensus that might as well be fact, but only in the context of disagreeing with them. This is the language I used in the quote earlier this post. They’re tongue-in-cheek terms that acknowledge popular opinion but also state that there’s no such thing as a truly, completely good or bad movie, or TV show, or campaign, or character, or DM. There’s just people who experience things and form opinions.

I know this seems hypocritical coming off a two-post series about how the zodar is bad and how to make it good. That’s the point. In the context of this blog, based on what I put into tabletop gaming and what I want out of it, the zodar is everything wrong with monster design. Outside of this context, who knows? Maybe somebody is flipping through D&D rulebooks from 2003 right now, coming across the zodar, and deciding it’s perfect for their campaign. They’re allowed, because what’s perfect for them isn’t necessarily perfect for me or my players. Every DM has to judge themselves and their material based not on a tangible set of universally-accepted qualities, but on what they and their players want to run and play and do and feel.

Everybody decides what they want out of something even if they do it silently and subconsciously. My opinion is based on how good something can be, so I want something that lives up to its potential. Some movies do, some don’t, and some even exceed it, because I’m fallible and my perception of their potential can be lower than it really is. My campaigns are the same way; the sandbox campaign based around difficult player decisions and moral ambiguity was bad because I made everything too vague and difficult for the players to explore or make choices, and the second The Legend of Zelda campaign was good because it gave me and the players exactly the feel and payoff we wanted from the games. Whether my players enjoy a campaign is a big factor, but it’s not the only measure that goes into it, and I know they can think a campaign is good when I think it’s bad. They have different criteria than I do, and neither of us is wrong. Those campaigns were both good and bad depending on whom you ask (sometimes when, or why). All campaigns are.

It’s why I don’t feel bad saying that a given monster is bad, or a given class, or a given movie or TV show. If I think something is as good as it should be, I’m happy. If isn’t, I’m not. As long as somebody’s opinion is reasonably informed, I don’t begrudge them dissent. The point of gaming isn’t to find the best story, stock it with the best characters and encounters, and run it into the ground. The point is to have fun, and that’s incredibly subjective.

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