Thursday, October 30, 2014

Top 7 ways to have Kickass Sidekicks

Top 7 ways to have Kickass Sidekicks

By: Jesse C Cohoon
Sidekicks are one of the staples of roleplaying games. These sidekicks can be as simple as a fighter’s followers, to the magic caster’s familiar, to something like the collectable monsters of Pokémon to the card spirit monsters in Yu-Gi-Oh and the like. Unfortunately, they tend to be rather bland, cookie cutter types of things that are just “there” for convenience, to do as they’re told, and fade into the background when not needed. Both as a game master and a roleplayer, I think a lot more can be teased out of these relationships, with just a bit more work, with a lot more reward for having done so. Here are the top 7 of ways to make kickass sidekicks.

1)      Give them a personality all of their own. Let them have a role in the party’s decisions. Let them disagree with the party’s plans, and be able to suggest their own that may or may not necessarily work. Have them be able to communicate on a regular basis outside of combat. Give them likes, and dislikes, as well as plots based around their character. If they should happen to die, based on their interactions and personality, the players should genuinely care about the loss.

2)      Give them complementary powers. If you have a fighter’s follower, allow them to tag team an enemy, so that each of their attacks are more effective, as well as the ability to guard each other’s backs. If you have a mage’s familiar, let the familiar’s very presence amplify their powers in some manner. You could even have certain spells be able to be cast through the familiar. When dealing with fighting monsters, if certain combinations are on the field, they can give bonuses to everyone else or get bonuses from other monsters.

3)      Give Them Unique Powers. The knowledge, skills, abilities, powers that the sidekick has should be uniquely theirs. Having a “carbon copy” of another character is somewhat useless, unless the character(s) are meant to be viewed as an inseparable pair, or are able to be more effective only when they fight together. These unique powers can be as simple as an improved ability that someone else has, where they were able to get more training in it, to a unique combination of skills to be able to do unique attacks with, to an ability so unique to them that it makes them shine in a particular situation.

4)      Give Them Unique Equipment. Having sidekicks with boring, out-of-the-book equipment is boring. It also shows that the person having the sidekick didn’t put enough thought into putting them together. Also, giving them unique equipment may help the party get past obstacles, defeat enemies, or further the plot. Who knows that random ring may be the key to unlocking the whole mystery.

5)      Give Them Unique Contacts. Just because the players know their sidekick, doesn’t necessarily mean that they know who their sidekick knows automatically, or gets a “free pass” to be able to connect with them without any problems. Their sidekick(s) should be willing to introduce their contacts to the players after some time knowing them. How the players interact with the sidekick’s contact(s) is on them, to make them into friends... or turn them into enemies.

6)      Give Them a Personal Connection To The Players. This is one tip that is most often overlooked. Perhaps their sidekick is a person/ animal/ monster whose life they saved. Other options are to have them be a childhood friend, a person they met in a disaster and stuck with them, or someone who they met while training who was impressed with them. Whatever the case, they should have a plot related reason for being there, one that is not easy to dismiss or break.   

7)      Give Them The Ability To Learn And Grow. Let them develop over time, developing in personality, gaining new equipment, learning new skills, powers, abilities, and meeting new contacts. Everything that they do. As they develop, grow, let them have a greater and greater part in the storyline.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Top 6 ways how to use character growth for your game

Top 6 ways how to use character growth for your game  
By: Jesse C Cohoon

Even though for the most part, DMs don’t really use character growth for game plot, it’s relatively easy, effective for game play, adds depth to the game, and helps with the suspension of disbelief. What is meant by character growth? Character growth gaining of skills, feats, increase of stats, spells, followers, etc.   

1)      Roleplay a “Zero level.” Before the game actually starts, take a session or two to play the characters before they meet up with the rest of the party. That way they can learn some of the ins and outs of their character before being with a group. Also, skills don’t develop overnight; they take time, training, and practice to do well. Maybe the session can cover several years of time showing how the character became as good as they are with the skill.

2)      Make them train. I know some DMs really enforce this rule, but IMHO, it should be a mandatory thing. How are you going to learn how to do something while in the middle of a dungeon unless you run into someone willing to train you there? But even so, the character can be practicing their new moves while the party is resting, in town, or even while captured and stripped of equipment (provided that there is enough room to do the maneuvers and they’re not chained to the wall or something.)

3)      Reward them for use of skills, feats, spells, stats, etc. Give characters who are fighting a lot of orcs bonuses for fighting such. The same thing goes for picking locks, casting spells, and using feats. But don’t limit the bonuses to “everyday use” of such. Reward behavior that uses their skills in unique ways, in different circumstances, and in ways that you wouldn’t have thought of to solve the situations they find themselves in.

4)      Use leveling for plot. For instance, when the party’s magic user gains a level, perhaps it becomes a quest to find a spell book to learn another spell. Maybe the druid’s or ranger’s animal followers/ companions got rescued by him when they were adventuring. Or perhaps the fighter’s follower was rescued by the players from a dungeon. You could arrange the campaign where the party’s ranger has a hate for orcs because something bad happened to their family or friends.

5)      Use equipment for plot. Instead of telling the players “you have a +1 sword” or whatever the particular bonuses are, think of how to give your player’s equipment a story as to what it is and how it got there. Perhaps as the game goes along, the equipment can grow with the players and gain abilities as well, and in your next campaign, have the same sword that had a history show up again.

6)      Allow for character customization. In games where characters can tend to be “cookie cutter” in their backgrounds, skills, their abilities, and equipment as they go up in levels – allow the players to mix things up a bit by adding interesting tweaks to their past, uses for standard skills, and abilities, as well as different equipment than standard. One good way of doing this is to look at the “splat books” and incorporate what’s appropriate for your campaign to change things up.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

6 Ways to Add Interest to Your Dungeon

6 Ways to Add Interest to Your Dungeon
By: Jesse C Cohoon

Many times people think of dungeons as these static things that monsters inhabit, but if viewed as an interconnected, alive system that opens up many more possibilities than would ordinarily be possible.

1.      When designing dungeons, remember that enemies move around. But don’t limit their movement to just one area. Keep in mind that sound travels, and a battle in one area, attract enemies coming to the scene from different areas, and in the heat of the battle, PCs may find themselves surrounded by enemies in battle where they can neither move forward nor retreat until the situation changes.

2.      Add varying types of obstacles and ways of conquering them. In the Zelda franchise games, there are lots of puzzles, many of which are solved by blowing up obstacles or fake walls, pushing blocks/ rocks, swimming, activating switches in a specific order, and accessing areas that they need some sort of protection/ alteration to enter. In each of these cases, Link had equipment to help him out: gloves to give him strength, earrings to allow him to withstand heat, special armor that allowed him to swim underwater and the like. In Zelda: Skyward Sword, the hero gets a Batman-esque grappling hook type weapon that allows him to be pulled to walls, stationary helicopter type units, and ivy covered rock facades.    

But just because the players don’t have the proper equipment/ powers doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to enter such areas, but they may face difficulties in getting around / damage while in such areas. For instance in an area without the proper heat protection equipment, a person may get damage while in extremely hot or cold areas.

3.      Allow different areas to be opened up as the players get more powerful. Just because a party went through an area doesn’t mean that there aren’t more secrets to be discovered. There may be hidden passages, areas blocked by monsters that they didn’t fight (or circumvented), underground areas that they have to have digging claws to get to, or areas that were previously too high for them to reach. When characters get “fly,” “passwall,” and “reduce/enlarge” abilities (either through their equipment or by spells), the dungeon has an entirely different feeling.

4.      Change the dungeon in a significant way. This is a classic in video games. Some changes that you can make are: having the dungeon flood, it on fire or filled with smoke, upside down, or even portable (for instance a dungeon in a giant robot or on a dragon turtle) Other changes that you might not have thought of are: filled with quicksand, time shifted (thank you Zelda: Skyward Sword,) collapsing, overgrown, and vastly changed monsters. Even changing the climate changes the dungeon. For instance, having a previously hot area change to freezing changes the dungeon.

5.      Change up the situation. Instead of seeing a dungeon as a thing where characters enter the dungeon and maim/ kill anything that is threatening, and loot their enemies, the dungeon could be a thing of a peace keeping party where negotiation rules the day, an espionage mission where the characters need to be stealthy so as not to get caught, or a rescue mission where they have to be careful who they kill, otherwise they may end up killing the party that they’re trying to save.

6.      Plan in layers. The best dungeons have multiple layers: from deep underground or underwater reaching up many stories in the sky. Having puzzles that span these levels, clues for the story-behind-the-story, and boss battles the enemies of which are massive (both in terms of scope, but in terms of the number of participants), makes your dungeons truly epic!

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Friday, October 3, 2014

One Dozen ways to add complexity to your magic system

One Dozen ways to add complexity to your magic system

By Jesse C Cohoon

Designing complex, well-thought-out magic systems for your fiction and RPGs isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think. Consider the following areas to add more layers of depth to your games.

1)      Ley Lines/ Nodes of Power. The world itself has areas that make magic more accessible, powerful or easier to cast. Ley lines, are “straight lines” on maps that ancient large stones, churches, cemeteries, mounds, etc. are built along. It has often been thought that these ley lines seem to have a special kind of power within them and people of old knew this. Nodes of Power, on the other hand, are places where Ley Lines cross.

In a world that uses ley lines, they could be a “bridge” to the afterlife, and paranormal activity of all sorts could increase in places that are supposedly sitting on these ley lines.  And paranormal activity is even MORE active at Nodes of Power.

Another way that ley lines could be seen is that they could be made up of various kinds of energy; whatever kinds are more prominent in the line affects its properties. For example, there could be ley lines with defensive, disruptive, or restorative energies, able to be tapped into by magic users to draw power from them. Ley line magic could be more powerful than other known forms of casting, but there could be risks to using it as well in that some could be more stable than others, whereas others might have destructive energies.

In such a world, would the monuments destruction hamper magical ability, or simply change where the foci were?

2)      Built in Protection. In some games, every time before a magic user wants to engage in battle, they must layer protections upon themselves. To me this is counterintuitive. In Margret Weiss / Tracy Hickman’s Death Gate series have a race that have runes literally tattooed onto their bodies.

In some magic systems magic users might have to build up strength where they carry a network of defenses ready to spring to the forefront when endangered, as in L.E. Modesitt, Jr’s Imager books.

A third way of looking at this is that a magic user is so conditioned to having protections about themselves that they no longer actively maintain them, that they are an integral part of the use of magic itself, and just as a fighter is ill-prepared without his weapon(s) and armor of choice, so too is a magic user without his protective wards that he built up on his (or her) person from years of use. This idea makes older magic users even tougher to deal with as one has to get past their protective wards to hurt them or those that they are protecting. This idea can even be further expanded to have a *place* with such layers of idle protection.

3)      Magic Fight Tempo. Magic fights should be in a rapid tempo back and forth of volleys, reflection, deflection, and finding weak points in the others’ defenses and attacks. But keep in mind that these don’t necessarily need to be flashy. Sometimes a subtle turning of a magic attack is much more effective than the most stalwart defense in that it is not expected. Also traps or reflection of magical energies can hurt/ damage an enemy who isn’t expecting to be targeted or ensnared by their own casting(s). In fact, this is very clearly seen in the Yu-Gi-Oh manga and anime series where even the best protected characters are entrapped, and the most careful attacks are thwarted.  

4)      Religious Affiliation complexities exist when certain religious groups have access to certain spells and others do not. For instance, the god of war in your game isn’t going to grant his priests/ magic users a spell like “Zone of Peace” where people entering it don’t have any desire to fight. But the question becomes can characters serve multiple deities at the same time, provided the basic tenants of belief don’t contradict each other?

Another way of using religious affiliation is to have no “standard” magic; all magic must come from the same divine source. Breaking the tenants of the god of magic could leave casters devoid of power… or perhaps open up another source of magic entirely. 

An additional way that religion could shape a world is that certain groups or types of magic may be outlawed. For instance, necromancy may be outlawed in a town that only worships life magic.

5)      Political Affiliation/ ideologies exist when one branch teaches one thing and another teaches something entirely different. For example, one branch might feel that X political figure (or stance) should be supported, whereas another thinks that that the Y political figure – or even militant uprising should be supported. Just as differing religious practitioners will have different powers, different political affiliation may also use what powers they have towards different means, altering the spells to match their political ideologies.

Depending on the political climate, certain types of magic users may be outlawed because of the perception that they’re dangerous to prosperity, property, and health. Also, if a single magic user decided to try to take over the region, there would be political pressure from the people to deal with the threat by raising an army or hiring out someone (typically the PCs) to do it for them.  

6)      Ancestors: Sometimes a person’s ancestors will grant magical powers that are not available through other sources, and these powers may even be able to bypass “standard” magic systems.

Another way to view ancestors is to simply have them give advice in the magical realm. Perhaps they were a famous magus and their greatest spell was left uncompleted.  

Or perhaps the ancestor is residing in the character’s weapon, and these ancestor-imbued weapons are the only magic in existence in the world.

7)      Specialization opens up a slew of options with whatever is being specialized in. A character specializing in fire magic, for instance, might find ways to use fire that a generalized spell-caster might not such as teleporting through fire, using fire as a shield and so on. The drawback is that in exchange for specialization, the caster may limit his or her repertoire, as well as being a “one trick pony” which is able to be easily beaten once others know the trick of their powers.    

8)      Demon/ totem spirit summoning are other ways that magic users can get their powers. This is the idea behind the animes/ manga of Shaman King, Yu-gi-oh, and Pokémon. There is even a bit of it in the Naruto in the dog/ frog contracts. Summoning can be a thing where the person gets the power directly, directs the summoned thing, or fights alongside of it. However such things are dealt with, here are a few things to take ask yourself before introducing them into your game:
-          How powerful of a game are you running?   
-          What will the powers/ stats of the creatures summoned be?
-          How long will they take to summon?
-          How long can they remain summoned?

9)      Casting as a group/ ritual casting. Sometimes just one magic user doing a casting isn’t enough, as the magic power is more than one person can handle alone, is dangerous to do alone, or because of the complexity, simply can’t be done by a single caster. Some castings require a whole coven of witches, or a quorum above a certain number to be effective, or to make it worth casting, because the toll on any one magic user is negligible.

10)  Magical Backlash: a magical system where nothing can go wrong is somewhat boring. There is no excitement, no danger, no sense of the forbidden that magic is supposed to entail. It can be as simple as in the Magic: the gathering card game where the player gets Mana burn, to aging, to complex ‘wild magic’ tables, to drawing the unwanted attention of extra planar entities, gods, or forces such as fate.   

11)  Magical Limitations are one of the most often overlooked ways of adding a complexity to a magic system because they want a magic system that can do anything if the caster is powerful enough. But some of the most interesting magic systems in fiction have serious limitations on the power that casters are able to wield – and the grave, often deadly consequences of those who try to hoard the power to themselves or who try to exceed those limitations. In fact I would go so far as to say that the first decision that should be made in the creation of any magic system is “what can’t the casters do and why?” In answering these question, you are able to shape the magic system to be much more believable.

12)  Mind Magic/ Psionics is another way of having magical complexity. In traditional magic systems, magic is something that is ‘out there’ to wrest control over, to cast from, even if the spells and powers are something that must be learned, memorized over and over again. Mind magic is different in that it is an internal source, and is cast from a person’s own reserves, and, many times, can be cast on the fly. In these system when two users psionic users are battling for control, the battlefield is one of the mind, where they attack and defend in the astral plane. In some systems technology and magic powers may be able to cancel mind powers out, but in others they can’t because they are ‘blind’ to the other powers and how they operate.    

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