Wednesday, April 28, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool - Part 5: Belly of the Whale

Here now, we have arrived at the final step in the Departure stage of the Hero's Journey.  The call was received, refused at first, supernatural aid sought and provided, and the threshold into the unknown was crossed. The hero now finds herself in the belly of the whale, completing the separation from a world and/or an existence she was familiar - possibly even comfortable - with by undergoing a personal metamorphosis.  Old ways of thinking and doing must be put aside, as they cannot carry the hero past the trials to come.  New paradigms, of natures both physical and mental, are introduced to the hero and must be mastered if she is to have a hope of surviving what lies ahead.

Campbell writes that the hero's passage into this stage of the journey can often be mistaken by the casual observer as defeat: "The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple – where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. . . The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act."" 

Examples of the Whale's Belly

The quintessential example of the Whale's Belly comes from the Biblical story of Jonah. Commanded by God to preach to the city of Nineveh, the prophet Jonah instead ran the other direction, boarding a ship sailing for Tarshish. Along the way, a great storm blew up and threatened the ship. Jonah was revealed as the source of the calamity when the sailors cast lots to discover who among them had incurred the wrath of the gods. Accepting responsibility and seeking to spare the ship, Jonah had the sailors throw him overboard, where he was swallowed whole by a great fish, almost always visualized as a whale. He remained in the fish for three days and three nights, praying to God.  Finally, Jonah was vomited onto dry land and, when commanded by God to go to Nineveh a second time, did not delay. The city, destined for destruction due to their evil ways, repented as was spared.

Luke Skywalker's metamorphosis experience is stretched across one movie, and nearly into a second. Over the course of Empire Strikes Back, shortly after being - quite literally - stuffed inside a Tautaun's belly (womb allegory), he heads to swampy Dagobah to train with Yoda, who lives in a cramped little hut (another womb).  It is here that he truly sees for the first time what the Force is capable of.  It is also during this training that he has a disturbing vision in a cave (yet another womb allegory) about what could happen if he failed to resist the lure of the Dark Side.  By the end of Empire Strikes Back, Luke's metamorphosis has taken on a physical aspect in the hand that is lost and subsequently replaced.  The changes and growth he experiences during the course of this movie carry him into the period between the fifth and sixth chapters, during which he becomes a full-fledged Jedi.

Despite several close calls with the Nazgul, who appear as nightmares given form to the diminutive hobbits, it is within the mines of Moria that the Frodo, Sam, Merry, and especially Pippin have a transformative experience.  As they pass through the depths of the mountains, they find themselves for the first time face-to-face with goblins (subterranian orcs), a troll and (most terrifying of all) a Balrog - all due to Pippin's carelessness in Balin's Tomb.  This is the first encounter where the hobbits must hold their own, along with their more traditionally heroic companions, lest they be overwhelmed - there would be no last-minute rescue for them as their was with Old Man Willow and on Weathertop.  Eventually, the group escapes, but not before the harsh reality of their situation is made all too clear with the loss of Gandalf.  The movie, specifically, Billy Boyd's portrayal of a guilt-ridden Pippin as the fellowship succumbs to exhaustion and anguish by the Dimrill (East) Gate.

In the first act of Christopher Nolan's excellent Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne makes his way to the League of Shadows' compound in the mountains of Tibet.  There he undergoes intense martial and psychological training in order to, as Liam Neeson's character put it, "make yourself more than just a man, devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely . . . A legend."

Belly of the Whale as a DM Tool

DM's (or should I be using GM's instead?) regularly make use of this concept, though probably not in such a formal, recognizable manner. Basically, any time the PC's must acquire crucial knowledge and/or abilities in order to complete a task deemed by the common folk to be impossible, the Belly of the Whale comes into play. Their time in the Belly-setting answers the where and how questions about what the PC's need to accomplish in order to be victorious.

There a couple of common temptations that a DM faces during this stage: First, glossing over the metamorphosis experience - making it happen instantaneously, thereby robbing it of meaning; and, second, requiring the PC's to grind until they have accumulated enough of a resource (gold, XP, specific dropped items) as a symbol of their completion of the metamorphosis process.  This second scenario is particularly frustrating because it assumes that by doing the same thing over and over again, the protagonists have somehow matured or mastered a new way of thinking/fighting - when the reality is that they have simply gotten better at doing the same thing over and over again.

Setting is important to the metamorphosis, there is something unique about it that is crucial to the changes that need to occur before the PC's can hope to overcome the trials ahead. It makes sense, then, that there is also something repulsive about the location or the process related to the metamorphosis that deters just anyone from pursuing it - perhaps it is in a location that is dangerous to reach, or the metamorphosis process is a painful - even potentially deadly - experience.  Perhaps there is a characteristic about those who have completed the change that is perceived, fairly or unfairly, as unsettling or even dangerous. The concept of a reviled savior is an interesting one and holds a lot of potential for true role playing.

Pondering the Belly of the Whale
  • What sort of settings do you envision when you think about undergoing a change or experience growth?
  • Is the change that occurs in the Belly of the Whale permanent or temporary? Why?
  • Do you tend to think of the metamorphosis process as being a result primarily of external or internal forces?
  • Can a hero be committed to vanquishing the dragon, but hesitant about what must be done to accomplish such a task? Why or why not?
  • Should a metamorphosis be specific to a single quest? Do relying on a specific change across multiple adventures 'cheapen' it? Why or why not?

Friday, April 23, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool, Part 4 - Crossing the Threshold

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. - Lao-Tzu, Chinese philosopher (604 BC - 531 BC)

It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. - Bilbo Baggins

Having committed himself to the journey (willingly or otherwise), finding his mentor-guide(s) - or, as Campbell refers to them, "the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him" - and equipping himself as best he can, the hero stands at the boundary of the world he has known and accepted for so long.  Taking a deep breath, the hero opens the gate and steps across into the unknown.  Campbell also makes mention of a 'threshold guardian' who stands between the hero and this new realm of being and magnified power.  This guardian does not always take an expected form, as do the mythological Cerberus or the castle guardians from Neil Gaiman's excellent Sandman series, but might appear as a friends or loved ones who discourage the hero and must be bypassed in some way before the journey can truly begin.

Examples of the Threshold

Samwise Gamgee, in Peter Jackson's LOTR movies says to Frodo, "If I take one more step, it'll be the furthest from home I've ever been."  There is not really a threshold guardian present (though one could say, symbolically, the scarecrow in the background fills the roll as a silent sentinel), but they do have their very first close encounter with the Nazgul shortly beyond that point.  At least one commentator suggests that the Hobbits' encounter with Old Man Willow - where they first come to harm (albeit minor) and must be rescued by Tom Bombadil - is the true threshold experience for the protagonist(s).

Luke Skywalker trades the known dangers of the Tatooine wasteland for the unknown dangers of the Mos Eisley spaceport, particularly the rough-and-tumble cantina, where his adventure is very nearly cut short before it ever gets off the ground (pardon the pun).  At the time of Luke's arrival, it is being patrolled by Stormtroopers, who attempt to apprehend the group.

In Stardust (another Gaiman creation), there is a very clear demarcation in the old stone wall that borders the protagonist's village.  An opening in the wall allows one to pass into the world of faerie, but it is stubbornly guarded by old man who takes his position as the keeper of the opening very seriously.

The scientists who managed to get the Stargate working (in the original movie of the same name) had no clue what - if anything - lay on the otherside of the shimmering, undulating portal.

Dorothy crosses two thresholds in the Wizard of Oz.  First there is the passage from consciousness into unconsciousness by way of the twister; shortly thereafter, she literally crosses the threshold of her mundane black-and-white existence into the color- and magic-filled realm of Oz.

The Threshold as a DM Tool

For a DM, crossing the threshold may impact a game on several different levels.  The first and most obvious being a threshold guardian that must be defeated, either by wits or brute force, before the party can continue their adventure.  Second, achieving a new level or tier acknowledges that the PC's have grown in some way and now have access to new powers and abilities with which to face the challenges ahead - which have also grown in difficulty. While the first two examples are fairly straightforward and go hand-in-hand with the basic mechanics of almost every role-playing system, a third instance - that of the symbolic threshold - is a bit more abstract and hard to define.  And yet, I would suggest that it holds the greatest potential of the three for creating a meaningful experience.

Monsters and puzzles are external conflicts and often represent forces outside of a person to be overcome. These situations might be cast, rather simplistically, as Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Man. What is left? Man vs. Himself.  The internal battles against doubts, fear, insecurity, and any number of personal shortcomings that we allow to tie us down and prevent us from achieving what Maslow referred to as 'self-actualization' are often some of the toughest battles a person will face in his or her lifetime. Compounding the issue is our inability to objectively handle and shape those feelings and understandings that shape our perception of the world around us.  In the real world, that is.  In the role-playing world, an able DM can construct situations that threaten from within, though doing so will require some preparation.

Depending on how much information a DM requires of their PC's at the start of an adventure, and the player's willingness and/or ability to 'put on' their characters and truly role play their strengths and weaknesses, these threshold experiences contain a great deal of potential for the characters' - and possibly even their player's - personal growth. Consider a player who is deathly afraid of spiders (a common fear) who must descend into a lair full of them to save a child.  Or a PC consumed with revenge who attempts to convince a king to forgive a slight, lest war claim thousands of innocent lives. Perhaps there is an accomplished thief who has something precious stolen from him.  These are not thresholds in a physical sense, but can serve as symbolic threshold experiences that, once overcome, empower the PC in some personal way.

Rewards for overcoming or passing a threshold may be many and varied, ranging from a simple bonus to skill checks or attacks vs. a certain type of creature, or a better understanding of the skills, powers and abilities one possesses.  What if, though, by overcoming a threshold challenge, a player arrives at a deeper understanding of her own motivations or behaviors?  A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Pondering the Threshold
  • What, if any, personal obstacles have your PC's had to overcome?
  • Do you think overcoming a physical threshold guardian can be as meaningful a overcoming a symbolic one? Why or why not?
  • Is it possible for PC's to have a meaningful threshold experience as a group? Why or why not?
  • Do you ever include elements from your players' real lives into your adventure/campaign? What forms or roles do these real-world elements take in the game?
  • Have you ever had your real-world perceptions altered by a work of fiction?  Do you think that your adventure/campaign holds the same potential? Why or why not?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool - Part 3: Supernatural Aid

Once the hero - by hook or by crook, consciously or unconsciously - begins to undertake his quest in earnest, they usually do not have to wait very long before a guide or magical helper of some sort is introduced into the story. The arrival of supernatural aid in fantasy literature is such a common occurrence that fans of the genre are generally more surprised when it does not occur. Consequently, the event is often taken for granted and treated as little more than a plot device - a means by which the hero obtains possession of some trinket or knowledge they would (or could) not gain on their own.

Campbell, however, proposes that there exists a deeper significance in role played by this mystical, mysterious mentor. "For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance - a promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost; that is supports the present and stands in the future as well as in the past (is omega as well as alpha); that though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold passages and life awakenings, protective power is always and ever present within or just behind the unfamiliar features of the world. One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear."

Pardon me while I drag out my soap box, but there were some terms in that description that should really jump out to anyone with a Bible-based Christian upbringing: alpha and omega, omnipotence, always and ever present, trust, the mention of an antagonistic dragon and the persistence/restoration of Paradise. It sounds like Campbell is equating his supernatural helper with God. Whether this is a direct manifestation or an agent acting on behalf of the divine is up for speculation, though some hints are likely to be found in the source material.

Examples of Supernatural Aid

In Tolkien's Ring's Trilogy, Gandalf metamorphoses before Frodo's eyes from a wizened old conjurer to a mighty wizard, mentor, and protector. He identifies the One Ring the Bilbo left to Frodo (which, I'll admit, is not exactly the same as giving it to him), guides and protects the Fellowship from a demon in the darkness and death of Moria ("I am a servant of the Secret Fire . . ."; flame ~> Holy Spirit -> God), returns from the dead (!), arrives just in time to save Rohan at Helm's Deep, bolsters and leads the forces of Gondor until Aragorn can arrive with even more supernatural reinforcements, and flies into Mordor on Gwaihir to rescue Frodo and Sam.

In Star Wars Episode 4, Obi-Won Kenobi arrives just in time to save Luke from the Sand Raiders, gives him his first lightsaber (soooo jealous) and introduces him to The Force. Later, he sacrifices himself against the embodiment of a fallen nature in the form of Darth Vader. Even after dying, Obi-Won provides reassurance and guidance to Luke.

Despite the confusion and many varied accounts of the legend of King Arthur, the half-human, half-demon Merlin figures prominently in almost all of them. The famous wizard engineers the famous king's birth through magic and intrigue, provides advice, and leads him (at varying points and in varying ways) into possession of the mighty Excalibur.

Held by a rash promise to present the head of Medusa as a wedding gift, Perseus is instructed by Athena to find the Hesperides and obtain the magical items he will need to overcome the Gorgon. The goddess herself, who cursed Medusa in the first place, provides the hero with a polished shield which plays an important part in the tale, popularized first by the campy 80's movie and again by the 2010 remake.

Pretty much any occurrence of a hero being given or directed to find 'The [blank] of [blank]' is a pretty good indicator that supernatural aid is being given.

Supernatural Aid as a DM Tool

Providing unexpected help in the form of a mysterious NPC is pretty much right up the DM's alley. It's hard to envision a campaign, or even an adventure, in which the party does not get some form of advice, guidance, direction, help, equipment, missing spell component, etc. from a stranger with some uncanny insight and/or understanding of the situation. Video RPG's, in particular, rely on these figures to give the players momentum and keep the story moving forward. The trick, then, is not so much knowing how to use Supernatural Aid, but doing so in an engaging, meaningful way.

Can you remember the first time you saw Star Wars, or read Fellowship? Can you remember how you felt when Obi-Won powered down his lightsaber or Gandalf fell from the bridge of Khazad-Dum? The main characters had developed a strong attachment to these mentor-guides by this point - their comforting presence having given direction and meaning and excitement to an otherwise ordinary and rather dull existence. The protagonists had come to rely on these figures and were expecting them to be present for the duration of the adventure.

Now, stripped of this important relationship, the heroes are made suddenly aware of the dangers of the fantastic world in which they find themselves, and the frailty of (demi-)human existence. If the protagonists had simply been simply been using the mentor-guide as a resource, having no more connection to them than they might some impersonal macguffin found lying on the side of the road, then the loss would have little or no meaning and the journey would remain much less personal. Additionally, the continued presence of a powerful, otherworldly ally puts the protagonists at risk for relying on them too heavily for the duration of their journey. Any personal growth the heroes might experience becomes stunted as they take for granted the achievements made with the assistance of another, and the adventure as a whole is cheapened.

Consider one additional feature of the mentor-guide NPC: A party can pretty much hack-and-slash its way through an adventure without having to speak to any NPC's - often times, just seeing a group of monsters or the entrance to a lair of some sort in more than enough motivation. But, when presented with a situation that cannot be overcome by the (often considerable) power wielded by the heroes, there will be at least one NPC with which they could/should have a social (in-character?) interaction.

Pondering Supernatural Aid
  • Does it make sense to have a mentor-guide for the duration of an adventure? A campaign? Why or why not?

  • What are some ways you can cultivate a meaningful relationship between your PC's and their mentor-guide?

  • Is the loss of a mentor-guide more meaningful when it occurs at the hands of a villain, or when they must be abandoned/sacrificed by the PC's?

  • What if the role of the mentor-guide was split among several NPC's? What if there were conflict or opposing goals among them?

  • Can you think of an example (games, movies, RPG's, etc.) of a mentor-guide turning into an antagonist? How did such a turn affect the overall experience for you as a viewer/player?
Other posts in this series
Part 1 - The Call
Part 2 - Refusing the Call

Thursday, April 15, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool - Part 2: Refusing the Call

In role playing, it is often taken for granted that the PC's are actively looking for an adventure to undertake. After all, if a person takes the time to roll up a fantastic character who will be living in a fantastic setting, it is generally understood that they'd would like to do something outside of what is legal (theft, killing) or possible (anything to do with magic) in this reality. Thus, the idea of a hero refusing the call to adventure may strike role players - both PC's and DM's alike - as rather odd and uncharacteristic. In mythology and popular fiction, however, it is a fairly common occurrence. Thoughts or feelings that lead to a hero's reluctance to pursue the call and remain in their current circumstances are varied: A sense of inadequacy or unworthiness; fear of the unknown; guilt at the thought of leaving someone/thing behind; an obligation or responsibility holding them back, etc.

Whatever the reason, when a refusal occurs, the nature of the journey changes. As Campbell writes, "Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless . . . All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration."

Examples of Refusal

Frodo never flat out refused his call to adventure, but he did attempt to pass it off a several points - Gandalf, Guinevere, possibly at Rivendell when those gathered debated what should be done with the ring. During the course of his adventure, Frodo must be defended and rescued and has several narrow escapes from the Nazgul at Weathertop (though he is deeply wounded and scarred for life), the Goblins and Cave Troll in Moria, the Uruk-Hai at Amon Hen, Shelob in Cirith Ungol, and even from himself in the bowels of Mount Doom, where he loses a finger and is finally carried to safety by Gandalf astride Gwaihir. Since none of his offers to pass the ring off were accepted, it is up for debate as to cause of all Frodo's trials and suffering being the direct result of refusing the call.

An indirect refusal occurs in Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) when Luke asks his uncle, Owen Lars, about Obi-Wan Kenobi. Owen, keen to keep Luke away from the problems and strife that led to the ruin of his father, tell Luke that Obi-Wan is dead and that he should stay away from crazy "Old Ben" who lives in the wastes. A couple of scenes later, the last we see of Owen and his wife are a pair of charred skeletons lying among the remains of their raided moisture farm. Luke, who embraced his call to adventure with Obi-Wan, avoids the immediate repercussions of a refusal, but must now carry on with the pain of their loss brought on by their attempts to dissuade him.

Nearly every Harry Potter book opens near the end of Harry's summer vacation with the Dursley's attempts to humiliate, hinder and/or discourage him from going back to Hogwarts. In every instance, some form of magical mischief overtakes them, providing a sense of karmic justice to their attempts to keep Harry from both his true nature and his destiny.

Refusal as a DM Tool

The reality of role playing is that the initial call to adventure has already been accepted when they decided to play and rolled up a character. Once that choice has been made, the rest of the experience is basically a series of choices about weather or not the PC should act. What a DM must consider is how far-reaching and personal the consequences the response to any given call is going to be.

It may be hard to conceptualize a response that must come from the PC's as being a 'tool' that can be wielded by the DM. While we as builders of an adventure or campaign may not hold the right of refusal that belongs to our players, we can learn to anticipate and prepare for those instances when they chose not to accept the call we provide them with. In fact, the abilities and responsibilities invested in the DM are such that we are more than capable of arranging and adapting events in such a way the predisposes PC's to act a certain way. A popular piece of advice for DM's is to have a recurring villain, someone who shows up and causes havoc and suffering for the PC's until, at the climax of the adventure, the heroes are able finally able to corner the villain and exact their revenge. But, really, what is really happening here? With each appearance of the villain, the PC's are being conditioned to hate, and possibly, attack him on sight.

What if the party surprises you and decides they would rather work with/for the villain, or try and help him reform (perhaps your players are into Restorative Justice)? More often then not, I'd wager that the DM does not give much thought to how the NPC's would react to this unexpected news, or what sort of encounters might occur as a result. It is important to understand that no one person could prepare for every potential nuance or variation along a theme. However, I propose that we can and should prepare ourselves - mentally, at least, if nothing else - for both positive (accepted) and negative (refused) responses to each call we present to our players.

Pondering Refusal
  • If the party refused to act at any point, what would happen to the adventure? Would it be totally derailed, or could you adjust accordingly?
  • Can you remember and/or envision a time that you expected - or even preferred - your PC's to decline a call to action?
  • What happens if there is a division in the party? How might a DM use that to build a more engaging experience?
  • Party's are generally rewarded/punished as a group. What if this was dealt with on an individual basis based on their choices? Is such a thing feasible or would it simply come across as unfair?
Earlier posts in this series

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

DnD: The Monomyth as a DM Tool, Part 1: The Call

I had originally intended to present the parts of the Monomyth the three groups: Departure, Initiation, and Return. However, as I began writing the first entry, and writing it . . . and writing it, I decided that perhaps each step warranted its own post.

As we explore each of the 17 aspects of the Monomyth (aka: The Hero's Journey) as a tool for DM's, we will use a four-fold approach: First, a brief description and elaboration of the aspect; Second, some examples taken from some of the most well-known and seminal works of adventure fiction - The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Star Wars (Episodes 4-6) by He Who Shall Not be Named, and perhaps a few random others as they apply; Third, we will explore how the aspect is used in RPG's and (hopefully) how it might be better implemented; Fourth and finally, some questions to get the gears turning.

The Call to Adventure

Arguably the most important aspect of the monomyth - and one that could generate a whole series of posts on it's own - the call is what pulls an individual into the adventure. The call comes to a protagonist while they exist in a state of familiarity and relative comfort and, through enticement or possibly even brute force, compels them to venture beyond it. The sense of contentment a hero may have has now been relocated - often geographically, but the shift might also be emotional, philosophical, mental, otherwise and/or some combination thereof - and must be found. As Campbell writes, "The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure . . . or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder ... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man."

Examples of The Call

In The Hobbit, Bilbo is swept into his adventure when Gandalf knocks on Bilbo's door and has him host a group of dwarves. Years later, his nephew, the easy-going Frodo, is also told to pack up and hit the road by Gandalf after the One Ring is left in his possession. Both Baggins enjoyed daydreaming about adventure, but were fairly content living in the Shire. Had Gandalf not held such influence over them, they likely would not have pursued their destinies in the larger world.

Sheltered, teen-aged moisture farmer Luke Skywalker stumbles upon a hidden recording in a dusty R2 unit he is cleaning which gets him thinking about the larger galaxy, though his uncle attempts to quickly put an end to the matter. It's not until the little droid takes it upon itself to seek out the intended recipient of the message, however, that he is compelled to act. In fact, the case could be made that Luke, who was simply trying to retrieve some lost property, was railroaded into his adventure.

Harry Potter has probably the easiest, most welcome call to adventure of all. He's stuck in a miserable existence with an Aunt and Uncle who are, at best, negligent - but more often than not, downright abusive, when his call to adventure comes pouring through every opening in the house and eventually, literally bursts through the door in the massive form of Hagrid. If anything, Harry's call comes as a huge relief and a release from what was, to that point, a meaningless, dreadful existence.

The Call as a DM Tool

Since the inception of role playing games, developers and game masters have been thinking of ways to engage - or 'hook' - their players and get them motivated at the prospect of putting their PC's in harm's way. When the PC's are just starting out on the adventuresome path, these hooks usually seem to boil down to three basic motivators: destiny, revenge, and boredom. Once the PC's have an adventure or two under their enchanted belts, simple greed can be added to the list, be it for money, magic, or experience points.

It is a generally accepted belief that any hook or call that relates in some personal way to a PC or group of PC's is better than having them approached by a random stranger in a tavern looking for some hack-happy handyman to rid her garden of dire bunnies. A problem arises, however, when a DM tries to make every problem in the campaign world revolve around the PC's. Before long, every time the heroes came into the town, the populate would either run from them in fear or mob up and lynch them for the calamity their existence was wreaking.

Thus, the challenge for the architect of an adventure or campaign is in finding or creating hooks that are meaningful and provocative to the PC's, while not necessarily revolving around or focusing specifically on them.

Pondering The Call
  • Campbell mentions that in some instances a hero stumbles across an opportunity or call that has nothing to do with them. How do you think your players would react in that situation?
  • What if the decision to answer the call was not an easy one to make? If the heroes risked more by undertaking an adventure than by avoiding it, would they still accept the call?
  • If an antagonist attempted to intercept or block the call from reaching the heroes, what would happen? Is there more than one way the same call could be sent?
  • What if the heroes received two different calls to action from two opposing influences? How might their choice shape the rest of their adventure/life?
  • How would adding a time element - an expiration, if you will - to the call affect the PC's perception of it? Would they be more or less likely to react if they knew a window of opportunity was going to close?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

DnD: The Monomyth as a DM Tool - Intro

Newbiedm made a blog post about a book titled The 36 Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti as a source of inspiration for DM's in need of adventure ideas. Looking over this excellent resource got me thinking about another writing resource that might provide some creative direction for DM's - the concept of the monomyth, as described by Joseph Cambell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Basically the monomyth structure begins with the hero - or heroes, as is more appropriate in a RPG context - living a normal life in what they recognize as the ordinary world, when they receive a call to enter the unknown, face trials and challenges, and then return with something they've gained along the way, using it to improve the world they left behind upon their return.

Campbell defined 17 stages of the journey, but it is important to note that not every journey has all 17 steps. In fact, some popular myths are only concerned with one or two of the stages while others deal with them in a different order.

What a DM needs to take from this is that the monomyth is a flexible concept - it can and should be altered as needed, rather than being treated as a rigid framework for creating campaigns and/or adventures.

Here is a short list of the 17 stages that comprise the Hero's Journey:

  • Departure
    • The Call
    • Refusing the Call
    • Supernatural Aid
    • Crossing the Threshold
    • Belly of the Whale
  • Initiation
    • Road of Trials
    • Meeting the Goddess
    • The Temptress
    • Atonement w/Father
    • Apotheosis
    • The Ultimate Boon
  • Return
    • Refusing to Return
    • Magic Flight
    • Rescue from Without
    • Crossing the Threshold
    • Master of Two Worlds
    • Freedom to Live
Over the next several posts, we will be looking at the three sections in more detail, and how each the 17 stages of the journey might contribute to the creation of a compelling role-playing experience it the scope of an adventure or campaign.

Monday, April 5, 2010

40K: Thoughts on the new BA Codex; Model Inventory

My History with the Blood Angels

I started playing Warhammer 40,000 some time during high school (1992-1996). Despite using a vanilla Marine army at the time, I was really struck by some of the fluff scattered throughout the three books that came in the 2nd edition box set (Rulebook, Wargear, Codex Imperialis) - particularly that of the Blood Angels.

Upon graduating and heading off to college, I fell out of the hobby - though I kept all my old models at home. Sometime in or around 2000, I picked up the Blood Angels Supplement to the Space Marines Codex that had been released in 1998. I wasn't crazy (pardon the pun) with the new rules for the Red Thirst and Black Rage, as I felt that it sort of tarnished the noble image of the Chapter in my mind - but perhaps that was the point? However, I was still a fan and loved the bright red color scheme that just jumped up in an opponent's face and said "Hey! I'm right here and I'm coming for you!"

When the 2007 'Codex' came out in White Dwarf, I had since shelved the Blood Angels and had been focused on painting and playing Dark Eldar, determined to hone both my army and myself into notable presence at my local game store. I got it, of course, and even printed the whole thing out, but the codex felt incomplete. There really weren't any new models aside from the Baal Predator. Besides, I was having too much fun being the only DE player in the area - even managed a nice little win streak for a while - certainly winning more than I had trying to play the Blood Angels as an inexperienced on-again/off-again wargamer.

So now, still playing DE and trying to get an Ork army painted up, the Blood Angels have a new Codex. I got it the first day it hit the shelves and am in the process of putting the whole thing into a spreadsheet (screw Army Builder and their ridiculous licensing!). Having read it, I can honestly say that, despite a few issues, I missed these crimson-clad, blood-craving maniacs and am now thinking of putting my poor Orks aside to once again fight for the Emperor.

Thoughts on the Codex

There are countless other sites with people more experienced in the game to read about the stats and specific rule changes in the new codex and how they affect the chapter. These quick thoughts (gripes?) are more concerned with fluff and the Blood Angels as a whole:

Hate the cover. Why didn't the use the art on page 4 instead? It's much nicer.

Tycho is dead. Let him go, or at least put him in a Dreadnought. Did Leman Russ show up in the most recent Space Wolves Codex - have their players moved on yet?

Speaking of named Dreadnoughts: Moriar is mentioned in the fluff, but no stats are given this time.

Did they really have to ret-con the history of the Imperium (where BA are concerned) in order to shoehorn in as many references to the new Stormraven as possible? At some point, I think it's okay to say "They developed a new vehicle." The Dark Age of Technology can't realistically last forever - not if the Imperium is going to have any chance at staying alive.

What exactly is the Sanguinor? He's not the Primarch, or the Chapter's Master. He kinda reminds me of Rafen's brother Arkio from the Blood Angel novels by James Swallow - only, y'know, not twisted into a daemonic parody of their Primarch.

Seems like we now have 4 groups of "the most experienced/accomplished/elite" Marines in the chapter: Terminators, Veterans, Honor Guard, and Sanguinary Guard. Gonna run out of superlatives by next edition.

Concerning Successor chapters (all on page 54): The Flesh-Tearers are "divorced" from the rest of Mankind; the Angels Vermillion "shun all contact with the Brother Chapters"; the Angels Sanguine "never remove their helms save in the privacy of their fortress monastery"; the Lamenters "barely survived the repercussions of aligning themselves with the Astral Claws during the Badab War"; and the Knights of Blood have been declared rogue by the High Lords of Terra, being "unwelcome allies at best." How is it that the Imperium hasn't tried to kill them all by now?

The winged Jump Packs will take some getting used to. Also, the Sanguinary Masks are uncomfortably similar to the old Lemartes model and the Angelus Bolters sit a little high for my liking. I bet the next versions of these models will be awesome.

If the Blood Angels are vampires, the Space Wolves are werewolves, and the Necrons are (sort of) mummies . . . does that make the Adeptus Mechanicus Frankenstein's Monster? What about the Fishman? Tau, perhaps.

Current Inventory of BA models

Still in Box (Un-assembled/Unpainted)
1 x Land Raider Crusader
3 x 5-man Assault Marine Combat Squads
1 x Captain (Black Reach)
1 x 10-man Tactical Squad (Black Reach)

Assembled, but Unpainted
1 x 5-man Terminator Squad
1 x Dreadnaught

Assembled & Basecoated
1 x Vindicator
2 x 10-man Tactical Squads

Table-ready (more or less)
1 x 6-man Scout Squad (4 x Sniper Rifles, 1 x HB, 1 x Sgt.)
11 Death Company (Jump Packs) w/Chaplain (Plasma Pistol, Jump Pack)
1 x 5-man Terminator Squad (1 x AC, 1 x Cyclone ML)
1 5-man Combat Squad (Bolters, Helmets painted as Heavy Support)
1 x Furioso Dreadnaught (metal, no base)
1 x Landspeeder (HB)
2 x Landspeeder Tornado (1 x HB, 1 x AC each)
1 x Librarian (Power Weapon, Plasma Pistol)
4 x Honor Guard (2 x Power weapons, 1 x Meltagun, 1 x Chainsword)
1 x Apothecary (Power Weapon)
1 x Razorback (1 x TL Lascannon or HB; old model)
3 x Rhinos (old models)
1 x Predator Annihilator (1 x Autocannon [turret], 2 x Lascannon [sponsons]; old model)
1 x Veteran Sgt. (Power Fist, Plasma Pistol; metal)
1 x Tactical Marine w/Missile Launcher

Thursday, April 1, 2010

DnD: Soduku Trap Room

Dunno if this has been done before, but I'm so desperate to get something up this week, I'm running with it. I'm calling this the Soduku Room because of the way I set up the triggers. If anyone has a better suggestion for a name, I'd be happy to entertain it - I did, however, opt to use a more accurately descriptive name for the stat block below.


The room is 100' square and 10' high. There are no furnishings and the walls, floor and ceiling are all fashioned out of relatively smooth stone. Both the floor and the ceiling have a simple tile pattern applied to them, mirroring each other. Aside from the doorway through which the room is entered - a simple door-sized hole sunk into the wall - the only other feature is another door located on the opposite wall, the same in appearance as the entrance.

Operation & Stats

When the PC's enter the room, certain portions of the floor are pressure sensitive. Once stepped on, a corresponding section of the ceiling somewhere in the room will come crashing down - revealing itself to be a sold block of stone. Once triggered, the column remains where it has fallen, it will not reset while the PC's are in the room.

Options and Variations

To enhance this experience, populate the room with monsters who move around a lot, drawing the PC's further into the room and risking harm to their comrades. Skirmishers should work nicely.

Depending on how nice or cruel you are, you might want the monsters to know which tiles will trigger each section and use that against the PC's. The monster(s) could either already be in the room, or come rushing in when they hear the first rock column come crashing down.

Alternatively, you could use hovering and/or insubstantial monsters - Stirges or Ghosts, for example - who would not trigger the traps to draw the PC's attention away from where they are stepping.

Instead of simply having the doors slam shut to lock the PC's in the room until they 'solve' it, consider having the rock columns fall in front of the entrance and/or exit to the room.

Have a series of rooms like this, with the triggers and columns set-up in different locations. You could require that all the columns be safely triggered in one room before allowing the PC's to progress to the next. You might want to set them up in a meaningful pattern - at the same time, you don't want it to be too obvious which tiles are trapped and which are not.

Hide something in one (or all) of the rock columns.

The size of the room and the number of traps in it are easy to change.