Monday, August 13, 2018

What Are Hedge Knights?

Since Changeling the Lost: Second Edition eschewed Entitlements, and my current chronicle hinges heavily on the existence of the Margravate of the Brim, I decided to rewrite the entitlement with my own spin.

The Hedge Knights live on the edge of Changeling society, that no man's land between Freeholds and the Hedge. They are sworn to no Courts, but have a duty to protect their lands. This duty is typically expressed through the following routines, all performed in the Brim:

  • Rooting out the Bastions of Huntsmen
  • Rescuing captured mortals and Changelings before they reach Arcadia
  • Escorting escapees to safe grounds
  • Foiling the operations of Loyalists and Privateers
  • Questing to put Hedge Ghosts to rest
  • Negotiating with or putting down errant Hobgoblins

Despite the noble tasks Hedge Knights perform, they are hated by the Freeholds. Some think that the Knights' flaunting about in the Brim attracts trouble in the first place. Others believe the Knights see themselves as a Court outside the Freehold, establishing fiefdoms they have no right to claim. Still others believe the Knights are prone to Loyalism and madness due to their proximity to the Hedge and the fiends that lurk within.

In reality, Hedge Knights take the oath for a multitude of reasons. Some did not fit with Freeholds for one reason or another, and found themselves taking the Knighthood after they were exiled, overwhelmed by Freehold life, or acted out of need for agency. An overwhelming majority want to ensure that mortals don't experience what they endured, and that none of their kin are stolen back by their Keepers. A select few - much like a soldier out of war - found their lives empty without the rush of survival and the horrible beauties of the other side. Whatever the reason, Knights typically take up the mantle due to some dysfunction with mortal life. It's for this reason - in addition to the nature of the job itself - that Hedge Knights are most prone to lapses in Clarity.

Because of the tolls life on the Brim takes on the body and mind, only those Changelings who prove their mettle and worth through extensive hazing become Hedge Knights. Upon swearing the oath, a Knight dons a raiment of secondhand clothing and rags, staining their Mask with grit and grime and dust, accenting their callouses and scars and the bags under their eyes. The homeless who don't panhandle and the day-laborers who never leave their corners could very well be Hedge Knights. Knights live on the Brim, often in residences shared with their assigned Motley that are like to befit their new Masks.

The oath sworn by Hedge Knights bestow the following effects:

  • Once per chapter, they can treat a Contract roll as a teamwork action with their assigned Motley.
  • Members of an assigned Motley can meditate for one turn to distribute their collective Glamour evenly among its members, leftover Glamour consumed as a tithe.
  • When a Knight enters a Freehold, they get a fresh instance of the Notoriety Condition.
  • While in the Brim, a Knight gets +1 Initiative, +1 Perception (including the Wits + Composure rolls made to detect surprise attacks), and +1 to Stealth.

Hooks

  • Increased border friction or certain political gaffes has made war between the Knights and the Freeholds a marked possibility. Whether the impending conflict is over shifting territory, resources, dishonored pledges, relative power, even social slights, the tension is palpable and the situation delicate.
  • The Knights' numbers are dwindling, and a recruitment drive is instated. Allowing just anyone into the ranks invites weakness and conspiracy, let alone the logistical nightmare of managing such a mass of greenhorns.
  • A Knight has hostile relations within the Motley they are assigned to. A Motley goes AWOL, either to carouse, steal valor for a deed they shouldn't perform on their own, or for a bit of Privateering.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Campaigns Past and Present

This post is a living document that overviews the tabletop roleplaying campaigns I'm currently running, or have run to completion. Playing tabletop roleplaying games is all about creating memories of things that never happened, and it is those memories I hope to immortalize here, if only for the players involved.

Hedge Knights (2018 - Now)

System: Changeling: the Lost 2e

Faeries are real. They steal mortals into their alien realm of Arcadia, where those mortals are altered and tortured to suit their needs. Some mortals escape Arcadia, only to find themselves changed and fascimilies of themselves living their lives. Many Changelings band together in Freeholds to protect themselves from the Huntsmen intent on dragging them back, but some join the Hedge Knights. The characters patrol the border between our world and theirs, a first line of defense and underground railroad, unloved by the very Freeholds they risk capture to defend.

Voodoo Venators (2017 - Now)

System: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Named after the sex dungeon this game is run out of, the players are members of a secret organization of Catholic Inquisitors who hunt down cults and demons lurking in the shadows of 17th century Europe. The Venators harness blessed contraptions, occult objects, and their own wits to smite those who would praise Satan under whatever names he chooses.

Breaking Bread (2017)

System: The Burning Wheel

Down-on-their-luck peasants in a sprawling city band together against local gangs and corrupt guards in order to save their business ventures. They hold weekly meetings in the basement of a bakery, pooling together their resources and influences for the greater good. But the peasants' collusion borne from necessity quickly becomes organized crime as their greed and hunger for power drives them to become the very forces of oppression they were fighting against.

Out of the Abyss (2016 - 2017)

System: Dungeons & Dragons 5e

A playthrough of Out of the Abyss, a grand campaign published by Wizards of the Coast. The adventurers escape their Drow captors and claw their way out of the Underdark, only to return years later to stop a demonic plot. In a trial not unlike Dante's Inferno, the adventurers descend into madness, and the only way out is through.

The Chicken Hut Saga (2016)

System: Fiasco

The Sczidisky crime family has members in every city, town, and RV park in America. Their only real competitor is Chicken Hut, a fast food franchise so powerful they have elected officials to Congress. In a series of zany misadventures that can only be described as "Shadowrun: McDonalds," the Sczidiskys see their attempts to pull the rug out from under Big Chicken backfire spectacularly.

Estrado Zero (2015)

System: Call of Cthulhu

Contractors from around the world are hired by a Colombian civil engineering firm with the goal of solving the city's problems with crime, poverty, and infrastrucutre. As the contractors begin to dig deeper in Bogotá, they discover a class of "undesirables" driven literally underground by paramilitary death squads. They soon find themselves trapped between these groups' violent bids for exclusive rights to an alien realm they know nothing about.

Conscription (2014)

System: FATE-powered LARP

In a world of diesel and dragons, the last regiments of a conquered nation are forced underground into a state-of-the-art bunker to avoid total eradication at the hands of the Empire. That was two years ago. Resources are running low, space is at a premium, and tensions between different factions are running high. With no end to captivity in sight, the players have to answer the ultimate question: how do you want to die?

Blue Mountain (2013)

System: New World of Darkness (Mortals)

Blue Mountain is a small midwestern town outside Ellison, Colorado where broken people go to live out the rest of their lives in peace. That peace is shattered when the Satanists who meet at the mansion on the hill begin to drag locals from their beds for sacrifice. The select few who rise up in revolt quickly discover their quiet mountain lives were never their choice, but the will of the very cosmos.

Storytelling Shortcuts

When I'm writing for any of my campaigns, I rely on the lists below to make sure I'm on the right track. Some of these lists are mine, and some of them aren't; I figured I'd post them here so I can reference them on the go, and so others might glean some use from them as well.

Sinking the Hook

  • Mysterious: Something is not behaving how it should.
  • Tantalizing: The promise of reward.
  • Urgency: Things are happening to the players.

Hex Design

  • Gazette: What's the hex like at first glance?
  • Investigation: What is the hex revealed to be when you start poking around?
  • Leads: What rumors will the locals tell you, both true and false? Use these as hooks.
  • Landmarks: What gives you a sense of place in this hex?
  • Naturalisms: Things that have to be in the hex for it to feel like a logical, real area.

Designing a Location

  • Familiar: Has a reference point in reality.
  • Functional: Why was it used for, and what did it become?
  • Fantastic: Give it that extra kick, a dash of spice.

The Five Room Dungeon

Note that you can nest these into each other, or scale them to cover anything from the rooms in a house to the acts of a larger campaign.

  • Guardian: Why don't people come here?
  • RP/Puzzle: Forces players to stretch their muscles.
  • Trick/Setback: Raise those stakes!
  • Climax: The purpose you made this place to serve.
  • Reward/Revelation: A plot twist at the end of the road.

How Tarantino Writes a Scene

  • In Media Res: Start with a verb in-progress.
  • The Pledge: A lede that promises the players a certain something will happen.
  • Conflict: Each scene is predicated on some burning question.
  • Subtext: Treat the mind's eye as a movie camera.
  • Suspense: The process of a possibility becoming a certainty.
  • The Big Release: A violent release of tension built up over hours.

Dan Harmon's Story Circle

Create a scene or five-room dungeon for each point in the circle to create a complete story arc. Or, make sure a set of scenes or a single five-room dungeon hit every point in the circle to create a single cohesive chapter in a story.

  1. The characters are in a zone of comfort,
  2. but they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
  4. and adapt to it.
  5. They get what they want,
  6. but pay a heavy price for it.
  7. They then return to their familiar situation,
  8. having changed.

Things You Can't Shortcut

  • System Mastery: With a solid grasp on the system, the sky is your limit.
  • Statblocks: Rooting things in the mechanics gives them actual weight.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Pavlovian Storytelling

I've been engrossed in Grim Dawn lately, and it's caused me to reflect on effective reward systems in tabletop roleplaying games. Video games like Grim Dawn and the Diablo series are compelling because they activate our lizard-brains: get shinier and shinier loot to make those numbers grow higher and higher. Old-school Dungeons & Dragons is the progenitor of this mentality with its ingenious Gold-for-XP system, the loss of which causing every edition after 2nd to rely on power fantasy for its own sake.

Although such reward systems are proven to be effective, they have the inherent problem of not being transactional; that is, they reward you only for taking from the game world, not for giving back. This is why I'm so enthralled with The Burning Wheel, the Chronicles of Darkness, and similar tabletop roleplaying games: they have mastered the art of tying narrative progression to the rush of serotonin we've always associated with a "ding!"

Let's break down an example from Chronicles of Darkness. Its experience points are called "beats," meant to evoke the smallest division of action possible in a story. Characters get beats by acting on conditions received in play in ways that propel the story forward; for example, a character with the "Shaken" condition get a beat when they flub a roll at an important moment due to their frayed nerves. If you want to game the advancement system in Chronicles of Darkness you have to learn how to tell a good story.

Using these types of systems is the only reliable way I've found to engage every player, every time. It never ceases to amaze me how willing a normally shy player is to talk in a goofy accent or how eager a player is willing to put five pages of single-spaced backstory in jeopardy when buying that next talent in the tree is on the line!

It's a dirty trick, really: exploit your players' limbic systems to make your games write themselves.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Merits, Revised

I prefer the New World of Darkness to the Chronicles of Darkness, but appreciate the latter's revised Merits, so I stole them and rewrote them to be compatible with the former, throwing in a formatting overhaul for ease of reference.

Click here to view a PDF of the Revised NWoD Merits.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Burning Wheel Bible

Learning Burning Wheel — the Swiss watch of roleplaying games — is a daunting task. The Burning Wheel Bible consolidates the Hub of the Wheel into a menu of selectable moves that drive the game forward, providing a unified approach for new and experienced players alike.

Click here to view a PDF of the Burning Wheel Bible.

Showing Up

"Showing Up" is the stepdown speech I gave at Colorado Leather Fest 2017 before passing on the mantle of Mr. Leather Colorado. I also gave an abbreviated version of this speech after placing in the Top 20 at International Mr. Leather in 2018.

Anyone at Voodoo Leatherworks can tell you that I am a different horse than the one who first stepped through those doors five years ago. It took me three tries, you know; I would sit in my car for about fifteen minutes, grappling with my social anxiety, exposed to a level of vulnerability I’d never experienced before. Then I’d drive away. I did that three on different nights, in three different months.

Running for Mr. Leather Colorado felt a lot like that: sitting in the parking lot starting at a set of doors. Except you’re not in a parking lot, you’re in a hotel room, and the only way out is the door. And your extended Leather family – who you love and respect beyond expression – is waiting on the other side. Events like this are all about the woo, and they’ve got a tub full of it, and they’re going to drown you in it.

I think a little hazing is important in title contests, because competing for a title is a ritual of metamorphosis. You are figuratively – and in some cases, literally – stripped down to your barest essentials, and your peers put you back together as the you that they see, the you that they know you can be.

Our own Don C. told me that “the you that you are now can be a titleholder.” Because this metamorphosis is something that can happen to anyone. All it takes is showing up. Everyone is capable of showing up, but that doesn’t mean everyone does.

Showing up means taking initiative, picking up the ball and running with it even if it isn’t your ball. It means being present – both physically and mentally – even when you have all the excuses in the world not to be. It means maintaining your integrity, living out your values by example even when doing so is inconvenient or painful. Most importantly, it means being authentic, even if the world around you says you don’t belong.

Do you have to hold a title to show up? Of course not. Are you able to show up 24/7? You can certainly try. Do you have to be the loudest person in the room to show up? Not at all. But what I learned during my title year is that you can make great changes in yourself, the people around you, your community, and the world at large by showing up.

All it takes is to walk through those doors. And if you do, we will follow.

I want to take a second to thank:

  • My family at House Thorns for their invaluable mentorship and support.
  • Voodoo Leatherworks and its membership body for creating the home I’ve always yearned for.
  • My title brothers and sisters for undergoing this incredible journey with me.
  • Michael H. for figuring out what the hell to do with a guy who dresses up like a horse.
  • Master Prophyt for pulling me off that couch and into the rest of my life.
  • The Rocky Mountain Pony Herd for being the horses they want to see in the world.
  • My Dad for instilling in me my most important values.
  • And my Mom. Your love and passion ignited in me a fire that I have dedicated my life to igniting in others.

Superhorse logo by James Newland!