Emergent Storytelling

Even more important than permanent character death, emergent, or "organic" story and game-play progression, is a key ingredient of classic-style role-playing games.  Over the years, this has become something that has been lost to a great extent in gaming, both on the table and computer.  Why do we continue, year after year, to accept interactive entertainment to become less and less interactive like novels or movies?

Over the past week I've started playing the original Fallout, released by Interplay in 1997, for the very first time.  Now, you may be asking why it took me so long to try this game out.  The answer really boils down to  the setting; I've never been a big post-apocalyptic fan, both in movies and games.  It's not that I don't think that survival in a harsh, desolate environment isn't a cool concept, but it starts to become, not only depressing, but a little too near to home.  Fantasy has both good and evil, heroes and villains, with every shade of the rainbow in between.  Dystopian settings, on the other hand, are simply varying shades of gray and black (visually too).  It's simply a little too much darkness for my tastes.

Because of this barrier to entry, I unfortunately never had a chance to witness some of the never-done-since mechanics in this game.  Fallout (and from what I'm hearing about its sequel) is one of the most open-ended sandbox CRPGs ever made.  From start to finish, there are almost zero barriers, as far as tasks that can be completed in which order, and how they can be carried out.  Now, if it only ended there, I could cite several other games that could also claim that crown like MorrowindGothic II, Ultima 7 and a few others from the 80s (incredible games in their own right).

But Fallout takes it a step further.  Not only does this game provide a highly deep and open world to experience, but almost every action taken has a very tangible effect on everything else.  One of the early examples (I say "early" only if you decide to go where most do at first) of this takes place during a meeting with an important, and powerful NPC who leads a town.  In 99% of video games, such a figure would be either A) impossible to kill (has some sort of invincibility flag, or is uber strong), or B) scripted to be killed, or C) would summon some sort of unbeatable guard/wizard trope to take you down the instant that you tried to kill him.  I would shocked to find out that none of these scenarios was the case.

After just a few moments upon meeting him the first time, an assassin enters the room and blows him away.  Dead.  Yes, I had a choice to either kill the assassin or help him, but I decided to play neutral (you know, expecting the "story" to play out artificially like other games).  But, here's the real kicker: the assassin doesn't always win.  The battle's outcome is 100% natural, with no scripted flags to indicate invincibility or anything like that.  Either party can die.  When I saw this the first time, I was shocked.  Here's an NPC with his own 3D rendered video animation conversation sequence, he is entangled in various political quest-lines, and sells some of the most powerful equipment in the early game (as far as I've seen thus far).  And the game, not me, the game decides to kill him.

So because of his death, the entire political balance in the town is turned upside down.  Other factions now have a chance to rise to the top, closing several doors, but leading your character through new ones.  How many other games do this?  Yes, you can murder Caius Cosades in Morrowind, but all that does is hamper his quest-line, it changes nothing other than that.  Check for similar situations in Baldur's Gate.

What I've witnessed here was an emergent story, one that happened directly because of my action (or inaction).  I'm just in the early part of this game, but I see evidence of this in other places.  If you're rude to someone, word quickly gets around town that you're a jerk and vice-versa, if you show a little kindness, you'll find everyone else reacting positively - prices will be cheaper and quests will open while others will close.  Dialogue plays out dramatically different depending on such factors, as well as your character's intelligence and charisma.

What is a story?  The most basic and vanilla definition is a recounting of a sequence of events.  But, story has come to mean a little more - it should recount a sequence of events that have had some sort of impact upon someone or something.  "I brushed my teeth, tied my shoes, and drove my car to work" is a sequence of events, but not really a "story", at least not one anyone cares to hear or changed anyone's life.  Now, a good story means it had some kind of meaning or result that came from it.  But don't get that confused with it needing to be a positive result.

Stories in games and other forms of media today have come to mean things that turn out the way the author wants.  It's a story that he designed to happen a certain way and we're supposed to enjoy it.  Such stories can be entertaining and hold our interest for a time, but to be impacting upon our being, they must relate somehow to our own personal lives directly.  When  I was about 14, I had such an experience the first time my best friend and I played Final Fantasy II on the Super NES.  I found a lot to relate to with the characters and their struggles and my own life at the time, entering puberty and struggling as a young teenager.  I'll never forget the moment that the grown-up, Rydia shows up, once thought dead or lost, just in time to save the party during an important battle in the later part of the game.  That game had a very cathartic experience for me, because I found a strong relationship between the story and my own life.

If you don't have that connection to one's personal life in a story, your story is far less impacting.  At that point, it is simply a passing fancy, to be enjoyed with a bowl of popcorn and then forgotten.  So how does my experience with Fallout and other games embracing emergent story relate to this?  Because games like this tell stories through the player and his actions, a way to almost always guarantee that you create such impacting moments.  Such stories have nothing to do with "a good ending" or "good acting" or "good writing", they can often be the most boring events to third-parties, but they are wholly engaging to the person experiencing because it involved their own personal life.

Learn to run your tabletop games to encourage your players to find relatable stories that they create themselves.  So what if YOUR story is ruined.  This isn't about your story.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we're there to beholden ourselves to the tickling fancy of someone's whims.  We're there to embrace the idea that our best and most rewarding story is when our carefully crafted stage is used by others in ways we never predicted.  Just like character death, it is not wrong to allow something to happen that is negative, because many of the greatest stories are found when things don't always go just right.  A good ending isn't necessarily the good guys finally triumphing over the bad guys, a good ending is the impacting, possibly life-changing, memory that the player will take with him.


Review: "Dawn of the Dragon Slayer"

I'm always on the lookout for movies, games or books that encapsulate Classic D&D well.  I had the chance to watch Dawn of the Dragon Slayer over the weekend on Netflix.  Yes, it's a relatively low budget B movie, so before you even read more, set your standards appropriately.  There's nothing I hate more than those who put these films on the same level as the Hollywood stuff.  Money can buy you a lot of shortcuts.

The first thing I noticed about this film is that the acting, screenplay and camera work was pretty darn good.  You can tell from the start that a lot of love went into making it, this wasn't simply a cash grab movie to appeal to the hungry masses, other than the title and marketing.  And that's the thing, this is barely a movie about killing dragons, and much more about the personal journey of a young man to find himself.  But before I get into why I feel this is a true D&D movie, through and through, I want to discuss some of the cosmetics.

The entire movie is filmed in Ireland, and the locations and cinematography is breathtaking.  For nothing else, watch this movie for the natural eye candy.  The protagonist's journey takes him across beautiful ocean cliffs, solitary meadows and valleys, and through foggy mooreland.  The meat and potatoes of the movie takes place at and around a real castle fortification.  I thought this was a wonderful choice rather than setting up a phony prop.  The entire movie takes you out of your living room and makes you feel like you're really wandering the emerald isle.

The artists really outdid themselves with the costume work.  It was very, very good.  In nearly every scene, the main characters are depicted wearing something even more exquisite than the last.  A lot of love and attention went into the clothing and make-up to make it feel, both creative and authentic for the time.  Among indie fantasy movies, this area is often glossed over or overdone so much as to become distasteful.  Watching each scene is a treat for the eyes.

Special effects were done very well also, in that they were used very sparingly and only out of necessity.  The most jarring thing for me in these lower budget films is the hastily, and often poorly used, CG.  Beautiful vistas are instantly marred when a clunky special effect comes out of nowhere taking you out of the mood.  The dragon takes up most of the digital art effects, but it usually only appears at a distance or not at all.  It's a breath of fresh air to see movies that refrain from splattering us with digital gimmickry that all too often ruins modern film.

I won't give out the story synopsis, but this is not exactly your standard "zero to hero" narrative path that we often see in other movies.  This gets right at the meat of what I want to discuss with this film, and why it's a good representative of the old school game.  First of all, the main character, Will, starts off like most other heroes.  His family has been ravaged by the dragon, and he's been given an opportunity by his now deceased father to make a name for himself by hiring himself on as a land lord's servant on another part of the island.  Suffice it to say that Will goes through many of the early bumps and bruises that early heroes experience.  But then something interesting happens, the cathartic moment of "now he's made it", never really comes.

We expect our protagonists in our movies, books and games to suddenly jump out of their weak skins and turn into super heroes at some point.  This trope is so common that when we see a story where this doesn't happen it's actually jarring - in a good way.  You see, about half way through the film, Will finally gets his chance to turn himself into something - on more than one occasion actually.  [SPOILERS] He is offered the chance to duel a visiting noble in sword combat in front of his employer and his hot daughter.  He fails, miserably.  He then gets a chance to kill the dragon and defend the castle on his own.  He fails again.  He gets into a fight with the other house hands.  Yep, he gets his butt kicked.

Now, it's about this time in most movies, where the protagonist finally proves that he's more than just a simple farmer.  It's at this point in most films where the protagonist impresses his boss, goes on to impress the king, slays the dragon and gets the girl.  Not here.  Will starts training at this point, yet even after, he's still gets his butt kicked by everyone (just a little less so).  But even after all of these failures, he becomes a hero because he perseveres - because he never gives up.  In the face of failure, he learns to not hide from it, but to spit in its face.  He earns the girl's heart because of not winning, but losing with style.  I like that.

This is Classic D&D to me.  This is a classic story of a 0 level common farmer who ends up in the end, not at level 16, but at level 1.   It's great to see a movie that doesn't need to lie to its audience about what real heroes are made of.  It's an important lesson for us even in our real life; most of us will never become super men to everyone because we win at everything, but we can become super men to the ones around us who are the most important by our persistence and effort in the face of failure.

I enjoyed this movie, the pacing becomes a little stretched out in the middle, but it really has the whole package and a nice template for a good D&D setting or campaign.  Things are a little bleak, life is unfair, monsters and magic are very rare, and there is no guarantee of success.  Oh, and this is definitely wife or girlfriend approved.  It's got all the signature tropes of a british drama, and enough to keep the fanasy buffs entertained.  Don't go in expecting it to be anything like what comes out of Hollywood, but among the low budget fantasy scene, this is definitely a notch above the rest.


Education & Work Rant

I apologize, but I'm going to take a break from my standard fantasy theme today and spend a little time ranting and raging about standardized tests (among other things).  To put it bluntly: I hate them.  In fact, I wholly detest the methods used throughout any kind of formalized "schooling" whether it be prep, University undergrad or post-grad study.  Let me give a little back story first.

I graduated with a BS degree (such a fitting acronym) in 2006 with a composite Computer Science Major and a Spanish Minor.  Because I took off two years for humanitarian service in Peru for 24 months, it took me six full years to graduate.  That's a whole lot of money spent, and a whole lot of slave work given to "those who can't," professors.  Other than the ridiculous piece of paper I got in the mail, the entire process was a complete waste of time.  I graduated in my field not knowing how to run a "grep" or even how to concatenate two string variables.  The last semester of school, the financial department made a mistake and billed me an extra $600 or so, which they had promised a few months earlier wouldn't happen.  To add insult to injury, the first six weeks of my first web developer job had nothing, NOTHING, to do with the garbage education I received in college.  It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to learn to code.  But even then, I learned more about programming in just a couple months than all my education time put together.

Since then, I've been a full-time web developer between two different companies and have done quite a few side projects along the way.  I feel pretty proficient at this point, something I've obtained almost entirely on my own accord.  The entire educational system is terribly flawed, in fact, it's really become nothing more than a propaganda tool.  No, I'm not a government conspiracy believer or anything like that (more of a conspiracy "agnostic"), but I feel that the system has turned into nothing more than a way for a bunch of lazy, dumb people to feel good about themselves by torturing students.  Seriously.  I once took an elective from the non-tenured (read: bottom-tiered) robotics teacher who taught me more in one semester about C programming than I had gotten from all of my PHD "Computer Science" teachers combined in the rest of the six years.  He was the single bright spot in my education.

So "standardized education" segue-ways into standardized testing and what brought me to rant about this today.  I have recently been on the lookout for a new job in my field.  I've been with my current company for 5 years and feel I've far outgrown it.  Now, first of all, I totally get employers wanting to weed out the wheat from the chaff.  In my current company, I often participate in interviews with potential candidates to "test" them with some simple code questions.  When you're sitting in the room with them, "feeling them out" so to speak, I don't see anything wrong with getting a general idea of their capabilities from them.  That's fine.  But the problem arises from employers treating potential employees like college students and handing out these robotic tests.

So I have been asked by a few employers to take some of these online tests to judge my skill in the field, one of which I took very recently.  I don't even know where to begin with how idiotic this thing was.  First of all, at least 50% of the questions could be answered almost precisely by doing a basic Google search on the topic.  The test uses Javascript to detect if you're trying to open other browser windows to cheat which can be defeated by simply turning off Javascript or simply using a separate computer.   Nearly all of the rest of the code can be narrowed down pretty easily by the same method.

Now, you might be thinking, "well an employer probably knows you'll cheat and adjust the test accordingly". Wow, that's scientific!  Give these guys a cookie, I've just got to work with such geniuses!  Except it's not.  Some of us may feel that because they're adjusting the test for cheaters, we won't cheat or we will purposefully answer incorrectly to put our score in realistic territory.  Or perhaps, the employers will believe that we're overcompensating and expect us to do this...and...and...and...someone shoot me if I have to take one of these things again.  So that's #1.  The test proves practically nothing other than the fact that someone may not know that Google exists.  

Secondly, many of these questions are just awful, and many are designed to trick you.  You see, in this test, nearly everything I came across were ultra-obscure methods, functions or operators, not only unnecessary, but some were outright terrible coding choices.  So what happens is you begin to over-think everything, wondering if this is just another mind trick.  

For example, PHP has a function called, eval().  This came up and was used in one question.  Now, this function technically CAN work if used carefully, but it is an extremely poor choice to use when executing code.  In other words, there is honestly no situation on planet Earth where you need to use this because it can create so many other problems.  So among the answers there was the correct result (if this was used right) and a "syntax error" result.  So it gets you thinking, are they trying to hint that the correct answer is "syntax error" because this is a terrible choice of a function to use?  Or are they literally looking for a correct answer and actually think this is a good function choice?

So this brings up another thing about these tests.  In the real world, if someone brought up some code like that to use, I'd tell them to throw it in the trash and buy me lunch for a week for even attempting to pass it off to me.  But obviously you can't say that to the computer!  You've got to play their stupid games to give some developer who wrote the cursed thing, his kicks and giggles.  And that pisses me off more than anything else.  I'd love to punch the guy in the nose who came up with this stuff.

So most of this test had crap like this sprinkled throughout.  Another question used global variables.  Now I've been doing this stuff long enough to know that globals are amateur code, they NEVER EVER need to be used in any sized project.  They are instant security loopholes, they are spaghetti code, and they are messy things.  Am I supposed to take this question seriously?  Or are they trying to hint that this is a poor coding choice and select the "syntax error" answer again?  Who knows!

It's really insulting to me that before I'm even allowed to talk to anybody, I'm required to take these joke tests that does absolutely nothing for the employer.  There is pervasive culture of egomaniacs in the programming community.  People love to talk a big talk about all the obscure frameworks, libraries and functions that exist in the field that they feel they are good at.  Trust me on this, most of these things are completely unnecessary for good software design, be it desktop or web.  So you have the OOP fanatics who will "epeen" all day long about how this method or that method is so incredibly superior to procedural code when the arguments are pure hogwash.  I wrote this up just as a small example to illustrate much of the idiocy in OOP.  Good procedural design is proven to be faster than OOP, and can be just as expandable, modular, and accessible as the latter.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

It's pretty common knowledge that the IT field is full of social rejects.  I worked with several teams of guys who lived with mommy, left their workstation full of mountain dew cans and pizza boxes.  They could never complete a project on time, were always late or absent, but BOY could they code when they felt like it.  Guys like this would ace these tests, if he got off his butt to actually apply for a job in the first place.  So you have the perfect framework for people who feel the need to overcompensate or "prove" something to the world.  Their social lives are messed up, so they get praise for their jargon and making sure you know they are smarter than you (even when they really aren't).

I believe that many employers in this field are filled with guys like this from top to bottom.  They'd probably like to hire a few programmers, but wouldn't have a problem bringing guys in to "show them up" just for fun.  That's where these absurd tests come in.  These are tiny people, who are lacking in so many areas in their life that they have the need to bring others down to their level to make themselves feel better.  

I worked for a couple years with a guy like this.  Socially retarded, but brilliant when it came to actually coding.  After months and months of taking his (undeserved) superiority complex, I had finally had it.  I found some of his code was full of errors and jokingly let his superior know about it.  When he heard that I had accused him of poor coding practices, he was crushed.  He missed work over the next couple of days and refused to speak with me for several weeks.

This is the key with dealing with these kind of people.  I've learned some important lessons in this field.  99% of programmers I've met are mostly faking it, in fact the same could be said for nearly every "successful" inividual.  Oh, many have got the lingo down real well.  They use this as a bully scare tactic, or, "don't even dare questioning my superiority".  They use this as a facade to hide their weaknesses and it is absolutely amazing how many smart people fall for it.  Visiting web forums, I encounter guys like this all the time, many of which have BSd their way into moderator positions and have half the community supporting their garbage.  When one of these kind of people tries to push you, you've got to hit them where it hurts most - where *they* feel they are strong.  You've got to stand up to them or they'll walk all over you with their phony jargon.  

Employers are not much different.  Oh, they try to put on a show that "this is serious", and "this is professional business".  The reality is that a bunch of developers are snickering at your application in the break room seconds before you walk in the door thinking of ways to trip you up.  I had an employer interview me once who asked me what a certain highly obscure Python function did.  I saw this coming and said, "I'd look it up on Google".  His answer was something to the effect that, "well it's good to know these things on your own".  My answer was, "it's better to know how to use every tool at your disposal.  Nobody knows everything.  A poor programmer relies only on his memory".

Another time, an employer asked me to write a MySQL query with a simple task.  My query was a little long, but it did the job.  He immediately criticized it and made edits to show me how mine was more inefficient.  I refused to back down, and told him that both got the job done and that it was clearly something that I wrote up on the fly and would be cleaned up before production.  These jokers memorize a list of questions, with the planned and perfect answer, then use it to lambaste your own answers if they aren't perfectly up to snuff with their planned list.  "Oh, but they are just testing your response in a adverse situation" you might say.  Bull.  Nobody needs to be an utter prick just to test your skills.  When I see that kind of stuff happen in an interview, red flags go up - time to give the bullies the proverbial finger and smile while walking out the door.  Let's test them to see their reaction to an adverse employee.

These phony tests do nothing to really test people, unless testing means pissing them off.  I trained a brand new employee several years ago who knew zero about coding.  Nada.  But he was a good guy, he came to work on time, he completed his assignments, and he was teachable.  Within a month he was a decent coder, and I could rely on him for many projects both large and small.  I'd hire a thousand janitors to code for me if they had the right work ethic.  Why do so many employers not see this simple fact?  Because they're phony morons.  They've bought the "standardized education" garbage hook, line and sinker.  It's pretty simple.

I'm done being treated like a robot college student.  I don't have to anymore, I can and do confidently submit my resume to several employers around the country each week.  I have the "piece of paper", I have a great job a wife and kids.  I don't beg for a job, I make them beg for me.  When I get bullied by these people, I bully them right back.  I deserve to be treated with respect, not treated like some greenhorn fresh out of college.  You should too.


Permanent Character Death

This is one of those topics that I love to talk about.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people over the years have utterly perverted, more than almost any other RPG principle, the idea that character death is an admirable, even desired, quality.  I seem to stumble upon a blog post, article, video, or podcast at least once a week where someone is either raging over the concept or accepting it from completely the wrong angle.  The thing is, I've yet to see someone genuinely against it who's reasoning doesn't revolve around an immature infatuation with their character.  As if their whole world comes crashing down if they have to start all over again.
The good old days.
I'd really like to know where this trend originated from.  D&D started as a perma-death game, no question about that.  It was extremely hard to resurrect a character, and very difficult even to keep them alive all the way to their max level.  Back in the early 80s, people simply accepted the concept, and many embraced it as an integral part of the game.  Somewhere along the line, perhaps among a few of the earlier CRPGs like Ultima and Might & Magic, and even with 2nd Edition D&D, game developers started allowing for, not only saving back-up games, but making it harder and harder to die.

I recently read a blurb from an early CRPG developer, maybe it was Garriot or someone else from EA (can't remember exactly), state that one day we'd  have technology with real stories, "just like the movies", to make games with.  When Blizzard came along with Warcraft and then Diablo, I think the idea of immortal characters and scripted stories seemed to explode.  It seemed as if everyone back then was clamoring to turn video games into linear stories with highly developed cut-scenes as quickly as possible.  In other words,
"character" story was replacing "world" story very quickly.

Go back and read the AD&D DMG and some of the modules for First Edition and take note of the amount of detail that went into, not just world building, but the simulationist, runs-on-its own concepts, that permeated the early game.  There's really no better way to sum this up than to understand how the term "campaign" has changed from 1980 to today (see this and this).  A campaign today means that we are running a Final Fantasy style A->B->X procedural story where the characters progress from a novel-style ascending tension situation, to a climax, and finally to a conclusion.  If your characters die during that period of time, what happens to the story?  Poof, it's done.  Not only are the characters' screwed, but so is the DM and all of his hard work.  Therefore, it becomes a requirement that everyone stay alive to enjoy the story.

Plain and simple, this type of game-play is not an RPG.  I don't care if there is level progression, loot, dwarves, elves, and girls with giant ... swords.  This is an adventure game disguised as an RPG.  Here's the number one problem when it comes to understanding the purpose of character death: people are far too focused on the world revolving around their character, instead of their character revolving around the world. Understanding this is akin to the Pope finally accepting that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around.

Think back to all of the great fantasy epics.  What made them epic?  Not *just* the loss and failure, but what happened as a result to loss and failure.   Thorin's family and friends are killed which provides the catalyst for him to set out on a journey to reclaim what was lost, Gandalf is beaten by the Balrog only to give his friends a chance to rise to the occasion, and Theoden dies on the battlefield as a sacrifice to give his descendants a better future.

Sometimes death, at first appearance, isn't heroic at all.  I often hear from some that character death should only occur in a spectacular or pre-set way, when the big bad arrives, or some other heroic event happens.  It is common for DMs to say, "I promise not to kill your character unless you do something really stupid, or for bad dice rolls."  Again, this is geocentric thinking, not heliocentric.  Remember that the world does not revolve around your character even when its inconvenient.  Every action in a living, breath fantasy world has a reaction, and a consequence.  Otherwise, the world is merely a movie set with hidden pads and ropes keeping the actor safe.

Another complaint I often hear in CRPGS is that you'll eventually lose the character to bugs, or players will simply hit the reset button before the loss can be saved.  The first criticism can also be applied to table-top games.  "The dice fell of the table unintentionally so that wasn't fair!", or "That monster really had an AC of 7 not 6, so I would have killed him!".  It boils down to: "you did something unfair and I shouldn't have died", but what they really mean is, "My character is more important than proper role-play".  Both criticisms share something in common in that these players simply don't understand the concept of heliocentrism, or the world is the main character.

To understand this a little better, recall my earlier post where I spoke about the Lovecraftian method of Role-playing.  The idea is that we attempt to view the game world as a place that could really possibly exist.  This is a perfect application of the concept because when "bugs" happen, we use them as unexplained events from another place that need to be accepted as an inadequate translation by the DM or computer.  I once played in an indie text MMORPG a while ago where a bug caused all of the sea creatures to begin spawning on land.  Suddenly, sharks and jellyfish were being found in forests and deserts.  A lot of people went nuts at how this was ruining the game, but a few wise players decided that they were going to "role-play" it out as a sign from the gods and something not fully explainable.

The same principle can be applied to death situations that happen through bugs or other unintentional factors.  Rule #1: Stay in character no matter what.  Your character is STILL playing in this world, even if there are bugs.  That may change the perception of the player (and piss him off), but it certainly doesn't change the perception of the character that things are happening, literally the way they are, within his own universe.

Think of it another way.  There are some theories about there being a decent chance that human beings are in a simulation themselves.  We could be in our own sort of video game and not even realize it.  So those stories of people dying suddenly, people seeing aliens, bigfoot and ghosts may be "bugs" in our own game.  But how do we take these events?  We accept them because we have to - they are part of our reality, just as your character should accept it as part of his.

As for people resetting the game when things go bad, I'm reminded of Baldur's Gate, one of the greatest CRPGs ever made.  Do you know how simple it is to reload when a character dies in that game?  It's really easy - too easy.  But understanding why you shouldn't separates the men from the boys.  I highly recommend taking a look at this YouTube series to witness someone who takes the idea of no-reloading very serious.  Get an idea of the depth and richness that can be found in a game when played the right way.

It takes a lot of mind training to fully accept this concept.  We have been dealt a buffet of harmless, care-bear worlds to explore in today's gaming.  But it's easiest to remember that life goes on, even when a character's life doesn't.  Try to imagine that, when that person died when he slipped and fell on those poisoned spikes, the world just gained a level and found some loot.  That dungeon now has a story to tell.  It has the skeleton of a lost adventurer lying in its depths ready to be explored by others.  It contains powerful weapons, perhaps now distributed and used by its inhabitants.   That dead character probably has a family, friends and others who have been served by him.  Each of them will be impacted by his death in a far greater way than could have happened in life.

A world full of dead player characters means far more than a world full of DM-generated props.  Your world has now taken a life of its own, built organically from the hands of its players.  That old ruined tower beyond the woods with the undead wandering its grounds?  That was built by John's character a few years ago when he played in the campaign.  Want to know what happened there?  You'll have to find out yourself. Why do the townsfolk hate elves?  Well that's because my cousin's character really pissed them off once...but he also may have had a hidden secret to share if you ask the bar keeper.

None of this can happen without characters who have lived, died and made a permanent impact on the world.  Now for those players who detest rolling up new characters all the time, change your system.  Old school RPGs can have new characters created in less then 10 minutes.  Don't play games that combine heavy grinding with permanent death either (That's another can of worms that I'd like to open some other time).  Don't worry about backstories, homelands, etc, unless he has some relationship with past events or characters.  Let your character's story be told during play, not outside of it.  Let the world shape your character as you shape it.

Remember the words of Obi-Wan: "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine."  Don't hide from character death, embrace the most important character of all: the game world.

Putting Magic Back Into Monsters: Kobolds

Kobolds have always been a tough one because there is no uniform description. But I can tell you that I've hated all of the descriptions given in the game books. A dog, reptile, or miniature dinosaur creature never seemed to fit for me.

Here's a description from a story from Emma Hardinge Britten that I recently found that I do like from 1820 England:
We were about to sit down to tea when Mdlle. Gronin called our attention to the steady light, round, and about the size of a cheese plate, which appeared suddenly on the wall of the little garden directly opposite the door of the hut in which we sat. 
Before any of us could rise to examine it, four more lights appeared almost simultaneously, about the same shape, and varying only in size. Surrounding each one was the dim outline of a small human figure, black and grotesque, more like a little image carved out of black shining wood, than anything else I can liken them to. Dorothea kissed her hands to these dreadful little shapes, and Michael bowed with great reverence. As for me and my companions, we were so awe-struck yet amused at these comical shapes, that we could not move or speak until they themselves seemed to flit about in a sort of wavering dance, and then vanish, one by one.

I particular I like the "black and grotesque...carved out of black shining wood" bit the most. The very first image that come to mind when I picture this is the Irish Shillelagh, which are clubs (used as ancient dueling weapons) made by being "smeared with butter and placed up a chimney to cure". This gives them a very pitch-black, shiny, appearance. I own one of these myself.


From the history, it seems Kobolds were found, more often then not, in mines or doing chores around the house like Hobgoblins. One important distinction, however, is that Kobolds appear to be far more kindly creatures than Hobgoblins. In light of this for my campaign in the future, I would most likely make them be fairly neutral in their natural environment, or perhaps slaves to evil overlords. But I would avoid making them out to be evil or vicious as that seems misaligned to their real nature.

A separate wikipedia entry states that, "house kobolds usually live in the hearth area of a house", which could explain the black wood appearance. I imagine them being fey spirits inhabiting animated small wood-like bodies, blackened from the black pitch and soot from hiding in fireplace hearths and filthy, coal covered, mines. A few may have horns, but most would be slightly smaller than Goblins, and slightly bigger than Hobgoblins.