Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Fine Line: Detailed Descent

                                     Image by aissatan and taken from
By Scott Bingham

                “This is the place I told you to expect.
                Here you shall pass among the fallen people,
                Souls who have lost the good of intellect.”

                So saying, he put forth his hand to me,
                And with a gentle and encouraging smile
                He led me through the gate of mystery.

                Welcome back to the Flying Pincushion! This week’s theme of the poetic work of Dante, The Inferno, was altogether an enjoyable read and a conduit of inspiration in my own work as a DM. The topic for this piece is a discussion on the use of detail in our storytelling and the effect it can have on our players’ overall gaming experience.Details can be both a powerful point of interest in our storytelling and a mass of jumbled chaos that does little more than distract from what is truly important. In the instance of interest we take a close look at Dante’s The Inferno and the way in which the setting is presented in each of the Circles of Hell.

As Dante and Virgil travel together lower and lower through the depths of wailing and torment the most human response would be that of horror and fear. If any of my characters were to make such a journey (one has in fact) the overall play personality that I would bring to the table would be that of sheer terror and paralyzing revulsion. However because of the nature of detail used in describing the manner and method of each Circle’s tortured souls and their various punishments Dante feels wonder. He is impossibly pulled into the scenes of horrific and eternal damnation because of how brilliantly and beautifully these depictions are painted for him. Things that are so ugly, so grisly, so incredibly repulsive and yet Dante is drawn deeper and deeper into Hell as his curiosity and very interest is piqued.

This is a tool used graciously in the case of The Inferno to ensure that Dante involves himself in the story. Detail, when used properly, can turn the heads of our players and cause them to question and to investigate. Imagine for a moment what sort of difference that can make. Let us go the Third Circle of Hell, the one meant to punish those great Gluttons of the mortal life, for such an example. First, the version purposefully lacking any sort of hook.

As you awaken you find yourself on the floor of the Third Circle of Hell. Virgil explains that this plane is meant to punish the Gluttons. Off in the distance you see the three headed Cerberus torturing souls and Virgil calmly waves for you to follow him.


I am in the Third Circle of the torments.
Here to all time with neither pause nor change
The frozen rain of Hell descends in torrents.
Huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow
Pour from the dismal air to putrefy
The putrid slush that waits for them below.
Here monstrous Cerberus, the ravening beast,
Howls through his triple throats like a mad dog
Over the spirits sunk in that foul paste.

Absolutely chilling. Already there has been a sense of dread established and an innate desire to avoid the creature Cerberus at all costs. A picture has been painted for us as to the nature of these souls eternal torment and we wish more than ever to tread carefully. When you as a Dungeon Master can help your players to see what you are describing it becomes that more real for them. Personally I find it easier to be involved, interested, and participating when in my mind’s eye I can envision the scene laid out before me. I’d take extra care on where I set my feet in such a scene and keep my eyes on the beast Cerberus.

Now to the other side of things. Details are a profound and strengthening factor in our storytelling particularly when used to describe something that before would appear so small and insignificant. However such a thing must be used in moderation. It’s easy when telling our tale to our players to get lost in the details and forget that there are more important things to be accomplished. Sometimes a thing can be simple because it holds no value in what we’re trying to accomplish with our players. Sometimes a room is simply that; a room. There is a table, a bookshelf, and a chair. No embellishment needed for this room means nothing. It’s simply a room.

When detailing something of importance however we must take special care. Our stories matter to us most of all above anyone else and so it’s easy for us to get excited and at times a bit carried away in our telling. A scene of greatness can be too much for in our episodic expression of an incredible scene we run the risk of forgetting where the spotlight should shine; on our players. They are the heroes and need to know that as their DM we are interested and invested in them. For any and all who have taken the time and pains to fill out a character sheet and to write a backstory it’s nice to know that our storyteller appreciates our small contribution to building a living, breathing character to explore their world.

Consider detail as you would a spice; don’t dump the entire shaker into the mixture. Add just enough to flavor the meal and make it that much more enjoyable. Use too much and one’s appetite quickly becomes lost in the overwhelming, overpowering tang of far too many words.

Dante’s The Inferno does a masterful job of using detail in such a way that Dante’s character (which is himself oddly enough) is interested and involved, two traits that we long for in our players. Such use of detail prompts Dante to ask questions and to make skill checks all the while venturing further and further into the story and the very bowels of Hell. He feels the necessary fear and disgust at the twisted and tangled mess that is eternal damnation but the sense of curiosity that he feels is the one that we love most. Why else would he stop to speak to the various tormented souls that he meets or turn to Virgil with questions and curiosity in his eyes?

Details, especially the little ones, can make or break a scene in our story. Maybe the tiniest bit of embellishment ends up playing a crucial role in the grand finale or consistently resurfaces, drawing the party closer and closer to sinister undertones. In any case the use of details in moderation is the lesson to be drawn from this week’s Fine Line. U

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mythic Monster Wensday: Death-The Ferryman

Death – The Ferryman
This desiccated corpse is shrouded in dark robes that seem to flutter as if in a light breeze. Long horns protrude from the tattered vestments deep hood. The figure wields a wicked scythe decorated with images of skulls and bones.
NAME   CR 20/MR 8
XP 307,200
LN Large undead (extraplanar, mythic)
Init +17; Senses darkvision 120 ft.,deathwatch, true seeing; Perception +34
Auraessence of death (10 ft., 6d6, DC 30)
AC 36, touch 22, flat-footed 31 (+8 deflection, +5 Dex,+14 natural, -1 size)
hp364 (24d8+256)
Fort +16, Ref +13, Will +21
Defensive Abilities channel resistance +4;DR15/bludgeoning and epic; Immune cold, fire, undead traits; Resist acid 10, electricity 10; SR37
Speed40 ft., fly 80 ft. (good)
Melee soul reaping scythe +30/+25/+20/+15 (2d6+15, 19-20/x5), or 2claws +25 (1d6+7 plus energy drain (2 levels, DC 30))
Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Special Attacks mythic power (8/day, surge +1d10)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 20th; concentration +28)
        At will-alter self, dimension door, ethereal jaunt, speak with dead (DC 21)
        3/day-greater false life, quickened dimension door
        1/day-greater death knell aura (DC 24), mythic circle of death (costs 1 mythic power, DC 24)
Str 24, Dex 20, Con–, Int 14, Wis 25, Cha 27
Base Atk +18; CMB +26; CMD 49
Feats Combat Reflexes, Dimensional Agility, Following Step, Greater Vital Strike, Improved CriticalM, Improved InitiativeM, Improved Vital Strike, Lunge, Power AttackM, Quicken Spell-Like Ability (dimension door), Step Up, Step Up and Strike, Vital Strike
Skills Disguise +23, Fly +24, Intimidate +35, Knowledge (religion) +29, Perception +34, Profession (sailor) +31, Sense Motive +34, Stealth +15
Languages Celestial, Common, Infernal, tongues
SQ ethereal presence
Environment any, any aquatic, temperate forests, etc
Organization solitary, pair, band (3-6), squad (7-20)
Treasure standard (glove of storing, soul reaping scythe)
Essence of Death (Su) Every round on the beginning of Death’s turn, all living creatures within 10 ft. of Death take 6d6 of negative energy damage. Undead creatures, including Death, heal 6d6 points of ability damage. A living creature may attempt to resist the effects with a DC 30 Will save, receiving only half damage on a successful save. The save DC is Charisma-based.
Ethereal Presence (Su)Death can exist on both his current material plane and on the ethereal plane, allowing him to interact with corporeal and incorporeal beings equally. This gives him a deflection bonus to armor class equal to his Charisma bonus, similar to an incorporeal creature. When using his ethereal jaunt spell like ability, he exists only on the ethereal plane.

Death is also known as The Ferryman, for he carries the souls of the dead across the river Styx to their proper afterlife. Though a relatively peaceful job, the occasional hero or group of adventurers tries to force their way past Death or steal a soul from the afterlife and bring it back to the mortal realm.

Soul Reaping Scythe
Aura strong evocation and necromancy; CL 20th
Slot none; Weight 10 lbs.
This +5 ghost touch scythehas skull and bone motifs engraved on the elder haft and cold iron blade. Mythic creatures wielding this weapon gain use of the Whirlwind feat, even if they don’t meet the prerequisites. Additionally when performing a Whirlwind attack, they may spend a point of mythic power to execute a Pull combat maneuver against opponents outside of their reach but within double their reach; this combat maneuver uses the wielders CMB and does not provoke an attack of opportunity.
When wielded against a creature who has ever been brought back from the dead from any spell or effect (such as raise dead, resurrection, true resurrection, reincarnate, or breath of life), the soul reaping scythe also gains the bane special property against that creature. Additionally, once per day the wielder of the scythe can cast slay living as a free action when confirming a critical hit against an opponent.
In addition to slaying souls that think to escape the afterlife, Death uses this artifact as a container for his essence. While this weapon exists, Death can never be destroyed. If Death is reduced to 0 or lower hit points, or defeated by some other means, then his undead soul is preserved in this object for 24 hours. During this time, treat the scythe as an intelligent item with Death’s ability scores (Ego 30), senses, and spell-like abilities. Every 24 hours, if his scythe is unattended Death rematerializes at full hit points holding his scythe. If a living creature possesses the scythe, they are subjected to a slay living spell once per day as well as an Ego dominance check.
The soul reaping scythe can be destroyed by casting true resurrection on the item immediately followed by mage’s disjunction while Death’s defeated essence is contained in the scythe. Both of these spells must be cast by rank 10 mythic creatures.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pairing It Down: Abandon All Hope

By Kiel Howell

     Hello and good day (or night) to you, dear reader! This week’s theme at the Flying Pincushion is Dante’s Inferno. Ah yes; an epic poem, movies, animes, and countless fictions inspired by this testament to man’s creativity. I am not generally a fan of verse, but Dante’s Inferno transcends time and medium. Shakespeare wishes he could write comedy like this (please feel free to berate me in the comments for that statement).

     Dante Alighieri had a real life worthy of the greatest stories told, but that is another topic for another day.
     So let’s get down to it, what shall we pair from this literary monument? When I think of Dante’s Inferno, I think of the inscription above the gates of Hell. Specifically, the last line. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” While I’m far from a literary scholar or a linguistics expert I can recognize the inherent...classicality of this line. There is so much aura dripping off of this phrase that I have to make a Will save (and fail) each time I read to avoid shuddering in glee. This same type of phraseology can and should be applied once in a great while (overuse will absolutely dilute it) on a spellcaster’s spellbook’s cover, the entrance to a lich’s crypt, or on a long forgotten relic.

     In fact, I would like to do just that...a long forgotten relic. That tickles my fancy for this. No magical properties, no secret powers, just a plain item that has an evocative inscription. No back-story excepting a knowledge check result. Leaving an evocative inscription and a snippet of knowledge leaves the players wanting more, creates ambiance, and gives the GM limitless possibilities for story.

     Let’s get to it then, what kind of relic would accomplish this lofty goal the best? Something religious. In game or out of game, religion has an effect on the psyche that no other thing does. So then, a religious relic, long forgotten. What should it look like? There’s always the classic chalice. An ankh? How about a stone in an impossible shape of the infinity sign? I like that.

“This line of stone curves back upon itself, impossibly, meeting itself in the middle in a shape somewhat akin to the number eight.”

     We’ve got a good basic description that has imagery to it. So let’s construct our phrase of mystery, intrigue, and hopefully a slight bit of terror. Too bad I can’t just steal the phrase. This is a part that I can’t, unfortunately, walk you through or write a formula for. For me, I have a leap of intuition. It helps that I’m an avid consumer of literature, music, and movies. Good or bad, once you’ve consumed enough of anything you start to recognize good and bad and what makes it that way. So here’s my crack at a good inscription (I promise I did not edit this and it was off the top of my head):

“Perish your light, for all light darkens”

     Oooo, that sounds a bit end-of-times and religiously apocryphal. Now then, let’s finish it with a Knowledge (religion) check result table (fun fact, tenebrae is latin for darknesses):

The Infinite Tenebrae cult has been defunct for hundreds of years.
The herald of the cult was said to carry an impossibly shaped key.
The key was lost to time, never found on the herald’s body when he died.

     There we have it. A fledgling line of stories and side treks that any group could get positively lost on.
     I challenge you, the reader, to leave a comment giving me your best one-liner to intrigue and terrify a table. Until next time, in which the theme is the show Farscape!

Monday, January 27, 2014

From Screen to Behind the Screen: 5 Lessons GMs should steal from Dr Who

by Frank Gori

5) Embrace Humor: I’ve seen GMs get flustered when their gaming groups get a little silly and spend most of their time laughing at the table. If that’s you why are you mad? If your table is having a good time you’re doing it right!

4) Save the World: Dr Who saves the world just about every episode.  IT is important that the PCs are important. Don’t get caught up in the minutia of real world type problems and let your PCs be big dam heroes once in a while. Overly strict GMs lead to murder hobo parties.   

3) Fezzes are cool: It’s fantasy so try out different types of clothing and setting descriptions. Draw from different traditions… be less conventional.

2)  Relationships define a character: Notice the companions usually swap out when there’s a new Doctor? It’s because the relationship has altered and you usually want a fresh start. 

1)      Allow retraining: Sometimes players get bored with what their characters are or can do but you need to preserve that character’s history. Dr Who has a fantastic solution for this problem…