Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Dragon Dads

Not long ago I joined the Dragon Dads. If you know me you might know why, and if you don’t, it isn’t mine to say. What are Dragon Dads, you ask?

The Dragon Dads are an online support group for dads with LGBTQ kids. Support, not in the sense of “How do I deal with this?” but in the sense of “How do we smash hetero-normativity and support our kids?” I came to learn about them through a little article about them attending a Pride event, and then looked into them a bit more. Turns out, it’s easy to join, and they seem really cool. Here’s a sample manly picture of some Dragon Dads with their kids:

‘Today's’ Craig Melvin delves into the evolution of love ...

The message boils down to “Don’t mess with our kids.” And to me this is a very basic aspect of masculinity that I don’t think I’ve touched upon before – protect the offspring.

This very manly impulse, in fact, is what lies behind plenty of abusive fatherly behavior – punishing a child as a way to try to change them and protect them from the world. This is of course precisely wrong, but probably sticky behavior because it draws on something manly and true.

Protect the offspring. Take their side. Don’t side with a shitty world, it’s shitty enough.

Horror Gaming

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

I think that the hardest kind of RPG experience to create at the table is horror – by a significant margin. I’ve been alarmed, worried, disgusted, and so on at the table, but very rarely frightened. The most frightened I remember being was in an Old World of Darkness game using Kult’s setting. The game that is always recommended is Dread, which is a great use of Jenga to create tension at a table whether you want it or not. It still requires more elements to approach horror.

I wonder – it’s pretty easy for a movie to scare the crap out of me. Why is it so much harder at a table?

Players Must Buy In/Session Zero

I’m pretty funny – I can coax someone into participating in a funny game. I can coax someone into participating in a heroic adventure game. I even know how to design specifically for either goal, among a few others. Horror, though – I don’t know how to coax someone into a horror game, and I can see ways that horror more than other genres would press against players’ lines and veils.

For this reason, a Session Zero for a horror game is necessary. The discussion of what you want kept out of the story needs to be had, because it will likely be the job of the GM in a horror game to suddenly introduce disturbing imagery and themes. It also occurs to me that a tool like the X-Card should be available, but in the context of a horror game, I can see that using it would potentially take people out of the moment – like pausing a horror DVD to answer the phone. And of course we shouldn’t harm each other for the sake of playing pretend, but if we can figure things out ahead of time, that is especially good in the context of a horror game.

Hope Must be Limited

The reason we sat down and designed Reckoning, a dice-less horror RPG, was because of the problem of dice. As long as you can roll dice to have a chance to triumph, horror is almost impossible. Our players would grin their way through horrific scenarios, or so we thought them, rolling dice all the way. My friend Jason says that a horror game can therefore never use dice, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just that dice can’t be an option for triumphing. Stakes have to be set carefully, perhaps.

Reckoning limits hope by having a scene count-down which will end with something horrific happening. Each time a card gets turned, you know something else bad is going to happen, all getting closer to the worst thing happening. I think that some kind of countdown, some kind of visibly growing threat, could be necessary. The proverbial ticking time-bomb that the players know about, even if the characters do not.

Doom Must be Foreshadowed

Continuing on with the previous thought – when you go to a horror movie, or pick up a horror novel, you know what kind of story it is. This has to be clear from the start with a horror game as well. Even if not from the literal beginning, there should be a big reveal at some point, early. Ideally, all of the players should think, “Oh crap, this is going to be deliciously bad.”

If possible there should be foreshadowing both in the fiction and outside of it – in the room where the game takes place. On the character sheet. On the pages of rules you reference during the game. On the art you use to represent what the characters see. In the music you have playing while you game.

A Strong GM Seems to be Necessary

I asked Twitter to let me know about any APs tweeps are aware of that represent a horror game that seemed to really foster fear and horror on the parts of the players. I enjoy APs, but they are generally what I end up doing when I run horror – some moments of squick and then dark humor the rest of the time, bordering on outright zaniness. Even for AP groups that focus on horror gaming, this seems to be where they max out as well. When done well, the squick is very squick-y and the dark humor is dark and funny, but would I call it horror? I’m not sure.

One thing I’ve noticed is that horror gaming, even the squick/dark humor kind, seems to demand a strong GM. I would love to see an attempt at a GM-less (or GM-full) game that does horror consistently well. My guess would be that if it does, it is simply a game (like many GM-less/full games) that attracts a bunch of GMs as players. I think horror gaming will simply depend on GM skill + player buy-in, full stop. I don’t see a way around that, and I don’t see any game that gets around that, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong by some genius game design. As I sit here, that game design is beyond me as a designer.

It’s Cthulhu and Footnotes

The last thought I have about horror gaming is that Call of Cthulhu dominates horror gaming the way D&D dominates fantasy adventure gaming. Clearly, there are other popular horror games, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten back in the day, or Bluebeard’s Bride; various Worlds of Darkness, or of course the often-mentioned Dread. There is also Monsters and Other Childish things, perhaps, or Clockwork: Dominion. But Call of Cthulhu looms over all of these, and when horror gaming comes up, CoC will almost invariably come up as well.

What is the difference here? What makes Call of Cthulhu stand out, despite being temporarily supplanted by Vampire the Masquerade for example? I think one difference is that many of those other games are also about adventure and the chance to triumph. Not Bluebeard’s Bride, and mostly not Dread perhaps, but otherwise, those games listed above can be played as adventure or comedy pretty easily. Really, the one that would be hard to play that way would be Bluebeard’s Bride – I think one could easily hack Dread to tell a Fiasco-style story, as an example.

I think that the key appeal of Call of Cthulhu for horror gaming might be that it is common knowledge that CoC is not about triumphing, or even in many cases surviving, a horror story. It is about going insane and/or dying horribly. The worst things you’ll encounter you cannot possibly overcome no matter what you do. So the game is about progressively learning what those awful things are, and then having a good time on the way down after that. This, even more than the Mythos, is what keeps Call of Cthulhu in that top slot, I think. At least, when I look at horror APs and talk to people about horror gaming.

What Did I Miss?

These are just my thoughts, neither exhaustive nor meant to be so. What did I miss? What has been your experience of horror gaming?

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #14: Fate Core/FAE

Player Ideas as Self-Compels

Many GMs love using the ideas that players come up with during play. Sometimes the thing that players think is going on is more interesting than what you had in mind, so you just steal that idea. I like this as an overt system in Fate Core – the player comes up with an idea, and the GM can hand them a Fate point in order to make it true. “I hope there aren’t ratmen on the other side of that door…”

Tag Aspects to Help

In many versions of Fate Core, you have three Aspects that are for your character alone and two more that connect your character to the others. I like the idea of using those connective Aspects when helping those characters, letting you spend a Fate point to grant them a +2 on their test.

Aspects: Switching Between Worlds

I like the idea of a Fate Core game where the characters are switching between two worlds – maybe alternate realities, or maybe a mundane world and a fantasy world, etc. The fun would be designing Aspects that are beneficial in one world and that are a liability in the other. Another challenge would be in Skill selection, as there should be Skills that are useful in one world and not in the other – not a general Skill like Lore, but maybe Arcana for the magical world and Education for the mundane one.

Fate and Helping Dice

I like making systems more concrete at the table, using fiddly bits where I can. For helping in Fate, I like the idea of passing the player you are helping one of your own dice (especially since Fate Core dice sets tend to be distinctive colors) that they put on a “+” before their roll. So they end up having a total of five dice to combine.

D&D Using Fate Dice

DnD using Fate Core and Fate Dice. Ability score = DC for everything. Advantage is a + and disadvantage is a -. You would have a much worse chance of doing much worse or much better than your score, and obviously would never be more than +/- 4. But it’s an interesting idea, to me at least, and would result in much more reliable/predictable success and failure and far less swinginess in results.

It occurred to me that since D&D ability scores are from 3 to 20 and DCs tend to be in the 10 to 20+ range with 5E’s bounded accuracy, you could actually use Fate dice for D&D. Get rid of the ability score bonuses and just use the straight ability scores, and you can roll Fate dice versus the given DCs. There would need to be some adjustments made, and there would be more rolls that are simply impossible. It may very well be too much of a spread, but it would be interesting to try out I think. Just set the DCs based on a sense of how good someone would have to be to do these things. Proficiencies could let you set one die to a + before you roll. Advantage could let you set another die to a +, and disadvantage make you set one to a -, and if they cancel out you just roll.

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Scaling D&D 5E Spells

My DM and I were talking about how there are D&D 5E spells that should scale but don’t, so I thought I’d lay down some notes on how spells could scale in my games via house rules. These won’t be full spell write-ups, just my initial thoughts that would become house rules if players wanted to use spells in this way.

1st Level Spells

Alarm –> Greater Alarm

3rd level. If you cast Alarm using a 3rd level or higher spell slot, the area that it can cover is extended from a 20′ cube to an area up to a 100′ cube defined by the caster. This area can include any number of portals (windows, doors, etc) and can be limited in the same ways as the original spell.

Animal Friendship –> Charm Monster

This one is already essentially scaled up as charm monster.

Grease –> Wave of Grease

If you cast this spell with a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can create an additional 10′ square area of grease per additional spell level.

Jump –> Group Jump

If you cast this spell using a 2nd level or higher spell slot, you can affect one additional creature per additional spell slot.

Speak with Animals –> Speak with Monsters

4th level. As with speak with animals, but you are able to speak with creatures of any type, whether they normally speak a language or not.

Tenser’s Floating Disk –> Tenser’s Island

3rd level. You create a disk 10′ in diameter that can carry 5,000lbs but otherwise functions like Tenser’s Floating Disk.

Thunderwave –> Thunder Cone

2nd level. As with thunderwave, but the effect is in the shape of a 15′ cone. Thundercone could also be an entirely different spell.

Unseen Servant –> Unseen Staff

3rd level. You summon a staff of unseen servants, and the maximum distance from you extends from 60′ to 120′. The half-dozen servants otherwise function like unseen servants.

2nd Level Spells

Cloud of Daggers –> Storm of Daggers

When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can choose to create one additional 5′ cube of daggers per spell level rather than increase the damage.

Enlarge/Reduce –> Greater Enlarge/Reduce

4th level. Your size is tripled or divided by three, moving from Medium to Huge or Medium to Tiny for example. Weapon damage increases by 2d4 or is reduced by 2d4, with additional effects at the DM’s discretion.

Locate Animals or Plants –> Locate Anything

Locate Object –> Locate Anything

Locate Creature –> Locate Anything

6th level. Name a creature, person, or location. For the duration of the spell (concentration, up to 1 hour) you know the direction to the target of the spell as long as it is on the same plane of existence, regardless of distance.

Misty Step –> Misty Journey

4th level. As misty step, but you are able to affect up to six willing creatures at once if they are within 30′ of you. If creatures are currently engaged in melee, they will provoke attacks of opportunity when they step (but not when they arrive). (That’s the limiting factor for this potentially very powerful effect)

3rd Level Spells

Speak with Dead –> Greater Speak with Dead

5th level. As speak with dead, but the target does not need to have a mouth and can be undead. You can call up any spirit as long as some physical remains exist.

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Playing with Gender in D&D

Playing with Gender

This all started with goblins, but ended up being this little brainstorm I had during Save Against Fear. There are little kernels of this idea in D&D already, but I wanted to play out a view of sex and gender for the major intelligent species of D&D that fit with the lore as it is but was more interesting than just assuming two sexes and two genders in every case (which is ridiculous even with humans alone, not to mention every other intelligent species in D&D).

Note: this is not me wishing we could have lots of discussions and arguments about pronouns, multiplied times all of these intelligent species. That does not sound fun for me. He, she and they should cover it for these options in my opinion.

Goblin Gender

Otherwise this will be alphabetical, but I’m starting here because this was the first thought I had that led me along this path. I’ve always wondered about goblinoids: goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. Where do the drastically different body types come from? Do they intermarry? Can they interbreed? In previous editions they were just an outlier – where most intelligent species are ‘humanoid’ they are over there, the ‘goblinoids’, the other.

I realized, wouldn’t it be fun if all goblinoids are the same species, except they have three sexes, and the three types of goblinoids are their three sexes? So one sex is goblin, and one sex is hobgoblin, and one sex is bugbear, and it takes all three to reproduce. They all are born goblin-ish, and then have a big growth spurt if they are going to grow up to be hobgoblins, and then another growth spurt to become bugbears.

If you ask them how they make babies with three sexes, they of course attack you, because that’s an incredibly rude question.

Dragonborn Gender

Dragonborn (and maybe lizardfolk as well) are hermaphroditic with three genders. A dragonborn self-fertilizes when they are ready and lays a clutch of eggs. This is taxing and difficult, and when the dragonborn hatch they are much more helpless than normal for reptiles and require years of care like human infants and children. So the three genders are the One Who Lays, the One Who Guards, and the One Who Gathers. The first one is obvious. The second gender is taken on by a dragonborn who takes responsibility of guardianship for the layer and for the young. The third gender is for the dragonborn who takes responsibility to go out into the world and accomplish what needs to be done to support all three – hunting, gathering, earning gold, whatever.

Dwarf Gender

Dwarves have two sexes and one gender. Every wonder why all the jokes about dwarf women having beards and looking a lot like dwarf men? That’s because dwarves only have one gender. Though males tend to have thicker body and facial hair than females, they all are performing the same gender for all intents and purposes. Perhaps there are nuances there visible only to fellow dwarves.

Elf Gender

Elves have two sexes but are genderfluid over time. When you meet an elf, you are meeting someone on a 700 year long journey of exploration.

Gnome Gender

Ancient gnomes had a very strict system of two sexes and two genders. Modern gnomes are all transgressive about how they perform gender, and often take on aspects of the genders they see around them among other intelligent species. Intersex gnomes are held in high regard, meaning that they now functionally have three sexes.

Half-Elf Gender

Half-elves are normally born to human and elven parents at some point in the elf’s centuries-long life. What they call their parents could be unique to a particular half-elf, and they might very well be born to a mother who later, when the half-elf meets them as an adult, is now a man, and possibly even a father to new children. So half-elves tend to cling to their human side for stability, or embrace the fluidity of their elven side.

Half-Orc Gender

Half-orcs raised with orcs are given their purpose from the gods. Half-orcs raised with humans tend to choose and perform a human gender, though sometimes they encounter orcs later in life and are given a purpose then.

Halfling Gender

Halflings have two sexes and three genders. The three genders for halflings are male, female, and bachelor, in honor of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. And, as far as we can tell, Merry and Pippin and Gaffer Gamgee and loads of others. Of course, women can be bachelors too. No self-respecting halfling would call her a bachelorette.

Human Gender

Humans have two sexes and three genders. But you don’t need terminology for this. You just describe men and women and intergender/nonbinary people, and then some of the men happen to be trans men and some of the women happen to be trans women. You have a lot less baked in bigotry, which is fun anyway.

Some Other Thoughts

Kenku Gender

Kenku keep their sexes secret from outsiders, though most assume they have two. In a kenku community, there is the gender of the sitter and the gender of the builder. A sitter is the one who primarily sits on the eggs while they develop, though a group might trade off on this activity, one tends to be primarily. The builder is the one who is responsible for building a nest, initially to garner the interest of potential sitters.

Orc Gender

Until adolescence orcs do not acknowledge gender. At adolescence, an orc goes into the wilderness to commune with the gods (this could be a metaphorical urban wilderness). The gods tell them their purpose and place in society, and that is functionally their gender. Some will have the purpose of parenting, but others won’t, and the part in society they perform is more important than what other species tend to think of as gender.

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Shame Is Good.

Often when we say “shaming”, we mean “humiliating.” That is, when one person tries to force a feeling of shame on another person as a way to harm them or coerce them. This is an unfortunate change in the meaning of the word, because shame is good, and crucial to social and emotional life. A healthy relationship with shame is just like a healthy relationship with anger or fear or happiness, in that it does its job. But what is shame’s job?

I go with the work of Paul Ekman and others here in the area of discussing a handful of core emotions that serve social and evolutionary purposes, each of which one can find in every society all over the world. One of those core emotions is shame. (For a rough course in this theory, watch the film Inside Out. Seriously. It’s amazing, and they did their homework) Shame’s job is to acknowledge wrongdoing and remorse as a way to reconnect a person with their community. This is the face of shame (sometimes feigned, but consistent and recognizable):

The Universal Expressions | Oh, Not Him Again

Ironically, in some cases we see this expression on the face of a person who is denying wrongdoing, but that’s what indicates that shame is a deeply-rooted and universal expression – it comes up unconsciously in one’s face when the emotion is present, and it looks similar cross-culturally.

In brief, shame says “Yeah, I screwed up.” And in our evolutionary past, when being ostracized could easily mean starving to death or being eaten, it was crucial to allow people to acknowledge wrongdoing and seek reconciliation in order for them to survive.

Shame is not a popular feeling – this whole post came from an ongoing conversation with a friend of mine (more than one friend, but one in particular), wherein he says that shame is the root of evil and should be rooted out. The thing is, when I talk to him about what he means by “shame”, he doesn’t talk about the universal emotion described above and unconsciously expressed in our faces. Rather, he is talking about humiliation, or shaming, which is completely different in my opinion.

Shame is an acknowledgement; shaming is an assault. But we confuse the two, and I think it’s a significant problem. This problem is exemplified by Donald Trump.

I think that the core element of Trump’s personality, which as driven his rise to power, his persistence despite massive moral, financial, and professional failures that would have sunk anyone else long ago, is his utter inability to experience shame. He is pathologically shameless, and I think this lies behind everything else about him – the grandstanding, the weird obsession with gold and his hand size, picking fights randomly, punching down, cheating everyone in his life, betraying allies at the slightest sign of disloyalty, and constant lying.

If Donald Trump were capable of shame, he would be an entirely different person. A far more tolerable person. He’s exactly the kind of person who would be ostracized in order to be devoured by wild animals 20,000 years ago, but in a media-driven age of radical capitalism, he instead becomes a brand. He becomes unavoidable, irresistible for some. He becomes President, because why not? His image is that he is untouchable, the “Teflon Don”, because nothing can bring him down, and the key to that untouchability is his apparent inability to experience shame.

What Do We Do With Shame?

This is a key question as we continue to reorient society to be a place where more people are heard and their concerns taken seriously. Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and others are, in fits and starts, over decades of conflict and struggle, making a place for themselves in our white supremacist, patriarchal, hetero-normative, etc. culture. Nobody knows how to do this. We have to dismantle some things, and build up some new things, and unlearn a lot of deeply ingrained habits, and learn new life-giving habits, all at once, in public, while the world burns around us. A non-trivial challenge, one might say.

The purpose of shame is to visibly acknowledge wrongdoing, that a transgression has occurred, and to prompt one to make amends and be re-integrated into the community. But how do we do that in a way that is fair?

In the past, there was a “boys will be boys” mentality applied to the wrongdoing of white males in the United States, as well as in the case of institutions that enforced white supremacy like the police. There were never real repercussions for wrongdoing – certainly nothing resembling justice or equity, even less so reconciliation. This mentality still exists everywhere it is not actively being brought to light and rooted out. There is a lot of work to do.

One response has been to burn people down when their wrongdoing is brought to light and acknowledged. People who are critical of this impulse, like most recently Dave Chappelle in Sticks and Stones, call this “cancel culture.” The sense is that if someone is caught in wrongdoing and called out, they are cancelled and that’s it. No more from them in the public sphere, ever. The problem, I think, is that there is no way back. A healthy person who feels appropriate shame and wants to make amends cannot do so, and is treated very similarly to someone who is shameless and spiteful and never admits any wrongdoing. Given this situation, where shame cannot function healthfully, successful people will find that shame is a liability and we will encourage more Trumps and Trump-ism.

Shame is crucial, but for shame to work, there has to be a way back. Otherwise we are punishing healthy shame, and it’s hard to blame people for working hard not to feel that shame if they can avoid it, and keep that shame from moving them to reconcile.

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Curse of Strahd: Non-Racist Vistani

I haven’t run Curse of Strahd (one of my players hates vampires so I’m not likely to do so any time soon) but I have read through it, and have read about it, and parts of it are racist AF. Here’s a great article that lays out how the depiction of the Vistani and mongrelfolk in particular are deeply racist. I’m going to talk more about the Vistani – the mongrelfolk have been in D&D monster manuals for decades and need their own consideration, in the context of all of the racism that is baked into D&D.

I’m not going to go through all of the problems and questions of Curse of Strahd either – I think there are things that a DM can adjust about the module, and other things that require some more consideration, and which definitely might or might not be good for a particular group; there’s a lot of violence against children baked in that I would have to remove, for example. (Pun intended)

I was thinking about the Vistani and how I would run them, because there are some aspects of them as a story idea that I like. I like that they can travel between worlds, and that they are the only ones who can traverse the Mists of Ravenloft. What struck me is how similar they could be to a carnival or circus – I imagined adolescents of the multiverse running away to join the Vistani, and I had my answer.

The Vistani is a carnival.

Now, there are plenty of stereotypes about “carnies” as well, though they tend to have more to do with social status than race, as with the Roma on whom the Vistani are obviously based. The advantage of a Vistani carnival, however, is that it can divorce the idea of the Vistani from race or species entirely. They are bound together not by ethnicity or even culture, but by sub-culture and profession. They are entertainers who wander from place to place.

I think that this retains a lot of what’s potentially interesting about the Vistani while getting rid of most of what’s problematic. You can still have a fortune teller – she can even be “Madam Eva”, a changeling playing up to tropes and stereotypes about fortune tellers at carnivals. Some of them can still be shifty thieves, since people who wander from place to place are more likely to take a loose view to the laws and customs of any place in particular. They can be insular, secretive, and highly loyal to one another; they can be exotic and play to tropes if they want because they are entertainers. They can even keep the reputation for stealing children, coming from young people running away to join them periodically. They can retain their dramatic, colorful dress, as I can see them taking on articles of clothing and jewelry (and magic items) from the various places they travel as a way to mark how long they have been part of the carnival and how far they’ve traveled.

The key is that none of this is linked to a real-world ethnic group, or even an imaginary one. None of these traits are intrinsic to them, and you can just as easily find honest, forthcoming, or even boring Vistani, because Vistani just means something like Circque du Soleil or Ringling Brothers. Oh, the Vistani are in town! That’s so fun! Also, the Vistani are in town, so watch your coins.

Given this idea, I think it would be cool if the Vistani kept showing up in all kinds of campaigns. You need some random group of people to give the PCs some cryptic hints or sell them some magic items? Hey, look, the Vistani. And so what if these particular Vistani happen to all be kenku and loxodon with a fire genasi ringleader? Now something racist has become something cooler, more interesting, more versatile, and more fun.

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