How To Top 10 (Like What We Do)

One of the greater pleasures of working for GeekOut has been the weekly Top 10s. They’re shamelessly pandering, entirely subjective, and we did them for the consistently high views they brought in, at least to start with. It turned into one of our greatest collaborative projects, not a difficult thing in terms of a writing challenge, but as a matter of cooperation, deliberation and debate it has been something that Tim and I have loved and hated, not quite in equal measure, but enough to motivate us week by week to produce something that many of you came back to us to read regularly.

So how do we do it?

GeekOut Top 10s

Thursday – Discuss

I’m frequently out on a Thursday night gaming at a local pub, and I frequently stand up to leave saying “Right, I’m going home to have an argument” which is only slightly hyperbolic. When we began the list it was purely via chat, constant recapping of our content and order, and it would take hours. When we made the move to a google doc it dramatically reduced the time this section took, dependent on how well we’d agree on definitions as they pertain to the heading of the list, or how well certain entries qualify. Some weeks, astonishingly simple and smooth, others infuriatingly long and filled with torturously long and granular deliberation.

It’s a simple process of positing a candidate. Many are self explanatory, some may require explanation if one or other of us are unfamiliar, or if the link to the title is not wholly obvious. Last week’s Suspiciously Cheerful Tunes as a prime example, my first suggestion for the list was Candy Man in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Little needed to be said, and despite it being my suggestion, Tim took the reigns of writing the entry, only missing the deific qualities of Willy Wonka ascribed to him by the song, otherwise capturing its essence, promise, a lure to damnation. Conversely, Tim had to give a quick summary of Porky Means Business, as I’ve never played Earthbound, and we had something of a debate between Drs. Horrible and Steel.

After we have sufficient entries, and maybe a few too many if it’s been a particularly fruitful topic. We’ll argue the merits of one entry over another, often earmarking certain outstanding entrants as going straight to the top three, or pushing them to the bottom for little consideration, with only a few changes made until we’re done. Finally we divide up the list between us to write, and call it an evening.

Friday – Write

The writing process often drives us to research more deeply than we initially intend. While some subjects we’re more than knowledgeable to spit out a couple of paragraphs, or perhaps having to kerb our enthusiasm and restrict how deep our explanation goes.

Sometimes we’ll add something that we know only as “common knowledge”, those things that you absorb as part of being part of the culture. Occasionally we are driven to extensive googling on the matter, sometimes cribbing off the compiled lists of others or simply delving into a topic until we uncover something. It makes the process of writing a matter of learning, and hugely beneficial. Courtesy of recent lists I now know a surprising amount about Pikmin for someone who has never played a single title in the series, the same with the Pink Panther, various mythologies, and Robin Williams.

Usually Tim takes command of the framing work, the introduction, and those intermediary paragraphs between sections, what we refer to as “the spiel”, although I take up the duty from time to time, especially if I’m light on entries I can viably write adequately, or if I have a particularly quiet Friday to look forward to.

Saturday – Publish

Once the blue button has been pressed on a Friday night there’s little left to do. The final product is complete with relevant screen captures, images, or videos for each entry, and finally the vote for the following week.

Once it was the case that Saturdays would see a discernible spike in viewership, these days we’ve attracted a high enough number of regular readers that Saturdays aren’t much more than a wiggle in our day-to-day viewership, and while it’s not so noticeable a thing as to ascribe entirely to the work we put into each and every Top 10, I for one consider the work we’ve put in over the years of collaboration on our lists a key factor in our own improvements as writers… or at least my own.

Honourable Mentions

It’s been a strange transformation over the years, but the honourables list began in our first list because we had too many bears that we couldn’t bear to omit. Over time we made adding a couple of extras to the ten mandatory, and over time that part of the list became a place for entries that were not quite right for the list but had some quality that expanded the definitions, thinking outside the box, but thinking about the box as it were.

You might say that we began riffing off WatchMojo, I’d like to think that these days we produce a more compelling list than they do, but now that we’re only a couple of days from our penultimate list, it feels right to reflect for a moment on the strangest highlight of our time on the internet.

Playing True Neutral

This one’s kinda huge. I mean really big.

Every other entry from the moral alignment axis table comes pre-packaged with its own ethos, its own motivations and philosophies, so often Neutrality is seen as bland, so aggressively treading the middle of the line that at its most extreme the True Neutral character will spend his days alternately helping old ladies cross the road and filling her house with bear traps before turning yourself in to the police. But Neutral doesn’t have to be the dry toast of moral breakfast time!

Settle in, let’s have a look at what kind of person fits under the massive True Neutral label.

It’s Everyone

Practically everyone in the word is Neutral! I’m deadly serious. There are plenty who might like to believe that they’re Lawful good or Neutral Good, just inherently nice and selfless people, generous and caring to a fault. But let’s be honest now shall we? We’re apes, we are inherently tribal, and on some level we are competitive and inherently selfish. The morality we have is the result of a massive expansion in our mental capacity to care for family, to the point where we’re capable of empathy not just for our own species, but to care and love for other species as well. Many of us are good, no denying it, but many of us will also grab the last cookie without a word and blame it on a sibling.

We lie! We cheat! We want stuff for ourselves, we’ll disagree with the laws as written and break them when we think we can get away with it, but most of us won’t kill people just because we’re afraid of getting caught (most of us). We’re not good, we’re not bad, we’re not rebels or conformists, we just want an easy life for ourselves, and you can get that a lot easier if you tow the line and get on with people.

I joked about helping the infirm only to mutilate them in their homes with inhumane hunting traps, and that’s the kind of hilarious extremes you can reach in a role-play situation. To me, True Neutral is about the little every day good deeds and selfish acts. It’s parking on a double yellow line and then feeling bad about it for an hour before eating a bagel and forgetting about the whole thing. It’s denting someone’s car and not feeling guilty because it was a Mercedes.

Because we’re only human.

The Moral Starting Point

And because we’re only human, we are hugely capable of extremes of philosophy and individualism. We’re driven by passions and impulses, dogmatic in our believes but easily swayed by suggestion. That makes us mighty.

In the other articles in this series I’ve discussed how your alignment changes how you pursue your goals, or how you work to drive the goals of an organisation you have affiliated yourself with. A neutral character simply is the goal they pursue, the ethos they uphold, their personality without strong leanings in any moral direction. In fact one should always assume that they are building a True Neutral character to begin with, before sitting back and debating how the decisions they have made might cause their character to lean more strongly in one direction or another, and how the pressures of their history have made them more strongly aligned along one axis or another.

In short we are born Neutral. The D&D monster manuals always list animals as neutral because the notion of charity or cruelty, obedience or rebellion are very human concepts, born of personality and millennia of history trying to rationalise our existence. Beautiful in its way. The reason why the admittedly flawed alignment system causes so many arguments is because of how each alignment is perceived by other people.

Anything But Bland

You’re not a boring person.* You have hopes and dreams and have lived a life of experiences that have driven you, shaped you, and moulded you into the glorious specimen we all know and love.**

The archetypal view of True Neutral is the dull and flavourless character bumbling their way through life without a rhyme or reason to their name. It’s just not the case, because nobody is that boring. The best example of a character who never sways from the stance of moral stoicism despite the forces that pull him in every direction could never be accused of boring: Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones.

Tyrion’s interests lie predominantly in self preservation. He is loyal to a family that despises him until their betrayals force him to unconscionable acts. He is loyal to a nation that very nearly destroys him, and so he turns to someone outside who might be able to save everyone from themselves. He could never be accused of being Good as he acts in his own self interests as far as he can get away with, exalting in hedonism as far as it will go without harming another. He could never be truly considered Lawful or Chaotic, because while he may be a loyal servant, he picks and chooses his masters and runs vicious and hilarious tactics against those who have the power to undermine him.

The same is true of Jessica Jones. Invasive, deceitful, even outright criminal in her actions but keeping her paperwork in order and working to uphold the law. She stops a supervillain but she’s no hero, in fact she’s given up on the very idea.

Are these bland characters? Hell no. But they’re True Neutral because most of us are, most of the best characters are.


*If you are a boring person, please disregard.

**If we do not know you personally, please disregard.

Playing Chaotic Neutral

Skipping along the chart for a moment, the True Alignment is too big for a single article, so I’ll jump to the second biggest alignment to deal with because it’s often done so badly! It’s almost a stereotype that the words Chaotic Neutral might as well read “Doesn’t know how to play”.

The problem tends to be that inexperienced players understand that the alignment is for those who are in it for themselves and damn the consequences, but play the alignment to some comical exaggeration, like a bizarre and psychotic prankster without direction or purpose. A bad CN player is a Tazmanian Devil let off the chain, a destructive force that sews chaos for chaos’ sake, playing the alignment instead of applying it to a character. Continue reading “Playing Chaotic Neutral”

Playing Lawful Neutral

When we step from good but do not reach evil, we must instead discuss what is justifiable, and law, chaos, or whatever other ethos you use becomes simply a means to an end.

While there are those who fall within Lawful Neutral’s umbrella who see the law as the end to which all means are necessary, and blindly pursue upholding the law as a duty in itself. Still others are simply searching for a peaceful life, or the pursuit of their own goals within the confines of the law, or in accordance with some code of conduct or ethics. LN characters are not necessarily interested in saving lives, nor are they necessarily out to enforce their law upon others, but in their actions they are constantly guided by an outside force. Continue reading “Playing Lawful Neutral”

Playing Chaotic Good

Meet the Robin Hood of the D&D moral alignment system. Here we find the vigilantes, the renegades, and the rebels willing to stand up for what’s right in a world gone tragically wrong, and most importantly the heroes of freedom. For those who swing towards chaos on the side of goodness and the rights of the people the call to heroism comes when tyrants, slavers and oppressors threaten the people and their ability to live their lives in peace and quiet, without the demands of others to intrude. Sticking up for the little guy has the potential to lead people into trouble, and a tendency to run afoul of the law, but that’s all part of the fun for a CG character.

It’s one of the easiest alignments to play, but it’s worth looking into how to play Chaotic Good well. Continue reading “Playing Chaotic Good”

Playing Neutral Good

I hate Neutral Good.

As a player it’s an easy pick, all the advantages of heroism without the need to be tied down by an ideology like the rule of law or the right to be free, ignore the rules whenever you please – oh sorry, whenever the cause is just – without suffering the wrath of the police. On the bright side it allows players to explore ideologies and philosophies more readily than might a lawful or chaotic bound player, and different perspectives on what one must do to be considered “good”. As a player it needn’t be a cop-out, claiming to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, it can be a chance to explore what can drive someone to a life of heroism. Continue reading “Playing Neutral Good”

Playing Lawful Good

The much maligned moral alignment system has something of a bad history. In past editions of Dungeons & Dragons it’s been too restrictive, poorly explained and interpreted worse still, but take some time with it, break free of its constraints and bend the rules a little and it can actually be as useful a method of categorising and guiding the decisions and progression of a character as giving them a Myers-Briggs personality type, or a background. And of course it needn’t be restricted to a D&D or fantasy character.

Lawful Good! The alignment most commonly associated with the gleaming warriors of god, the Paladins and Clerics, or the guy who inevitably gets attacked by the barbarian for getting in the way of unrestrained carnage once too often. Having an LG character in the party can often feel like being lumbered with a chaperone or a policeman, everyone has to be on their best behaviour because the LG can’t stand by and simply watch as the less restrained members of the group do what needs to be done. An LG might be so inclined to hand over inordinate amounts of loot to charities and those less fortunate because it’s the “right thing to do” which is often a major source of conflict. Continue reading “Playing Lawful Good”

How To Play Magic: the Gathering Draft

Drafting is a great format for entry level play and veterans alike, it gives all players a functioning deck without the advantages of having spent a fortune on their collection. It’s also a great way to try out a new set, grab some great new cards and get more from your average pack of random boosters.

Furthering our long, drawn out series on how to play, here’s how to play one of the more enjoyable Magic styles of play.

The Format

The “buy-in” for a draft is usually three booster packs of fifteen random cards, average price of about £10. Everyone sits around a table, everyone opens one of the boosters they brought, picks a card from it and passes the rest to the left. This continues until the pack is depleted, then everyone moves onto their second pack, passing in the opposite direction, and again with the third, at which point everyone should have a collection of forty-five cards, from which you build a deck of forty or more cards which includes the basic land cards you’ll need to add. Continue reading “How To Play Magic: the Gathering Draft”

Writing In WordPress

Most, if not all of us have heard the name WordPress, in fact if you’re here you may notice the words “Blog at WordPress” somewhere near the bottom. It’s been a long-standing tool for bloggers and keen writers to get their work out into the world, and with a bit of careful effort noticed there too. It’s also a fairly functional means of producing a quick and easy website for those of us with only rudimentary programming skills, with a wide selection of modifiable themes and plugins that can be put into play to make your WordPress site stand out from the many millions of other WordPress sites there are out there (about 74.6 million). Continue reading “Writing In WordPress”

A Tale Of Battle: How To Make Your RPG Combat Feel Epic

What makes a combat encounter feel epic? Not just a fun game, not just a well-run session, but a truly awe-inspiring fight that you will end up remembering for years to come even though it happened with inch-high figures on a tabletop. It’s a question that all GMs should ask themselves at some point, as it’s the key to creating fantastic gaming sessions.

His hands trembled as he notched yet another arrow to his bow. Cowering behind a great rock column, he counted out his remaining flights in the dim light of the cave. Not enough. Behind him, the beast let out another gout of flame from its mighty jaws. The heat singed the hairs on the back of his neck, but the fiery breath was wild and untargeted, a burst of fury more than an attack.

He could see the bleeding, broken forms of his friends on the rocky ground. The once-proud warlock now lying shattered under a stalactite. The fighter, burnt by flames, groaning as he rocked in and out of consciousness. The gnome, buried under rock, struggling to breathe. The archer and the wizard, both trembling, frozen by the icy breath of one of the beast’s many heads. He was the last one left.

Of course, he could always run. There was nothing between him and the exit, nothing stopping him from beating a retreat. But then his dying friends would have no hope of survival. Worse than that, the beast would be able to escape into the settlement above. No. He had to stay and fight. He was the last line of defence, and he’d be damned if he left his post at a time like this.

His whole body shaking, sweat and tears mingling with the grit on his face, jolts of pain running through him from a dozen wounds, he spun around. And with those trembling hands he drew the bowstring back, stared into the eyes of the creature and with gritted teeth let loose his arrow…

What makes a combat encounter feel epic? Not just a fun game, not just a well-run session, but a truly awe-inspiring fight that you will end up remembering for years to come even though it happened with inch-high figures on a tabletop. It’s a question that all GMs should ask themselves at some point, as it’s the key to creating fantastic gaming sessions.

Pollice Verso *oil on canvas *97,4 x 146,6 cm *1872

I’ve been a GM for nearly nine years, and creating memorable combat encounters was one of the last skills I developed. I think a lot of other GMs probably feel the same way. I’ve seen (and run) so many combats that immediately degenerate into a meaningless slog as the party cut down enemy after enemy in a way that can feel more like a chore than a game.

It took me a little while to work out the key to making combat genuinely epic, and the solution didn’t come from D&D or Savage Worlds or any other roleplaying game. In fact, it came from my experience as a martial artist. While sparring and rolling dice are completely different in many ways, they are similar enough that a nerd like me can learn from them.
See, the first question you have to ask when tackling this question is: “What do my players want?” The answer will depend on the type of game you’re playing, but in general the answer is success. This comes in many forms throughout a game, but we’re only going to look at it regarding combat.

When fighting enemies, the way players experience success is pretty obvious. They succeed when the bad guys are dead, imprisoned, have run away or are otherwise defeated. So far, so simple. The problem is, after a while victory becomes a given. As your players defeat dozens of villains, it loses its impact.

050907-M-7747B-002 GINOWAN CITY, OKINAWA, Japan – Shinya Kinjo (left) and 1st Lt. Tim A. Martin (right) go down to the ground during a Judo session at the Ginowan City Police Station Sept. 7. Kinjo is a Ginowan City police officer and Martin is the officer in charge of the Crime Prevention Unit at Camp Foster’s Provost Marshal’s Office. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Scott M. Biscuiti)(released)

This occurred to me when I was talking to a friend about a recent martial arts session. I had been dumped on my head and mildly concussed by one of the bigger guys in the gym in practice. I realised that I only ever told stories about me getting hurt in some way.

I’ve told people about the time I got choked unconscious, the time I got face-locked so hard it tore an inch-long gash in my bottom lip, the time a guy bit me and the time all the capillaries in my eyes burst. Those are the memorable fights I’ve been in. I rarely ever talk about the sparring sessions I succeeded at, because those don’t make as good stories.

So why is that? I think it’s because there’s a common factor in each one of those sparring mishaps: I succeeded despite them. The guy that bit me? I arm-locked him until he stopped. When I got dumped on my head, I kept holding on to my opponent and ended up securing a choke. Sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that I came back onto the mats after getting knocked out.

Dungeons_&_Dragons_Miniatures_2

So, let’s get back to RPGs. How can all those little mishaps help your combat encounters? Well, I’ve started structuring mine in a similar way. If I have a session I want my players to remember, one with heightened drama and a feeling of epicness, I need to make sure they succeed despite the odds.

That’s really important. The best stories in the world are about heroes who overcome challenges they shouldn’t be able to get past. That’s basically the entire plot of Die Hard, and if you don’t think that’s one of the greatest stories ever told then you are a negative influence that I don’t need in my life.

I think this is where the stereotype of the GM who wants their party to die comes from. Well, actually I think it comes from bad GMs who want their party to die, but bear with me. Nobody competent actually wants their players to lose, but they want them to come close. Because when they’re inches away from total failure and succeed anyway, the feeling is fantastic.

So one key to epic combat is to ramp up the difficulty. You can do this in a number of ways. D&D is built around a kind of ‘war of attrition’ model, where difficulty comes from fighting lots of battles without the chance to rest and wearing the players down. Other games work better with single, more powerful boss monsters.

It’s worth being prepared to change the difficulty on the fly. If it looks like your party is going to tear through your boss without breaking a sweat, double its hit points. Or have it summon some other bad guys to help it. Alternatively, if the villain is knocking the stuffing out of the players then you’ll want to power them down a bit.

RPG-2009-Berlin-2

It’s not always easy to get the balance right. For the most epic struggles, you’ll want the entire party to get close to death, but you never want to lose more than one or two at most. Ideally, everyone will pull through. The only way to get better at this particular aspect is to play around with difficulty levels and keep experimenting.
But wait! There’s more. You see, great combats have another element to them besides the difficulty: a narrative. There should be a story to them, which is not the same as there being a story to the campaign.

For example, let’s say your plot has an evil warlord terrorising the land. Your party fights their way up to the castle and corners him on the roof. There’s your campaign plot – it’s why your players are there, fighting this particular person. But it’s not enough. There needs to be a separate narrative within the combat itself.

Let’s return to my martial arts experience. Remember the guy that bit me? There’s a story there: the opponent who wouldn’t play by the rules, but succumbed to courage and purity of heart. When I was dumped on my head but hung on anyway, that’s the classic narrative of brute force versus thoughtful technique.

I’m embellishing these of course – and making myself look like way more of a badass than I actually am – but you can see how there are themes to the fights themselves that are different from the plot. In an RPG, you have a lot of options to add a narrative to your combats.

In the example above with the warlord, you could have him destroy parts of the castle in a frenzied attempt to stop the players. He could try to run and have the players chase him down a secret passage full of traps. He could drink a Dr-Jekyll-esque potion and become a wild beast with the strength of ten men.

It’s not enough just to fight a villain if you really want the combat to be epic. I opened this article with a story from a recent session I ran, which I thought illustrated nicely how this works. In addition to the fact that the party was left with just one person standing (who succeeded in slaying the beast, by the way), there was also a good narrative running through it.

In this case it was that of the fearsome beast from beneath the ground trying to escape to wreak havoc on the surface. It’s a very simple story, but it transforms the combat from a simple fight into a last stand against a force of destruction.

There’s a lot more to creating truly memorable combats, and there is a lot you can learn about things like enemy types, use of scenery, open spaces vs choke points and other aspects of this part of GM-ing. But at it’s heart, the best fights are the ones you can tell stories about later. And the best stories are about overcoming the odds.


 

This article is a guest contribution by Joe Boyd. We’d like to extend our thanks to Joe for this brilliant article. The subject interested both of us GeekOut guys big time and when we read what he’d produced, we knew we wanted to share this with you all. Let us know what you think in the comments below, or over on Facebook and Twitter. If you’d like to get involved as a guest blogger, why not contact us?