Conservation of NPCs

Posted on : 29-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D, DM's Journal, Indie Games

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I just read a post on Mike’s D&D Blog in which Mike asks for advice on how to remember all of the NPCs in the game that he’s playing in. I think it’s admirable that he’s seeking advice on how to be a better player, and as a DM, I know it can be irksome when my players can’t keep the NPCs straight. This is why I, whenever possible, try to use a technique that Paul Tevis refers to as “Conservation of NPCs”.

The idea is simple. Whenever you’re in need of an NPC to fill a particular role in your adventure or campaign, look at the roster of NPCs that you’ve already introduced. If someone in that roster can potentially fill this new role without breaking verisimilitude, do it. See, if you give your players more opportunities to interact with an NPC, they’re going to develop stronger feelings toward that NPC. If it’s an ally, they’ll grow more attached. If it’s a villain, they’ll start to hate him more. If you introduce a new NPC every time you need an NPC for a particular role, most of your NPCs are going to be throw-aways, and the players won’t care that much about them.

There are some definite benefits to doing things this way. First of all, with fewer important NPCs running around, it’s going to be a lot easier for your players to keep track of them and remember who’s who. Second, if your players get attached to a particular merchant or guard or airship captain, they’re going to respond more quickly and more intensely when he or she is put in danger. Similarly, recurring villains are much more satisfying to defeat than one-shot villains are, and as such the players are much more likely to go to great lengths to bring them down.

Character Profiles: Frederick, Dwarven Shieldmain

Posted on : 27-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, House Rules

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In Underdark dwarven society, two primary warrior castes exist: the warmains and the shieldmains. Warmains are trained for aggressive combat, pushing into enemy lines, and participating in full-scale wars. The much more common shieldmains are the defenders of dwarven settlements, trained to patrol, eliminate threats, and protect their fellows. Frederick was raised in the warrior caste, and chose the path of the shieldmain in order to both remain close to to his home settlement of Kharazh and to help combat the constant threat of troglodytes and kua-toa.

When Frederick was thirty, only a few years out of his apprenticeship, Kharazh was attacked by a force of drow in quantities rarely seen in the shallows. The drow made quick work of most of the patrolling shieldmains and either killed or enslaved the bulk of the population of Kharazh. Frederick survived because he was patrolling on the opposite side of the town from the attack, and was unable to make it home to defend Kharazh in time; by the time he arrived at the walls, the battle was already over.

Frederick is no expert tracker, and the drow had covered their tracks well. Only a few shieldmains and warmains remained after the battle, as well as a handful of citizens. Rather than hunt the drow down and fight them in their city, possibly losing the rest of the population in the process, Frederick led the remaining dwarves to the surface dwarven city of Hammerfast. Once he was sure they were safe, he left them.

Frederick blames himself for what happened, and longs for vengeance against the drow, whom he hates more than anything now. He knows that he is not strong enough to fight them, so he seeks out those who are, in the hopes of gaining allies in his quest.

Frederick is accustomed to protecting people, but doesn’t trust his own skills. Because of this, it will be some time before he has the confidence to lead; as such, he makes an excellent follower for the PCs (see the ally card above). Frederick can also be a good source of quests, as he will likely try to convince the PCs to go to the Underdark and confront the drow, hopefully saving his people int he process.

Current House Rules

Posted on : 25-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, DM's Journal, Downloads, House Rules

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I’m using very few house rules in my current game (I don’t consider custom monsters to be house rules), and I thought I’d share them. I’ve talked about a few of them already, but I’ll give you some updates.

Renown Points
I’ve already explained my rationale for using Renown Points, and I like the way it worked in the last session. I monkeyed with some of the values and achievements so that rarer achievements are worth more, and so that they work a little more as intended. Here’s my new score card.

Ally Cards
I shamelessly stole this idea from someone else. I’m modifying it a little to suit my tastes. Here’s how they work in my game.

Actions
Allies do not have their own actions; each ally is attached to one of the players and is under his/her control. Whenever a PC takes a move action, that player’s attached ally can also do so. The PC can spend a minor action to activate one of the ally’s encounter or daily abilities. Allies do not make opportunity attacks or take any other actions on their own. Some allies have passive abilities; these do not require an action to take effect. When an ally uses an encounter or daily ability, no roll is required; however, an ally cannot deal damage automatically. Instead, any ally power that deals damage must do so as a result of a PC’s roll, effectively granting bonus damage to a PC’s attack.

Damage and Healing
Allies do not have hit points; instead, they have hit boxes. When an ally takes damage from any source, mark off a hit box. Like minions, allies do not take damage from a miss, but can take automatic damage from an aura or other effect. When all hit boxes are marked off, the ally is unconscious. If an unconscious ally takes damage, that ally dies. Allies do not make death saving throws while they are unconscious; they are automatically stable.

Whenever an ally benefits from a healing ability that allows that ally to spend a healing surge or heal as if a healing surge had been spent, that ally erases one marked off hit box. Allies do not, however, have healing surges. During a short rest, an ally can erase all marked off hit boxes.

Resistances and vulnerabilities do not apply to allies.

Sample Ally Cards

Healbots
One of my players plays a warlord, and is the only leader in the party. The paladin and warlock can both do some healing, but not much, and both have access to healing on a daily basis rather than an encounter basis. The warlord is often unavailable, and until recently I simply had another player run his character. That, however, slowed things down and was, in general, complicated and not as effective as it could be. I also tried creating a monster version of the warlord, Sredni, so that he’d be easier to run. This, too, left a bad taste in my mouth.

Then, I came across this post, which I’m going to shamelessly steal from (again). I’m modifying the healbot rules a little to give Sredni a little bit more autonomy, and so that the players still benefit from his passive abilities (warlords have awesome passive abilities). I’m also going to continue to have a player run him, but now there will be significantly less for that player to have to keep track of. I give you Sredni Vashtar, healbot:

Snakes on a Train

Posted on : 24-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, House Rules, Session Reports

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A new session report is up. It was a great session, during which I debuted a few new mechanics that I’ve talked about on this blog in the past.

I tried out the Renown Point system, and my players really seemed to like it. It didn’t overcomplicate things, and it’s always nice to be rewarded. I do think I need to adjust some of the reward values and tweak a few of the Renown achievements.

The second mechanic that I tried out was a system for allied characters, which was a big hit. The party now has group of nine NPCs (one of them a dire wolf) following them around and crewing their new airship, which I think they really like. They’ve gotten somewhat attached to a few of the NPCs, and I think they like having an entourage.

TPK: How I was eaten by mushrooms

Posted on : 21-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, Session Reports

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So, on Wednesday I went to my FLGS and played some D&D Encounters. It started out really well; it was an interesting fight in an alchemical laboratory with some myconids, and we had a pretty well-balanced party (though, I think that two controllers is one too many).

About an hour into it, though, when we had only succeeded in killing off the minions, it started to dawn on us that maybe things weren’t going so well. Then, people started to drop. The cleric, to her credit, managed to resuscitate us pretty regularly; I went into negatives at least three times over the course of the encounter. But when our only defender–a dwarven paladin–got completely obliterated, taken from being up and fighting to flat-out dead in one blow, we knew we were in trouble. There was no bringing him back, and the rest of us were pretty squishy.

I think we made some tactical blunders during the encounter. We spent too much time fighting the myconid guards, who were soaking up a lot of our strikers’ damage. They were, being myconids, shunting that damage off onto the myconid rot priests in the back ranks, who were just regenerating it since they weren’t being attacked. What we should have done was focus our strikers on them first; they would have gone done pretty quickly if we had, which would have made the guards easier to take out.

There was also the matter of a green slime. The slime wasn’t tough, but it kept on engulfing people, meaning it was taking half damage most of the time. We didn’t spend enough time attacking it when it wasn’t engulfing someone, choosing to react to its attacks rather than take a more proactive approach, which probably would have killed it quickly.

We also hung out in the hallway rather than going into the room and trying things out. I understand that there were some explody tables in the room that we could have made use of, and though the thought occurred to me (I used a very similar technique in my own campaign), we never really capitalized on it.

At any rate, Ash, my longtooth shifter seeker, has been brutally killed by fungus-people. I’ve decided that I’m going to make a different sort of character this time around and, rather than just making a character that I think is interesting, I’m going to try to make a character that benefits the party in a specific way.

I have two characters in mind right now. The first is Rafe, a genasi warlord. He’s the kind of character who stays at range (like my seeker), but I built him to maximize party damage output. He’s a resourceful warlord, meaning that when an ally succeeds with an action point attack, they get +4 damage. Add to this the fact that every single attack power I gave him (yes, every single one) grants at least a +4 to damage to someone (if not everyone), and I think our damage woes will be in the past. He’ll encourage people to focus fire on one target, and take that target out quickly.

The second character is Bulwark, a warforged fighter. I built him for extreme durability with pretty good damage output, going with the battlerager build for the temporary hit points it gave me. He’s got a pretty good AC at 18, but he can get as many as 6 temporary hit points from a successful attack with one of his powers, and a successful attack with any of his powers will net him 3 temporary hit points. Warforged resolve doesn’t hurt, either.

So, I’ll tell you how it goes. Hopefully one of these characters will prove to be a little more valuable, and a little harder to kill.

House Rules: True Names and Sympathetic Magic

Posted on : 17-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, House Rules

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The idea of using true names to power arcane magic is not a new one, but it is extremely evocative. In Fool Moon, Harry Dresden uses pieces of his true name as bargaining chips when prying information from a demon. The idea of true names as a method of controlling other beings feature’s prominently in Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed, as well. If you’d like to introduce the idea of true names and their power into D&D, it’s not hard to do. Here’s how.

Sympathetic Ritual Casting
While most any ritual can be cast without using a creature’s true name, such rituals are far more potent when such powerful knowledge is used in the casting. Any ritual can be cast using a creature’s true name, as long as that creature is a target of that ritual. Typically, true names are used in the casting of rituals in the Binding and Scrying categories, but they are equally effective when used in Deception, Divination, Restoration, and Warding rituals that target the creature in question.

When you use a creature’s true name in the casting of the ritual, you may spend a healing surge (in addition to any other costs of the ritual) to create a sympathetic bond between you and the named creature. This sympathetic bond grants you a +5 bonus per tier on any checks required by the ritual. Using a true name does narrow the focus of certain rituals, though; any ritual that affects an entire group or type of creatures affects only the named creature. It is possible to name multiple creatures in the casting of a ritual, but you must possess all required true names, and you must spend a healing surge for each true name used. Note that anyone assisting in the ritual may spend these healing surges in your place, but anyone who spends a healing surge must know the associated true name.

Sympathetic Spellcasting
Spells, prayers, evocations, and hexes can be used in conjunction with true names, as well. Any power with the arcane, divine, primal, or shadow power source can be cast with a true name. You must spend a healing surge to do so (just as with rituals, multiple true names requires multiple healing surges, though using multiple true names does not increase the number of targets a power can affect), and doing so confers one of the following benefits:

  • Increase the range of the power by 5 squares per tier.
  • Gain a +2 bonus per tier to the attack roll.
  • Gain a +5 bonus per tier to the damage roll.
  • If the power grants healing or temporary hit points to the target, it heals 5 additional hit points per tier or grants 5 additional temporary hit points per tier.
  • The target takes a -2 penalty per tier to saving throws made to resist the power.

Talismans
When using a true name to cast a ritual or use a power, you can also employ the use of a talisman. A talisman consists of two things: the first is a focus item representative of the target (a doll, statue, picture, etc.) worth at least 50 gp per level of the target. The second might be harder to come by: you must combine the focus with a piece of the target. This piece of the target can be blood, hair, a bit of skin, a scale, a tooth, or any other item that came from the target’s body. Once this is combined with the focus, it becomes a talisman. A talisman allows you to invoke a creature’s true name without expending a healing surge, but it can only be used once. Using a talisman does not destroy the focus component, which may be re-used, but does destroy the piece of the target used in the talisman’s creation.

Allies in D&D

Posted on : 16-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, House Rules

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The DMG2 presents rules for companion characters, which are good. They turn a companion character into a monster, mechanically, with the same simplicity and presentation of information. This makes it easy to run a companion as a second character, and keeps the companion complex and powerful enough to make a difference in the fight. In my campaign, I’m going to be one player short a lot for a while; Sredni’s player will be unable to make it to games on a regular basis. Because of this, I plan on making up a companion version of Sredni, so that one of the other players can run him as well as their own character; that way, the party isn’t without a leader.

Over at In the Eye of the Beholder, they have a different take. I must say, I like these rules quite a bit. They’re simple and streamlined, don’t require a lot of book-keeping, and allow allies to be important (but not too important) in a fight.

Is one method better than the other? I don’t think so. I think that each lends itself to different uses. I think that the DMG2 rules a great for replacing a PC, making a companion that’s going to be a full-fledged member of the party with an equal share of the XP. If you want allies for your PCs in a fight, but don’t want to cut into the party’s XP, the Beholder method is very good.

I might make a few modifications to the rules presented, though. For example, rather than giving each ally its own standard and move action, I’d have each ally be controlled by one of the players. When that player takes a move action, the ally can also do so, and the ally’s special ability would cost the player’s character a minor action to perform.

In my own campaign, I plan on using both methods. I’m going to stat Sredni out as a full companion character, and he’ll get a share of the XP just like everyone else. However, a lot of the walk-on companions in the adventure will use these other rules.

Planning for Spontaneity

Posted on : 15-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D, DM's Journal

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I’d like to preface this post by saying that I’m talking specifically about guidelines and advice for planning an adventure in 4e D&D, but some–or possibly even all–of this article could apply to other games that require an element of planning.

I like games where you can improvise and do things off-the-cuff; it makes for an interesting and dynamic world that responds to the decisions that the players make and allows them to have a real stake in how things turn out in the end. D&D can be that kind of game, but it’ll always require some element of planning in order to really run smoothly. Sure, you could make everything up as you go along, and for the most part that’ll work just fine–until you start running a combat encounter. Once this happens, things will grind to a halt as you find all the monsters you need in your various books or on the Compendium, sort out your battle map or tiles, find all your minis (or use appropriate stand-ins), figure out where everything goes, come up with interesting terrain, and so on, and so forth.

The simple truth is that a little planning can go a long way, and it’s entirely possible to plan in such a way that you can leave yourself a lot of room to react to what the players do, and allow them to see the impact they’re having on the world.

Re-Skin your Encounters
In D&D, it’s pretty easy to separate mechanics from flavor when you’re dealing with things like terrain effects, traps, and monsters. Swapping out types of damage and changing the way you describe things can be enough to make an encounter full of orcs and trolls feel like an encounter full of aberrations from the Far Realm.

This won’t necessarily be possible with all of your encounters. You definitely want your big set-piece encounters to feel distinct and to be exciting, and for the most part these encounters aren’t really going to be the kinds of encounters your players will easily avoid anyway. If the fate of the world hinges on a fight with the mad necromancer Falagoth and his undead minions, it’s a fair bet that your players will wind up in that encounter one way or another.

A lot of the minor encounters can be constructed in such a way that they can be re-purposed easily. Using monsters that have easily re-skinnable abilities helps this, as does having a stable of terrain effects that you can easily drop into an encounter. You might even consider organizing your Dungeon Tiles with note cards containing potential effects on the game, for easier use during play. A nice side-benefit of this technique is that, when your players manage to avoid an encounter completely (and they will, at some point), the encounter isn’t wasted; you can re-skin it and use it later, with little or no modification.

Create Generic Maps
You may have a number of encounters planned, but you don’t want to specify their exact order or location. Say, for example, your adventure revolves around fighting a murderous thieves’ guild in a city. You know that most of your encounters will be in indoor and urban environments, so it might be worth it to create five or six different maps for different locations around the city. Then, when your PCs get into a fight, you can choose an appropriate map and combine it with a group of enemies to create an encounter.

Create Encounter Pieces
It’s no secret that some monsters go well with each other. A challenging encounter often capitalizes on these synergies, allowing the monsters to work as a team as well as the players do. Something you can do to allow you to adjust your encounters on the fly is create a roster of encounter ‘pieces’–effectively, groups of two or three monsters that go well together, either mechanically or thematically–and keep them in a binder. Don’t worry about making an exhaustive list; focus only on the level range and types of creatures that your party is going to be fighting in the immediate future. Then, when an encounter ensues, you can grab a few encounter pieces and put them together to create an encounter that makes sense based on what’s happened so far. Combining this with generic maps can allow you to construct an entire encounter, including terrain, traps, and so forth, with only a few minutes of table time required.

Don’t Over-Plan
This is probably the single most important piece of advice that I’m going to give here. It’s tempting to want to plan out your entire adventure storyline from start to finish before the players even start playing through it. This is fine, but you should use broad strokes to define your story elements, and refrain from planning out specifics–encounters, skill challenges, even important NPCs–until you anticipate needing them. I know that, in my group, we can usually get through about two combat encounters and some roleplaying/investigation/skill challenge stuff in a single session. So, when planning for game day, that’s what I prepped for. I didn’t bother prepping anything beyond that, because that can wait. Instead, I really focused on making the stuff that’s going to happen in the next session interesting.

What this allows is, should the PCs do something that has implications down the line, I can integrate the consequences of their decisions into the adventure. Because I plan one session at a time, everything I plan is informed by what’s happened so far. This means that the players actually do have a significant impact on what happens in the story, and I try to make that plain to them.

Save Important Decisions for the End
The end of a session, that is. If you’re going to have a big decision for the players to make, and that decision is going to have significant ramifications in the rest of the adventure, it helps to put that decision near the end of a session. That way, you have a lot more time to think about and respond to their choice, and the consequences are likely to make more sense and feel more authentic.

The main alternative to this is to prep for multiple outcomes of the decision, so that you have something planned either way. This is a valid way to do things, and might be necessary sometimes. This is where a lot of the stuff that came earlier in this post can help you; if you can plan just enough so that you can react to multiple decisions quickly, then you’re more likely to keep your players engaged and coming back for more.

Review Miscellany

Posted on : 14-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, Indie Games, News, Reviews, Video Games

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I’ve been playing a lot of different games this week, and I’ve got some stuff coming up; I figured I’d give little capsule reviews of what I’ve been doing, and talk a little about some stuff that’s upcoming. In no particular order:

Dead Space: I’m possibly a bit late to the party on this one, but I picked up Dead Space for a really good price around Christmas and just now got around to playing it. I’m not finished with it yet, but I’m eight hours or so into it and I’m really enjoying it. The atmosphere is suitably creepy, and while it doesn’t really create fear (what video game does, really?), it does succeed in creating an awful lot of tension. The fact that the main character, Isaac Clarke, doesn’t speak is a little bit strange considering how much he gets spoken to, especially when you take into account that there’s a character in the game who is supposed to be personally important to Isaac. The game spins a good yarn, though, and the combat is pretty good.

The Humble Indie Bundle: This is a group of indie PC games, for which you can name any price you want, pay it, and get them all. You can choose how much of your money goes toward the developers, and how much goes toward Child’s Play. There are some worthwhile games in the bundle, and while I haven’t liked all of them, I like enough of them that I’m happy I paid for the bundle. Plus, it’s for charity. Go buy it.

Of the games in the bundle, I’ve played World of Goo, which is excellent (I own this on Wii, too). It’s got a great Tim Burton-esque aesthetic, and even has Danny Elfman-esque music, and the puzzling is very, very good. I’ve played about twenty minutes of Aquaria, and I really like what I’ve played. Simple controls but apparently deep gameplay, and the music and art style are fantastic. Gish is sort of a mixed bag; it’s got a really neat premise and some cool mechanics, but the controls are frequently fiddly and annoying, and I feel that the game gets in its own way a lot. Samorost 2 is a Flash-based adventure game that is visually very charming. The problem is that there are a lot of pixel hunts in the game, and some of the puzzles are a little obtuse. Worse, there are puzzles that you can bring almost to completion over the course of a few minutes, screw up one thing (without realizing that you’re doing anything wrong), and have to do the whole thing again, from the beginning. It is very short, though, so you should at least give it a try. The other two, Lugaru and Penumbra: Overture I have yet to spend any real time with.

D&D Encounters: I got to play in Encounters again, and had a blast. I’ve played two different characters so far, both from the Player’s Handbook 3. First I played a human monk, which was very satisfying. I like the monk class quite a lot; very mobile and capable of some pretty spectacular stuff on the battlefield. Flurry of blows is also one of my favorite striker damage-spikes because of its versatility. The second character I played was a longtooth shifter seeker, which was also a lot of fun. I didn’t do a whole lot of damage (I was using a javelin, meaning that all of my attacks dealt 1d6+4 damage, even encounters and dailies), but I really felt like I was effective at controlling the battlefield, and my daily power made a significant difference in how the encounter played out.

My Home Game: My friend Dean isn’t going to be able to DM his mini-campaign for a while, so the campaign I’m DMing is resuming. I’m very excited to get back into the DM’s seat, and I’ve got some stuff planned. I’ll be updating the wiki as we play, as usual, and I’ll probably post some of the more exciting encounters on this blog, for your own use. Game day is the 23rd, which is only a week away!

Cursed Items

Posted on : 12-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : D&D, House Rules, Indie Games

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There’s some talk over at Critical Hits about cursed items, and whether or not they have a place in 4e. Personally, I really like the idea of cursed items, but I’m not a fan of how previous editions handled them. I don’t like items that are just arbitrarily bad and nearly impossible to get rid of; that’s not fun for anyone. What I do like are items that give power for a price.

For my money, these rules work pretty well for modeling cursed items in 4e. I like the idea of magic items that are somewhat more potent than others at their level, but come with a trade-off that could occasionally screw you. However, I’d probably make one change to the way cursed items worked in my own game: I’d make the effect of the curse inextricably tied to the most potent aspect of the item.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I like the idea of aspects in D&D, though the implementation in my own game left something to be desired. I think that cursed items are a perfect place to use aspect-like mechanics; namely, the ‘compel’ action that the GM can use in games like Spirit of the Century. Effectively, the cursed item would have an aspect that could be compelled from time to time by the DM, forcing the player to act in a certain way . . . if he accepts the power that comes with the compel. Here’s an example of what I mean.

The Blood-Soaked Blade
Considered an ill omen by most, the blood-soaked blade demands to be soaked in the blood of the innocent, but grants power in exchange
Lvl 5
1,000 gp
Weapon: Light Blade, Heavy Blade
Critical: +1d6 necrotic damage, or +1d12 necrotic damage if the weapon’s curse is active.
Enhancement: +1 attack rolls and damage rolls
Property: This item gains a +2 item bonus on damage rolls against bloodied targets while the curse is active.
Power (Encounter): Free action. Use this power when you hit with the weapon. The target takes ongoing 5 damage and you can spend a healing surge. This power can only be used while the curse is active.
Curse: The blood-soaked blade demands to be soaked in the blood of the innocent. In order to activate the curse, you must slay a sentient, innocent being. This causes the curse to become active until the start of your next short rest. If, in addition, you spend a short rest (5 minutes) bathing the blade in the innocent’s blood, the curse becomes active until the start of your next extended rest.

In retrospect, the curse on this item bears only a passing resemblance to a true compel, though the idea is the same: do something that the item wants you to do, and you’ll be rewarded. In the case of the blood-soaked blade, you are offered fairly considerable combat prowess (extra damage against bloodied targets, extra crit damage, and an encounter power that deals ongoing damage and heals you), but in order to gain access to any of it, you have to actively engage in an act that is unequivocally evil. If you don’t satisfy the curse, you’ve effectively got a +1 magic sword, and not much else.

If you hand out a weapon like this, try to make sure it falls into the hands of someone with an alignment and personality opposed to to such an act, and tempt the hell out of them. Play up the weapons malevolent influence, suggesting courses of action to the player (in the voice of the weapon) that would allow the player to satisfy the curse. If you really want to put the screws to the player, put them in a situation where those powers would come in really handy, and let them know about the situation beforehand so that they have the opportunity to satisfy the curse.

ütüleme epilasyon