The Director’s Cut

Since the rest of the family are sun-worshippers, while on holiday recently I’ve had a lot of time dozing on the beach, reflecting on my recent gaming and planning what to do next.

2011 was about solo gaming, since I didn’t think I could get a group together again; 2012 so far has been about getting a group together and being a GM again. Late 2012 will be about choices; since I can’t do everything, what’s the best use of my time? Probably, doing what I’m best at – note, I said best at, not necessarily good at!

Based on what games companies have (and have not) paid me to do, I’m best at converting existing settings to new rules, tweaking rules, and writing one-shot scenarios; worse at creating games and settings from whole cloth.

In movie terms, I’m a director, not a screenwriter.

Once I internalised this idea, the way forward became clear.

  • As the D&D 4th Edition DMG observes, my job is to entertain, not be original.
  • I have too many settings, rules and campaigns; they dilute my focus. I’ll cut back to the ones which excite me most, because those are the ones that will be most fun for everyone.
  • Consequently, future guest games or tryouts should be games run by other members of the group. (Also, they are essentially reviews, so should be filed as such.)
  • Writing after-action reports for games run by other people also dilutes my efforts, so I’ll stop that. Specifically, that means dropping Shadowrun and the Balrite Sector.
  • The adventures generated by THW rules or the Mythic GM emulator are as much fun as anything, require no preparation, and I don’t have to worry about spoilers when writing the blog. So expect a shift in that direction, although I’ll still run Umberto Pignatelli’s scenarios because they invigorate and educate me as a GM.

Over the next few weeks you’ll see the blog evolve in those directions.

Campaign Advice

One of my players asked for advice on setting up his campaign. Here’s what I told him…

CAMPAIGN TYPE

First, decide what kind of campaign you want. I work with three types; episodic, story arc, and sandbox.

Episodic campaigns are like Star Trek: The Original Series or your average cop show; episodes are independent, it doesn’t matter whether you saw the one before, you can still join in. Pro: Easy to set up, as all you need are individual adventures; easy to cater for infrequent players. Con: Unsatisfying for players who want a grander storyline; becomes harder to keep going as PCs level up; long-term, hard to maintain player interest as the sessions don’t seem to lead anywhere (because they don’t).

Story Arcs are like Babylon 5, or later series of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each episode has its own plotline, but it also advances a storyline that spans the whole series or campaign. You can plan the arc out from the beginning, or you can let it emerge from the characters and adventures. Pro: Players become more invested in the storyline; can be more satisfying. Con: Players who miss too many sessions can lose track of what’s going on and why, and so lose interest; careful planning needed to avoid railroading the group; some characters have to have plot immunity; more work than episodic games; eventually comes to a natural end once the main storyline is complete – after you’re thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, anything else is an anticlimax.

Sandboxes are the most work, and typically start with a map. You work out what encounters and plotlines exist wherever the PCs might go, give them a sketch of the map and some rumours, and let them wander about as they wish. This is how campaigns used to be done in the 1970s. Pro: The campaign is always about what the players do. Con: Players occasionally stall, unsure what to do next; "EE Doc Smith" syndrome sets in as villains become ever more powerful to match the PCs.

I’m sticking with episodic at the moment because most of the group aren’t that interested in the larger story, they just want to keep having adventures. The exceptions are Athienne, who prefers a story arc, and Garstrewt, whose focus on resource management and experimentation would be best suited to an Old School sandbox. Eventually we’ll lose interest, but experience teaches me I will reach that point before the players do.

(I keep getting excited about doing another sandbox, but the amount of work involved puts me off. I ran a really big and complicated story arc game about ten years ago, and that completely burned me out on those, so I don’t think I’ll do it again for some time, if ever.)

ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES

It’s important that the PCs and their decisions matter. There are two ways to do this, in my book.

Initially, look at the characters and use their peculiarities and contacts (if any) as hooks for adventures. This has become a lot easier since games started using advantages and disadvantages, especially the latter. For example, in  our Shadowrun game, Zanshin has the Erased quality. Who is erasing his data, and why are they doing it? That could be revealed and explained at some point, either in an adventure or as clues dropped in over the course of the campaign. You will probably get 1-2 such questions to answer from each PC, and probably you’ll be able to link them together. Is the Eraser our technomancer’s Evil Twin, for example? Is he part of the Refined European Troll’s privileged family? Not only does this give you more complex plotlines, relevant to more PCs – and they each need a chance to shine – but merging the NPCs in this way means you have fewer to detail.

After a few sessions, PC actions will start to generate plot. For example, our Refined European Troll is collecting Red Samurai helmets. That’s bound to get noticed, and the Red Samurai can’t afford to let him get away with it – it undermines their reputation.

Generally, I find this and enduring elements like recurring villains generate more than enough plot. I usually close the campaign with a number of questions left unanswered, which sometimes trigger later campaigns.

EXAMPLE: SHADOWS OF KERON

My goals here are to explore the Dread Sea Dominions as a setting, and use the published adventures that have been sitting on my hard drive for some time. I started with a map of the Dominions and a pile of adventures; I decided on a goal for the party, namely travelling from the Independent Cities to Gis, and marked suitable adventures on a copy of the map. Since then, the party have been moving from adventure to adventure.

I think of my campaigns as TV shows; in this case, Season 1, The Road to Gis, takes the PCs to Gis, with (hopefully) a slam-bang finishing scenario; I have enough adventures for Season 2, as yet untitled, which will take the group southwest into Caldeia; and if there is a Season 3, it will be set in a single city, probably Jalizar.

Review: DB6 Dwellers in the Darkness

This 34-page document is the latest in the Haunted Highlands sequence for Castles & Crusades, and it introduces the Darkness, the setting’s answer to D&D‘s Underdark; a vast subterranean labyrinth of caves, hundreds of feet below the surface of the Duchy of Karbosk.

The title – Dwellers in the Darkness: Ulgarkur – suggests there is more to come in the Haunted Highlands sandbox. This book focuses on one particular area of the Darkness (damn, now I’ll have "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" playing in my head for the rest of this review) – the unholy city of Ulgakur. This is a sandbox within a sandbox; there’s no plot to follow, just a large and detailed location to explore.

Ulgakur is a former goblin stronghold, taken over a generation ago by one Lluvandron the Black, greater undead of this parish, and his mercenaries. As a result, the region is goblin-themed, with goblins, hobgoblins, orcs and so on prevalent throughout.

The module is essentially a city book. There’s a double-page spread of map, and 28 detailed locations, although only one has a floor plan (not that I mind, you don’t generally need them for city locations). These locations include include forts, barracks, wizards’ towers, pubs, a market, gladiatorial arenas, evil temples, and so on, each with about half a page of writeup and statistics for key inhabitants. Said inhabitants may include survivors of Crater of Umeshti or Deeper Darkness, if they escaped the PCs, so there may be old scores to settle.

The book also has a new character class, the Conjurer (a sort of demon-worshipping cleric/wizard hybrid); two new races, the Zavaguth (dark dwarves) and the Meshkuri (debased humans); and an assortment of new monsters and magic items.

Peter Bradley’s artwork continues to delight, but that by Casey Christofferson himself is not, I fear, up to the same standard. Better than mine, admittedly.

Rating: 2 out of 5. This is the only one of the pack I couldn’t see myself running, I’m afraid. That could be just me, but the idea of a goblin city doesn’t grab me.

Shadowrun Episode 4: Hostage Negotiation

So, the technomancer finally trusts me enough to use her street handle – Plum, which turns out to be short for Sugarplumfairyz.

Anyway, I’m out riding my bike when I get the call to join her and the Refined European Troll, on account of they need some muscle for their current run. On the way, Plum briefs me in: While the mafia is distracted by a turf war with the triads, the yakuza kidnap the daughter of one of the dons, one that Plum knows somehow. We have to get her back, and they are partway through sneaking into the warehouse where she is held when they get to counting the number of yakuza and decide they need backup.

We sneak past the handful in the office side, but when we get into the main warehouse we are made. Plum dives for cover, the Troll hauls out a grappling gun and whizzes up into the roof, so I mentally shrug and sprint over to the hostage – tied up on a chair – stick a gun in her ear, and yell at the yakuza in Japanese to stand down or I’ll kill her, hoping to confuse them.

Two of ‘em start shooting at me, and the third one starts shooting at a bunch of red barrels scattered around the place. I manage to get myself between the girl and the bullets, which stings more than somewhat even as we dive out of the way, and the red barrels explode, setting the place on fire.

We manage to off all the yakuza, even the one who dives out the loading bay door shouting “Yatta!”

Oh no you didn’t, pal.

Faced with walking through fire and then past the first gang to get out, we follow Mr I-Did-It outside and discover a pier with a boat tied up to it. On the way, Plum extracts a piece of paper with an address from one thug, and notices that the “hostage” is a dummy.

It figures.

We go to the address on the paper, and find a magic shop owned by a large troll. I show him the paper and say we are here to collect the merchandise. He takes us into a large room full of hooded and bound people, asks which one we want. The mafia girl, we say. Which one, he says, I got three of those.

It is at this point Plum admits they forget to get the name of the one we are after. Fine, I sigh, we will take all three. OK, he says, I will give you a bulk discount, 14k the lot. Now, since we met Villiers we all have that kind of money, but the Troll doesn’t want to spend it. Shake on the deal, brother, he says. No way, says the other troll, I don’t think you’re yakuza at all. I can see this will not end well, and we all draw.

I do not remember much of this fight, since the troll mage’s first move is to knock me out. When I come to, we have as they say control of the battlefield which turns out to mean ten hostages. We call a taxi and pay him to take most of them home, but the three under-fives and our target, who it turns out is called Maria, we take with us in the sedan provided by our patron. This turns out not to be a smart move as someone takes remote control of it and drives us into an ambush: Four yakuza on motorbikes. Since I am not driving anyway, I lean out the window with the troll and we engage in a running gun battle with the yakuza, action movie style. We manage to off them, Plum finds the controller and the RET shoots it. Unfortunately this shoots out the engine as well and we roll to a stop half a klick from the boat. So we pile back into the boat and leave, intending to hole up at the RET’s mansion while we figure out what to do next.

Maria tells us that she overhears her uncle Tony saying that once she is out of the way her father will step down and he can take over the mob. Plum checks her contacts and it seems pretty clear that it is Tony that hired us. It’s hard to think with the three under-fives screaming – for some reason they do not like the troll – but neither the police nor the nearest hospital are interested in helping, so we resort to my street doc contact to read their SINs and take them home ourselves.

We get Maria to call her father, but he is not answering the phone. Her mother seems more interested in killing Tony than getting her daughter back, but we eventually settle on getting paid to kill Tony. I am happy with this because I suspect he has tried to kill us and frame us for the kidnapping and I do not take this from anyone.

We drive to Tony’s restaurant with the plan that he pays us for the girl, we kill him, then take the girl home and get paid for killing him. And this is how it pans out, although we have to kill his bodyguards as well and a number of people in the restaurant get caught in the crossfire. Plum takes control of Tony’s backup car as it tries to move in, and runs it through a red light, so the cops deal with them for us.

After that it is a simple matter of setting up an exchange, the girl for the money, and we are done. Except for me picking up my bike from the warehouse.

Note: This was Gutz’ first home brew scenario, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We went off-piste quite a bit, but he covered that well with improvised encounters. Well played, sir, well played.

D20 Card Deck

This year, when packing to go on holiday, I forgot the deck of cards. However, I did remember some dice. So, for Savage Worlds initiative, we reverted to rolling 1d20, with the 20 counting as a joker. This makes jokers a bit more likely (1/20 rather than 1/27), but it’s the same for everyone, so it’s still fair.

Not sure how best to handle complications. Probably roll 1d4 and count 1 as Clubs. I’ll worry about that if we need it.

Tryouts: Labyrinth Lord

Second in the lineup of guest games, or tryouts, is Labyrinth Lord. I wanted to show Gutz, Nessime and The Warforged what the hobby was like originally; I thought it might ease them into Stars Without Number; and in honesty I have a hankering for the sort of simple dungeon crawl I used to play with my college friends in the 1970s.

The party consisted of two magic-users and a cleric, plus a couple of hired fighters, and I ran them through the sample adventure in the LL rule book, Den of the Morlock Shaman. Highlights:

The two magic-users combining their Ventriloquism and Sleep spells to take out three morlocks and set up two more to be silently eliminated by the fighters.

The cleric’s innate suspicion of treasure chests leading him to fashion a lever mechanism for opening a chest from a distance, thus evading the poison needle trap.

The complex trap laid for a carnivorous ape, involving an improvised tripwire, a slide through lamp oil, and a lot of stabbing. Perfectly, at least to my eye as GM, the butterfingered cleric didn’t manage to set the oil-soaked ape on fire until it was already dead.

The verdict? LL joins our stable of games. There was a consensus that the simple rules encouraged cunning plans, and that the immanence of death at 1st level made the players work harder for their successes and relish them more.

The problem we now have as a group is fitting everything in. With me wanting to run Savage Worlds, Labyrinth Lord and Stars Without Number, and my players wanting to run Shadowrun, Stars Without Number, and Mouse Guard, there’s a lot of pressure on the only gaming afternoon we can fit in each week. (Ironically, although the players asked for “a fantasy game with no guns” originally, and I went along with that despite my long history as a GM of SF RPGs, I note most of them want to run SF games…)

Anyway, it seems I need to limit myself to one campaign at a time; Shadows of Keron will reach a natural break point once the PCs arrive at Gis, so I might switch to a new game for a while at that point. There are many more adventures to be had in the Dominions, though, so I expect to return to them later.