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.

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.

Review: DB5 The Conquered East

Dro Mandras II – The Conquered East is a 37 page document, number 5 in the series of Haunted Highlands products for Castles & Crusades, written by Casey Cristofferson and illustrated by Peter Bradley.

In this offering, we look across the river at the orc-infested ruins of eastern Dro Mandras; this is essentially a dungeon laid out on the surface, in the tradition of RuneQuest‘s Big Rubble. If the adventurers succeed in all their tasks, they may well play a major part in lifting the siege of Dro Mandras; each major objective they achieve scores points, and once they reach 400 points, the city is liberated. Thus, unlike previous DB modules, this one could be said to have a story arc.

First, the PCs must cross the river into the eastern city. There are several ways to do this, which pit them against sewer denizens or the thieves’ guild as well as their official foes. Then, they work around the city quarter by quarter, in no specific order, assassinating key figures and destroying materiel. As well as the usual set of locations, building plans, monsters and treasure, each quarter has 3-4 key targets. As there are five quarters, I’d guess a total of 20 sessions of play here.

The party may encounter large forces of goblinoids, so house rules are provided for speeding up combat when greatly outnumbered. I haven’t tried them, but they are a variant on treating a squad of smaller foes as mechanically equivalent to a single larger one.

Rating: 4 out of 5. Although basically another large dungeon, this one benefits from decently sized maps, an overall story arc which can be played or ignored as the players see fit, and a collect-the-set subplot for ancient artefacts.

Shadows of Keron episode 16: Shrine of the Serpent Statues

Happy chance dictates that this year Gutz, Nessime and The Warforged are on holiday with my wife and I for a couple of weeks. So, yesterday evening we got our dice out. As part of the Guest Games approach, we decided on using the Mythic GM Emulator – maybe I’ll write a proper review of Mythic at some point.

Besides characters, we needed to set the Chaos Factor (easy – it always starts at 5) and create an initial opening scene: “Gutz and The Warforged wander away from camp one evening and find a mysterious entrance to some sort of complex in the hills.” Then, we were off.

For those who don’t know Mythic, the heart of its emulator mode is the Fate Table, and some percentile dice rolls, which are used with a series of questions to determine what happens next. For example, the first question asked was “Are there some stairs leading downwards?” We decided this was Very Likely, which when cross-referenced with the Chaos Factor gave us the chance that there were; and indeed we found some stairs.

This approach led the two adventurers into a concealed ritual complex from Keronian times, where slaves were sacrificed to Hordan. The initial chamber had a concealed trapdoor leading to a vast corridor, with double rows of support columns and murals depicting slave sacrifices, into a group of rooms, one of which was emphatically NOT a toilet (Gutz’ player was running on two hours’ sleep yesterday; you can steer Mythic into situations of deadly seriousness or low humour depending on the questions you ask.) Looting these rooms of the priests’ robes and demonology texts, they found the main sacrifice chamber, and a life-sized onyx statue of Hordan with ruby eyes.

After discussing and abandoning a number of ways to get a half-ton statue out of the dungeon, they settled for gouging its eyes out. Naturally, at this point the statue came to life and remonstrated with them; not having the stats to hand, since I was acting as GM I decided this would effectively be an Experienced Soldier with the Construct ability. Gutz ran, and The Warforged was knocked prone, at which point a swarm of miniature statues leapt on him from the darkness. Adroit use of area effect spells and the Sorceror’s Spiked Frying Pan allowed them to break contact long enough to slam the door on the statues and run for it.

We used the chase rules for that, and they managed to get back to the entrance and block it, although it was a close-run thing.

All in all, a fine evening of fun was had by all, and we’ve decided to add the emulator to our toolkit on a permanent basis. I find it works better with a group of players than for the solo games I previously used it in.

So, that leads The Warforged to using the GM Emulator in his forthcoming Stars Without Number campaign, and me generating a Dread Sea Dominions character to join in Shadows of Keron’s GM-less adventures.

Lessons From Dumarest

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” ― Leo Tolstoy

These books are amongst my favourite space operas, and I keep wanting to run a campaign set in the Dumarest Universe; but I mention them now because of the lessons I learned from them as a GM.

Some Background First…

The Dumarest Saga is a series of 33 novels, written between 1967 (The Winds of Gath) and 2008 (Child of Earth). Far future pulp space opera, whose hero is an Earth orphan who stowed away on a free trader. Fast forward 30 years or so, and he has decided to go home – except he doesn’t know where home is any more, and no-one believes Earth exists – it has become a legend like Xanadu or Atlantis. Since he has spent so much time “travelling Low” in suspended animation, he is not entirely sure how long he has been away, either.

Each novel (let’s think of them as “Savage Tales”) brought him to a new system in search of another clue to the location of his lost and legendary homeworld. Often, there was also a clue as to why his arch-enemies were so intent on stopping him getting back, but those were aimed more at the reader than Dumarest himself.

Lesson 1: Things That Don’t Matter

Languages. They just get in the way. Everyone in the Dumarest Saga speaks English, or at least whatever they do speak is represented by English. You could have each novel start with Dumarest spending six months learning the local language, but really that does nothing for the story – he’s already a social outcast, so there is no need to isolate him by language as well.

Equipment. SF games tend to focus lovingly on long lists of equipment. Dumarest goes through the entire saga with lightweight, concealed body armour, a knife in his boot, and his wits. It’s all he needs. It’s all you need.

Maps and Starships. In the entire 33 volume opus, there are no maps, only 2-3 different types of ships, and only two space battles. Sometimes, a ship is used as a portable “base town”; more often it’s just a plot device to get you to the start of the next adventure. Since Dumarest never goes back on his tracks, there is no need for a map; he is where he is, and the next adventure will be further along the line, whenever he turns up. Even if you do double back and revisit an earlier system, do you really need to know exactly where it is? I thought not.

Lesson 2: NPCs Are Expendable

Since you’re going to lose most NPCs with the first turn of the screw – or when the ship lifts – there’s no point lavishing too much attention on them. They have an archetype, such as Machiavellian Cyber, Spoiled Rich Girl, or whatever; their game statistics don’t matter.

Disposable NPCs can be easily recycled by changing their name and attitude. They are also killed at the drop of a hat, often (like Star Trek redshirts) to show the PCs how the monster works.

It can’t be overstated that the game is about the PCs; NPCs are, for the most part, just talking props – not the GM’s personal avatar in the game.

Lesson 3: Winning The Battle, Not The War

This is the most important lesson; how to ensure your PCs win every scenario, but never quite finish the campaign.

The series was often slated for the fact that Dumarest never seemed to get any closer to home, but getting home wasn’t actually the point – it was just a reason for him to keep moving to new adventures.

At the end of each book there was some reason why the protagonist couldn’t quite go home yet. Ones I remember include…

  • Deciding to follow a love interest “back to her place”. The girl usually dies tragically before the hero can settle down with her.
  • Being shanghaied while unconscious and/or kidnapped by pirates.
  • Discovering that an earlier clue was no longer true, or had been a lie spread by enemies.
  • Discovering that a clue was only part of the answer, and something else was needed to make use of it.
  • Being caught up in an intrigue and having to take the first ship out, regardless of destination.

The key to this working was that it didn’t actually matter whether the character succeeded in his quest or not, except to the character.

And yes, in book 33, Dumarest finally does get home. Tubb planned further novels in which treasure hunters followed the trail he had blazed, shifting the focus from “a man goes on a journey” to “a stranger comes to town”, but sadly died before he could publish them.

Someday, I will run a Dumarest campaign. Someday…