Monday, March 23, 2015

Three ingredients for Tabletop Roleplaying Buy-in

Life has been conspiring against me in various cruel ways and I haven't gamed much this year. Rappan Athuk, Warmark Skerry and my D&D Junior games seem to be on hold. It feels wasteful and tragic, game-mastering is absolutely a thing I hate Not Doing in my life, and something I've been told I'm good at. In shoring up the absent enthusiasm about my current gaming, here are some older thoughts about gamemastering that will perhaps be useful to some.

I do believe that running a fun game is more art than science, and also very individualized - so much goes into it: organization, creativity, improvisation, theatricality, social mediation, and most importantly, inspiration - that doing well at it is very dependent on finding your own strengths in those groups. So this is pretty 101, but here are the three essential ingredients to a fun table experience:
  • The players need to be invested in what's going on. No shit, sherlock, but this is the sell - what a game master is jazzed about needs to be sold to the rest of the table. The fiction of the game has to push the right buttons, whether emotionally poignant or intriguingly mysterious, or just good ol' bloody-handed carnage and deserved justice. The Wahoo factor is always going to be the primary driver of the game.
  • Players need to be able to believe that what's happening, could happen. Verisimilitude, realism, simulation, whatever you wanna call it - it gets a lot of flack and mockery in a hobby that's often about elves or weird magic or dragonchicks with boobs or all manner of clichés - but the importance is there. Not a belief as in "this could happen in real life", obviously, but within the fictional context of what's been constructed, what's going on in the game has to make enough 'sense' that the group is appreciative of the sequence of events and can speculate on what can happen next.
  • Players need to feel like they can affect what's happening. The importance of this is certainly demonstrated in all the arguments against railroading we've seen over the years. What I find interesting is that a lot of comparison and D&D system warring seems to come down to similar arguments about player freedom, with the conflict between the rules "protecting" the player's agency (and the balance with each other) against constraining the possibilities within the game. Regardless, I think this is ultimately a responsibility the game master ends up holding, and how they handle it can make or break the experience.
I think there's something to be said for recognizing these ingredients at heart, not so much in the manic pursuit of them but more in terms of maintaining a quiet awareness of how/why the game is being stimulated. And they're actually pretty separated elements even if they're all answers to the same question of "Is everyone having fun?"

Some constructive thoughts to address these in order, geared towards the gamemaster:
  1. Above and beyond the most important thing to have - which is just constant, low-level table mood awareness; you can shore game investment up ahead of time by getting a sense of what people want in a game before you play (and then during as well). It's not so much about specific taste-catering, as tastes absolutely vary and change and everyone's got room to compromise (at least they should); but a quick talk about what particular aspects of whatever milieu you're exploring people want to see should not only ensure a higher degree of investment, but may also give you some good ideas.
  2. To get a little old-school, don't let the system interfere with the sense of reality (aka the classic "rulings, not rules"). If things have gotten to a point of argument over whether something would really work or happen a certain way, I think it's important to respect that that argument can possibly come from a sense of investment that needs to be encouraged. Rules are fun as little meta-arbiters of conflict and story creation/engagement, but sometimes the story is clicking along just fine by itself. As usual, Zak articulates this stuff better.
  3. If possible, let the players drive the events. My own struggles with sandbox gaming and player proactivity encouragement have really refined this for me, and a conclusion I'm beginning to reach is that railroading - a term that has a bad reputation far more for how it's done than for what is actually is - should largely be geared towards pacing control and not event control. Event preparation is where the game master gets all the influence. You have plenty of event control just in prepping the session and setting the situations and scenes, and figuring out the most comfortable form of "hands-off but still insistent" encouragement that works for you is pretty important.
  4. (Really for both 1 and 3) There's simply no substitute for a heavy-handed campaign kicker. Starting a campaign off with "you can do anything you want, what do you want to do?" is basically ASKing for option paralysis. So definitely start things off with a door being kicked in or some other "Holy Shit Something's happening!" event, but leave it to your players to decide what to do about it or decide what it means.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pirate Crew Generator

For all your ugly swabbies, handsome swashbucklers, fabulous amputees, comely lasses, strange wenches, monstrous half-men, and other backgroundian mateys:

Here is a horrible and somewhat NSFW video which I should discourage you from watching but maybe it'll get you into the mood or something.

Given the inevitability - nay, necessity - of my Warmark Skerry players eventually acquiring a ship with which to go sailing and pillaging and adventuring around the campaign world, they're going to need ne'er-do-wells and hirelings with which to crew the darn thing. With the help of a little Gygaxian Democracy (thanks G+ and twitter followers) here's my Pirate Crew Generator.

First things first, a d100 Evocative Pirate Name table:

  1. Cutlass Dan
  2. Goldilocks
  3. Abel Daggers
  4. Ernst One-Eye
  5. Good Old Karl
  6. Glimmer
  7. Horse
  8. Peg-Leg Pearl
  9. Quiet Tom
  10. Axethrower Joe
  11. Babs Morda
  12. Isaac Bucket
  13. Worthington Steele
  14. L'il Sebastian
  15. Ice-Pick Smithy
  16. Black Toes Jensen
  17. Cookie Crumbles
  18. Stede Farouj, handsomest man alive.
  19. Her Nibs, aka Lady Bella Hankerton.
  20. Split-nose Krank
  21. Ishmael Hands
  22. Fancy O’Tate
  23. Teuthy Terry
  24. Aaron the Albatross
  25. Red Meg
  26. "Not quite as big as Big Dave" Dave
  27. Tsing the Raven
  28. Abdullah
  29. Devil-Knuckles Dan
  30. Critical Bill
  31. Slicky Joel
  32. Bobuelo
  33. Fake Shemp
  34. Freddy Four Fingers
  35. Benjamin Mook
  36. Repeat Pete
  37. Francois Debonair
  38. Grunter
  39. Evie Gundark
  40. Cameron Kannons
  41. the Bottom Feeder
  42. Shasta McNasty
  43. Edie O'Nyne
  44. "Hauling" Oates McDonald
  45. Nirvana Nellie
  46. Parson Dong
  47. Lonesome Smee
  48. Gabriel White
  49. Hellmo
  50. Otis Carn
  51. Mack Salmon
  52. Squinty McGiggins
  53. Hooks Plenty
  54. Eagle-Eye Jones
  55. Mermaid Todd
  56. Admiral Sixton (six-toed ship's cat)
  57. Red Rot Rodgers
  58. Harrrvey Shivers
  59. Speck LowLeg
  60. Pelican Smith
  61. Lumpy Muscles
  62. Sal Shrifty
  63. Sailin' guy
  64. Scurvy Stuart
  65. Cannonball Jones
  66. Triplets: Old Pete, Young Pete, Older Pete
  67. “Lefty” McRighty
  68. Andy British
  69. Battlin' Bonnie
  70. Cutthroat Carl
  71. Dangerous Dave
  72. Emily Widow
  73. Six-Knot Frank
  74. Gingerbeard
  75. Half-face Harry
  76. Inigo Morte
  77. Janey One-Finger
  78. Lousy Louie
  79. Stabbin' Oswald
  80. Hookfoot
  81. Patchy
  82. Mad Grog
  83. Mirg Middlefinger
  84. Kharebutu The Drowned
  85. Scarred Sar
  86. Doubles the Doppleganger
  87. Butterknife Bob
  88. Frozen Fingers
  89. Reeks
  90. “Goosepimples” Gobbler
  91. Hot Nick Harry
  92. Soulless Wallace
  93. Ghastly Black
  94. Flintlock Nancy
  95. The Gouger
  96. Penny the Dreadful
  97. Dogface Doug
  98. Emberbeard Romero
  99. Mincemeat
  100. “Built like an Outhouse” o’Turner

I figure your average pirate crew is about thirty souls and I don't really see the point in rolling up names for every single one of them (My general theory of random tables is that they're most entertaining as Part of Play on an As Needed basis).

I plan on mostly handwaving through the whole "pull up a desk at the Skull & Flagon and hire yourself a pirate crew" part of the game unless the players really want to get into some detail of the thing and risk bar fights and other shenanigans. An offhand going rate was to charge a gold piece a head to get them on the ship and then figure out some method of charging maintenance and quelling mutinies later on. Rescuing slaves/prisoners or converting dim-witted follower-type bad guy minions seem perfectly reasonable crew-recruiting tools as well, of course.

So basic order of things: PCs buy (or more likely "acquire") a ship, somehow get it back to port, hire a crew, and yo-ho-ho off into the oceanic hexcrawl to fight sea dragons and try to avoid maelstroms.

Then, during play with the PCs captaining their ship (they should probably choose a captain), most of the shipmating and "aye aye, cap'n"ing will be happening in the background until an NPC shipmate moves to the foreground and needs a little more character. Especially if they're being recruited for meatshield duties, as I believe every redshirt deserves a little memorableness before they die for the cause.

If the name alone isn't evocative enough, here's a subtable, with some inspiration/stealing from Dyson Logos' Random Pirate Captain Table.

d20 Weird Pirate Characteristics table
  1. tentacle for a finger
  2. obscene tattoos, sometimes moving
  3. tongue cut out - can only hnnngh and mmmrrrhhh and haaaagaaahh
  4. two hooks for hands (still surprisingly deft)
  5. thoroughly impressive and elaborately braided topknot
  6. suspected of being an unusually articulate zombie (probably of the less-decayed juju variety)
  7. strange-colored skin (blue, green, yellow, probably of djinnish or efreetish origin)
  8. has a vermin for a pet (1. rat 2. seagull 3. crab 4. flame-lizard 5. starfish 6. pixie with a drinking problem)
  9. barnacles instead of hair or beard
  10. surprisingly fat and waddlesome
  11. is unable to speak without rhyming (and plays a mean accordion)
  12. face is covered in bandages (claims a skin sensitivity, no-one knows what they look like)
  13. thoroughly pierced with fishbone scrimshaw of all variety
  14. keeps a jewel in their eye-socket
  15. turns into a skeleton in moonlight (but plays a mean knucklebone)
  16. is covered in knives, and only speaks of themself in third person (“Machete don’t text”)
  17. has a visible third eye
  18. sharpens their teeth and nails, might be ex-cannibal
  19. possessed of overwhelmingly stiff-necked Jeeves-like formality
  20. former street-fighter, has either (1. Dhalsim-like stretchy limbs 2. Ability to electrify their body like an eel 3. Can breathe fire after drinking rum 4. “hummingbird hands” 5. a mask they never take off 6. just humongously Russian)
Happy buccaneering!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Warmark Skerry Progress

We're two sessions into our new campaign, and while I'm nowhere near as good at giving entertaining Actual Play Reports as, say, Jeff Rients is; here's what's been going on:
  • Sabrina is playing Coral, a wood elf Monk with the Sailor background.
  • Graydon is playing Fri'lack (I've never known Graydon to make a fantasy character that couldn't benefit from an extraneous apostrophe or two), a tiefling Cthulhu-communing Warlock with the Acolyte background.
  • Max is playing Orryn Timbers, a gnome Druid with the Outlander background.
  • Rob is playing Roland, a human Ranger with the Soldier background.

5e flavor really does show up in interesting ways: Graydon's "Starlock" is telepathic, we came up with a way to roll which animals Max's druid had encountered and could thus shapechange into, the monk gets two attacks with her cutlass and belaying pin, these are good things, IMO.

As for the campaign setting, everyone seemed right on board with pirates, lost treasure, flintlocks and cutlasses, and I went ahead and upped the weird factor with a dose of healthy inspiration from the brilliant John Bell (along with some fun swamp ideas from the awesome Bryan Steward).

The Big Experiment of this campaign is to master the hexcrawl; no tentpole megadungeon in the Warmark, it's all warlord influence maps, random encounter charts, and unexplored and untameable islands of adventure. Because buried treasure, of course.

Anyways, the PCs explored a swamp pursuing a bounty, took out a bandit hideout, rescued a cartographer, avoided a troll, and made it back to Freeport in one piece. There they attempted to join a guild, attended an opera, and fought an illusory demon on stage. I didn't take any good pictures, I've got to remember to do that, but here are some of my campaign materials.

Can't wait for next week!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Drowning Rules for 5e D&D

What, no drowning rules for 5e? Well, okay, here's a first pass at falling into the water unexpectedly with armor on:

Heavy Armor

Immediately start sinking. Lose any carried shields and weapons. Out of action or sight for 1d4 minutes as you struggle not to drown: Make 3 successful (your choice) Strength or Dexterity Saving Throws (DC 15) before 3 failed ones to remove armor and swim back to the surface before running out of breath.*

Medium Armor

Roll a d10 to see how many pieces of armor need to be removed before you can stay afloat. Make a Strength Saving Throw (DC 10) each round to stay on the surface. On a success, you can take no other actions besides shouting and stowing a weapon or removing a piece of armor. Failed save means you go under for 2d6 rounds, lose any still-carried shields or weapons, and must make a single successful Strength or Dexterity Saving Throw (DC 15) before 3 failed ones to remove the rest of your armor and make it back to the surface in 1 minute.

Light Armor

Make a single Strength Saving Throw (DC 10) to get your bearings and stay afloat. Failure means you go under for 1d6 rounds, losing any carried shields or weapons and must make a single Strength or Dexterity Saving Throw (DC 15) before 3 failed ones to avoid drowning. Complicated actions or damage taken may require further Saving Throws.

Rough water adds 5 to all DCs. Flotsam or other floating items (like a wooden shield) grant advantage to saves to stay afloat.

Prepared Swimming is significantly more lenient.

Lava Rules apply (you fall in lava, you die, no save).

*Per Suffocation Rules (p. 183) character can hold breath 1+(con bonus) minutes and it takes 5 minutes to take Heavy Armor off. These are a loose melding of these two rules.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My lazy Rappan Athuk Campaign

So Rappan Athuk is my current low-to-no-prep megadungeon campaign. Pretty straight-forward vanilla fantasy, all written down by someone else in an expansive tome, and lucky enough to be playing with the kind of awesome people who just want to have fun getting lost and in way over their head in a notoriously lethal dice-rolled-in-view and survivable-bragging-rights 50-level monstrosity. I just read parts of it recreationally now and then, look up stuff before and during game, and tweak it to my and my player's needs during play.

This is very lazy of me, and sometimes the game has suffered for it. My bad.

Orcus by Todd Lockwood, front & center
of my GM screen
My Rappan Athuk takes place on your typical Edge-of-Civilization coast. The stock backstory is that a great Army of Evil was driven out of the city a thousand years ago to disappear in the hill-lands, along with any and all pursuing heroes and their great treasures. Since then, rumors of a massive and deadly dungeon underneath a graveyard draws many adventurers to this region to their death.

Ten things going on that are/were interesting:

  1. Various rolls on the Death & Dismemberment and Carousing tables have resulted in Max's wizard ending up as a eunuch shriner wrapped up in a false cult perpetuated by a bunch of drunks in the back of a bar.
  2. The PCs killed a giant fire snake using only Tenser's Floating Disk and Mending. More details here.
  3. When they finally made it to a Big City™Charlotte slept with a witch and then totally kicked her out of bed and got cursed and ended up with a tentacle leg.
  4. Jürgen Mayer showed up from Germany with his lovely girlfriend and helped the group find a fort in the Rappan Athuk Wilderness, now named Fort Helgar in his honor.
  5. Mules and Lard were so frequently weaponized in the initial levels of play that the PCs ended up co-opting and financing a pig farm to keep supplies steady.
  6. The most powerful member of the party remains Mandy's wardog Carnage, I think I rolled a 42 on Zak's Wardog table, except that they encased it in Metal Snake Armor and it melted half its face off attacking a Gelatinous Cube so now it looks more like that thing from Brotherhood of the Wolf.
  7. Gnolls are rather easily cowed by pyromancy, it seems. And having burning mules dropped on them, too. Goblins can be easily convinced that they are powerful wizards through the use of an Unseen Servant spell. Bandits will stop and talk if you convince them you are an Insurance Adjuster.
  8. Green Gargoyle Eyes became quite a commodity for awhile, perhaps in remembrance of the Ripped-Apart-By-One death of Devildog Slaughterfist (RIP).
  9. Max's wizard became entranced with a cursed blue diamond for awhile and decided he wanted to live forever in a cup held aloft by a statue.
  10. "Dear Diary, though I am now known to the gnoll tribe as Gorgut The Pyromancer, linguistic confusion and overindulgence in the human's spiritdrink has resulted in my tattoo reading 'Gorgut the Pie Romancer'."
We're currently using Labyrinth Lord rules but with Lamentations of the Flame Princess spells.

You can read my review of Rappan Athuk here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Warlords & Scoundrels of Warmark Skerry

Warlords of Warmark

The different Warlords act as both icons and factions. So a PC's Background Bond will involve picking a warlord and writing some sort of positive or negative relationship to them.
  • Karstellan Armada - Colonialists from a distant empire, hailing from the city of Tortaega’s Gate
  • The Living Shark God - The wereshark Black Dragorra heads an army of ravagers and reavers, his unquenchable appetite for conquest and claims of divinity setting this pirate above others.
  • Cult of the Kraken - The usual Innsmouthian hijinks.
  • Coral Queen of the Elves - PC elves are an underclass offshoot of the true underwater kingdom, able to breathe water but held in contempt for their landwalking.
  • Captain’s Council of Freeport - squabbling politicos eroding their own pretenses of civilization.
  • The Fanged Count -Vampiric shadows provide some protection from pirates and slavers, but at what cost. City of Raven’s Deep.
  • The Pointed Compass - Wizards Guild and Wayfarer's society: reclusive, friendly, but exploitive.
  • The Iron Missions - Religious/Military followers of the Serrated Saint, dedicated to establishing outposts and converting the faithless. City of Blackrock Reach.
  • Shepherd’s Lock - both a hidden city (dwarf cave) and a Thief’s Guild and smuggling network.
  • Fetid Romanstra - Loose coalition of savage humanoids, centered in the Miregully Coven.
  • The Suckered Maw - Ancient lords of the Warmark Ceraptor

Scoundrels of Warmark

An NPC list of competitors, pursuers and hapless pursuees.
  • "Smoothtongue" McTeague - captain of the Midnight's Kiss, handsome and thoroughly amoral privateer deep in pursuit of the Jewel of Fortunes.
  • Dobby Widdershins - A shady associate of the former.
  • Padre Malvado - Warrior Priest of the Serrated Saint. Thoroughly lacking in a sense of humor. Probably constipated.
  • Boreastus the Beast AKA Snagglefang - Greedy, fat, elder red dragon; looking to leverage the secrets of the Suckered Maw. Also, lunch.
  • Lord Cerebor Faustling - Foppish merchant noble in Freeport. Probably the type who worships demons in his manor basement.
  • Paquito Flacido - Cartographer and helpless sycophant of the Pointed Compass. Obsequious, prone to boot-lickery.
  • Commodore Gallione - Karstellan commander of a flotilla of three Imperial ships: The Harpy, The Seawitch, and The Executioner. Honorable to a point, yet total asshole.
  • Throgg Gristlebeef of the Skull & Flagon Inn - rumormonger and adventuring profiteer in Freeport.
  • Captain ScarGut - Orcish pirate, smarter than he looks. Often accompanied by his mates Slash Slagle and Nevel the Knife.
  • Banner & Lurch - Fences and Information brokers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Campaign Proposal: Warmark Skerry

Alas the lovely Nightsky is moving away and our Sunday Night Gaming group is bereft of a wonderful Dungeon Master. In her absence and my enthusiasm about 5e, I'm looking forward to picking up the mantle of a new campaign, probably a six-monther? Hard to say.

I'm feeling Piratey, so I'm thinking about a seafaring campaign taking place in an archipelago of warring islands surrounding and vying for control of an untamed landmass of deadly secrets. The game will start with a treasure hunt and then hopefully morph into something else. Here are the highlights of my notes:

  • Somewhere in the untameable Warmark is the Ceraptor Heart: a gateway to an ancient civilization of great and terrible power. The key to finding it is the Eye of the Aboleth, split into 5 parts and scattered across the islands.
  • PCs choose affiliations (positive or negative) with various warlords, a la 13th Age Icons.
  • Muskets and flintlock pistols can be used as simple weapons as per crossbow stats. Flintlock pistols can be used 1-handed, but misfire on a rolled 1, doing weapon damage to the user and destroying the weapon.
  • May drop Green Ronin's Freeport as a home base.
  • Instead of a tentpole megadungeon, the Warmark island serves as a tentpole hexcrawl.

Stay tuned for more Warmark Skerry posts!

Monday, July 14, 2014

5e & an Overlooked Character Creation Method

Oh man so we played some 5th Edition D&D last night. It took about an hour to make characters using the free Basic Rules (knowing nothing and shooting the shit, so don't go quoting that time as official 5e Character Generation Time please) and we played for about two hours just using downloaded playtest monster stats and one of Dyson's Delves. In the pic we're playing on a grid but we didn't really stickler on the whole 5-foot steps or anything, in fact, gridless miniaturing is my favorite kind of D&Ding and 5e hits that sweet spot perfectly.

Anyway, this isn't really a review; and I don't want to go into detail on What Makes Fifth Edition Fifth Edition-y or anything - other folks are doing that nicely (+Nathanael Cole found this nice sum-up on Reddit). But I've always found that Character Generation has always been a pretty big part of D&D's fun and I wanted to touch on what that was like:

  • Rolling stats and picking race and class took 15 minutesish. There are subraces now for a bit more fidelity.
  • Flipping around the PDF to fill in the blanks on proficiencies, equipment and subsequent combat numbers are an improved experience in my opinion, took about half an hour: between Class and Background, equipment more or less picks itself. I have nothing against D&D "shopping" as a fun thing in and of itself but I feel like it's always this big hiccup between "ooh this is what my character is like" and "let's get playing"- which is why I usually just make class kits or quick-pick lists.
  • Finally the storygamey stuff gave us about 15 minutes of table-rolling "what's my personality like" fun. This is ignorable-but-there-if-you-want-it Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws. And they throw in a d100 Personal Trinket table in there too.

The thing about D&D, no matter the edition, every game-runner has usually hacked and fine-tuned their favorite character creation process - no surprise, there's a magical thing about that first time a group builds characters for an adventure. Thinking about that, I realized that one of the most common Character Creation Processes I've seen used throughout my D&D playing career I've never really seen touched on: Character Creation through miniature selection.

Like, I'd say that about 20% of the D&D characters I've seen hit the table were based on a miniature. We've been loving the Reaper Bones Set at mine, and here were last night's characters:

Mara Nemetsk, Snarky Human Thief
Professor Thistleblossom, Long-winded Elf Wizard
Oral Nemetsk, Intolerant Human Cleric

I was thinking for my next game of formalizing that process. Laying out the minis first and having players pick one before they ever put pencil to character sheet. Could be interesting! Anyone else done that?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rappan Athuk Review, updated

(extremely mild spoilers)

I originally reviewed this back in January 2013 to a private G+ audience. We've been playing it for almost a year now, off and on.

"Don't Go Down The Well" - Frog God Games
"The grand-daddy of all dungeons" it calls itself. While Gygax's Castle Greyhawk should probably more appropriately bear that title, Rappan Athuk a.k.a "The Dungeon of Graves" certainly holds a special place in my heart for solidifyingwhat a megadungeon can truly be. Evocative, deadly, diverse, and filled with flavor. There are three published editions, I own all three, so I've gotten to see it evolve some.

Bill Webb says he has been working on this dungeon since 1977 - that's almost 35 years of development. Originally simply a 15 level dungeon (1st-level characters having very little chance of getting very far at all) with a famous and famously "unkillable" demon lord at the bottom (whether the demon lord is killable or not is debatable), the dungeon has expanded to over fifty levels and has significant reach across the countryside it exists in (including some connections to other Necromancer Games dungeons elsewhere). It is grand. It is epic in scale. It is thoroughly lose-yourself-inable. It is overwhelming. I love it.

Things that Rappan Athuk does right:

  • It's been explored - it's pretty clear that a great deal of the flavor of the place was developed through play. It is littered with the bodies, notes, and battlegrounds of the fallen - some of whom have come back in malevolent form.
  • It's deadly - while the dungeon (loosely) follows the model of deadlier the deeper you go, many of the encounters break away from this - roughly speaking there's almost always at least one thing per level that will totally kill you no matter how powerful you are unless you handle it well (or run away).
  • It's diverse - I mean, it's still a dungeon: you're usually underground, and there are monsters there, and so on; but while I haven't read all of the levels in detail, so far they've consistently been nicely unique and multiflavored, while still thematic. Very few of the levels feel busy for the sake of being busy (~cough world's largest dungeon cough~). Not everything in Rappan Athuk is evil, too.
  • It comes with a sandbox - There's a lot going on outside the dungeon!

Things that Rappan Athuk doesn't do so right:

  • Layout - Rappan Athuk is pretty clunky in its presentation and the Necromancer Games guys just haven't quite worked out how to make a referenceable dungeon. As the dungeon has gotten bigger, it's gotten worse. The interconnectedness of Rappan Athuk is awesome and interesting (something new around many corners) but the page-flippery to deal with it is really challenging. This is a dungeon that desperately needs a comprehensive, understandable side-view, and they still can't get it to look like anything but a spreadsheet.
  • Conversion - Rappan Athuk has been developed through so many different editions that there is a sort of editionlessness about it, this doesn't particularly bother me, but at it's worst the 2001 edition was sort of badly AD&D-translated-to-3.0 and a lot of people complained about that and I remembered struggling with it a bit. The new Swords & Wizardry edition is really nice in that it's bare-bones enough to convert easily from to any system of your choice, but if you're picky about your rules there may be an auditing/prep/scouring-the-internet-for-conversion-advice hurdle in there.
  • Monsters - The latest version requires the Tome of Horrors complete to even know what some of the monsters do, which is a bit annoying.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Spicing up the 13th Age Icons

Okay, mostly thanks to the enthusiasm of my friend Scott Moore and the occasional drops of interest from Kelvin Green, I'm taking a harder look at 13th Age, Heinsoo & Tweet's Pelgrane-published D&D homebrew. D20 engine, shaken up with some 4th edition, pulled back from miniature combat and then a dollop of story-gamey metaplot stuff, it's definitely a milkshake. I think I like the system, but it does that thing a lot of D&Dish settings do that I hate - it gives you a world that tries to still be both interesting but "generic enough" in the name of customizability; resulting in this tasteless neither-nor YetAnotherFantasyWorld™.

Whatevs. That's the nature of our genre, I think. Don't complain, let creativity reign. Or something.


Instead of alignments, 13th Age gives you icons - demi-Goddish setting-effecting Major NPCs, whose relationships to the PCs basically define what troublesome shit they're going to wade into in the campaign. It's a good idea - especially in the breakthrough of tying player-world relations directly to geography (take a look at Zak Smith's Warbox if this idea appeals to you) - but the dozen icons they give you are pretty blank. Purposefully so, GMs are supposed to make them their own.

Okay, I will then. I'll even pull some agendas out of my butt.

  • The Bahamut Ragnarok - One of the more evocative bits from the base setting is that when a portal to the Abyss opened up, an ancient Gold Dragon crawled into the portal and sealed it with its body. Such an act deserves a name, at least. Also, maybe instead of a pure dragon, it should be a qilin giant, because I'm not above a little self-insertion like that.
    • Perhaps the closing of the Abyss can only be accomplished through the death of another icon, which puts all the other icons on edge.
    • Generally Opposing: The Witch Queen, King of Mithril & Iron
  • The Silver Siren - Instead of the Priestess, let's have a fallen angel who requires the Dr. Fate-like possession of a young girl as long as she stays bathed in a fountain of liquid light; that gives her pre-cog Minority Report powers and means her temple may have time-shifting properties.
    • Being able to tell the future probably results in a lot of Needs-of-the-Many type thinking.
    • Generally Opposing: Whisperer to the Half-Blind God
  • The Fallen Star - Elven monarchies don't make a lot of sense to me, so I'm going to have the elves be caretakers of an alien consciousness that's working some centuries-long agenda of spiritual transcendence.
    • Always on the lookout for weird magical progenitor-tech. Doesn't like anyone messing with it's crèches.
    • Generally Opposing: Manork Talon, The Silver Siren
  • The King of Mithril and Iron - Hell yeah Dwarves have kings. In this case, an uncaring half-golem elemental-worshipping king.
    • Has a history of dabbling in planar rifts, digging too deep, etc.
    • Generally Opposing: The Worm that Sleeps
  • The Runemaster Tower - Somewhere between a wizard's magocracy and a Krynn-like library dedicated to recording and compartmentalizing everything. Primordial written language of magic, etc. etc.
    • Always showing up to "witness" stuff and claiming to be impartial, but obviously isn't.
    • Generally Opposing: The Witch Queen
  • The Legate of Onnai - You're telling me the dragon emperor wouldn't be a power-mad militarized theocracy? Of course it would. But screw worshipping dragons, how about an anti-polytheistic city-state, those are totally my favorites.
    • Dedicated to protecting its people, and banishing the worship of old Gods, undoubtedly at the cost of its people.
    • Generally Opposing: Manork's Talon
  • The Twilight Owlbear - I'm imagining some Mononoke-esque giant spirit of the forest-type thing, super powerful but susceptible to manifested corruption.
    • Everyone worries about pissing it off lest it goes tangible and gooey and starts stepping on things.
    • Generally Opposing: Whisperer to the Half-Blind God
  • The Hand and the Knife - These two share a great deal of clout, nobody knows who they are, and if thievery, intelligence and assassination is your game, they hold a lot of the pieces.
    • Standard medieval mafia. Evil and self-serving, but also frustratingly effective at Getting Things Done.
    • Generally Opposing: The Nameless, The Silver Siren
  • The Witch Queen - Magically-inclined but don't buy into "the system"? Wanna consort with planar outsiders? Hate that old fuddy-duddy runemagic? Get on board with sexy diabolism.
    • Not all-evil all the time, but you know, mostly. Gets a lot of refugees from the annoyingly strict runemasters, and yet probably in bed with them more often than not.
    • Generally Opposing: Bahamut Ragnarok, Runemaster Tower
  • The Nameless - There has always been a great stone monolith that stands for order and vigilance. There are those who swear oaths on it to forsake their worldly identity and their past to become inquisitors and justicars, sometimes for hire, sometimes for justice, sometimes for their own enigmatic purposes.
    • Sort of like Westeros's Night Watch but a bit more Hellknighty.
    • Generally Opposing: The Witch Queen, The Worm that Sleeps
  • Whisperer to the Half-Blind God - The secrets of the afterlife are carefully "cult"-ivated (GET IT?) by this sinister order and its whispering leader. It knows many things beyond the ken of mortality, but the prices it asks may not be of coin.
    • Nobody likes necromancers until someone has to get resurrected or someone died with a secret.
    • Generally Opposing: The Silver Siren, Legate of Onnai
  • Manork's Talon - Only Manork has the might to lead this loose alliance of orcs and beastmen, and only conquest can feed his desires.
    • Manork ruuuuuules. All the grunting and chest-beating is probably a front. I bet if you meet Manork he's sipping courvoisier and quoting philosophy and has a long history of being secretly invited to all the best parties.
    • Generally Opposing: Legate of Onnai, The Fallen Star
  • The Worm that Sleeps - If you delve deep enough into the underworld, you can hear the rumblings of the Master of the Dark, who claims dominion over the dungeons of the world.
    • You know, a dungeon master. Not necessarily evil, but constantly birthing monstrosities.
    • Generally Opposing: The Nameless, The Fallen Star

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Requisite "Why I Like the Old School D&D" Explanation

Qualifiers first! I have a lot of love for 3rd edition, it's my most-played D&D of all time and it's just absolutely beautifully presented. I think 4th edition is rather sublime in its design and I love how elegantly it balanced the game and how dynamic and collaborative it made the combat. I am not an edition warrior and look forward to playing any flavor of D&D that cool, fun, engaging people want to play with me.

What's more, I believe that it's not really what D&D you play, it's how you play it, and that pretty much all "system problems" can be solved or addressed through agreement and awareness of the mutual goal of having fun.

Starting around 2008 I began to seriously investigate the growing OSR movement as an alternative D&D. What led me to this was what I saw as a growing disconnect between player expectations in the game and the established paradigms of story management on the part of the DM.

Let me try to parse that a little better.

Part of this came from a similarly-timed exploration of some of the "indie scene" side of RPGs, mostly the stuff being posted and talked about on the Story-Games forum. Studying these I grew to realize that in the traditional D&D model, it's actually pretty hard to tell the stories you want to tell using the system.

It's not hard to tell stories - stories are the natural, awesome outcome of playing RPGs. But telling the stories you were hoping for is something that story-games and more narrative-focused games do a whole lot better.

D&D exists a lot more in this plug-stuff-in-and-see-what-happens kind of world. You generate heroes, sure, and you have hopes and dreams and ideas of what they're going to do and how they get there, but all that story stuff is much more in your head (and sort of in your "hopes and dreams" of what you're going to be playing) and rarely explicitly makes it out onto the game table outside of providing behavioral motivation, and when it does, it's invariably twisted and tweaked by the needs of the table's collaboration.

This is pretty awesome in its own right. But I feel like I have seen a lot of discussion about the disconnect between what most D&D players seek out from D&D and what actually ends up occurring in playing it. This disconnect isn't a bad thing - appeal is appeal, after all, whatever gets you sitting down at the gaming table is great, and more often than not players don't even realize they didn't quite get what they wanted initially because what ended up happening was just as awesome and fun.

Starting with 2nd edition, exploding in 3rd edition, and carrying over to 4th, we've seen a system focus on expanding codified character options. In theory I think this is absolutely fine - encourageable, even - as I'm a firm believer (by and large) of giving players what they want.

So what we've seen in the more recent editions is players bringing highly customized, often highly unique characters to the table. They tend to be pretty individualized to taste. Having gone through an extensive option-choosing procedure to make one, the character is often pretty well fleshed-out in the player's mind.

I feel like the expectations - no, expectations is a little charged, let's just call them "narrative desires" - a player brings with their individualized, fleshed-out character are going to be quite different from the far more (possibly open-minded) ones they might have with a much more quickly and/or randomly generated character.

You can probably see where this is going.

Now a conscientious and experienced DM might actually appreciate and be able to decrypt some of these mechanically-implied narrative desires such a specifically unique character would have. They might, if creative and talented, be able to weave together a story focused on those desires, interrelating them to the desires of the other characters, and so on. Doing all this is pretty casually considered "good DMing".

The DM does not have many mechanical tools to do this, however. He or she is given this challenging task of compartmentalizing player desires and then meeting them, both individually spotlighting and encouraging collaboration between these different, pre-defined adventurers. To do this he or she is given a large collection of monsters and dungeon design tools and some adventure creation advice. Not much in the way of "a character is built this way, then focus on this; if that way, focus on that" despite all the different build options.

On that particular front of expectation-meeting, we're seeing D&D be wildly outdistanced by games like Apocalypse World or Shadow Of Yesterday or Burning Wheel or the like.

Once I caught the game design bug my mind began to be filled with Fantasy Heartbreaker ideas of how to address those individualizations with much more specific counter-mechanics. Unfortunately my brand of creativity is pretty complexity-averse, and more and more I appreciated the rules-lightness of older editions which didn't address these issues so much as not perpetuate them as strongly in the first place.

Here's what I love, love, love about the older editions; and I fully recognize the DM-perspective bias in this: the focus on the more "macro" level of playing D&D, which is pretty wargamey in a different way, where D&D is more of a God game where the players plug their characters into the DM's world and decide what they do but everyone at the table is approaching things from a much more elevated "hey, let's just all see what happens" perspective. The desires placed on the emergent story are much more up in the air, and it's a different kind of investment for everyone, less tied into the individuality of the character and the predictability of their advancement (though I suspect that's still a factor) and more an overt recognition of the greater appeal of collaboration and fun and humor and unexpected situations and so on.

I think that classic D&D better plays towards this viewpoint - quickly generated characters that tend towards a higher degree of disposability, looser ruleset for accommodating unexpected situations and general narrative fun, and a world that embraces a bit more of the wild and wooly "gonzo" weirdness that looks more interesting from the macro perspective and not so crucially tied to the simulationist verisimilitude that's so much more important from the character's ground-level perspective.

So, yeah. That's where I'm at.

Monday, May 12, 2014


This is a place I hope to post gaming thoughts and downloads of various gaming shtuff.

Really though I just needed a place to put stuff I make that's non-Old-School-Hack related.