Concurrent Campaign: many groups, one weaving continuity

Concurrent campaigns happen when two or more groups play in the same campagn settings AND the actions from both groups impact on the setting for both groups. While its common for a DM to run the same setting for many groups at the same time but with none or very limited crossaction, or to run the same continuity for years over many campaigns, running many groups at the same time is both taxing, due to the increased effort and problematic. The outcome is a much more vibrant campaign, with many more details growing organically from play.

Concurrency 101

Here is the core of concurrency: play the same setting with more than one group and let players change the setting in a way that other groups can perceive and interact with. If you run a sandbox it’s going to be easier than in other styles of campaign, but then again, sandboxes are easier to play with. Easy peasy. You will soon realize though that the whole practice is fraught with problems. Or you might discover that it’s fantastic without any hitch. Anyway, here’s a small list of the problems I found and remedies to mitigate them.

Not enough Content

Two parties go through content twice as fast. And you’re a really busy person. In fact, they don’t. What happens is that, in a sandbox, they will either drift in different directions and stop interact (and then will go through content quickly) or will instead mooch about the trail of devastation and/or consequences left by the other parties. But this trail is, unless you are a consistent shit-hot designer and writer, much better content than most of the stuff you write, so the two groups will faff about in each other’s trail of devastation. Why is it better, though? Mostly because its fully coherent: it’s bourne out of a real story that unfolded itself, leaving bashed doors, mutilated corpses, destroyed fortresses and broken hearts following the criteria that a group of murderhobos would follow. Second, its corpses, ruins, and survivors are interesting because they come with their own drama already. And you dont have to prep it, because the previous parties will have provided all the shenanigans your poor npcs will ever need to have a terrible existence. Third, early groups will follow the most interesting bits of prep and improv you throw at them, and there’s a big change following groups will follow them too.

In short, having a band of adventurers play with your setting is the best prep you can muster, especially if many groups trampled through your campaign already. So, scratch that fear away, multiple parties create a lot of content by themselves.

Timelines & Paradoxes

Different parties do go through in-game time at different speeds. This will cause you headaches and possibly blow your mind open with paradoxes. But it will only if you care about the Game Police.

Let me explain better: it’s not mandatory to completely have the parties act in 100% coherent worlds, and for many reasons.

The first reason is that there is no Game Police telling you that you’re doing it wrong. So try to chill out and enjoy.

Second, most importantly, only the relevant stuff is worth to synchronize. Players are known not to care or notice or misinterpret small details anyway. It usually does not matter if one of the two timelines has an additional three months long trip unless someone cares or its somehow important (and, in that case, you can nimbly reshuffle events between the two campaigns unless there is a post-hoc event).

Third, in case it gets excessively problematic, just bluntly tell the players that, for the purpose of a single adventure or limited time or action frame, you’re taking the liberty of keeping the sessions not synchronized. Just tell them. This is so meta that some of your players might be turned off by this breaking of immersion but, if you want, don’t even tell them. Ultimately concurrent campaigns are a crutch to help you, the DM, run more interesting games. You dont have to justify how you run different groups unless you have a very very complicated social contract with your players. For what they know, the other party is not even real, of its actions are used by you as a suggestion.

Incomunicability

The two parties will probably never meet: for logistic reasons, while the PCs live in the same world and maybe in the same city and maybe even work for the same master, they will never meet unless the players happen to be playing at the same time. This can be fixed by careful meta-discourse, the GM running PCs ar NPCs and understanding that the campaign has some brittle spots that are better not be prodded. On the other hand this does not stop players interacting indirectly by, for example, setting each others house on fire. Apparently wanton destruction on absent PCs’ properties is a sport with a tradition of more than 40 years, and who I am to deal a blow to such an important traditional sport?

How to start

Start a steady campaign and, on the side, play one shots in the same whereabouts with different groups, or in nearby places with the same group. The fire and forget nature of one shots make players risk prone and extremely propense to create the trail of consequences described above. Pit them against the mob. Have them disappear up in the mountains. Let them set the woods on fire. Rob a caravan. Murder the Major. Collapse bridges. Destroy dams. Kidnap princes. Make volcanoes explode. Make sure that they super-piss-off NPCs. Let them seed new adventures, then reap the results with your core group.

Once youre fine with random acts of wanton campaign vandalism, simply go bananas with many groups at the same time. The most I had were three groups at the same time: while two adventuring locales were kept effectively separated, the rest of the setting was fully synchronized. This happened even when I was running Western League for two of groups weekly and for the third once every three months. Just dont feel constrained by the relative incongruences: even if two of the groups meet they’ll be busy discussing shared lore, interesting details and experiences and what a douchebag Lord Dude Mc Duderson is rather than nitpick at your shoddy treatment of the calendar or shopkeeper inventories.

Be brave.

GM challenge: Best Practices

Ckutalik over at the Hill Cantons asked every GM’s three best practices. I wrote an almost answer years ago because, you know, I can see the future.  But I want to give better answers this time around. Or try at least.

  1. Strip mine your surroundings for ideas and turn them into archetypical subverted caricatures: I really really like creating NPCs out of people by making them a subverted caricature of the original to make them into a different entity. The same can be done with anything else: places, events, items. Caricatures magnify what’s important about the entity but the subversion gives it deeper, interesting shades. For example: I need a merchant city, so I pick Dunbarton, put it in the middle of Genoa and make it ruled by a never-seen immortal queen and her secret police. When I needed a shady broker I took my dad (a salesman) and gave him a gang of thugs. My demihuman races have Italian regional accents, but have magnified idiosincrasies (my halflings are more halflingish than yours, and speak Sicilian). Filthy Phil (a really stinky ragman and garbage-sifter in my current setting) is inspired to… well, I like dumpster diving (the best stuff you can get is free). The beautiful thing is that you can do this on the fly in games: players usually are fascinated by deep NPCs and they think deep NPCs must be important hence worth their time: oftentimes they just like them, especially if you play gonzoish adventures. Which gives me enough time to actually link them with the rest of the setting in (you guess it) subverted caricatures of existing relationships.
  2. Evolutionary game elements rock: the reasoning is that of the 10 campaign elements (npcs, odd objects, etc) you introduced in the last settings, players will pursue maybe 2. They will pursue the most interesting, because they don’t care about the others. So if you improvise you can just come up with a good/boring element ratio of 1/4, the players will kill the bad ideas by not caring about them. The morale is: stop fretting about the quality of your improv, just care about players’ feedback. If you only come up with amazing ideas, the players will pick only the most interesting so, instead of having gold and platinum in your game, you’ll have only platinum. Of course this works only if you are not a control-freak railroader. There is only trying, diversity is king, survival of the most adaptable and so on.
  3. Play with your players: the game is yours, but players live in it. I suppose you don’t hate them, so your goal is to have fun with them, not at their expenses. I’m not saying to indulge in monty haulism, but if you have a choice between doing what you want and doing something that your players find interesting (and doesn’t irk you), go for the second one: players will feel engaged (read point 2 above) and they will steer the game for a while, giving you overworked GM time for thinking about other stuff. It works best when a player goes like “I wonder if Mr X is obsessed with orchids because of an ex lover or something” and you apply point 2 and yeah, it’s because his mom loved them and he has an Oedipus complex. If your bud Dan feels supergood when his PC saves a young girl and gets closely but not necessarily sexually involved with her, you have a major player driver in your arsenal that you can use every time without fault: remember to apply subversion from point 2 above to keep things different. More in general, Intuitive Continuity works extremely well, if you don’t need to have your ego fed at every step of the game.

In general, I favour player centered design: it works with software, why not for D&D?

One Page Monster Manual

Apparently my effort toward participating in the Fight ON! Fantasy Table Competition paid off big time and I managed to get the third place (which oddly got published under my real name and not my nom-de-plume). Which is WAAAY better than I expected. One Page Monster Manual is the result of compiling previous work on what monster entries are really about in a more organic form, adding some tidbits to it to make it more self-standing and less sucky. And, most importantly, not using on the viral SRD licence.

I’m really, really inspired by the other entries: it looks like a lot of people did a very very nice job. Al got the second place with a very nifty entry that I’m going to use for sure in my games, for example.

I’d like to keep the “FO! version” under cover until the mighty fine Fight On! peeps put it out, but if you’re wanting to use a previous version it you can find it (together with many other crunchy bits) almost at the end of the free download Transcription of the Lost Pages: Volume 1 (in a multipage A5 version with a lot of whitespace).

And yes, I have more improvements. But without feedback (which is obviously very welcome and always appreciated) I’d rather concentrate on working on other things.

Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit (Part 2)

Last weekend I played a session of Vornheim, using a PDF on a netbook as the physical copies were still at the printer’s. The preparation and first impact with the game has been discussed already here, what’s missing is some kind of play report and conclusions.

Except the conclusions are right here, and the report follows: if you like any of urban adventuring, random tables, sandboxes, the OSR, improvisation or preparation as opposed to using a premade heavily described setting, get Vornheim now; it’s probably the most-bang-for-the-buck RPG product I’ve ever bought in my life. If you ever plan to run some kind of city adventure, or you like random tables, still get it. I actually recommend it to any GM that can spare a handful of euros both to be aware of what can be done in terms of how handbooks can do to support your game and read  important bits of RPG theory that somehow till now managed not to be published. Just start a short campaign in Vornheim to acquire a taste for it, throwing stuff at your players faster than they can cope with, and see what happens. The city will cope with your initial clumsiness. ;)

V:tCCK is also a stunning example of how to write a setting describing what the characters and players interact with, instead of describing the whole of it. While this might be initially seen as shallowness by a non-OSR perspective, it turns out to be its greater strength. What stuck me, and that contributes to making V:tCCK so awesome, is that it doesn’t describe Vornheim. It gives you a method to create one, two, infinite Vorhneims. They are never going to be the same, but they’ll never be different.

And now, some short commentary on the game. Andrea, if you’re reading, stop now. :P

My players rolled two new pcs, and with some kind of NPC-ex-machina the session started with an airship mooring on a mast on a Vornheim tower. Their weapons have been immediately taken care of by the police and, thanks to a rat-trap seller they managed to get directions to Zord tower.

Actually the bad reaction roll got them bad directions and kinda got them lost in the tower,(roll) ending up being assaulted by a damsel feigning distress and her accomplices. After the damsel (hf t3), fighting with a sword previously camouflaged as a shirt whalebone, fell under dagger blows and her goons ran away, the party managed to befriend a nearby (roll) glassblower, that allows them to hang out in one of his empty storerooms in exchange for some help in the shop due to a really teary story narrated by Pyeerroo. The “damsel” is searched and, together with money, a (roll) golden statuette of a bicephalous pig is found in her moneybag. The statue is so going to be a recurrent McGuffin, leaving behind a trail of corpses.

Pyeerroo is Andrea’s halfling thief, strangely resembling Hannibal Smith as they both love when plans come together and smoke cigars. Except Pyeerroo’s cigar is never lighted as he’s poor and can afford just to chew it a little bit.

In the room they manage to stabilize their “wounded comrade” and to interrogate her. Tuns out she’s a member of (roll, roll, see below) the Mob, the biggest thief guild in town, with hands in many other businesses as well. Tara (that’s her name, I watched some Buffy recently) barters some information and promises of collaboration for her freedom. The party manages to win her trust and admiration by giving her stuff back. Except the sword, so now PCs have illegal weapons again :)

On the way to the tower they met (roll, roll, roll) Gruk, a half orc physician and surgeon that uses modern techniques. Modern as in “they work and kill less patients”. After a short discussion about them being dark skinned southerners and what that means for Vornheimans, they befriend him and tell him that they’ll visit him soon. Then they start to climb up the tower, looking at the various establishments inside, with Pyeerroo ending up in the unlicensed brother at the end of the session.

They’ve been exposed to a number of things unmentioned: slow pets puzzled them but then somehow realized that it’s just a way to show social status by wasting time, architectural elements like towers and bridges, megastructures, gardens, and the Wyvern well.

Anyway, they never mentioned the serpent reader to anyone. Yay paranoia. :)

A player asked for feedback quipped:”it seems like Eberron”. Actually they meant Sharn. The fact that they couldn’t remember Sharn’s name says a lot.

Anyway, here are the guilds for thieves and physicians I came up with, from small to big, following the method described here.

Thieves:

  1. Black Fist
  2. Comrades of Empty Pockets
  3. United Bakeries (the baker’s union is just a cover, but they still make good bread. Don’t go for their meat pies unless you like human flesh tho)
  4. Blind Eye
  5. The Ring
  6. Dagger & Thaler
  7. Magnificent Beggars’ Kingdom
  8. The Mob

Physicians:

  1. Vorn Devote Healers
  2. United Unions of Physicians & Musicians (due to restructuring of the building they shared they ended up joining forces)
  3. League of Amputators, Leeches and Cuppers
  4. Surgeons and Physicians Convivium

Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit

I really wanted to write a recension of Zak’s Vornmeim from LOTFP, but I decided against.

Instead, keeping with the spirit of the manual, I’ll just use it and see how it rolls. Later on today I’ll play a game and I want to do a fat hour of prep. While listening to Therion’s Vovin. The followup and final opinion on Vornheim is here.

Anyway, PCs travel freely between Capolago (home base in my campaign) and the Dungeon of the Mad Archmage (run by Bowser’s player, my cousin Andrea). How to get them to Vornheim? Actually, not how (that’s easy, airship or sea ship laden with rare woods and food), but WHY?

I need a local hook that can kinda push them there in a nice way. Rolling a random page lands me on the Library of Zorlac: Archmage Darkcloak will demand the PCs, since they caused the death of his apprentice Roderick and since Bowser owes him a favour, to recover a serpent reader. Noone heard of such things in my campaign world, but DarkCloak knows that “such unique and misterious artefact from another world” is owned by a private book collector in Vornheim. Recover it, or else: they’ll have a contact in Vornheim, i’ll come up with that later.

So far, easy: snake readers can be quite expensive but are not unfindable in Vornheim. But I need some intrigue. Comes out the connection table on page 53. Darkcloak is connected by NPC1, a native Vornheimer called Dick the Wit, which is (roll, 5) secretly (as in “one of many Dick’s personas”, roll roll roll) Okto of Skarr, a lotus addict aristocrat owning lots of really good farmland close to Skarr, a city far away (actually, he doesn’t). Okto entered Vornheim’s who’s who by feigning to be (roll roll roll) cousin of Kyle of Zord (yes, the family name is different, marriage between families happens, and he knew that Kyle doens’t know about his family branches and that one of his half-cousins’s wives is from Skarr), a sweaty and insecure epicurean employing the best chefs in the city, unwittingly sharing power with his sister, Tittlieb of Zord (yep, it’s the Vornheiman female version of Gottlieb, or Amadeus, but in this case she loves Tittivilla), a grubfight champion. Tittlieb (roll, roll) hates the f*ck out of Dick but respects Okto.

Ugh. Conflicting constraints. I love conflicting constraints :) Constraints are directions allowing design to flow.

Tittlieb hates Dick as they used to be lovers in their youth (15 years ago), but ran away with all of her jewelry. She’s still mildly upset about it. At the same time she respects Okto as he’s rich, interesting, great at entertaining guests, and a relative. She doesn’t know about Okto being Dick, as he’s a damn good actor and conman. Conflicting requirements fixed.

Anyway, Dick and Kyle want to get rid of Tittlieb, and promise the PC that they’ll tell them who the book collector is if they manage to find a way to make Tittlieb GTFO of Vornheim. What not many people know is that… I need more stuff. What? Location, location, location. I need to populate the tower housing the Zords, called Zord Tower.

From the building table, a brothel ( “The Soft Damsel”), a food market hall full of pickpockets, a lawyer studio (“Pugnale, Portafoglio & Pantalone” [knife, wallet and trouser]  are the three lawyers), the mason shop that built and maintains the tower, a tavern (where Tittlieb plays grubfight), another lawyer studio (“Ingannamorte” [deathtricker]), a curio shop (“Magic Box”, sells magic boxes), a nameless winery, another lawyer (“Gragnuoli Brothers”), and another brothel (not belonging to any corporation, therefore illegal, seeming a normal apartment shared by a number of ladies). And two airship mooring masts (one in the market, one in Zord’s villa on top), 4 air bridges connecting the tower to other neighbouring tower clusters, 50% chance that a secret passage links any two given buildings in the tower (known to the old masons obviously, 1% that an inhabitant knows of about passages).

Many lawyers studios… I need guilds!

There are (roll 2d6) 4 lawyers guilds in town: the Most Estimated Union of Barristers, United Piemakers and Lawyers, Vornheim Black Advocates and Grand Advocates Guild. I pick Italian surnames for lawyers, insurers, bankers and moneylenders, just because of my genuine hatred for what they are doing to the place where I was born and raised; as a result NPCs from the above categories are usually evil and rich sociopaths that entertain good relationships with the mob. Ah, don’t get me started on the Vornheiman mob.

To simulate the spread of big and small guilds I came up with a neat rule: associate the guilds to a non uniform dice distribution (for example, 4 guilds -> spread with 4 possible results -> either 1d2+1d3 or 1d4 twice then pick highest), then roll for each.

  • PP&P -> 1,1 -> 1 -> MEUP
  • Ingannamorte -> 4,1 -> 4 -> GAG
  • GB -> 3,2 -> 3 -> VBA

The lawyers are always scheming. I dunno how or what. But hey are. They always do. They’ll hire the PCs to do odd, almost perfectly legal stuff.

Now, I imagine I don’t really need a plot or situation as I have a number of locales and odd NPCs and that will fuel the next sessions. I’ll just put the players in Vornheim and let them cause the usual trainwreck. Because they always manage to.

First, pre-game judgment: the book rocks. It threads a path rarely taken: describing a campaign setting encoding its behaviour. I can see a lot of material in the same style supporting it coming out of the OSR. I hope this will happen.

Tip:Generating Campaign Specific Rumours

Campaigns, sandboxed or not, might use some rumours to better motivate lazy players.

An approach is to have a neat campaign specific table compiled. Very neat and integrated, but it takes preparation, and it’s just limited to the table entries.

Another approach is to have a neat generic table compiled, and weave the result from the table in your campaign. Somewhat dirty and random, but good for improv and sandboxes. Some players might feel tricked as this approach might appear not honest to them (“maaan you and your stupid old school tables just f**ked me for no reason whatsoever”). You know what? Tell them to GTFO. :)

After reading Vornheim (a mighty fine product, let me tell you, as it defines a campaign through its behaviour and not through mere prose, which deeply satisfies my software engineer aesthetics I keep well hidden under my black beard, soul and clothes) I decided to use Zak’s “roll dice on page” to achieve a more direct solution to the problem. Pick a random page of the campaign setting, roll a d4 on it and, tah dah, what’s under the d4 is the rumour/secret.

Rumour Generation System

A: Pick a page at random from your campaign setting or notes.

B: Roll a d4, make it land on the page, read the sentence under the d4, refer to the following table:

  1. spill the beans and create a true rumour based on the sentence.
  2. refer the opposite of the sentence. It might not be a lie di per se but simply something erroneous or misreported.
  3. take the sentence and spin it so far and fast and hard that it might seem a false rumour but there is some underlying truth behind it. Think chinese whispers.
  4. create a rumour (30% true, 30% false, 40% mixed) based on the sentence, then pick another random page in the book (or some other book) and repeat the whole procedure, mixing the results.
C: try to weave some kind of reasonable tale around the topic, in case it feels artificial.

On Deconstructing Monsters, plus a handy generator. Or What do I need to know about that moving thing over there?

Update: I reworked this a bit, submitted to the Fight On! Fantasy Table Contest and…

Re-Update: Download MOSTROTRON here.

What stuck me most while reading early supplements, like Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign, is that monsters often got only described with a name, a number and their level.

For example: 20 x Orcs (1HD)

This got me thinking big time, especially taking into account that the 3E monster entries is, at least from a game stats standpoint, the most extensive and complete and hence my favourite in all D&D. Just kidding: it used to be my favourite when I was playing 3E, because of all the problems i perceived with 2E and, since I’d rather not show how mislead I was 12 years ago, I’ll just close the subtopic here.

Anyway, the point here is that the stats must be enough to convey what monsters can do, while avoiding to consume too much space. But a lot of things are assumed, such as orcs being humanoids, wielding weapons and wearing armours, can talk orc and love rape, arson, mutilating prisoners and eating intelligent species, indulging in all four at the same time as often as possible.

So a lot of information is known already, and stuff like THAC0 can be derived from hit dice. What’s missing?

First thing, damage and AC. Weapon damage is either fixed or weapon dependent, and AC depends on what the guys are wearing this morning. It’s interesting to note not only that in B/X armor type dictates maximum speed, but the same correlation is often kept for monsters: if a monster has “a thick hide” it will have leather equivalent AC and a matching speed. Often, but not always.

Then, morale; that is, if you actually use it. Number encountered is provided. Treasure too. What’s left?

Special?

Picture me stroking my awesome beard with a thoughtful expression in my eyes.

Monsters are defined by HD. HD that vary from 1/4 (cats, rats and tree pangolins) to the sky, with variations in AC and movement depending on AC. Some of them pounce and hide, other give you diseases, others can curl up in their mighty armour. Or breathe fire, have no mind so behave straight all the way, can drain levels, can summon daemons, or have mighty jaws and do tons of attacks. Poison. Collective cursing. Dodging blows. Casting spells. :)

Do we really need monster manuals? Or we just need to pick hit dice, decide the AC and maybe, maybe, slap on a power or two, then decorate with fluff. For gameplay reasons we might want to have a continuous spread of hit dice to populate our worlds, and for other, better gameplay reasons we might want to subvert the “spread of power” trope.

Here’s my monster generator :)

HD: 1d6 + fudge factor (in a dungeon, level – 3). Negative results mean less than 1HD.

AC: 1d8+1

Movement: pick the movement from the encumbrance table according to the AC.

Special: Roll 2d6 – 7 times 1d50 on this table. Effects are taken from S&W Whitebox, covering completely all the monsters in the handbook (except a handful) plus some added. :)

  1. shriek (or some other action) kills people (saves neg.)
  2. immune to magic (1d6): 1-2 all magic (1d6*15%); 3-5 all effects of some type; 6 all spells of level 1d6 and lower.
  3. gaze or bite (50% either) petrifies
  4. a random body part sheds light
  5. destroys weapons and armors (rust, acid, vetrifies, chews leucrotta style, etc)
  6. blinks, possibly evading attacks and backstabbing
  7. 50% chances of surprising (ambush expert or camouflage or sudden ghost-like appearance)
  8. (1d6+4)*10% faster! (many legs, wings, magic)
  9. poison! paralysis or death or something else, possibly (1-2 on 1d6) with an 1d1000 rounds onset time.
  10. multiple attacks (1d3): 1-multiple appendices; 2-multiple heads (so possibly multiple spells as well); 3-simply really fast. Possibly (30%) damage can be dealt to the relative appendix to incapacitate it.
  11. flies! burrows! swims! jumps! (1d4)
  12. snatch and pull close (frog sticky tongue or balrog whip or kusari-kama).
  13. hazardous emanation within 3 meters or (10%) 3d100 meters: 1d4: 1 -2 to hit or ST or damage; 2 1d6 damage per round from fire/cold/radiation/depression; 3 energy drain; 4 plants die and animals run away
  14. create stuff! through either resources, crafts or magic
  15. conjure illusions
  16. fulfill other people’s wishes (magically or because of being REALLY good, think djinni or Leonardo da Vinci)
  17. alternate form (1d4): flame, gaseous, horde of tiny animals (roaches, bats, etc), liquid
  18. create whirlwind
  19. shapeshift
  20. breathe fire/cold/acid/poison for 3d6, 10% to inflict instead 1 hp per remaining hp (save halves).
  21. spellcaster of level (1d10): 1: same as HD; 2: half HD; 3: double HD. Wizardly (50%), clerical (40%) or both (10%).
  22. acute observer (dwarven stonetelling or elven secret door detection)
  23. appear really badass. Can scare low level opponents on sight or at will (ST or flee).
  24. set shit on fire
  25. chocking attack (either physically, or by drowning or something else)
  26. resemble an inoffensive location feature (a-la gargoyle or treant)
  27. Double damage! Roll 1 dice more for damage (like giants)
  28. missile attack
  29. immune to non-silver (20%), non-magical (70%) or (10%) metal weapons.
  30. immune to (1d4) piercing/slashing/blunt/magic damage.
  31. matter conversion (grey goo or green slime)
  32. +2 to attack or damage due to fervor (fanatics or berserkers or fanbois)
  33. invisibility
  34. MTD: monstruous transmissible disease like vampirism or theriantropy
  35. double damage when charging
  36. rotting disease
  37. Swallow whole! hitting with a 20.
  38. energy drain
  39. summons allies
  40. awake objects (like a treant animating trees)
  41. regeneration
  42. teleport
  43. ridable!
  44. controls a bunch of minions
  45. hive-mind (no surprise, +1 initiative per member)
  46. Science! (reroll, but using alien technology)
  47. being disgustingly rich
  48. being completely despicable/lovable by every player
  49. tastes really, really, really good
  50. it seems like (reroll), but actually it’s (reroll)

peeking in the toolbox

This article is written as some kind of followup of a post written by my favourite bat, but as my average article gestation time is measurable in months, well, it kinda spun off in its own direction.
Here’s the content of my toolbox: what I use when I need some help during improvisation:
  • AEG Toolbox. Toolbox is a thick book chock full of tables: the original book is quite d20 oriented but the stats can be disregarded as needed. Back in the day my toolbox was literally just this handbook (and the d20 core books). AEG put out also Ultimate Toolbox (excerpts available), which is TONS of new material and not a reprint of the old stuff in a posher book, this time in system neutral format. I’d get it but as I have the first one I’m not willing to spend money for it. I always find a bit hard to find stuff in this kind of book.
  • Monsterless Manual from Beyond The Black Gate, because at times you need to have stats for a wench or a sergeant, or you want to insert an interesting dramatis persona but don’t know who (the same way we crack open the monster manual looking for an interesting encounter). Dragon Lords of Melnibone (d20 version) has an equivalent section, but with more fluff: the Monsterless Manual has justs stats and a random personality table. Hiring tariffs would have been a nice addition (how much is a wench? and a soldier? and a doctor? for a month? or an hour?), as well as “meaningful names” for characters, such as… ok, can’t come up with anything in English but a wench called “Darla Presti” sounds totally right in Italian; about that, see here for the concept, here for villains, and here in general, because nomen omen est.
  • Kellri’s netbooks. You know them already, or at least you should. As previously mentioned, my campaign without CDD#4 would have been much more boring, or hard work, but possibly both; being similar to AEG Toolbox, it suffer the same lookup-problem (but it’s cheap).
  • Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here). It’s the second most gaming-significant article I’ve ever read, the first page of my RPG ring-binder used to be the same handwritten checklist. I might as well put it back there or even better stick it to the binder cover. If you’re interested, the first one is here, but mostly concerned with other stuff.
  • my RPG ring-binder. Years of game writing and improvisation produce an amazing quantity of material, yet most of it it’s never recorded. And I don’t mean plots and bad acting, I mean NPC personas and stats, motivations, locations, stuff players really enjoy and so on. I understand that you might not want to break the game flux and rhythm taking notes, but GMs might be literally throwing away the best bits of their improv efforts. It’s like not taking notes while brainstorming: you might lose gems.
  • Everway decks and a tarot deck. I got Everway used for 5 quid but never played it (the full set of cards can be bought for cheap on ebay), and one of my best friends bought me a tarot deck. Both are tools used to build narratives around protagonists, and I used both for improv and adventure-writing. There are countless sources that teach tarot reading, I use Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and Place’s The Tarot, and you can resort to automatic spreads if you have no decks around. There are also many versions of Ravenloft Tarokka decks you can use. Everway cards have questions on the back, which kinda handholds brainstorming but makes it way faster; overall better than a tarot deck as it’s not “polluted” with christian and jewitchery themes that might make it alien to your fantasy world.
  • For dungeons, I usually resort to geomorphs. Lately I printed and cut DysonLogos’s and Risus’s. If there’s the need to “save” the dungeon disposition, I can use a digital camera or a webcam.
  • Websites: Cartographers’ Guild and Google have nice maps/props, and I stop by Age of Fable and Chaotic Shiny when in need of generators.

against the grain: evolutionary sandboxes and fun with hexmaps

Our sandbox campaign is picking up speed lately.

Players are keen on following the seeds I plant and other things I mention. They are taking way more initiative, doing things on their own and buy pack mules and mercenaries to guard their remote camps.

Awesome; exactly what I wanted, for a few reasons:

  1. Players are way more engaged now: the empowerment given by the “endgame” usually does that, even if they don’t have fortresses/armies yet, but as previously mentioned they got crenelation rights over a ruined fortress (it’s the ruined Rodemus Castle from Moldway repurposed as “ruined border fortress, blocking a mountain pass used to trade with the Eastern Kingdom” (and before you dismiss “Eastern Kingdom” as a lame name, please note it’s more or less the meaning of Österreich, Austria for your anglophones)).
  2. Their drive make interesting campaign elements emerge and I just need to riff on them, which is helpful because I can simply give full attention to bloom  better focus on NPCs, encounters, locations, rhythm. Furthermore player having ideas keeps me from fretting over planting seeds, as the “campaign elements density” reaches criticality (the point where people start saying “I can’t keep track of what the heck is going on”) sooner, which in my opinion is the sweet spot.
  3. The most valuable insight I gained from running this campaign is that interesting seeds (either introduced by me or by them) are followed more; even better, in a sandbox the best seeds are the followed ones, those garnering interest from players. Bad seeds don’t sprout simply because they’re not followed, removing the motivation to sprout at all, and with it the effort. Obviously the DM can make them evolve in the background anyway, if he can be bothered/remember to. See “criticality” above, and prepare to read more about this as my thoughts on the topic coalesce :)

The other topic for tonight is random ramblings on hexmaps.

Using Hexographer I started to put together my campaign map, with 24 miles hexes, as per BECMI set. It started as a “glue” to link dungeons and towns, and evolved by conglomerating bits and bobs from previous campaigns the group was not involved with, and by writing some bad fiction (I’m too ashamed of that to even show it to my players): the first glued bits were B/X Rodemus Castle, Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos, Threshold (later removed and changed to Capolago, “LakeEnd”), Sham’s Dismal Depths, a handful of villages and so on.

Here on the right there’s map a portion depicting the Libera Lega di Sidesi, “Sidesi Free League”, a bunch of ex-warlords that conquered bits and pieces of wild lands and asked settlers over. The land still a bit rough, as it’s mostly woods and mountains, but it’s a good place to live as an adventurer. Borders are dashed in red, Capolago is the town right in the middle of the map and Sidesi is 5 hexes south of it. The map is still incomplete as, well, most things are still TBD. The grain is vertical, as you can see.

Why do I care about grain? Because I use hexes to resolve movement and to track positions. Hexmaps have lots of qualities (go read Dunnigan’s Complete Wargames Handbook if you’re interested in hexpr0n), but the fault of introducing distortion if moving against the grain (well, it’s a problem common to all maps with discrete, “grid-like” locations): if in the map right here you wanted to move two hexes to the right you’d moving “two steps” (for example SE,NE) but the “real” distance is the square root of three (about 1.73). Not as bad as “squared” maps with diagonal movement costing 1 or 2 (and not 1.5), but still.

A little advice: orientate the hex grains on the expected “usual” travel directions. If you expect movement to happen from east to west, pick an horizontal grain, if north to south pick an horizontal grain. Even better, take a fountain pen and some good paper, draw a map and use compass and ruler to calculate movement disregarding entirely the grid.

A couple of weeks ago I learnt about the free Judges Guild map template and its design and decided that, well, I had to use it. So I started to draw maps with 5-mile hexes. The purple hex is to show the extension of the “big hex” from the JG templates. Here’s the “more detailed” map, with Capolago in the middle, the Keep on the Borderlands and Caves of Chaos at the NW edge, Rodemus Castle to the SE and the dismal Depths under the ruined castle in the mountain hex by the lake. The south is more developed as it’s where players hang out more. Lots of stuff is not on this map obviously, as my players read the blog… :)

Something else to consider when “putting places on maps” is overland speed. Unencumbered PC can travel 32 miles/day on roads, 24 on “easy” ground. This makes me definitely realize that PCs are either trained soldiers, expert trekkers or übermenschen: have you walked 32 miles miles a day on paths for more than a week, cooking and setting up camp every day, maybe in the rain, maybe with bad wounds, possibly while having fights with monsters and horders of goblinoids?

Or maybe they were fitter as they walked everywhere and had manual jobs and, most important, were not not unfit geeks that enjoy playing fantasy adventure games.