notes from behind the screen: new group, same campaign

There’s a new geeky place in Glasgow, the Geek Retreat. It’s a small cafe/comic book shop/hangout place with a small but growing game selection and a welcoming staff.

Last month I heard they were looking for a game master and I promptly volunteered, which led me to start running AFG on Wednesdays. Since at the third session we had 9 (8+GM) people at the table (more on that in the next paragraph) I decided to also start (from this coming week) to run some variety of D&D on Thursdays, as it seems that there are more people wanting to play.

On running for 8 players – there is a maximum group size, but I’m not sure what it is. It surely depends on game system, player socialization (both how they are socialized to behave in groups and how much they chat between themselves at the table), noise level, play style and GM exposition skill. In Geek Retreat 8 players were probably beyond my capacity, but I noticed the noise was distracting me, especially with British players (they tend to speak quieter than Italians at the table, and probably anywhere else, and gesticulating less). Something that I felt helped a lot is the AFG initiative system: split in 4 phases (melee, missile, movement, magic) in each phase all actions are simultaneous. Instead of rolling initiative the referee simply asks “is anybody attacking in melee?” at the beginning of the first phase, then resolves all melee, then repeats the same for the remaining phases (with some caveats you can find in the free, “light” AFG rules). No initiative roll, no sorting, only 4 phases.

On the players – I’m really lucky. There is definitely a mix of experience, and a couple of them never played tabletop, but none of them seems to have too many problems with OSR-style play. Or having their characters mutilated: in 4 sessions a character lost an eye to a zombie finger, another had an arm disabled for a couple of sessions, the caster failed a TS against Hellgate, shielded herself with her arm and took way too much damage, then collapsed.  Due to all that molten skin and carbonized tissue, the arm had to be amputated to avoid gangrene and sepsis, so now an orphan kid is reloading her crossbow.

So, at her second session ever, her PC gets fireballed, collapses, then wakes up without an arm. Ah, happytimes.

On the setting – people, fantastic spaces need a map. They do. At least it works as “list of places we can go”. Even something scrabbled with a pencil in 2 minutes while you explain the setting is way, way better than nothing. About 10000 gigajoule/lightyear better. Even if this is the eight campaign I run in the Uplands/Western League campaign, I don’t have a map for the setting yet. I have a few maps, some even made with Hexographer, but players need a map. Conveying geography with words is complicated, but with words and maps it’s incredibly easier.

So at the beginning of session two I scribbled a map while I was filling in players with some background details. I do a 2-3 minutes infodump at the beginning of every session, complete with a recap of what happened and the last session’s loose ends. Why the recap and the loose ends? Because players, between sessions, are distracted by things such as “real life” et similia, so I don’t want them to bumble around before they remember what’s left to be done. Time for gaming is precious.

Something I feel I’m getting better at is this whole business of running many campaigns in the same settings and making all the consequences matter. I kicked off the campaign with three hooks generated in the last session ran with the OTM – Original Tilean Murderhoboes and, well, being in a place with a lot of interesting events with their own background, and a background behind that background generated by real people murderhoboing around a table is way, way more compelling than anything I could come up with.

More specifically the players investigated what happened to the hunting lodge of gunther von Untervald, the first son of Wilhelm, the previous Untervald Schultheiss. Gunther was supposed to be the new schultheiss after the death of his father, but due to being a horrible douchebag the Court Council exhiled him and instead elected Hansel, his brother, which is kind and handsome and speaks with a silvery voice and makes everybody fawn. Everybody. He’s that pretty. Anyway, Gunther started brigandage in the Upland Court, where the OTM ( and their warband) killed him (and all his followers) with great prejudice and glee. More events happened in the next 11 hours of play with the OTM, including almost a war between the courts of Untervald, Obervald and Oberschwartztal on one side and Oberland, Erminelin, Farturm (the court ran by some of the OTM) and Zeegau on the other. Avoiding the war by a mix of clever diplomacy and the long-proven tactic of killing all the witnesses, the whole clusterf*ck lead the OTM deviating a stream to the basement of Gunther’s hunting lodge to quash a handful of portals that were mistakenly opened toward one of the many Fiery Hells that somehow coexist in my setting. Because when they f*ckup, they f*ckup good.

JOESKY TAX – FIGHTMORE MAYHEM

To make melee even faster and less confusing, we also playtested a variation of FIGHTMORE meant to better represent messy fights with a bunch of combatants fighting each other. The rules might end up something similar to this:

  1. everybody in melee, for both sides, rolls 1d6 and add their FC (or 1d20+equivalent fighting level).
  2. sort the results for each side, then pair them up, better results against better result and then going down.
  3. Then the rest works normally as FIGHTMORE. Whoever wins his matchup this round deals damage to the opponent, armour reduces damage, shields break ties.

It’s quick and dirty but very effective, especially with big groups when you don’t want to use 5MAIL. Those with polearms fighting from the second rank can attack whoever, and if somebody wants to attack a specific target it’s still possible (treat their roll against a specific target instead of the matchup from the sorted list).

Something else I introduced is the “what were you up to before adventuring” part of chargen. In addition to the AFG fixed starting equipment, the class-based rolls and the random oddball object, I let players roll on an occupation table and five them 1 EXPERT letter in a task related to that occupation. It does not break the game at all to give 1 XP to starting characters, yet it gives them a background and direction. And if the PC has a low stat relevant to the determined task, well, that’s why they gave up and preferred to go adventuring. 🙂

JOESKY TAX REDUX – DRAGON SCALES

The previously mentioned caster worships the Mistress of Hopping Dragons (thanks Jeff), but instead of being a ballsy demon-prince worshipper the player preferred to have protection spells. This fits with dragon-magic: a few spells have been simply reskins of existing ones, but one of them is both a protection spell and an almost-healing spell.

Dragon Scales – lvl 1

Range: touch. Duration: until dawn, see below.

The subject grows thick dragon scales. The scale absorb damage that would otherwise be dealt to the target. After absorbing a total of 1d6 hits, the spell ends.

Dragon Scales is simple, but I like the implications. It can be cast before combat and in combat as almost-healing, but it does not heal anything. On one hand, healing is very useful, on the other hand constructs can use some dragon scales too. 😉

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Welcome to the Uplands!

My two last campaigns (the Original Tilean Murderhobos one, is still running), are very much about the Uplands.

The uplands can be easily described as a mix of Switzerland and Scotland, cooked in an abundant bath of the Original Fantasy Fuckin’ Sauce and blatant disregard for history and pretty much anything else.

So, taking the Witch Valley road north from Bogfort, after a couple of days, you’ll get to Witch Pass.

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Over the Witch pass, these are the landscapes. Valleys…

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Uplands…

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Mountains…

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Glaciers…

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800px-Aletschhorn_from_Konkordiaplatz
 

And then the Harga. The Harga is a subglacial volcano close to the Upland Court, the Heart of the Fatherland. Actually, the Harga has been sleepy and dormant for the past 20000 years. So the picture below is only a hypothetical case in case one of the players manage to make it erupt. I long for the day.
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The locals mostly survive on mining, some agriculture and cattle and cheese exports.

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The local build mostly with stone and timber, depending on what’s cheap in the area.

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More details later…

Domain Game 101: Horsebreeding Rules

Passing the holidays in Milan means, to me, playing a lot. In the past week I ran 5 sessions of 5-6 hours each and PCs gained land and title. There’s a lack of small scale OSR rules for domains so I started using Chris’s Feudal Anarchy rules. One of my players realized that horses are expensive and decided to start horsebreeding.

I made some rules to support it because I think it’s an interesting downtime activity, it’s appropriate for a knight bachelor and destriers are awesome, mean, have 4HD and fight with hooves and a big chip on their shoulder. By the way, I have zero experiences with horses. I have vague memories of riding a mule for about 10 meters when I was 5 though, so a casual wikipedia browsing gave me enough information to build some rules. I can only claim that these rules please us, but not any kind of realism or clue.

Most importantly horses in general allow characters in heavy armour to outrun opponents. Wearing heavy armour or not ought to be an important choice in fantasy RPGs and the whole “can’t outrun opponents in heavy armour” is a big, big problem. In AFG this usually means death for either fighters left behind as the rest of the group falls back or for the fighters’ unarmoured comrades that don’t flee when they can. Horses give you mobility.

The following rules use super-easy 5MORE mechanics. Furthermore all hit dice below are d6s: if you prefer using d8 increase all end-of-development thresholds accordingly. Note that “level 2 horse” means that the horse saves and fights as an animal or monster of level two.

Horsebreeding Rules

Mares are usually receptive in spring and summer (two seasons). If there is a stallion (adult male) available mares (adult females) can try to conceive, roll once per season a Conceiving roll, succeeding on a 5MORE.

Then, for each of the three following seasons, try a 5MORE Pregnancy roll with a +1: on a failure pregnancy results in a stillbirth. If all rolls so far have been successful 11 months after conception the mare will give birth to the cutest little foal ever.

The foal will start at 1HD. Roll the hits at birth: of course it won’t have all these hit points as soon as it gets out of the womb, but we’re going to use hits to track horse development until their fourth year, when development ends.

From the second year rules change depending on the two parents’ level. The types are Rouncey (lvl 2), Courser (lvl 3) and Destrier (lvl 4).

Rounceys: add 1 hit during the second year, then 1d6-1 hits during the third year. At the end if the third year if the horse has at least 11 hits it become a Courser, otherwise a Rouncey.

Coursers: add 1d6 during the second year and 1d6 during the third year. At the end if the third year if the horse has at least 15 hits it will become Destrier, if it has 6 or less a Rouncey, otherwise a Courser.

Destriers: add 1d6+1 during the second year and 2d6-1 during the third year. At the end if the third year if the horse has 11 hits or less it will become a Courser, otherwise a Destrier.

If horses of different types mate, treat the offspring as inferior type but add 1 hit at the end of development.  If a Destrier mates with a Rouncey, roll development as a Courser.

An horsebreeder can follow up to 10 horses and can aid horse development three times each season: in case the character is not pleased with one of the above rolls for their horses a Horsebreeding 5MORE test can be rolled. If successful the horse can re-roll and keep the best result except for Pregnancy rolls.

Mares Special Attributes

In addition to any other horse quirks that your system supports, roll 1d6 for each of the following attributes. On a 1 the mare has that attributes, but don’t tell that to the player until it’s evident.

Twin-conceiver: this mare has a 50% chance of conceiving twins.

Late estrus: the mare is receptive also in autumn.

Fertile: +1 to Conceiving roll, +1 to Pregnancy rolls.

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Western League: here’s your manor in the Uplands

My Milan group finally managed, two sessions ago, to get land and title, by the way of sheer guts and being possessed by a malignant weapon. I don’t really do session recaps but I’m willing to give it a try.

As it often happens in RPGs, it all started by doing dirty work for the High Chief Karl of the Upland Court. A tribe of headhunters riding terrorbugs (flying purple scarabs armed with claws dripping with psychoactive poison) was killing his villains and prized cows and he wanted the tribe wiped off the face of the earth. The whole setup (and more) is described by the adventure/sandbox/minisetting at the end of the Adventure Fantasy Game handbook. So, spoiler alert.

*  *  YO, I WROTE SPOILER ALERT * *

One day a small part of the group (Schroedinger the Fighter, Kalibek the Engineer and Winston Moretti the Warlock) decided to put an end to the headhunter problem: Chief Karl sent them eastward, beyond the Harga volcano, telling them to look around the area for heads on poles.  After exploring the area they found a hill riddled with tunnels. but while deciding how to act they were attacked by a cannibal hunting party going back to their den. The immediately blew into a horn to raise the alarm, and the small skirmish soon escalated to a slaughter as more headhunters and terrorbugs (often acting as flying mount for headhunters) joined the combat.

Winston, during the fight, killed a bug rider and managed to take control and ride the giant insect, but as he struggled to take control of the bug the tide of battle was pushing against the players, so they decided to fall back. While running away Schroedinger got bit by another bug, failed the save and, due to the psychoactive bug poison, terror paralyzed him. An airborne Winston arrived, dispatched the bug, lifted Schroedinger and flew away. Meanwhile Kalibek was safely running like the wind in the thick woods. Then Winston noticed the fighter was wielding Nautilus and the penny dropped.

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Yeah, this is the illustration for Nautilus. It will show up in the second print run of AFG.

Nautilus, the malevolent cephalopod spear, is known to throw itself at enemies it wants dead by draining mana from his wielder, only to reappear in his grasp a moment later. So Winston touched Nautilus felt his magical energy drained by the weapon, which propelled itself against a chasing enemy, killing him, only to reappear in his grasp a second later. Turning back and letting the frenzied spear feed on his mana to throw itself again and again against the few remaining savages, the tide of battle turned once again, this time with the PCs winning!

In the following melee Winston got bitten by another terrorbugbug and succumbed to its terrifying paralyzing poison. Everything seemed lost, but Nautilus possessed him! Winston became frenzied, killed the remaining enemies and then blew the cannibals signaling horn again, hoping to summon more victims. Ten more came out with bows and spears, followed by a dozen kids with daggers and stones, wanting blood. Incapable or unwilling to outrun the savages the party stood their ground and killed all of them.

Winston then, and it’s uncertain whether the possession was still ongoing, piled the corpses, put the party’s Idol of Cthulhu on the pile and then all the party together supplicated and prostrated themselves in front of the God’s effigy. Their prayers were heard, as their wounds started to close and their pain to ease off.

Then they left for their camp and came back the next day, blew the horn again and were challenged by the chiefs and their kids, all riding terrorbugs, 12 riding as many in total. The savages had nowhere else to go and the first snows were approaching, so they tried a desperate last assault to save their ancestral home. At the end all the headhunters were slain, the bugs driven away and their ancestral home plundered.

So, yeah, that’s how you get a manor* from a lord: by killing hallucinogenic bugs and scores of men, women and kids. Because if someone has enough guts and disregard for decency to do that, you’ll end up being a very good knight that does not question orders.

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[*]: actually a tower in the middle of a valley linking the Uplands with the Western League. With a big hole in the wall. And a hungry giant living inside.

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.