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.

800px-Allt_a'_Mhuilinn

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

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Uplands…

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Mountains…

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Ben_More,_Crainlarich

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.

800px-Highland_cattle_on_Canna

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

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Lairig_Leacach_Bothy

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More details later…

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.

Fantasy F*uckin’ Italy and the Game Police

Saturday I ran my first Google Plus hangout game, set in Fantasy F*ucking Italy. The setting, more specifically, is Milan in May 1491 and the game system is Adventure Fantasy Game. Fun was had, liberties were taken and Saturday we are going to play again.

But I’m not going to write about the setting, or the game, or the period. I’m going to write about the Game Police.

The Game Police stops you from having fun your way. Because your way is not proper. Because you’re not allowed to walk off the path. Because our pasts are full of shipwrecked campaigns and bad games, and surely these suck sewage. And the Game Police knows what’s good for you and wants to protect you.

The Game Police first weapon is Nagging. It might be from people on your social network of choice, on RPG.net, your friends. It might even be your inner self-criticizing voice. Nagging mostly consists of reminding you that you are not doing justice to the material or the rules by not being 100% accurate in preparation or execution. If you’re not accurate you’re engaging in some kind of lame, distorted version of the proper setting or game. The Game Police frowns on that.

The Game Police second weapon is Fear. Fear that you might fuck up and it’s gonna be your fault if it’s horrible. The problems might happen now or later if you’re not conservative. Fear stops characters from messing with your setting, stops you from exploring and stretching its boundaries, stops everybody from being daring with toys. Because you might ruin everybody’s game now and in the future forever.

Nagging and Fear are terrible weapons, and the Game Police knows it. They keep you away from fun by threatening you with terrible consequences, stopping you and your group from hopping off the steep Cliff of Failed Campaigns and the Crevice of BadWrongFun. Keeping you safe. Nagging delays you, forcing to prepare so much that it’s not feasible and making gameplay clumsier in playing rules as written. Fear stops you from being daring with your material, your setup and with in-game consequences.

It’s for your own good, really. Truth is the Game Police also stop you from being utterly & freakin’ awesome.

Ignore the Game Police: nobody ever reached the summit of Mount Awesome without risking anything.

The best way to the top of Mount Awesome is a magical trebuchet.

AFG back-of-the-handbook adventure: The Temple (of Cthulhu) Under the Volcano. Also, brief thoughts on mountains and maps

The AFG manual is going to come with a mini-sandbox, because there are few things that set the tone for a game better than the adventure at the back of the handbook.

I had a small Checklist of Awesome for such adventure:

  1. Volcanoes
  2. Cultists
  3. Mountains
  4. Wilderness
  5. Contained

So I picked the first unexplored hex off the edge of my Western League campaign and started to populate it with MOSTROTRON and MONDOTRON. After letting the magic of random generation happen I started playtesting it, finished the map (I’m waiting for a proof from the printer right now) and started the writeup. The adventure starts like this:

This volume presents rules that tie AFG adventures to a specific kind of setting: a fake-European, faux-late-medieval fantasy setting. The availability of heavy armours and firearms, coinage names and nature, emphasis on fortifications and many other elements like feudalism all trace back to the European late Middle Ages. But it’s fantasy as well. So: 

What if Fantasy Switzerland had volcanos and a Temple of Cthulhu, containing a huge gold idol?

And what if one of the characters knew about the temple contents and “forgot” to tell everyone else to avoid scaring them?

Playtest is going well. I expect players to put their hands on the idol Tuesday night.

While mapping the zone at a 1 hex = 1km scale (there are reasons for this) I started to feel that simply putting a “mountain hex” was not enough: mountains are not simply “harder” to walk on. Some parts, like ridges, can be extremely problematic, steep and dangerous. So, I thought, ridges can increase the cost of movement and possibly deal some damage to unskilled and/or unlucky mountaineers. Especially if they happen to be simply walking across a mountain range, in the map below the ridges are black and the gap is a mountain pass.

So the usual movement cost of 1 per easy terrain, 2 for hills or forests, 3 for mountains is supplemented by the new obstacle category: an obstacle costs 1d6 additional movement points to cross and represents hard-to pass terrain like steep ridges, wide crevices and rivers. Some obstacles might require appropriate an check, like mountaineering, to pass unscathed or in the worst case even to pass them; if the check is failed the character takes damage ranging from 1 hit up to to 2d6 depending on the obstacle, equipment and other conditions.

On Eating your own Dogfood: generating adventure settings using AFG MOSTROTRON and MONDOTRON

I’m a firm beliver in eating your own dogfood. As I’m putting together “Castles on the Hills, Dungeons beneath” and I was feeling the white page syndrome, I decided to prototype MONDOTRON, an incomplete campaign Points Of Interest generator to kickstart writing on CotHDB: toss dice in, shake, get dungeons, settlements, weird and secret stuff out. Creatures would come out of MOSTROTRON, the AFG creature generator (you can find something similar but with a simpler structure here).

Two approaches seemed obvious: one more simple, teleological and user-oriented and one more simulationist. After jotting down a number of deciding factors to be used for the simulationist approach I decided to ignore them (for now) and go forward with the simple “table with of possible results”. MONDOTRON is going to be a stopgap solution: I need a usable setting generator soon rather than a perfect one later.

The simplest approach is to, for each hex or node in your map (maybe generated with Hexographer), do the following:

  1. come up with a name, possibly based on the geographical features.
  2. use a table to determine if monsters, treasures and traps environmental hazards are present.
  3. place monters, treasure and traps environmental hazards appropriate to the location. If the room location is empty, add an interesting and visible landmark or a special thing (ruins and standing stones are always a decent option), if the treasure is unguarded it might be buried, monsters might be in a dungeon and so on.
While this guarantees results which are exactly the same as dungeons with bad weather, such as a tribe of goblins and their hoard in a 30’x30′ room hollow in the woods, the result is not an open-sky dungeon: the main difference between dungeons and wilderness is the quality of the interaction with the environment. In a dungeon stone walls stop you from evading the ogre sentinels while in the wilderness only the most extreme environments, such as lava, crevices and vertical cliffs stop you in the same way, and only if no way to fly, abseil or climb are available. In the wilderness the lay of the land is much more interesting, interactive and varied than dungeon stone walls, and forgetting this will lead to frustrated players.

So, yes, this approach works. Can be improved on but it’s solid.

On the other side bringing a pickaxe in a dungeon might allow patient adventurers to loudly dig themselves and treasure out of trouble. It’s been done and it works.

A more sophisticated approach is to have a table with expected results, like this one:

  1. Dungeon: underground complex. You might be familiar with the concept.
  2. Special place: hot springs, standing stones, an extremely deep crevice. Players’ interest should be piqued.
  3. Hidden place: an hideout, a crypt, a buried treasure, you get it. The location must not only be remote but also purposely hidden.
  4. Outpost: small, single settlement, like a farm, an hunters’ lodge or a fort
  5. Village: a bigger settlement. Towns and cities should be extremely rare as they need extensive food supplies, which means miles of fields around them and security from monsters.
  6. Nothing special.

So for each hex you roll on the above table and then on the relative subtables. If you want to have a more mundane setting roll a dice bigger than a d6. You can also throw in modifiers depending on the location and its surrounding. This is the solution used for MONDOTRON. Sure it has a number of shortcomings: distribution of content can be far from perfect (but of course improvable), and a random approach leaves you hostage to luck. Also it doesn’t usually produce extremely interesting results because of its structure: the goodness of the result is on a first instance due to the single entries and not by their interaction.

It has of course a lot of plus sides: first, it’s really easy to write and to use. Second, leaning on any simple generator takes away hard choices but allows the author to take over when the creative cogs start cranking.

Also, it rides intuitive continuity toward the weird fantasy and pulpy end of the spectrum, possibly forcing a more heavy-handed approach to justifications to incongruence resolution. Intuitive continuity tells us that such incongruences are in some way justified, and can be roughly classified in one of the following classes:

  • No interaction. the first, simplest case is that the two entities do not interact meaningfully. Mostly non-changing.
  • Unbalanced interaction. This class of interaction has uneven tensions. The situation is therefore dynamic, change happening or about to happen. This part of the scenario is already evolving and will reach its natural conclusion unless meddled with, conclusions that will have consequences. Players should feel empowered not only to cause change through action, but also through deliberate inaction.
  • Balanced interaction. The third case is that the interaction is somehow beneficial for or tolerated by both sides. The tension must be balanced by another tension: this tension can be either internal (like a deal between a city and a warlord) or external (such as parents stopping brothers from beating the heck out of each other). The tensions will mostly counter each other and bring a non-evolving status quo, but might as well result in a new tension toward another element in the scenario. The resulting tension might end up destabilizing the whole: the example is a city paying some kind of tribute to a warlord and, as the lord makes new enemies, the city will suffer from their hostility too, in turn causing problems with the warlord and going back in due time to an unbalanced interaction.

All three lead to adventure scenarios but timing and opportunities are much different. Players can decide to intervene in all three scenarios, by either:

  • for the first class, forcing interaction between the parties.
  • for the second and third class, removing interaction or its causes, for example by blockading traffic between the city and the Warlord.
  • for all cases, acting in favour or against one of the parties, or as a new separate party, thus either stabilizing or destabilizing the situation.

Now, a number of factions, people and circumstances might lead adventurers to do some of the above. I’m pretty sure you can came up with these on your own.

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?