Here’s the cover of our latest offerings for Ubiquity and Fate:

tzm6-1-copy

Set in 1936 during the Winter Olympics in Garmich-Partenkirchen, the adventure revolves around rescuing a spy inside the Nazi government and a list of people the SS are targeting. There’s four pre-generated characters designed to fit the scenario. The maps and cover are done by Matthew Bohnhoff, probably best know for The Shrieker podcast. (Here’s the episode where he interviewed me, prior to Black Campbell getting off the ground…)

We were going for a 1930s movie one-sheet crossed with a travel poster from the period. It is on sale through Drive Thru RPG at a cost of $2.50.

Just up today is  Murder on the Hindenburg, on DriveThruRPG for Ubiquity and Fate role playing games.

moth-ubiquity

This 22-page adventure scenario is in the style of the ’30s closed-room murder mysteries. You’ve taken a flight on the most prestigious and modern means of transatlantic travel there is. Two days to Europe surrounded by the rich and famous of the world. But when steel magnate Stefan von Eckhardt dies under mysterious circumstances, it’s up to you to find out who the killer is before Hindenburg reaches Frankfurt!

The adventure has four pre-generated characters that would well fit the scenario, but players could easily make or substitute their own. It was designed to be played in a single session of two to three hours.

Matthew Bohnhoff, again, did duty for the cover, trying to get a mix of the ’30s movie one sheet and the actual DZR and DELAG posters by Jupp Wiertz (the following was the inspiration for the cover…)

h3297-l16975458

 

So, this week saw everyone back and just in time for the big meet with the Emperor of Atlantis. The characters had convinced the Valhallans to join the fight to preserve Ultima Thule, and decided to bring the Soviets from the crash of SSSR-V6 back with them. The two members of the GPU unit that have been trying to recapture Olga since early in the campaign are convinced they’ll be needed to stop her, if her powers have truly been unleashed, but the characters — rightly not trusting them — leave them at home.

They head to the location they and the Atlanteans had agreed on — a neutral spot on an inland sea outside the control of Atlantis. There they found a high mountain range with a massive inland sea and near the northeastern spit of water, a huge crystal and metal building, like an upside-down ziggurat from which streams of water and clouds of steam escaped. The middle of this inverted pyramid was open, stepped leading down to a super-heated pool of water. Various “islands” with water features and gardens were suspended in the middle and the scale of everything was that of a place made for people bigger than Man.

Nearby, a large imperial ship in red and gold waited, and a few saucers were keeping the area secured. They landed on a pad, and Dr. Gould stayed inside the saucer with their pilot, planning on only revealing himself to win Olga over, if she was there; they knew he was of value to the emperor, and it was too risky to show him off. Gus Hassenfeldt, “Sky Marshal” Hunter, and Zara, with a small guard of panthermen to protect them, were directed through the upper floors of the structure to a massive suspended park with waterfalls and gardens.

There they found Emperor Mot (I settled on going with the classic Max von Sydow Ming for the general look and feel) and Olga — or Lady Morana (a Russian death goddess) — dressed in your basic black slinky femme fatale number, complete with cape, and their collection of royal guardsmen. After some banter between the sides, Gus tried to keep the conversation on peace-making: they only started the rebellion to reseat their friend Amon in Ultima Thule (done), and to rescue their friends Olga and Shria. Olga/Morana, however, doesn’t need to be saved. She is perfectly content to be the emperor’s right-hand and consort. Mot even agrees to return Shria to them, if they walk away and disband their rebellion.

Meanwhile, Olga has reached out and touched Gould’s mind, luring him to join them. There, he is surprised to find she doesn’t want to leave with them. She has everything she needs here, but they need him to save the Inner World from collapse. Mot needs him to help “turn the key” and save this world, and he needs Olga’s ability to supercharge the Atlantean technology to do it. They try to convince him to join Mot and his friends can leave in peace…he might even mean it, they think.

But Gould pushes too hard, trying to convince Olga to run away with them. She refuses — Mot has given her more than she could have out there: she has been awakened to her power, she has authority and resect, power, and when she is done with Mot, she will rule this world! The final dig — he also gave her a son. Gould falls apart and she is able to ensorcel him to leave while giving the guardsmen their orders.

The battle was fast and brutal. Gus takes out two guardsmen with rapidity, while Hunter hoses the emperor down with his Chicago Typewriter…but the .45s from the Tommy gun reflect away as the emperor raises his fist. There is a glowing ring with the symbol of the Terra Arcanum on it. He then uses telekenesis to launch Hunter over the side of the bridge to his apparent death below.

Gus grabs Zara and throws them both over the side into a water feature to escape the heat rays of the guardsmen remaining. They are sucked through some kind of tube and expelled into the central terracing of the pyramid, falling…

The gunfire snapped Gould out of it and he runs for it, just in time to see their saucer apparently explode on the concourse above! They are trapped. Then he sees his friends gone, the panthermen cut down by heat ray fire, and Mot closing on him. With a flick of the wrist, his telekinesis knocks the doctor cold. As he passed out, his last sight is Olga standing over him with that derisive look she always gives those enemies she deems beneath her.

This was a fun one, and mostly played off the cuff. I didn’t have much time to plan as I had a last minute hire at the local community college to teach history, and was scrambling to get through the paperwork and mandatory training.

I knew I wanted a big action set piece that was weird and exotic, and big — the same way the Star Wars settings like the Death Star interiors were BIG. This was their first meeting with the big bad, and we had to see him in a venue that was big, strange, and intimidating to give the character more impact, as well. The von Sydow Ming remains one of the all-time best biddies in cinema history and he was always in my mind when I was mentioning the guy as the sinister off-screen presence. He had to POP to make this work: he couldn’t be a push-over, couldn’t be anything but calm, menacing, but charming in his own way.

I was fortunate enough to bunce some ideas off of Runeslinger last night. I wanted something that had that hawkman city vibe from Flash Gordon, but bigger. He suggested the geyser idea, which I ran with and changed the venue to the giant upside down pyramid for the weird factor. He mentioned “spa o the Gods” and it all clicked. (One of the other players used the same term later in play and got a style point for it…)

Olga had to come off different. She was always quiet, violent, but with that defensive, abused quality that made her a bit human. Now they see her as a sort of Black Queen: confident, powerful, angry, and twisted. Mot has either made her into something obscene, or worse…released something that was always there. This NPC was always an enigma. I had early visions of her secretly being a GPU agent trying to find the Hollow Earth. I considered that she was just so broken that she was truly sociopathic, but hadn’t crossed the line into cold-blooded killer (but was close.) But when she got captured, I knew I had my angle — the abused creature of power that is finally trained well enough to be dangerous and now has her own agenda, which might be to see everything burn (Gould’s concern), unbridled power, or something else.

So again we pulled off a top-notch cliffhanger with a major PC captured, his girlfriend turned into a sorcerous villainess, the others falling to their deaths(?) and the emperor winning.

 

We were down a person for Hollow Earth Expedition this week, so with a bit a soft-shoe we pressed on with a bit of “talking about or feelings” — we saw that Gus Hassenfeldt was shacked up with his mermaid “wife” in a damaged warehouse on the waterfront, where she was out of the ever-present sun of the Inner World, and had access to water from the interior boat dock. Dr. Gould is throwing himself fully into the campaign against Atlantis in a desperate attempt to save Olga (now known as Lady Morana, the emperor’s “favored” consort…) and has been showing tactical acumen that is impressing the turncoat, General Inanna.

They visit the impressive Royal Library of Thule, where Lord Trevor and a couple of the German science team from Deutschland have been digging through the history of the Hollow Earth. They ascertained that the place was artificially created — something all the denizens seem to know — by some “Great Lord” about 1000-2000BC, to rid the world of the evils created by the “gods” of Man. They posit this might be Ahura Mazda, or even Yahweh… The Atlantans were the guardians of the gateways to this prison, and they seemed to have fallen from grace somehow. This led to the “sinking of Atlantis.” Most of their people died along the way, replaced by their servants, the vril. There are vril with Atlantean blood, but for some reason some of the Ancient tech doesn’t work for them, only for humans with Atlantean blood.

Their visit with the scientists is cut short — Atlantis is sending an envoy to parlay, responding to their request to open a dialogue. She arrives in a saucer, a slinky smart woman with a pantherwoman as a pet on a leash. This is Captain Iris of the Imperial Secret Police. She is here to suss them out, and delivers the emperor’s offer to talk, but only with the Outlanders. He sees them (rightfully) as the impetus of this rebellion, and wants to find out what they want. Everyone on the alliance side realizes this is almost certainly a trap to get their hands on the Atlantean-blooded Gould. They agree, but say that will only send Gus, but they want Olga there, and want a meet in a neutral spot. (They intend Gould to be hidden until the right moment, hoping he can win Olga back to their side.)

After Iris is away with their counter-proposal, they get more disturbing news: the German airship, Deutschland, was seen yesterday heading toward Valhalla…but why? They were supposed to be doing a goodwill tour and picking up more troops for Ultima Thule’s defense. Is it some kind of double cross? They’ve left two scientists and a platoon of their men in Ulitma Thule under Linz, a junior Obersturmfuhrer…he is as gobsmacked as they!

Gould and Gus race to Valhalla in a saucer and arrive to find Deutschland and Los Angeles both gone. King Woden was informed their attack on Ultima Thule had failed, and Obersturmbahnfuhrer Werner convinced Admiral Byrd to take Los Angeles and head for the surface. Both airships have a pair of the Atlantean saucers they were given as gigs, and they took the craft with them! (They know that Werner would have needed the LA to get out of the Hollow Earth — Gould’s brother, aboard the American airship, is the only other person they know whose presence can open the Northern Entrance.)

Woden knew the story about their loss at Ulitma Thule was a failure, but let them go. There was obviously some ulterior motive for the Outlanders decamping the Inner World. Fortunately, he has some idea of why from the same place he knew the reports of their failure were false: his new friends, the remaining crew of the crashed Soviet airship SSSR-V6! With the crew is the GPU psychic, Galina Obreva (an on-going antagonist) and her superior, Capt. Arkady “the Ghost” Lenshev, a man with the power to “cloud men’s minds.”

They warned Gus and Gould about Olga — that she had powers far beyond those they knew about. Even the Special Department of the GPU wasn’t foolish enough to train her. But if the Emperor of Atlantis has wakened those abilities in her, no one is safe — not here in the Inner World, or on the surface.

They must stop her, and they will help with the rebellion to do so…

So, I’m slowly crawling toward running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (see the last bunch of posts), and had been playing around with a couple of D&D character generator apps for the iPad. The one that stood out was a paid app (if you wanted to build more than one character at a time) by an outfit called Lion’s Den named Fight Club 5th Edition. There look to be verions for the various d20 editions on the App Store. (It looks like they’re also up for Android…)

I downloaded the thing and played with it, and found the interface and a character “sheet” presentation on the screen to be magnificent. It calculated up armor class, ave throws, etc. etc. for me, let me pick spells, and equipment. Full service stuff. I decided what the hell and popped for the $2.99.

There were a few places where it fell down, the big one being it doesn’t have all the background packages, nor all the subraces of elves and the like — I suspect it has to do with what is available on the 5th edition SRD. That said, I was able, over the course of two hours, input the rest of the background packages and subraces and save it up to iCloud with no effort at all, especially as you could duplicate one of the existing ones (high elf, for instance) and adjust the modifiers and features for, say, a Drow. I banged out Aasimar to match the Tiefling.

It’s incredibly easy to use, intuitive, pretty to look at, and works very well. So is it worth it? Yes, even if you have to plug some stuff in yourself.

I liked it so much, I downloaded their Game Master 5th Edition app. This allows you to build out a campaign and encounters quickly and easily, but dropping in the monsters you need, the treasures per encounter, the NPCs present and even PC’s stats can be added. (I would like to see the ability to pull PCs for Fight Club…) There’s a tab for rule references, one for the bestiary, treasures, spells that describe them for you. There’s a dice roller that allows you to add mods, etc. The only thing really missing is a decent map screen. (There’s a campaign map/picture window, but it’s not useful for anything but looking pretty.

Game Master 5th Edition is definitely worth the $2.99 to unlock all the features, and reduces game prep dramatically. Is it worth it? Absolutely, even without the map functionality.

So, we had a player out this week, so the Hollow Earth Expedition campaign was on hold for a week. (Actually, I had a way to explain the character’s absence, but…) The rest of us decided to do some character generation for my Dungeons & Dragons game set during the fall of the Roman Empire.

I picked the rough date of 376AD (or 1128 ab urbe condita, according to the Roman calendar of the time), a few years before the disastrous Battle of Adrianople sets the Empire to go into the ground like a lawn dart. The setting, at least to start, is in Germania Superior — along the upper reaches of the Rhine, but will eventually take them to Augusta Treverorum (if they make it.)

One of the players jumped to an idea almost immediately — a human cleric from Mauritania: Aurelius Augustinus of Hippo (or as we know him, Saint Augustine.) He’s about 22 at the start of the campaign, and has left Carthage and his religious studies because of a tricky situation with the daughter of a wealthy man. A curious, well-read, and intelligent man with an interest in different religions, he has set out to explore the world and find some kind of truth to it. In game terms, he’s a cleric with a focus on Knowledge, with Apollo and Minerva as his preferred gods of the pantheon. His spells are primarily healing and mending ones. He has a crossbow…hopefully, he won’t shoot himself or a fellow with it by accident. He’s average on the physical stats, but high on mentals with an 18 Wisdom.

Come on…the guy’s playing Saint Augustine in an alternate reality where the Roman gods exist. How cool does that sound?

The other player went for party balance and — assuming the missing player would most likely go for a wizardy/bardy type — went with a human fighter with a street urchin background for some thieving talents. He’s a former legionnaire, having served his 20 years in relative quiet on the frontiers of the Empire (Britannia, maybe northwestern Gaul, but a relatively quiet post to explain his level 1 rank.) Capable of reading, he had risen to the rank of optio, a sergeant or deputy to his centurion. His character is packing a 16 Strength and 15 Dexterity, and has all his old service gear, so gladius, scutum, chain shirt, etc. With his discharge and citizenship papers safely on his person, he’s currently working as a bodyguard for whoever will hire him.

Character creation for D&D 5th edition is fairly easy. We had to do a bit of flipping around the book, which has a font color and size that is a bitch and a half for my LASIK improved eyes, but we sailed through the basic bits — race, class, abilities. We had to do a bit of hunting to figure out how the skills and save throws worked. It would have gone faster but Wizards of the Coast thought it would be fun to do the glossary in a font that is readable only with electron microscopes. Background packages add a nice bit of fluff to character creation ideals, and other character bits. That the classes and backgrounds start you with some gear is a nice touch.

Overall, due to a lack of familiarity and bad friggin’ fonts, we were able to knock out two characters in the space of just under two hours, including taking our time to discuss some of the basics of the setting — like which races were playable, where they’re often found, etc.

The basic mechanic are on hand to see when you look at a character sheet. d20+proficiency+ability or skill mod. Hit a DC or difficulty check, and roll on. It feels like someone took Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from my youth, cleaned up the rules and added some bits to make it more a roleplaying and less a combat simulation game. From what I can see, it seems a much more logical descendent of AD&D than 3rd and 4th editions ever did.

We still have to get one character statted up, then we’ll probably have a play test session sometime in the next few weeks.

Welp…I dropped a line to the gaming group with a few of the ideas I had and they bit on the one I hadn’t expected, but kinda hoped they would.

The setting is an alternate Earth where the various pantheons are around, their monstrous progeny are present, and magic is real. Instead of the mid to late medieval period that seems the equivalent for most Dungeons & Dragons games, we are going with Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages.

So far, I’ve worked out that we are going to be near the end of the fourth century, when the waves of nomads started washing west into Roman territory, each wave running away from something worse behind them. But instead of Vandals, Visigoths, Ostraogths, Huns, Franks, and the like, I’m some replacing these groups with the typical bad guy races from D&D. These people and critters are running from something terrible coming out of the Central Asian steppes and are finding Rome and Constantinople ripe for the picking.

Some of the  main playable races of the Players’ Handbook will move to NPC races — the gnomes, dragonborn, and half-orcs (especially the latter) wont’ work for the setting. Humans are the main race, of course, but elves — predominantly from Hibernia and Britannia, and from the Galician areas of Hispania but present everywhere; halflings — for us the descendents of humans and dwarves, and dwarves (the Nordic sort) are commonly found throughout Northern Europe. Tiefling and Aasimar will be playable, but I haven’t worked out exactly what I’m doing with them yet, other than they will be connected to the monotheism and Zoroastrianism coming out of Judea and the Sassanid Empire.

Orcs are getting rolled into trolls; they are a creation of Tolkein and I’m trying to strip a lot of the Lord of the Rings influences for the campaign. Angles and demons work in the setting — I’m tying them to the tiefling and aasimar angle, coming out of the monotheistic regions. The mythic creatures of the Norse, Celtic, Urgo-Finnish, Russian, and the Greco-Roman pantheons will be around.

Now I have to figure out what is pushing the influx of people from Asia.

As to the Europe of this period, the Roman Empire is technically still around. Garrisons keep the peace here and there, but the influx of warlike tribes and creatures is breaking the Prefecture of Gaul into personal fiefdoms. This is made worse by the coloni system, the precursor for the feudal system. The Goth Wars have shattered the aqueduct systems and agriculture is collapsing. High taxes, weak bureaucracy and military, and banditry are crushing trade. It’s all falling apart.

This shift also means that the players will find themselves having to work up some decent backgrounds for their characters. This is probably going to require a night or two of character generation.

This combination of more realistic alternate history and classical mythologies has me actually interested in running fantasy for the first time in decades. Best of all, half my game prep is done for me — hello, bookshelf! Hello, class notes! (I’m glad the university stuck me with teaching all those Early Western Civ classes, now…) Need some maps? Google up some period maps, or raid my library.

[While these tips and thoughts are oriented toward Dungeons & Dragons, at present, they are just as useful for other settings. SCR]

So, you’re building a new campaign for your group. There are a couple of things to think about, right off the bat. There are several canned settings for Dungeons & Dragons — Forgotten Realms is the Wizards of the Coast “official” setting, but there’s Eberron, Dark Suns, Al-Qadim (an “Arabized” version of Forgotten Realms, if I remember correctly…), Blackmoor, Dragonlance, etc. etc… Or you could build your own high fantasy setting, building off of various influences. (And let’s face it…the big one is Tolkein.)

The first thing you have to realize is how much time do you have to put into this. For the high school kid, the college kid studying alternative Feminist Dance Theory, or the dude sitting doing security at a remote site, this could be “a whole lot.” For the rest of the world, there’s work, kids (bah! kids! little time sinks!), college, errands, etc. It can be at a premium, especially if you lack good time management skills.

Published settings like Forgotten Realms can be very handy for the newbie dungeon master, or one that is pressed for preparation time. Having a “world in a can” allows you to get right to plotting a story in a ready-made framework, or to use published adventures to kickstart your game, or even run it without doing much work outside of reading the modules. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, particularly if the players haven’t run through any of the materials you are going to use.

One problem I’ve seen to these prepared settings, especially in some of the science fiction RPGs is the use of metaplots: there are large scale events going on, described in the books, and the idea is that your characters can or will be somehow involved in these world/solar system/galaxy shaping moments, but often these metaplots feel like they are being played out in the background, affecting your characters, but rarely vice-versa. Two games I’ve always wanted to run, but just couldn’t quite find a hook are Jovian Chronicles and Eclipse Phase — and both have this metaplot thing going on. Every supplement moves the publishers’ stories along, but where do you fit in? do you shove your characters into the interstices of these big plots? Do they simply exist, keeping their heads down, while empires rise and fall, or do you want them in the thick of it…where they will inevitably take you off script. (And a good thing, I’d say…)

Another option is the Chinese Buffet Method® where you pick the stuff you want, and leave the rest that doesn’t work behind. For the game I’m working up, I’m keeping the pantheon of gods from Forgotten Realms, but I’m ditching most of the rest of the setting — creating my own map and political structures on the fly. (There’s a reason for this not connected to time management…well, partly connected to time management…) I wanted something that felt familiar to any of the players who had played D&D, but I wanted my particular stamp on it.

Connected to this — don’t feel you have to use every creature in the Monster Manual. In fact, it’s a good idea to chuck quite a bit of it. There are all sorts of variants of critters presented, and a lot of them are really cool…but not everything needs to be jammed into your dungeon or castle or whatever (unless you have a reason for it.) Read the descriptions, figure out what works best for the story, maybe look for some consistency in which critters would live where.

The most work is to create your own home brew setting. Even if you offload some of this on the players — “Hey, why don’t you tell me what Zaybo the Barbarian’s culture looks like?” — you’ll be carrying a heavy load in preparation. This also can be the most rewarding, if the campaign catches everyone’s imagination.

My suggestions, even for the experienced DM are: 1) Start small. Do a short adventure that introduces elements of the world, but leaves it open for you to expand. Even with an established world, you could fit a small town or ruin in without wrecking things. 2) Steal from all over. You want the Norse gods in your setting? Go for it! You want Isengard and Saruman? Cool! 3) Let the players help you out. As they build their characters’ backstories, you might consider letting them tell you about where they are from — the place, the people, the beliefs. Give them a chunk of the worldbuilding, to lighten your load.

I did some of this with my Battlestar Galactica game, where one of the more motivated players would throw out quips about former presidents, places, or things that I would then weave into the background of the Colonies. Wondering aloud about certain things lead me to either use their thoughts as red herrings, or actual plot elements. I would advise against the “too many cooks in the kitchen” approach of modern indie games, especially if you have a very specific story arc to work with, but I’m also a crotchety old guy who’s been running games for three plus decades…so I’m biased.

Ordinarily, my group tends to do a lot of backstory for their characters, and we interweave them with things that make them more than a bunch of guys that meet at a tavern, then start adventuring. This is not necessarily the way to go about things, but most of our games tend to be either modern(ish) pulp fiction games, or space opera.

How much backstory is enough or too much? Depends on what you need for the story. Some characters can have a pages long backstory with all sorts of things the dungeon master can hook into for plots. Or it could be something simple, like Indiana Jones, for instance: he’s an archeologist with a reputation. He’s a bit shady, was in love with a character he will encounter, and isn’t afraid of much save snakes. Go!

So how to give characters interconnections that make them not just want to travel together, but give them common purpose?

The first way is to have them be in the employ of a particular NPC or organization. This works very well in military, police, or spy -oriented games very well, but might not fly in a D&D game, depending on the classes you’ve chosen. It also works to give the characters purpose for their adventure. Simply put, you got orders.

An example of this might be the town garrison of a city. Warriors have an obvious role here, but so do rangers and rogues — who could both be used as scouts or spies. Clerics as medics; wizards as artillery or leadership. For whatever reason, they’ve joined up — be it honor, money, love, adventure, religion.

Or maybe they’re all from the same town. This can be a bit difficult if they are all different species/races in D&D. Why are elves, dwarves, and humans all residents of the town? The explanation can be pieced together by the DM, or it can be a join effort. Maybe it is an trading post on the edge of various territories — a medieval Casablanca or Babylon 5. Maybe it’s a major city, like Venice was in the 14th Century, bringing people together.

Maybe some are related. Obvious linkage.

Or they could have different reasons to go after the Big Bad™. Maybe he has one of he character’s loved ones hostage, or has some McGuffin you need for one of the characters (like, say, a scroll for the wizard) — they could come together because they (or at least some of them) have a common enemy.