General Ramblings

I’ve been doing teaching certification, teaching at the local community college, keeping the seven year busy, and engrossed in pushing two books out the door for Black Campbell Entertainment (Airships of the Pulp Era and Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean), so I’ve been remiss in doing some stuff for various games, and posting play sessions.

We’ve finished this portion of the late Roman/early Arthurian Britain campaign, and have rolled back onto Hollow Earth Expedition — which has seen some fun moments — so I’m hoping to drop a couple of play reports soon.

Between the teacher certification classes, the classes I teach at college, the fast-paced publishing schedule at Black Campbell, game prep, and the dad thing, this blog took a real hit on updates and responses to comments.

Sorry to those who have been reading and were kind enough to ask permission to quote or link to us — have at! Just tell people who and where you got it from.

We’re in editing for both Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean and Airships of the Pulp Era. These should be out in September and late July, respectively. They also might be the first publications to get watermarked. We’ve been finding our stuff turning up on the usual websites. Really, guys — if you’re going to share, cool. Just make certain you 1) say whose work it is, and 2) if you pirated our stuff and like it, drop the $2 per adventure. It’s the right thing to do.

This website is due for an update — it’s been up for nine years (!!!) — and I want to clean up the blog, the fan-based materials for the various games we’ve done things for, and create Black Campbell Entertainment page so that we can keep the commerce out of the blogging, and vice-versa. You know…be professional. Ish.

So keep an eye out for the updates.

So, I’m way behind on game play recaps, as I am trying to get two books out the door, do teacher certification, and run herd on a seven year old in a age where you can’t just let them go out and play without getting arrested.

I hate summer: Too much to do and no time to do it.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some more stuff up for the Britain campaign, as well as more on the upcoming Airships of the Pulp Era. There’s also a big website redo planned.

Did I mention I hate summer?

I closed out 2017 with a nasty flu that had me down for 14 days. One of the gamers in my group showed up hacking up a lung and like clockwork five days later I was running a fever and coughing up mine. I had a day or two where I felt almost well enough to do a little work on Black Campbell products, but it was a fortnight of no gaming, missed Christmas with the in-laws, and a missed anniversary dinner, and a missed New Years Eve party.

It was a crappy end to, what for me and the others working with me, has been a pretty good year. Black Campbell Entertainment made back its investment on the products we’ve created and (more importantly) everyone has gotten paid, we released our first print book, Queen of the Orient — a guide to ’30s Shanghai, then followed it up with a print version of all our adventure scenarios to date in the bundle Thrilling Action Stories! We’ve got a small board game designed by a 6 year old kid, for kids called Monster Killer! that should be out soon, and a couple of new ’30s pulp adventures, the first of which is going to be Secret of the Jaguar Temple. Progress has been made on the Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean sourcebook for Fate and Ubiquity, which will provide a campaign setting and adventures for sky  pirates and mercenaries in the 1920s and ’30s.

So a Happy holidays and New Year to all of the readers out there, but especially to susan Rhymer, Jim Sorenson, Adam Blahut, Matt Bohnhoff, Chirs Colguin, Bill Forster, and all the others that have made this year so good!

The proofs for Thrilling Action Stories! are on their way to me. If they look good, a print version of the first adventure bundle from Black Campbell should be available in a few weeks. There looks to be some f#$@ery about whether I can have this set up as part of the bundle, so there may be a delay if I have to talk to the folks at DriveThruRPG about making this a completely separate product.

Publish and learn!

thrilling action stories

Since starting this campaign, I’ve been going out of my way to avoid the usual high fantasy tropes associated with Dungeons and Dragons. This is a bit difficult due to some of the game mechanics which enshrine these same themes. I avoided having magic users or even particularly “monstrous” creatures show up for the first few months of the game. The goblins and hobgoblins that are stand ins for the Vandal and Quadi/Goths of history is more to highlight the racial and cultural differences in physical form. They’re not really “magical” things. I originally wanted to limit the number of magic users in the party, as well, but decided to hold fire on that. As a result, we have a bard, cleric, and an aasimar monk (whose class doesn’t give him spells, but does enhance his intrinsic “supernatural” being.) They all have [beep]ing magic. I did use the spelless ranger class from the one Codex WOTC put out for Carrus, and the last character is a fighter.

This required me to start coming up with a story reason for why we have all these guys together. The answer: they are pawns of forces larger than they are, and have been brought together to fight something that requires their combined abilities. that has also requires me to start fleshing out the cosmology of our alternate Roman Europe. A lot of this is now hanging on the nature of the aasimar, Icio’s, nature — what exactly are these demi-angels? Augustinian and Calvinus (the bard) are pantheists, and they appear to have Apollo as a benefactor. We’ve also met Pluto (and possibly Minerva…) What are these gods, and what is their relation to angels and the “One True God” of Icio’s faith? (We’ve established that Jesus of Nazareth was an aasimar, like Icio.)

Working within the mechanics to explain the game world is an interesting exercise for me. Normally, I bend the rules to suit the campaign and story, as needed, but having a couple of rules lawyers who know the system — and using them as a resource, rather than a foil — is tailoring the game universe to explain why these mechanics work. It’s an uncomfortable proposition for me as a GM, but it’s proving to be useful experience.

However, the most annoying and egregious of the D&D tropes came to the fore during the wrap-up of the last session —  the speed with which the heroes heal. One of the conceits about hit points is that they don’t really track physical damage, but a sort of aggregate of luck, stamina, physical injury, fear or mental injury. I’ve been trying to take this into account with things like Carrus the Dwarf taking damage in the form of his one beard braid being cut off in a fight, which distracted, angered, and also shook his courage. (He loses those beard braids…), or the creeping fear of having multiple opponents swinging at you. However, during the last session in which the characters took necrotic damage from one of the magic-users. The description of having the life sucked out of them was meant to convey the fear, pain, and damage that was being done. They were getting banged up, badly, particularly augustinian, who had cast a warding bond to soak some of the damage that they had anticipated Legate Marcellus was going to take going mano y mano with a hobgoblin.

Yet, with a few hours rest, some hit dice use, and some healing spells, everyone was 90-100% by the time events unfolded this session. I’ll admit — I’ve always hated the fast healing in some RPGs. I acknowledge, and even support, the notion the PCs are exceptional creatures…but I think a few days to bounce back from getting your ass kicked seems appropriate.

Bitch-fest complete.

This week picked up with most of the characters trying to grab a sleep or rest (Icio was meditating in the gate tower so he could keep an eye on things) after they killed the leader of the Quadi and his tiefling advisor.  Marcellus, as the presumptive commander of the garrison, was preparing their defense, and Carrus was attempting to get his cavalry ready.

Over the wall, the Quadi lit bonfires and made a god-awful racket that culminated with their burning their leader, Brutharius, on a pyre. The enemy then retreated to their bonfires for some kind of rally that eventually led to the repeated chanting of “Lomar! Lomar!” — they’d chosen their new leader.

The point to this vignette was to 1) provide an alien-ness to the quadi, 2) create a sense of forbodding, and 3) flesh out their society and make them more real than just a monster listing in the Volo’s Guide ot Monsters. (A good resource, by the way!) They don’t bury, like the Christians and Romans; they have some kind of democratic-ish means for choosing their leadership. This could give some insight for how the polity of the Quadi is run.

Around midnight, the Quadi attack begins when Icio and Marcellus start hearing their soldiers and the civilians taking refuge in the castrum start freaking out. Looking down, they can see something boiling out of the sewers and buildings around the fortress — rats! Hundred, thousands of rats swarm through the place, biting and panicking the people inside. It wakes the other characters, and Carrus — who had dropped off in the stables — wakes to find himself covered in biting, squealing vermin!

Much of the night revolved around fighting this mass of rats, who were keeping the fortress from presenting a solid defense. The best part of the evening was the total, epic, failure of both Calvinus and Augustinian on their Wisdom saves versus the rats. Augustinian hasn’t failed a fear check ever. Hordes of goblins and hobgoblins: fine. Strange shadow creature that sucks your soul out? No huhu. Trolls: well, he is impressive, but so what? Rats? Shreaking like a cheerleader at an away game. They aren’t able to even get their clothes and armor on, fighting in their nightshirts. Even when they are doing well, like when Calvinus gets a good shatter — they get showered with rat gore, and just that much more distressed. It was great comic relief.

Icio, who has been THE bad-ass in the game, promptly biffs a bunch of his rolls: 1s around the horn on fighting, his wisdom save when, having fallen, he gets swarmed by rats. He finally retreats to the wall to be “more help.”

While all of this is happening, the enemy starts trying to climb the east wall — leading to Marcellus having to fight Vandals while directing fire and defense. The Quadi let fly with catapults, battering the south wall of the fortress. For this portion i was using a combination of the Unearthed Arcana mass combat rules for the huge groups of combatants, with Marcellus as the commander. For the artillery exchanges, I was simply using the stats for catapults, but I had to extrapolate the hit points of the castrum walls. I gave each 100′ portion 500HP and a damage threshold of 20HP. That means that using the fixed damage of the catapults, the walls were taking 7HP from each hit. After an hour or so of combat, the south wall had two sections with 72HP damage. Holding, but damaged…

While the other characters mostly fought rats, Marcellus had to direct the battle which saw the century of archers on the walls absolutely destroy the Vandal skirmishers that had been trying to mount the eastern wall. They eliminated the skirmishers, and broke the morale of the rest of that company-strength unit, causing them to abandon the field. To the south, the Quadi attempted to use a ram on the gate, but were killed off by the archers and balista on that wall.

In the end, the Romans lost 26 soldiers to fire caused by the small catapults the Vandals had been using to hurl flaming kindling and oil, and another 50 or so civilians and soldiers injured by the rats. Augustinian used purify food and water to undo the damage the rats were sent to do: despoil the food supplies. Several swarms got into the stores before they retreated as quickly and mysteroiusly as they had appeared. (This coincided with the Vandal [goblins] that had been controlling them decamping.) The Vandals lost 100 soldiers, and another 50 left the battle. The Quadi suffered — between the last two sessions — about 50 of roughly 600 soldiers.

With the fortress safe for the time being, the characters took the opportunity to switch from the more realistic siege plot to the more D&D appropriate hero moves. Using an invisibility spell, they disguised Icio, who snuck behind the lines of the Quadi to get to their catapults, where he poured “Greek fire” on them before running back to the castrum. At that point, with a spectacular roll that was buffed by the bard’s inspiration and cleric’s bless, Marcellus and one of the NPCs, the spy Benarix (who had returned from his mission to Lenta and slipped through the Vandal lines during the fight) each got a 32 (critical success for the latter) to hit the catapults with flaming arrows.

Now, with about 20% of their forces killed in a single day of fighting, four of their catapults out of commission, and a Romans still safe behind their walls, the Quadi are settling in to wait for disease and famine to take the Romans down…n ot knowing this tactic has also failed.

The siege story was an attempt to introduce the creepy mystical element and mix is with the more realistic war plot. It worked decently and gave all of the heroes a chance to kick ass and shine (or entertain, in the case of the bard/cleric). In the end, using their skills in concert allowed them to not just defend the fortification, but do real damage to the bad guys.

The first few episodes were about getting the characters together and starting to define the world and the hazards. The next leg — where they traveled through Germania and met the Quadi — was to give them a chance to slowly delve into the politics, but to also introduce the meta-plot, some kind of fight between dieties and an “adversary”. This culminated with the fight at Castrum Stativa, in which they (if they survive) will have made a name for themselves as heroes and should get them to 5th level. In 5th Edition, this seems to be the point where characters jump from the regional hero to the sort of mythic hero (early in their careers), that can finally go toe-to-toe with a fairly strong opponent.

The next volume of this game will see them start to do the sort of thing Greco-Roman heroes are supposed to — search for the McGuffin, fight bigger bads, until they hit their main baddie that will define their story.

I recently got to see Porco Rosso for the first time this week. I’ve never been as enamored with the Studio Ghibli stuff as other geeks, but this seemed like it would fit my taste for pulp-action. While there’s some of that, what I got was a movie that was a wistful romance — romance for seaplanes, romance between old friends in the form of Gina and Porco and Fio and Porco, and love of the period. It’s a great movie, but one of the things I noted was the absolute love the creators — and their characters — seemed to have for aircraft. There’s a scene after Porco’s plane has been shot to pieces that his mechanic muses it would be cheaper and easier to build a new one. His response was something like “I’ve grown attached to this one…”

Having known a lot of pilots and other forms of gearhead, it’s an affection I’ve seen in real life, and have experienced. I’ve had a bunch of motorcycles over the years — my current 2010 Triumph Thruxton (named “Trixie” after Speed Racer’s girlfriend) is hadns-down my favorite bike I’ve owned, despite others having been faster or more maneuverable. I know car guys that hang onto their favorite car long after the cost-benefit of owning the vehicle has tipped negative. I know motorcycle guys who go looking for that bike they owned 20 years ago, even though it’s technologically inferior.

For sailors, pilots, motorcyclists, and real driving aficionados, their vehicle usually represents more than just a room that moves me from point A to point B. (A ghastly trend that started with entertainment systems in cars and will only worsen with the introduction of self-driving vehicles.) “This ain’t no dead piece of metal,” Rex Racer tells his brother at Thunderhead in the much-underrated Speed Racer movie, “A car’s a living, breathing thing…” They are companions that are freedom to move and escape, they show off your personality, indicate your social and economic status.

Strangely, I rarely see this connection between role-playing game characters and their rides. Partly, this could be that most of my players just haven’t bee machine-heads, but even those that were rarely had that spark with their vehicle. Partly, it’s the lack of having an actual thing to see or use; a lot of the joy in owning a vehicle comes from that feedback you get when driving/flying/riding them. There’s bee n some connection to ships in our sci-fi games: Galactica in our long running campaign, for instance; Constitution, our Sovereign-class starship in an old Star Trek game…but no one has that “screw it, I’m staying on my dead ship” quality that you see in Malcolm Reynolds towards Serenity, nor do they send years tracking down their Millennium Falcon.

So how to foster this connection, especially in a character that is supposed to be a gearhead or pilot/diver/etc…?

First, don’t talk stats. When you introduce the vehicle, don’t focus on the stats. Focus on the way it looks, the way it makes the character feel. Have a picture of the thing…

Second, don’t talk about that stats. Talk about how the seats feel, how it sounds or smells, how it handles. For a character’s Sikorsky S-38 seaplane, I described the wicker seats and settee, the table in the passenger compartment, the old-school steering wheel on yoke, the smoothness of the engines. Really, have pictures.

Third, the GM has to think of the ship as a character. What sets this think apart? Serenity is a beat-up barely functioning tramp steamer of the stars…why is she such a draw? Because she’s a home, but she is also freedom from the war, from the Alliance, from all the things people don’t want to face. Why is Porco Rosso’s Macchi S.33 (no, I don’t care what they say in the movie — it’s not a Savoia S.21. Google it.) so important to him? It’s a temperamental, difficult to fly, aging seaplane…but it’s his escape from the world and his connection to when he was human. The escape, the freedom — look at vehicle ads — those are the power lines for getting people to buy a motorcycle, a car, a boat, or a plane.

These vehicles make their owners feel free. And that’s your in as a GM.

“Party Support: For whatever reason, sometimes you’ll want a character in the party that’s controlled by you. Party Support is the ability to integrate a GM-controlled character (GMPC) into the party without hijacking the leadership or stepping on toes. I’ve seen a lot of advice against having GMPCs, but sometimes they’re necessary and, when used properly, they can add a lot to a campaign…” Walt Ciechanowski

That quote comes from a comment on the The GM Levels Up from John Fredericks over on Gnome Stew. I have a link for the article in the other piece from today.

Your characters are rarely going to be working alone. They’re going to want some help from time-to-time from  that NPC that has skills they need, or they just plain like and want around on an adventure. Maybe your setting is someplace where they are always going to have access to this character — a starship exploring the galaxy, a military unit on patrol, a spy agency with a team assign to aid them. These NPCs can sometime take on a life of their own, and sometimes the GM gets attached to them as much as the players do their own characters. These characters can sometimes straddle the line between NPC and PC — what Walt is calling the GMPC.

We’ve all encountered it, and every GM to some extent is guilty of this: that support character you created really is your PC, just not in name. I had a major NPC in our Battlestar Galactica game who became a major plot device and was arguably more important to the story than the heroes. However, the heroes were still in charge of their lives, and still got the majority of the screen time. This character had a certain deux ex machina moment…but other than that, she rarely got to “do her thing.”

Some GMs and players hate the idea of the GMPC, but I would submit, to a certain extent, you can’t avoid it. There’s always going to be the NPC that just speaks to you as a GM and you will want to keep them in your pocket for whenever you can. If the players also took to the character — no issues. If they don’t, no issues.

Example: I have several NPCs currently supporting the party in our Dungeons & Dragons group — a few of them are well fleshed out, already: Steven, the Down’s Syndrome horse wrangler who is a savant with animals and if he ever gets into a fight is gonna cream someone. I like the character concept but he doesn’t seem like a first string support character.  His father-figure is a gruff scout for the legions, but he has a soft spot for the troubled young man and recognized his talents. He even got a full name, Titus Germanicus, and a full write up. (But on the last point, so did the others…) Carona, the troublesome satyress, on the other hand is the sort that is on the cusp of GMPC — she’s teaching the bard new spells for his panpipes, and she’s a thief. She’s already a point of romantic interest for a few of the characters, and well…I like the character. She’s also the only NPC I have a visual for.

I didn’t choose her to be in the party. They did. It was originally supposed to be an encounter to have the monk have some doubts about his quest to battle demons and tielfing, when presented with something that looked like the enemy, but was — essentially — good.

That’s the points of contention, I think. If there’s a GMPC that all the players like, it’s less likely to be an issue than, say, an obnoxious addition no one wants around but the GM is always finding ways to include. The other point of failure for the GMPC is when tey start taking the limelight away from the PCs, or they are obviously “better” at things than the PC. The PCs are the ones “in the credits.”

It’s alright for an NPC to be that mentor that is better than the characters for a time. Obi Wan Kenobi should have been light years better than Luke Skywalker at, well, everything, but he’s an old man and he has a role to play. Mentors have to let the players go, at some point, or be struck down as a motivator. That’s just good drama. But if the GM is playing Obi Wan as a quasi-PC for himself and decides only Obi Wan gets to do cool stuff…well, he’s just being a jerk.

Don’t be a jerk.

I’d submit the GMPC isn’t an issue if you reign yourself in and let others play. Just like, if you are a player, you don’t hog all the air and time.

It’s been getting “meh” reviews and i wasn’t particularly interested in this series, so I went in with low expectations…but found myself enjoying Iron Fist, even though it is unquestionably the weakest outing of the Netflix/Marvel series.

The good stuff — the supporting characters are interesting and richly-fleshed out. In particular, I found Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meechum and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing to be the strongest of the bunch. Madam Gao, a recurring antagonist for Daredevil, is also nicely fleshed out. Finn Jones does a workman-like job with what he has as Danny Rand, the hero, but he’s quickly overshadowed by the more interesting Colleen Wing. The bad guys are also good — from the revenant Harold Meechum, to Gao and her nemesis inside The Hand, Bakuto (played with a nice oiliness by Ramon Rodriguez, who i vaguely remembered from The Wire.)

The “meh”: Where Daredevil used color motifs, lighting, and inspired fight choreography to play up the moral conundrums and physical pain of a vigilante’s life, and Jessica Jones played the noir detective look and feel to accentuate the themes of control and abuse, and Luke Cage used strong color palettes, urban music and fashion to craft a believable Harlem in the middle of the Marvel universe…Iron Fist is pedestrian. The fight scenes are not over the top Hong Kong Action Theater. They’re bland and uninspired. The blocking, the shot lists, the lighting, the use of color are something you would expect out of Law & Order: Superheroes. The other Marvel shows evoke the Miller/Mazzucchelli Daredevil run; Jessica Jones has that tired PI in a dirty world flavor; Luke Cage is decidedly Black America; they’re unique. Iron Fist doesn’t play up the Eastern mysticism, choosing a bland corporate backdrop.

That makes sense in some ways. Rand is a billionaire and heir to a massive company and the board doesn’t want him there. It’s a plot element that definitely should have been explored, especially as it is the motivation for the bad guys. BUT… He’s a “living weapon” from the mystical city of K’un L’un out to destroy the Hand. He’s just not dipped in the Eastern mysticism enough, whereas — for instance — Doctor Strange at least did a better job playing to that. The character does meditation and martial arts, sure, but the look of the show isn’t exotic enough to evoke that.

The “bad”: Really, it’s the focus of the show on the Meachum’s corporate machinations and the lack of fight scenes that flow and are elegant. The credit sequence should have informed the look of the fights, with loads of sweeping movement. Jones moves well, and the choreography is accurate to some of the forms used, but it’s not chop-sockey enough, and I suspect that’s what the fans wanted.

So is it worth watching? Yes. It’s a decent addition to the Netflix/Marvel catalogue, but don’t expect anything ground breaking. Substance-wise, it’s got a lot of good character development, especially in the supporting cast, and it breaks the 3rd Act Slump that all Marvel shows seem to have; unlike the others, it doesn’t have that episode 9-11 drag. But stylistically it’s weak tea.

I started work on our sourcebook for 1930s Shanghai. Most likely, this will be a system-neutral product, but may wind up having appendices for Fate and Ubiquity. Right now, I’m in the first writing pass, and this should take a week or two. After that, it’ll be nailing down any system-oriented stuff we might want added, and then a pass for possible fiction interludes and a canned adventure or two. The target page count is 80-100 pages, once art is added.


So far, you can look forward to information on customs, communications, the nightlife of International Settlement, the expatriate communities of White Russians and Jews. There is a section on the Shanghai Municipal Police force and the Shanghai Volunteer militia. There’s going to b a chapter on the Green Gang — the criminal organization tied tightly to the Nationalist government, as well as information on the espionage agencies active in the city.

I’ve found some excellent maps that will most likely need to be worked over by a cartographer to make work for the book, and tons of public domain photos of the city.

Right now, I’m hoping on a late summer release.

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