Roleplaying Games


After four months of delays, we finally managed to finish The Death Jade. This adventure scenario is set in 1936 Shanghai. Rumblings of war are being heard in the International Settlement of Shanghai as the characters are hired to find a priceless artifact from ancient Chinese history — the Donguin jade, part of the fallen star that allegedly prophesied the end of the First Emperor’s reign, and which is said to carry his soul! The first man hunting the jade, Count Rusikov, has gone missing, and as they track his steps, they must stay ahead of Japanese and communist spies, and dodge nationalist warlords.

The Death Jade is live on DriveThruRPG.com for both Fate and Ubiquity. This 25 page adventure module costs $2.99.

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One of the things that made my return to Dungeons & Dragons, and specifically 5th edition, so easy was the use of two apps I downloaded. I’ve already done a quick review of them here, but I hadn’t actually deployed them for play until Thursday night.

We tuned up the characters using Fight Club 5 to check our maths, and the characters changed a bit, but — I suspect for the cleric, especially — for the better. There was an update a few days ago and the app still works very well. I plugged in a lot of the class features that weren’t in the app and backed it up to iCloud to not lose them. It took a few hours of typing, but it was worth it. I suspect that it wasn’t they didn’t finish the product, but that they are working from the SRD for licensing reasons. Anyway, it works well.

Finally, it was time to give the system a run. We started with the characters having their caravan hit by Vandals (goblins) on the way to Augusta Treverorum. I had put the basic notes for the encounter, added the six goblins they would face and the stats for the NPC guards that were with them, and the possible loot they might get into the first Encounter, then added a second — a show down in a small hamlet where the people had been disappeared, apparently by the same tribe of Vandals. Again, adding the creatures, adjusting their weaponry and stats, was easy. i could have added maps, as well, but hadn’t gotten to that.

GM5 has a compendium built in with monster stats and XP ratings, weapons and spell data, equipment lists, etc., as well as a GM screen like pop-up that allows you to handle a lot of the basic rules without cracking a book. It also has a built in die roller that I didn’t use, instead opting for physical dice. In the two hours of play, I had one of the players, who had the Players’ Handbook open look up some equipment damage and some bits on spells to speed play, but otherwise, I didn’t crack a book for the two and a half hours until it was time to hand out XP.

With GM5 and FC5, you don’t have to even tote a book to your game session, you just need your iPad to run a game. You can even load up character sheets into it, if you need to, just in case someone forgets their stuff.

They are definitely worth the $2.99/app in the App Store. I don’t know if there is a comparable app for the Android (I’m assuming so, but there’s a few threads on the interwebz that suggest otherwise…), but if it’s by the Lion’s Den guys, that would be it.

Substance: 4 out of 5 — it’s very useful and mostly complete. You will have to add a few bits here and there. Style: 5 out of 5 — it’s a good looking app. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

So, tonight was an example of how something can go beautifully right and wrong at the same time. The characters were left in various cliffhangers: several of them toppling to their deaths, and one captured by the Emperor of Atlantis, and their former friend Olga — now a sorceress self-named Lady Morana.

We opened with Dr. Gould, hallucinating from the massive hit he took from the Emperor’s “ring of power”. He was in a black space with a trio of eyes, one atop another, gazing on him in disappointment at being distracted by the Inner World. That prison is the past, he is needed now…but before they can say much else they are interrupted by Olga’s voice askng “Who are you?” to the Eyes. The presence is stunned — she has been resurrected! Kaarna! “No, she is here, but she is not speaking,” Olga tells it. In a panic, the eyes close. gould wakes up from this dream to find himself prisoner on the imperial barge, headed for Atlantis.

Meanwhile, Gus Hassenfeldt and Lady Zara fall to their near-death, landing in a pool in one of the other suspended gardens. After doing some quick first aid, they try to get to the top of the strange building they are in, making their way through plant growth that has taken over the lower levels. Eventually, they reach the top promenade to see the barge and its saucer escort flying away. They also find their saucer shot up and their pilot near death from smoke inhalation. Once everyone had gotten attention, they settled down to the business of survival: finding plants they could eat, hunting some of the birds. After a few days, they were finally rescued by Lord Amon and Zek , who had come for them, despite the impending attacks on Atlantis’ forces.

Gus stumbled on the idea of using the uniforms from a few of the dead imperial guardsmen so that he and Amon can sneak into the royal tower and rescue Gould. It’s an insane plan, but they needed the doctor for something big…the fate of the Inner World could hang in the balance! Under the cover of a heavy thunderstorm, Gus, Amon, and Zara head for Atlantis to save Gould.

Over those two days, Gould was nursed back to health by some of the half-dressed slave women (ain’t they always?) in the palace before being brought before the head of the secret police, Cpt. Thoth — the vril who wears a strange beaked mask to hide his disturbingly damaged face. He is pumped full of drugs to make him malleable, then with the Emperor and Morana/Olga, he is taken to see the “Great Machine” which gives this place existence….

Their saucer arrives without incident and Amon and Gus, using Zara as the ol’ “prisoner they’ve captured” gambit, get taken to Thoth, who immediately recognizes them. This led to a full blown firefight with a half dozen armed policemen, a dozen or so “observers” who keep tabs on the goings-on in the city, and Thoth. In the process, Thoth seals the room and lets poison gas into the chamber (his mask filters it out.)

Amon is shot, Gus manages to disarm, then demask, Thoth, who surprisingly fights back! Despite a horrible crack to the head with a heat rifle, the secret policeman continues to attack! Gus tosses the mask to Zara who wears it while pulling Amon to the doors. His face isn’t the only thing damaged, he tells Gus; his injuries prevent him from feeling pain, including the gas that is steadily killing all of them. Gus gets a hold of the guy and uses his face to smash the buttons on his control panel, opening the doors and allowing them all to escape.

Thoth dies, but they get a hold of his lieutenant, Iris, whom Zara shoots and questions for Gould’s whereabouts. With Amon out of the action, and Zara going to find their other friend Shria, Gus gets into one of the imperial elevators and heads for the Great Machine, deep under ground.

Unfortunately, Gould has already seen the thing — a massive crystalline device that burrows deep into the ground below. Pulsing with energy and tied into the electromagnetic field of the Earth, the machine is keeping the pocket dimension of the Hollow Earth inflated and created the central sun. Olga’s presence has supercharged it, and he can feel it filled with energy and information. Mot goads him into joining with the machine, but wasn’t counting on Gould gaining control of the device. It’s all too much, however, and when Olga tells him to let her into his mind, he does. With that, she has him “turn the key”, opening the prison forever!

The world twists and turns, wracked by lightning storms, the ground tearing itself open, and the sun balloons in size, heating everything unbearably…the city is falling down around their ears, the canals are draining into the new fissures in the ground, the clouds are boiling! Then it is as if a wall of rock in superimposed on them; like they are sliding through it — save a few places where the superimposition does not hold…then the world turns inside out!

In the ruins of the imperial tower, Gus gazes out on the destruction, and beyond to the setting sun on the horizon. In the sky overhead, a moon — except no moon is a blue and white mottled ball with its own small moon. He manages to find a way down on of the elevator shafts to find Gould, and together they climb back to the surface.

Outside in the wreckage, they can see Earth, a bit smaller than the moon, in their new night sky

We ended the night there and have put the campaign on hiatus because 1) it’s a great stopping point for the game, and 2) I have no idea what to do now. It was an exciting night, with a good fight, creepy moments, big set pieces, and one hell of a cliffhanger, but it all came together because, well, I forgot to save my notes for the night.

Which brings me to the GM tips section of this piece: what the hell to do when you’re not really prepared on game night? Have one, maybe two basic things you want to accomplish. I wanted 1) a rescue attempt, 2) a showdown with Thoth, and 3) the reveal on the Great Machine.

The rescue attempt is boilerplate Star Wars: Imperial guard uniforms and saucer (it’s an imperial transport…), they slip in to the big secret base, and eventually have to fight their way out. I kept it simple — a single CON roll to convince the other guards they should be there until they got to Thoth. A good death trap to go along with a creepy major henchman with some kind of hook (he’s horribly disfigured and doesn’t feel pain.)

What i hadn’t planned on was Gould going along with their plan quite so easily. He had a few options: Destroy the inner world and keep the surface safe, stabilize the inner world and make it more accessible from the outside, or decouple it from Earth entirely.

I was going to go with a Space:1889-esque beat and have the Inner World settle over Venus to get my jungle world with dinosaurs to complement the dying Mars, but it seemed more reasonable to create a new Earth, trailing ours close enough to be seen. This new angle gives me a few options for future games — they can try to find their way home (probably through one of the “Eyes” like the one they originally traveled through); they can engage in some sandals and sorcery action; or I can shift the focus to a pre-WWII Earth that just got some Atlantean technology injected into the mix, and which now has a new world only a few light seconds away.

The last option presents a classic alternate space age WWII — rockets and Nazis in space!

Or, I’ve jumped the shark. I guess we’ll see.

On 19 January, it was announced the US military would be switching from the venerable M9 pistol (or for the civilians out there, the Beretta 92) to the SIG-Sauer P320. The P320 is based on the same concept the rather execrable P250 was — it is a completely modular design: the pistol has not just the usual Picatinny rail for a light or laser, it also has interchangeable backstraps found on many polymer-framed guns, it has a reversible magazine catch, it has kits which allow interchangeable barrel/magazines to allow a caliber swap from 9mm, to .357 SIG, .380 to .40 or .45, much like the Tanfoglio Witness. The length of the barrel/slide can be swapped out, as can the grip section from full size, to “carry”, to compact and subcompact sizes. The trigger assembly for this striker fired gun can be swapped out.

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The Modular Handgun System — the military version — features an ambidextrous safety, as well as the ambidextrous slide stop (making this one of the first SIGs a lefty can use easily.) The P320 has comparable accuracy and recoil to its metal-framed cousin, the P226.

SIG-Sauer P320 9mm (MHS variant) — PM: +1   S/R: 2   AMMO: 17   DC: F   CLOS: 0-6   LONG: 12-18   CON: +1   JAM: 98+   DRAW: 0   RL: 1   COST: $700

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.

 

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.

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