Our Dungeons & Dragons game has steadfastly steered clear of the classic fantasy game tropes and expectations, but has instead focused on an alternate-Late Antiquity setting with classical mythology and Biblical themes, but also is increasingly focused on the question of what “good and evil” is.

The characters are Roman citizens — a former legionnaire who is plucked from obscurity by the young and new emperor that he babysat while on campaign with his father (Marcellus); the cleric from Africa who is traveling the empire trying to find enlightenment (Augustinian); the bard from a good family that exiled him for his “trashy” occupation and refusal to marry an influential Christian girl in the court of Emperor Valens (Calvinus); an anchorite monk who is “barukhim” (a blessed one or aasmiar) and a trained “demon killer” who has been hiding from the world since his mentor was murdered by a nephalim (tiefling), and who has been called into the world by the archangel Michael to fight the armies of the Lie — Satan (Icio); and lastly, an Allemani dwarf (or “zwergi”) from the Alps who has a penchant for killing goblins (Carrus.) They are all “good” in alignment — some chaotic, some lawful.

But what exactly is good? One of the things we encountered early on in the campaign was that Roman law allowed for criminals that were caught — in this case a small village of Vandals (goblins) that had been terrorizing the surrounding countryside and which had taken some people as slaves — to be made slaves. By today’s standards, this is evil with a capital E. However, this was the law at the time, and not considered that much of a moral outrage. Hell, two-thirds of the Roman economy was worked by slaves.

In that case, the good/evil dichotomy wasn’t really that tough. The Vandals had taken Romans as slaves illegally. Rescuing these Roman citizens and enslaving the baddies might be problematic for a 21st Century player, but at the time, there was no question that this was the right thing.

In another instance, they had captured a few assassins that had been sent after them. They had attacked the party, which was by this time under imperial writ. Marcellus was a legate — an ambassador/general. Attacking him was a crime against the state. Executing the miscreants was under his purview. Again, for people raised on Enlightenment notions of due process, opposition to abuse of authority and cruelty, this was…evil. Again, lawful, but evil.

In our last night of play, the party was headed south to Mediolanum to meet the empress regent (Emperor Valentinian II is only four.) following a spectacular victory over a Quadi (hobgoblins as stand-ins for Goths) army, then head to Greece to try and find something called “the Shadow” — some kind of wall between the world and other planes of existence that Satan is looking to tear down. They had stopped in Cambodunum, a ruin of the old capital of the province Raetia and which is sparsely populated. They had found lodging in the distillery of one of the residents, only to be attacked that night by a troll that they had previously encountered, and who had tracked them because it was upset they were profiting from the story that Carrus had killed him.

In the process of fighting the troll, they accidentally blew up the distillery, and the explosion brought an avalanche down on the town. After rescuing their fellows, Carrus, Icio, and Marcellus, were aiding the townspeople in finding a few missing people and some of the livestock. Hearing a scream, they returned to the house of the distiller, which had been badly damaged in the avalanche.

Inside, Augustinian — who had been badly injured — had just wakened. Calvinus and Carona — a satyress they have been traveling with and whom Carrus has taken up with — were taking care of him when they were attacked — the front door kicked in by the troll they’d thought dead in the avalanche an hour prior. Carona panicked and played a frightening strain on her panpies, but before the troll could escape into the night, Augustinian threw a hold creature spell and trapped it. Encouraged by Augustinian to kill the creature, Carona went to cut its throat…but when confronted with a terrified, helpless creature, she couldn’t do it. It was unfair. Wrong.


Augustinian shortly after lost his concentration and the troll escaped out to be met by the other characters, who had been returning. Surprised by the blubbering monster that was protesting, “she tried to murder me!” Icio was overcome with a moment of compassion and tried to talk the creature down. It wasn’t an option I’d even considered in the planning for the adventure, but with the monk’s moral compass, and his mission to try to turn evil to good, the player and I were in agreement it was definitely the way to go. He was able to get a good persuasion test and calm the troll a bit. The idea of even talking to it never occurred to the other players — but their characters, it turned out, was another matter.

After establishing that the main beef was the fraud they’d perpetrated by calling Carrus a “troll killer” (something the dwarf desperately wanted to “fix”) and that they couldn’t go around lying about him. The second was that they attacked him for defending his bridge (not quite how it happened, but he is obviously a bit dim.) Marcellus pointed out it was the Roman’s bridge, not his, and that is could be argued the troll stole it. Augustinian piled on about the complexities of property and ownership, and when it was right to attack someone. Perplexed, and well out of his intellectual depth, the troll eventually promised not to haunt bridges looking for victims if they wouldn’t lie about him, then stumped off into the night.

A game about killing monsters and stealing their treasure turned into one about avoiding conflict and attempting (at least on Icio’s part) to teach a troll the Ten Commandments. But more to the point, it was about playing their alignment — an element of the Dungeons & Dragons rules that always annoyed me. There’s always the question of moral relativism when trying to define good or evil, but in a game where those distinctions tie to rules that can affect how or if a spell works on a creature, how your character interacts with others, or how they behave in general, it’s important to figure out (in game terms) what they mean.

The encounter left Icio and Augustinian questioning the nature of morality, and if it could even truly exist in a poly- or pantheistic framework, where every god had an area of authority and subjective morality. Carrus was frustrated — he knew, in some way, they did the right thing, but it still felt wrong to let the creature go! Marcellus and Calvinus didn’t quite know what to think…

These quandaries bring up some interesting questions. If you serve an “evil” god, but your intent is to follow the precepts of that deity, are you doing evil or good? A real world example might by the thugee of India, who worship Kali, and who would waylay and murder travelers as a form of worship. Is that evil? The British overlords of India certainly thought so (as, I suspect, did the victims), but what did they think? Sati, where a wife was burned with her dead husband, was considered right and proper. Good. British authorities disagreed. Egyptian emperors were buried with their slaves and servants. Evil? Or was it, if these people went willingly because they were serving their emperor and gods?

A week later, the party finally arrived on the Via Claudia Augusta at Mediolanum, the capital of the Western Empire, where they were met by a legion of men dispatched to bring Marcellus to the empress regent. In the city, they were presented an ovation — a parade through the city to the palace, where the characters were presented accolades for the defense of Castra Stativa against the Quadi. Marcellus received the appellation “Quadius” for his victory and with Carrus were presented coronae and philerae (medals) for their actions (as well as finally paid for their three months of service…) The rest were given Crowns of the Preserver, a high award for those civilians who have saved a soldier’s life. Augustinian and Icio were also given the title pius felix.

Afterward, they retired to a villa that was set aside for them. There were already some issues with men wanting to buy Carona as a slave, but more worrying was Bishop Ambrose’s reaction to her — a demonic creature, and one that is supposedly fornicating with one of their number! That is bestiality, as best! Icio knows she is good, but the Church has decided that she is an unclean thing. Is he good for trying to defend her, or evil for being influenced by her?

Ambrose, nevertheless, impressed Augustinian with his rhetoric and intellect, and vice-versa (as was the case in the real world), leading our cleric to start dallying with Christianity.

That evening, a gala for the heroes (minus Carona who — it was suggested — should stay at home) led to Marcellus making one hell of an impression thanks to boosts from the cleric (eagle splendor) and band (bardic inspiration). Marcellus not only awe Empress Justina with his martial prowess and his story of the Shadow and Satan (she’s seeing it as an End of Days scenario), but he was able to charm the pants off her…literally. The empress is worried about the Nicene influence in Mediolanum; she and her family are Arian Christians and she is worried that Ambrose’s push to eliminate their sect may lead to instability. Since he is also friendly with Gratian, the junior emperor, she is hoping he can be a bridge between her and her stepson, for the good of the empire. Meanwhile, she has authorized a legion for him to take to Greece to meet this extraordinary threat (Satan.)

While Marcellus and Calvinus were getting familiar with their respective ladies in the palace, Icio and Augustinian escorted a very drunk Carrus home to walk in on a couple of masked men trying to kill Carona. That seemed like a good place to end for the night.

It was a good character night. Their beliefs and basic purposes were challenged — something that I think pushed character exploration and growth in ways that beating the crap out of monsters does not. Carrus was distinctly torn between his desire to kill the troll, or go along with the diplomatic solution that Icio and Augustinian pursued. Icio has been reeling from meeting Satan, and having that foe ask some very good questions about the nature of gods, angels, and his own people, the barukhim; he then followed it up by showing mercy (and having it work), and later finding himself in between his bishop and his friendship and experience with the satyr, Carona. Marcellus knows getting involved with the empress and her causes is dangerous…but he is also a creature of duty and order, and being part of an attempt to save the empire cuts straight through his better judgment. Calvinus is having trouble with the voice in his head — a telepathic link to the succubus that seduced him a few sessions back — that is trying to turn him slowly against his fellows.

The ethical and moral conundrums are making for a truly enjoyable game where the players are having to really figure out what their characters want, believe, and know. I’m pretty pleased to see that my instinct to move away from hack-and-slash and dungeon crawls was a good one.

We picked up with our heroes last night (after a spectacularly good batch of jambalaya…yay, me!) the morning after young emperor — although there seems to be some dissension in the ranks as to whether he should become emperor — Gratian asking Quintus Marcellus, the former legionnaire, to return to service as an imperial ambassador to the tribes on the other side of the German Line. This would make him a legate — a senatorial rank that would permanently elevate him from simple Roman citizen to one of the elites. Damn right, he took the job! Additionally, Gratian and the selection of military leaders around him were so impressed with Carrus the Goblin Killer that he was asked to join the Roman Army as a “decurion” — the leader of the small cavalry band that would support Marcellus in his mission. This auxiliary force are considered “speculatores”, or “scouts” (’cause “spy” is such a dirty word…)

We picked up the action with Aurelius Augustinius, our cleric, and Marcus Calvinus, the bard, waking in bed with the pair of sisters they were celebrating their good fortune with, and hearing the return of their father — an important man in Augusta Treverorum. They quickly dressed and exit through the bedroom window with Marcus biffing his athletics test and falling comically out of the window. The pair then retired to a gashaus to have breakfast and celebrate their night of revelry.

Icio, the aasimar monk, spent the night in contemplation over the Bible the local church had, a product of two monk’s life’s work. The Vicar of Trier (what the local Franks and Alemmani call Augusta Terverorum) gives him a primer on the Alemmani language so he might spread the word in the barbarian lands he’s going to. Linking up with Aurelius and Marcus, the trio spot a young woman being chased by a half dozen toughs, who drag her into a arched alleyway between buildings. Without a thought, Icio jumps to the rescue.

They find a pair kicking the girl, while their friends egg them on. It’s smelling like it’s about to get rapey or murderous…maybe both. Icio pulls the classic up run up the wall to do his death from above spinning staff and backfist atttack on the two assailants, with a crit success that knocks the teeth out of one. Marcus bards up and lights the place up with “fairie fire”, while Aurelius blasts a shot of scared flame into the roof overhead. The combined violence and magic scares the young men, but not before the girl leaps up and headbuts one of them insensate.

Icio has a moment of righteous anger at seeing her for the first time: the cloven hooved feet; digigrade, furred legs; the rams horns on her head — is he nephalim? (The damned, or what the folks from the Near East call tiefling.) No…he can sense his opponents, and he can’t sense her nature. Moreover, an crit insight (he was rolling very well last night) makes him think this is a wild, and generally good, creature. She is Carona — a satyress or faun — from Dacia. Her tribe was wipred out by a group of Goths and she has been migrating west, relying on her wits and the occasional good graces of the faun communities throughout Germania. What she doesn’t tell them is that the six men were chasing her because she had just picked the pocket of the lead “rich bastard” and they were in pursuit.

The three convene to their inn with her to question her about the barbarian lands. She notes that Marcus has the “gift” — his music can summon magic. She can teach him to use it. For the character of Carona, I used the satyr listing in the Monster Manual as a template for a PC race, then built her in the Fight Club 5 app as a 2nd level bard/1st level rogue, and let her have all three of the Panpipes spells from the MM as her cantrips.

Meanwhile, Carrus and Marcellus get set up with the appropriate clothes for the rank. Carrus is somewhat miffed at the Roman outfit — a uniform of a Roman centurion– but Marcellus is quite chuffed to be wearing the uniform of legate, complete with a purple trimmed red cloak. they put together their small band — a Alemmani huntsman, a Saxon spy, their companion Verenor from the caravan, a pair of scouts from the auxiliaries, and their wrangler, a Down’s Syndrome animal savant named Steven than the huntsman treats as a sort of surrogate son. Steven is sensitive, and is able to chose the perfect mount for each of them. (I originally was thinking of writing Steven up as a paladin — a guy that “just knows good and bad”, but the wrangler angle felt better.)

The group finally meets up, convinces Carona — who has just been through the lands they’ll be traveling in — to aid them in their mission.

There was a second dinner with Gratian and his court, where Marcus’ uncle tells him the political landscape is changing…and not necessarily for the better for the party. Gratian’s troops are not supporting him for emperor, but instead seem to have been convinced (most likely by his senior generals) that backing his 4 year old step-brother is the way to go. Specifically, they are hoping the popular and well-connected in Constantinople Empress Justina (Valentinian’s last wife) might keep the money flowing from the Eastern Empire and provide a support from Emperor Valens. Gratian is not happy with this turn of events.

Angered by the obvious bullshit of this, Carrus explodes into defense of Gratian, and with his first 20 of the night, proceeds to berate and humble the assembled legates and tribunes. Marcellus makes the suggestion that at the very least, Gratian should keep command of the army and the regions of Gaul, as augustus (junior emperor.) They don’t make a lot of friends in the court, but they impress the old and wily Merobaudes, the Frankish king that is Gratian’s lead general.

After that they decided getting out of the city and away from the court intrigue was a good idea. They are also very aware that the success of their mission could reshape the empire…or ruin Gratian and anyone connected to him. Like them.

After a five day trip in which Marcus is trying to learn Carona’s cantrips, and Carrus is increasingly smitten with the creature, they arrive at the Limes Germanicus, the border of the Roman province of Germania. The line is a moat with a sharp berm 20′ high and topped with a wooden spiked wall. They’ve arrived at a castle that provides access through the wall under the command of a senior centurion. After a night’s rest and a study of the maps they have, the party crossed through the gate to the bridge over the moat and the road into the wilderness.

They are now on their own…

Several elements of the campaign are falling into place. I’ve been holding to magic, while present, is rare and powerful — something the 5th edition rules don’t do well for the former (Does everyone know spells? Really?) and excels at for the latter. I’ve been essentially assuming no one outside of the PCs have magic unless it is specific for the plot. This is an extraordinary group — an assimar or “demi-angel”, a cleric and bard blessed by Apollo…maybe the satyress’ presence is also something the Olympian (or the Christian God) arranged, as well.

I’m not a high fantasy fan, so keeping this gritty and based in an alt-history universe has been a main goal. The politics and intrigue of Late Antiquity/Early Medieval Europe have, so far, provided a richer backdrop than a knock-off Middle Earth could. Now, as they are heading into the wilds, I’m starting to loosen up on that. The addition of the faun is the gateway into more traditional fantasy (although we have already established that Marcellus’ common law wife in Britannia, a Celt, was an elf.)

Our game picked up last night with our heroes in Philadelphia. It was, at the time, one of the most important naval bases in America. It was also one of the hottest cities for the T-Men’s fight against bootlegging. It’s also the home of one of the character’s family.

For the last few sessions, we’ve focused on not just the characters’ attempts to put together a new expedition to return to the Hollow Earth and rescue their companions, but on family and loyalty. Doing this allows the players and their characters to connect to the game world in a way that simply being a wandering adventurer does not. Having a past, and having that past come back to slap you in the face is pretty common for most folks, and in a game setting it is a well of adventure — or at least dramatic — possibilities.

For our characters this has manifested in several ways:

Gus Hassenfeldt is increasingly isolated from his traveling companion, Dr. Gould, over the evils (perceived or real, at this point) in Germany. They haven’t been to the Reich, yet, so all their encounters have been with over-zealous German agents of the Thule Society. The creation of the Gestapo (and for our game, an earlier creation of the Ahnenerbe) and their fixation on Gould as the key to finding clues to support their volkisch ideology just feeds Gould’s distrust of the Nazis, while Gus — honest fellow that he is — wants to believe that it’s all some misunderstanding…that his countrymen can’t be spiraling into a sea of hate and violence.

David Gould has had direct dealings with his family in Spain. We got to call-back some of his history in the shape of his former lover, whose family chased Gould out of Spain a decade ago. She is now a powerful mature woman, not the idealistic girl she once was, and is now firmly in the Nationalist camp…just in case the Spanish Civil War comes into play. Gould’s family are PRR, Republicans, and his youngest brother flirts with the PSOE (socialists) but not seriously. His visit to that brother involved him trying to explain the Atlantean blood and the existence of the Hollow Earth, but his brother blew it off as an elaborate joke. Later, when Gould discovered the GPU’s “Special Department” of psychics was looking at his family, if they can’t get to him, and wrote to warn them of the dangers.

This led to a letter this session from the middle brother, a wealthy banker in Barcelona, who took his warning as evidence that his dishonored and possibly mad brother was causing problems for the family again, and warned him to not contact them again. His younger brother also seems to be blasé about the dangers the communist represent. They are well-off and not in Russia…what are the communists going to do, really?

John Hunter, or Giovanni Cacciatore as his Italian friends and family know him, has a reunion with his family to find out his father is a union president on the docks in South Philly (and tied tightly to crime there.) His eldest brother is in jail for bootlegging, his sisters married to an Italian restauranteur and an Irish Democrat poll boss in Fishtown. The family is keeping their heads down and out of the fight between the two contenders to replace “Sicilian Sal” as the Philly crime boss after the old man decamped for retirement in Florida. He also met up with a few of his friends from his time in “the Paperboys” — an Italian youth gang he ran in before the Great War.

After all this character building, they traveled to New York city with Admiral Byrd to meet a technical advisor to the Terra Arcanum, who had been studying their ray guns brought back from Atlantis. This turns out to be none other than Nikola Tesla, who has figured out how the crystal power sources work, related the Atlantean weapons to his own “electroforce” ray gun idea, and has come up with some theories on what exactly the Inner World is.

Tesla hypothesizes that the Earth is not hollow, but that some kind of “bubble” or pocket world has been superimposed inside the Earth — anchored there by our gravitational and electromagnetic field, perhaps even sustained by the same. The periodic appearances of islands, and other “openings” is this bubble bobbling around inside the Earth. He also had reverse engineered the heat rays, and after a few days, follows them down to their next destination — Lakehurst, New Jersey — there to create his own “cyclotronic electroforce” cannon for their ship.

At Lakehurst, they get a crash course in their expedition’s vessel, the decommissioned USS Los Angeles, sister to Graf Zeppelin. ZR-3, as she is also known, is berthed in the massive airship hanger with the damaged Akron, which is undergoing repairs after her close call off he coast. (In real life, the ZR-4 was destroyed in this accident.) Akron‘s XO and old airship hand, LCDR Herbert Wiley, is given command of the “LA” and is making ready for their trip to the pole.

Finally, they take the four day trip to the pole, stopping off the coast of Greenland to refuel off of a naval tanker that has an airship mast. On arrival at the pole, nearly blinded by the never-setting sun on the ice, they see a strange lensing effect and the Inner World! They also see the LZ-128 — the airship Zeppelin supposedly never built! — and a company of Nazi troops preparing to enter the effect. How did they get here first? How did they open the path to the Inner World (or did they…? Did they just wait for Gould to show up?)

LZ-128 or Deutschland and the troops forge into the polar opening even as they spot another airship approaching, the SSSR-V6. The Soviets have arrived, as well. After convincing Byrd to override Wiley’s safety concerns, Los Angeles pursues Deutschland into the effect, only to have the ship buffeted, spun, bent, and fall through the lensing effect to an uncertain fate..!

This campaign has been an exercise in ignoring my desire to present a more historical game. i trained as a historian in this era of European and American history, and I naturally want to show off the knowledge. At every turn, however, the push to ignore the realism and go for broke on the pulp flavor has worked. I like airships and nothing quite pushed the tropes of the pulp ’30s like these huge, graceful machines — so not only did I keep Akron alive for later, I introduced Hindenburg‘s never-built sister as a surprise opponent for the much smaller Lo Angeles. Hell, the LA is armed with a friggin’ ray gun while trying to travel to the Hollow Earth where the characters ran into flying saucers, merpeople and hawkpeople, and dinosaurs…nothing is offside anymore.

It also provides a strong bit of evidence that if you are going to run a pulp game, throw the history out when it gets in the way; keep it when it either helps with verisimilitude (like the descriptions i gave of the harshness of airship life) or gives you a strong adventure hook (the Spanish Civil War, maybe…)


The series of tubes is afire with responses to John Wick’s Chess is Not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance in which the game designer gives us a rambling examination of issues with role playing games, gamers, game masters, and why we should get off his lawn… In between his grumpy old man professing, Wick gives us a bunch of good ideas, a few mediocre ones, and a fistful of attitude that was most likely designed to “get the conversation going.”

The main point, however, is “Do these rules help you tell stories?” It’s a good question, and Wick is known for his being part of the artsy indie game community where “role play should win out over roll play.” One of Wick’s tricks is to tailor a game for the setting and the types of stories it is supposed to engender. Strip the junk out and play. It’s a good philosophy for a game master, and one I subscribe to, despite my tendency to create wee rules mechanics for stuff that might not need it.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

And you need to stop it. Because all that crap is getting in the way of telling a good story.

He’s right, it can, but it needn’t, but knowing that the effective range of an M4 is pretty accurate inside 250 yards,  has an effective range of 550 yards, but is still capable of doing some damage at twice that…you’re just really unlikely to hit someone out there. It is useful to telling the story in a way that aids verisimilitude — if the setting calls for it — but reducing the game to that, that’s bad.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters. “Game balance” has nothing at all to do with telling good stories. It’s an archaic hold over from a time when RPGs were little more than just really sophisticated board games. Or, as someone once told me, “An RPG is a strategy game in which you play one hero rather than a unit of heroes.”

Wick doesn’t hold to this idea. Neither do I, which was why I wandered away from the Dungeons & Dragons crowd very early into gaming. It’s why i don’t mix miniature games and RPGs, like i used to back when we played Space: 1889 regularly. I realized that swapping from role playing to busting out the boards and pieces broke the narrative flow. It was cool it it’s own right, yes…but it didn’t move the story along. For our Battlestar Galactica game, where military maneuvers are occasionally very important, I like to set out some of the Titanium series BSG toys and use the little plastic raiders and vipers from the Battlestar Galactica board game to aid in visualizing what is happening, even though the show itself often didn’t really show you the tactics of a battle…it wasn’t important to the story.

What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

Absolutely…and let’s use the Galactica campaign as an example: if you have a bunch of guys playing fighter pilots, the tactics and the one on one combat is important and should be played out. Or if you are in a spy game where a character has to make a tough, 2710 yard shot at a Taliban commander with your Accuracy International .338 Lapua (thus also gaining the longest shot record)  then that weapons table Wick hates so much actually is useful. For the “mundane” 800 yard shot, though, the specs of the rifle are relatively unneeded.

Having blasted game masters for being too rule-bound and board gamey, Wick then turns his attention to both GM and player with this tidbit:

The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where wewalk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

I highlighted that particular tidbit — a unique art form — for a reason. It’s this attitude that takes the fun out of the indie games for a lot of players and GMs. Is role playing an art? Sure — everything can be an art. Changing the oil of your car can be made into art. My last encounter with this “you just aren’t trying hard enough to play correctly,” was playing in a game with Mark Diaz Truman — who intimated that people don’t like certain games (or more specifically his game system) because you haven’t played it enough, or aren’t role playing enough… wick again:

I don’t want you to think I just get rid of combat mechanics. On the contrary, for Vampire, I usually get rid of that whole Social trait thing entirely. Why? Because this is a roleplaying game, and that means you roleplay. You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

My response to that is, “Then, you should get better at it. And you won’t get any better by just rolling dice. You’ll only get better by roleplaying.”

If you want to get good at playing chess, you play chess.

If you want to get good at first-person-shooters, you play first-person-shooters.

If you want to get good at roleplaying, guess what?, you roleplay.

He’s right — if you just role the dice and let the GM describe what you do, you aren’t getting better at role playing. But thats’ not enough for Wick, or Truman, or the collection of post-deconstruction RPG designers:

…[y]ou are not playing a board game. You’re playing a roleplaying game.

Start acting like it.

This attitude is arrogant, elitist bullshit, pure and simple. Here’s why: for those of us who have to, say, work a 10 hour day, or run all over the f’ing world with our kids, games are a chance to relax and have fun — and sometimes you just ain’t feeling it. Rolling how you do in an encounter is perfectly acceptable because maybe you just aren’t super charismatic, even if your character is; just like you might not be an expert in hacking, though your character is. My response to this artsy crap is, “Well, Mr. Fancy Pants GM — why didn’t you set up a computer system for me to actually hack? Let’s go take our computer science classes together so we can really dig down and make this art.”

The argument that you have to play a certain way is that dumb. Are you having fun? Then you’re doing it right.

This past week, the players in my Battlestar Galactica campaign managed to gain some very important intelligence on their quest for Kobol and Earth, but more striking, they got just enough of a hint of the metaplot — that the Cycle of Time, which we’ve referred to time and again as “a story told over and over”, is leading them to re-enact the same basic themes that have befallen other civilizations — most notably the Lord of Kobol/Olympians, and their “parents”, the Titans. I introduced something called the “Aurelian Heresies” — an apocrypha of the Sacred Scrolls that supposedly long predates the Exodus from Kobol, and possibly Kobol itself. This was originally a bit of “fan service” to the players who had been in the last iteration of the BSG campaign, but over time, it has developed to be a central bit of background noise that now has become obviously important.

So why start a post on pacing with this anecdote? One of the hardest elements for a GM is pacing a campaign. Sometimes, you plan on a game running a few sessions and ending, only to have it run six years — like my Star Trek campaign from the early oughties. Other times, you have a plan for three or four “seasons” that will lead to some epic end. Any gamer who has played long enough knows how hard it is to achieve the endpoint of a game campaign. People move away and the game collapses; schedules change and the game collapses; something new and shiny is released and you dabble in it only to wind up playing that game for years, instead; or sometimes, you just don’t want the ride to end and you start throwing filler in to stave off the inevitable.

With the Battlestar Galactica game, the “season 1” pacing started slow — mostly character-driven episodes to realize the world and NPCs for the players, so that when the Cylon attacks occurred, they would feel the loss to some small effect as their character would. It was slow paced with lots of hints about the Cycle of Time and previous “Colonies” that had existed on the 12 Worlds long before the Exodus from Kobol should have happened. A few archeological digs in space found more evidence of similar human settlements long before there should have been any. Cylon infiltration was discovered. I had sold the game on the premise that they might even be able to stop the attacks and save the Colonies; I had no intention of honoring that. The total time was a bit over a year of game time with other games being played in a rotation.

“Season 2” was almost exclusively focused on hunting Cylon infiltrators and conspiracies in the Colonies. The episodes were no longer stand-alone or random, and the pace picked up considerably as they hunted the bad guys. Game time was only a few months, but it played over about six months. Toward the end, I made the decision to put the players’ charactes into some of the lead slots, instead of characters from the show. The Cylon attacks happen pretty much as they do onscreen in the Miniseries.

“Season 3” has been going about six months and is nearing the end. Total game time: two months. The players survive the attacks, fight Cylons, had a few “fleet episodes” to show the crime, bad conditions, and development of the political system. Then we started to find remains from the Kobol Exodus, evidence the Lord of Kobol and the humanoid Cylons share DNA and technology. The Blaze — a toss off line cut from the Kobol’s Last Gleaming episode became the main guide for the direction of the game: the Colonials fled the war between the Lords of Kobol and humans that followed this “god” in its shining diamond-like spacecraft. Then they found the directions to Kobol. Now they are on their way and through a few toss-off lines from an interrogation of Boomer, think the Blaze may have destroyed the Colonies to bring Man back to Kobol for one last chance at submission and redemption.

Now I find myself faced with the classic problem of a campaign sliding into the third act fast — do it string it out, as the show did,  and enjoy some gaming with these characters we love and a universe that is now very much our own? That was my immediate reaction. But sometimes, it’s better to throw it in fifth and punch it. Embrace the direction the game is going and the pacing.

One reason for this is the impending move of one of the players who has only been with us for a year or so, but has really livened up play. He’s been with us through the end of “season 2” and all of the “season 3” stuff playing one of the most important characters, our fighter pilot who is secretly an oracle. I want him to see the end of the game. So, it’s time to floor it.

I had an idea of what i wanted to do with Kobol this time around — in the first game, Kobol was “dead” as in the show, but there were things left from the Gods: Hephaestus’ Forge, the Tomb of Athena. This time, if the humanoid “Cylons” are some kind of apostate version of mankind that has been modified to work with the Colonial built centurions, it would suggest that Kobol is inhabited and at least mostly healthy. So what does that do for the characters trying to get to the Tomb of Athena? How do they pull it off?

One of the characters, the commander, talked about how, if the Blaze is waiting for them, perhaps they might be well served by at least hearing the god/thing/whatever out. This opened a new line of direction that I hadn’t anticipated. Essentially, there are now two main plot directions the game could take — they discover the path to Earth and lead the Cylons a merry chase; or they submit to the will of this “god” and head to Earth, perhaps as his emissaries.

That leaves me with two main lines and a few variations on a theme to be ready to work with, and ultimately, only four real “endgames” for Earth. This “season 4” will be at a faster pace and more tightly plotted than the others. I anticipate the campaign — the first and longest lasting of my “new life” that started in 2010, will come to an end in April.

I aim to make it shine.

The takeaway from the piece is this: for campaigns with an overarching plot — much like a movie or TV show — each of your Acts or Seasons should have it’s own unique flavor and pace, but always moving more swiftly toward the denouement of the season/act, and the overall course of the game. This allows the players to feel like they are making progress in their goals, and revealing any mysteries that might have been set in front of them. Because, in the end, people need a story to have an ending.

It’s been a long time, but back in those hazy, halcyon days of high school and college gaming, it wasn’t unusual for members of my gaming groups to trade turns game mastering — something I’ve lamented before is that I can’t seem to find people who can find the time (or more likely the wherewithal to put in the time) to run a game that I can play in. Back then, we didn’t just trade out GMing, we would swap into that role in the same campaign, allowing whomever was stepping out of the lead slot to play. We would often still play our character as a favored NPC — a frequent lament on other gaming blogs, the GMs favorite NPC that steal the players’ thunder. To us, it wasn’t a big deal; whoever had an adventure ready to go ran it.

The main issue for this communal campaign is similar to that of the television writing rooms of the 1970s and 1980s. Inevitably, no matter how well as character was written, there would be a few episodes where some big shot author or some one off writer would come in and the characters or the flavor of the show would morph to fit their story they wanted to tell. The game universe would lack a certain cohesion. The greater the difference in GM style, their world view, their desired direction of the stories, the more unworkable this style of campaign becomes.

But it can work. In the late ’80s, a friend of mine and I had been pretty much the only gamers we were acquainted with in the small town we were living. We gamed a lot — nearly every night, and sometimes day and night, if we weren’t working. We got to know each other’s style of play, the kind of characters we played, and the kind of game universe we were looking for. When you spend every day together, practically, for several year you start to get into synch with each other. One of our shared loved at the time was comic books. The late 80s was when comics saw an explosion in popularity, at the same time as RPGs (and now some of those geeks are making movies — good and bad — for themselves and their friends…) and we decided to do a superhero campaign that had a high level of verisimilitude (not realism..it’s superheroes, for cryin’ out loud!) similar to what we’d read in the Wild Cards! book series (based, funnily enough on the supers campaigns of a bunch of writers out here in Albuquerque), and the angsty Marvel universe.

We had a similar political and social outlook at the time. We had similar tastes in narrative style, although they were different enough to entertain the other person, and we had a good read on the probable punchlines for the stories being told. When we added a bunch of new gamers to the mix in Philadelphia, it was pretty stellar. We could not only co-GM the game, swapping who was storytelling from one night to the next, we got so good at it, we could swap in the middle of a session. Think of it as having a bunch of writers work on the same story: the basic outlines are there, and you simply add color.

Thinking back on it, I think the simplicity of the superhero tropes, in particular the idea that each session (or issue, if you will) had a specific challenge or two for the night, and that combat was up front and center often…combat and action sequences take time, and that meant that you had a relatively simple task, say stop the villain of the night and their cohort from attacking New York. It was the outcome of the characters actions that would — as with all RPGs — write the basic lines for the next issue. But like comics having a guest writer or artist, a guest or different GM doesn’t detract from the overall campaign because each issue tends to be relatively self-contained. Episodic.

In an RPG campaign that is similarly episodic, where each session or two is a specific story that might be tied together over time by the GMs, each is able to stand on it’s own. The problem is making certain that the players and game masters are on the same general sheet of paper for what the goals and flavor of the game is to be.

This is where communal world-building like we see in games like Primetime Adventures and Smallville come in handy. The group works out their characters, group relationships, and overall theme together. This allows for the metastory or story arc to be generally understood by all. For example, I recently pitched a Supernatural campaign to my players, and suggested to one who wished to GM a Call of Chthulu-style horror campaign that we could swap GM duties. We agreed that a modern day setting would be best and that the flavor would be a bit lighter than the usual investigate evil and go mad or die style of Lovecraftian horror CoC is known for. I, and others in the group, don’t much care for it. But a game that combined, say, a Night Stalker theme with monster hunter of Supernatural would work — where horror and humor coexist. It would be more episodic — a monster of the week series that would steadily weave in a basic plot idea (probably the usual stop Armageddon thing…I understand this is the general line of story for the Supernatural series, a war between Heaven and Hell, but I havent’ seen more than a few of the early episodes.)

It’s one of several workable frameworks for having multiple game masters.

Next time: Some characters from the Supernatural campaign that might work in one of your games as PCs or NPCs.

It’s a frequently asked and commented on issue: How big/small should a gaming group be? What is the ideal size for your group?

I’ll handle the last question first. It depends on the people in your group and what you are playing.

Now that I’ve sloughed off that question, let’s address the first one. I’ve found the best for me to run games for is between three and five players, but to be honest, it depends on the nature of the campaign, the personalities of the players, and the cohesion of the characters being played. “Solo” adventures — where there is a single player and GM often work well as one-offs or for occasional play. Two players and a GM menas there’s someone else to play off of and they have support in tough action sequences and it’s my preferred minimum size group. Four is better and allows for a lot more cross character banter, more varied plotlines and “B stories” (usually focusing on one or more of the character’s weaknesses — family troubles, some aspect of their character that either provides an impediment or is brought up by the main “A plot.”) Five is where the groups start to get unwieldy, depending on the nature of the campaign, and more than that you are almost guaranteed that someone is playing fifth wheel or isn’t getting enough play time. So for me the best size is four players: I find that the most manageable size for tracking what people are doing and giving them enough spotlight in a session.

Now the ideal number might change based on the nature of the campaign or game you are playing. Big parties are best suited by games dealing with mass action — it could be the quintessential dungeon crawl, or something where mass combat is common, say a World War II game, a post-apocalyptic setting like Twilight: 2000, or even Lord of the Rings-style fantasy. there’s something for everyone to do, the action is built into the plots — “We have to take this fuel dump if we’re to make it out of these wastelands and away from the zombies…” or “We need a crack squad of men to go behind enemy lines and free the 107th from Hydra!”

For settings like modern espionage, the big group is a detriment, depending on the nature of the adventure. It’s hard to be a secret agent with five other burly, buzzcut-wearing fellows in tow. For that lone spy on a mission, one-three players is best. With this number, they can have a backup that wont draw unnecessary attention. (Think Chuck — there’s the main guy, his support, and their muscle.) For larger groups, it’s best to follow a special action team model: you would have four to six guys that work together regularly. They all have specialties, but like most spec ops teams they would have plenty of overlap. they would frequently split into twos or threes to handle aspects of the mission. For example, SAT Dervish has to take a Russian mobster out of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. They’ve got decent SIGINT support from the local station house over in Foz de Iguazu, Brazil (NPCs run by the GM), so that they have relatively good cell phone tracking and some intercept capability. One group is surveillance on the target, one is scouting the terrain that they intend to take the target (having decided a direct raid on the bad guy’s compound is too risky, they’re going to hit him in transit.) The last group is in charge of securing vehicles and weaponry, etc., and handling the exfiltration routes. Everyone’s got something to do, and it’s all important.

So the question really isn’t always what’s the best size (outside of what the GM can best keep track of…if you can’t manage the screen time of the players effectively, you’ve got too many people.) More effective is to think about what kind of campaign you are running, or conversely how many people you have so what kind of campaign would be most efficacious for the sized group.