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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe some are related. Obvious linkage.

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

 

It’s that time of year. Time when holidays and kids’ Christmas Show at school, and anniversaries get in the way of gaming. Tonight we were short a gamer, so we turned our efforts to playtesting Murder on the Hindenburg, one of the up-coming adventure scenarios Black Campbell Entertainment is producing.

Playtesting is one of those things that seems like it a bit redundant. Maybe you played the adventure once with some friends and figured you’d just turn it into a product. Sounds great. The problem is that often, a scenario is tailored fairly specifically for the players and their characters. They don’t always translate well when you want to publish them for more generic use.

White Ape of the Congo was originally created as a short Meetup group game. The goal was to introduce folks to Ubiquity and score a player or two. (It worked.) Later, it was tested again with another group, and I tweaked the pre-generated characters based on the experiences to make the adventure and the characters work as smoothly as possible.

The Zugspitze Maneuver was originally a one-shot introduction to gaming for a player. It was a solo mission, so the jump to a scenario for 2-6 players was a tough one. (I settled on 2-5 players.) This required changing the reasons for the mission, creating characters that had reasons to be there, and adapting scenes to fit multiple players. The second playtest went well, but revealed likely actions and outcomes that I hadn’t planned on. The module got better.

Murder on the Hindenburg was designed for 2-5 players; we had three tonight. They took the two characters I suspected would be the most popular, and who the adventure was tailored toward, but they were very good about talking to me about how the other two characters could be integrated better. (I’ve got a really good group. Yay, me!) The adventure played in a single session of about 2.5 hours — considering they sidestepped two scenes, it ran about as long as it should have. (I planned for three to four hours.) I spent an hour and a half after the play tweaking the adventure to make it play smoother, give the GM more options and heads-ups for what players might do. It got better.

Playtesting is like reading a story you’ve written aloud. Sometimes, the stuff that looks good on paper doesn’t sound good coming out of your mouth. That’s when you know what it will sound like to a reader in their head. Playtesting, especially with different groups of players, lets you experience different styles of play and tactics that players might use — the stuff you never plan for, or didn’t think about.

Just like a plan never survives contact with an enemy, an adventure never fully survives contact with a player. Playtesting helps you work out the kinks.

Next time, I think we’ll be playtesting The Death Jade. I’m looking forward to it.

So…much to my surprise and chagrin, I’m considering running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, using 5th edition. Before any of the veterans of the editions wars gets started: shut up. I haven’t played D&D since one session in 1993-ish, and before that 1984.

That last high school campaign ended with the characters taking on the “ultimate evil” of our campaign and winning. What the hell do you do after that? Our answer was more James Bond: 007 and Car Wars. I haven’t returned to fantasy since; in fact, I’ve actively avoided it.

The guy managing the local Meetup group for RPGs saw a sudden jump in interest after one of the members started running D&D 5e on their Meetup night. He’s a bit butthurt, since he had envisioned the group as a place where folks would get together and try loads of different (read, indie) games. Membership is high, but participation is low — Albuquerque is one of those places where you find a group and stick with it, mostly due to the commute time if you live on the Westside — but with the D&D game, suddenly people were coming out of the woodwork. Two tables of D&D are running and there is a waiting list. Apparently, people prefer D&D to Dogs in the Vineyard, and Night’s Dark Agents, and Apocalypse World, and all those artsy-fartsy games.

He asked me to run a game, and since he gave me his set for free, I feel a bit obligated. I made the mistake of mentioning his conundrum (people don’t want to try a different game every damned week; they want something to sink their teeth into…) and got four people say “You run it, I’ll play…” So without even trying, I’ve got a viable group. What the what!?! One of those is a regular in my other group (and an important part of the fledgling Black Campbell Entertainment), and his response was “I’d be interested to see what yu’d do with it…)

Well, now, so am I. I busted out the books and looked through the rules — it’s almost exactly the old AD&D I remember, but with some improvements. I’m intrigued by the tiefling, which weren’t around when I played. Thinking on it, I started laying out some rules for myself to avoid a lot of the “traps” of fantasy games…

First, start small. A county or province or whatever…I don’t need the whole world mapped out and an 80-page primer on the world to get started. (Yeah…the guy from 1993 wanted us to familiarize ourselves wth his world bible before playing…he also gave my ex-wife a female cleric character that was mute.)

Second, game balance — fuck that. If someone wants to play a starting character and another a more experienced one, I think I’m going to let them. Players don’t necessarily advance at the same rate in a game, as it is. Let them play what they want. That said — keep the levels manageable. Level 4 and down to start.

Third, no random tavern meeting BS. They should all have some sort of connection, or sets of connections that meet up. They need a reason to adventure beyond killing monsters and getting treasure.

And on that — monsters, magic, treasure…these things should be rare or at least uncommon, to my mind. Dropping in on the monster of the week isn’t exciting or shocking. After a while, it’s just another day on the job. Keep the magic use to a minimum and make it something surprising, even if it’s a PC using it. Make them get the bits for the spell, make them have to have time to enchant. Monsters should make sense — why is this thing here? Where did it come from? What’s the impact on the surroundings?

Connected to that: You don’t need to use the whole Monster Manual. pick things that make sense for the story and the campaign arc. I’m thinking of cutting out the old stand-bys like orcs and kobolds in favor of focusing on the main PC races as bad guys.

Alignments. Hate ’em. Always did. It might not be a bad place to base your character’s actions on. I was thinking of the notion of a tiefling that wants to be good…but in the end, that’s not their nature, and no matter how hard they fight it, sometimes, mature is going to trump nurture… But that brings up the necessary questions of what is good and bad in this game? What god/s and their antitheses exist (or don’t but we think they do..?)

You don’t need to have the universe jump, fully formed from your head, but anything that might be connected to the players’ motivations and back stories should be, at least half-assedly, laid down.

But, as always, I could be full of shit.

John Fredericks was making some interesting comments on game continuity over at Gnome Stew, and it spurred a few responses from me, including on one the efficacy and issues of “troupe-style play” As to continuity, however, I have to say: I’m for it.

There are several levels of continuity he addresses, but I think we can ignore a few of the bullet points he uses, and frame this in terms of televisions or novel series. Additionally, however, I want to add the notion of “canon” — that the continuity is also tied to the internal logic and rules of the genre or setting.

Strong Continuity

The game university has an internal logic and history that affects, and is affected by, the actions of the characters. Things that happen are important and can/will be used against you in a future game.

Modern television series tend to follow this model these days, sometimes to abstraction. The characters’ action don’t just impact the universe around them, but drive the personal relationships between the characters. Friendships can be broken, alliances shift, goals change. There is usually some kind of central goal, villain, or motif to be served. There’s a “story arc” that can be a season long (Dr. Who, for instance), or series long (Battlestar Galactica.)

This requires a lot of mental lifting by the GM and the players. Note-taking and record keeping can be a full-time job. In this sort of continuity, I think it’s important to have NPCs changing along with the PCs. Their stats should evolve, if it’s a system with aspects or traits or weaknesses, these should change over time, just as with the players’ characters.

This has been the sort of game I’ve run for quite some time, and I agree with Fredericks that this is the sort of universe most players are interested in — something long-term than allows them to explore a character and feel that they have achieved something.

Ret-continuity

You see this in a lot of modern TV, as well, in shows that were meant to have some kind of central theme or mystery that the writers and executive producers — well — didn’t really have a clue what it was going to be. Shows like X-Files, or Lost are prime examples of this: there’s a conspiracy or mystery, and the characters are working toward figuring it out, but since the writers don’t really know what the hell they’re doing from one season to the net, they have to scramble to put a coherent arc together through seemingly (or obviously) contradictory elements.

I had to do  bit of this with my Battlestar Galactica campaign, which had a few points where I veered in different directions. I had a fairly solid idea of the campaign endpoint, so I was able to tap some of the elements into place, and fortunately (unlike TV) you can go back and rewatch a session to see if all the “facts” are the same as they were three years earlier. You can often get around this bad hand-waving, counting on the players’ faulty memories, or creating some kind of “your perception of the incident was not completely accurate” type out (see Rashamon…different people see an event differently.)

Honestly — this is probably the closest you’ll get to the “strong continuity”.

Loose Continuity

Like ’70s and ’80s TV, the characters tend to be static, or change in personality as the story suits. It’s episodic and each episode is unlikely to be linked; it’s almost like each episode is a reboot of the last episode. Set The A Team, or Starsky & Hutch, or TJ Hooker. Hell, see the original Star Trek…there’s no “canon”, no real continuity beyond the characters and the general flavor of the show. Maybe a character was too good to die in your pilot session, and like Hill Street Blues (which was an early “strong continuity” show) you bring those guys back and just ignore they were shot to death in a stairwell. Certain things that happen might matter — that love interest might be lost to the character, then show up conveniently to cause trouble; the big bad guy might return, or one of his kids; something that happened in “season 1” might suddenly become important for a storyline in “season 4″…but doesn’t really change anything outside of that episode or two.

Yeah, character C disappeared for two sessions of our dungeon crawl (including a bit fight), but he was just off having a pee. Or was there but for some reason never did anything. Doesn’t matter, he didn’t get XPs.

NPCs don’t change. They are there for comedic or supportive effect, or local color. Hell, they might not even have a name. Taking notes on what happened is optional (but the loot is not!) You might be able to ret-con a story arc into the game near the end for a satisfying denouement — all these things were actually under the control of the nameless bartender you guys all liked!

No Continuity

This might be the schtick of the game itself. No matter what you do, you reset to the state of the universe prior to the adventure. Your dungeon crawl? No effect on anything but your character level and stuff. That crime you solved? Hell, maybe the same bad guy is still around; he has a great lawyer. You died? When did that happen?

A campaign like this could be played for laughs, like Paranoia, or it could be — cunningly — the actual metaplot of your campaign. Maybe, all your disconnected adventures were happening while you were in suspended animation on a long space voyage, or holodeck adventures, or some kind of prison you are trapped in.

Canon — or “That Wasn’t in the Show!”

As to “canon” — that word every GM should fear when you are running a licensed universe like Star Trek or Dr. Who — setting ground rules is essential the higher up this scale of continuity you go. When I ran Star Trek, I had a trekkie in the group (it was why I wound up running it.) I was not. So to cover my ass on continuity, we agreed that game continuity trumped the show. Certain things weren’t going to happen. Voyager, for one..

When I ran The Babylon Project in the late ’90s, however, I parked the campaign on the edge of the show’s events so that we could play our own game, but dip our toe into the Babylon 5 continuity as we needed. It worked very well. We ignored certain things from Stargate SG-1 when I ran a short game and kept the good stuff.

Ignore it when it suits the game, don’t when it enhances the game. Your game is a reboot. Go easy on the lens flare.

I was reading an article on another site that was talking about continuity (more on that in another post) and how tight continuity campaigns could be derailed by scheduling issues. As readers of the blog have seen, my group has been beset by scheduling issues this year, and I’ve been something of a whiny bitch about it.

It got me thinking suddenly — we had similar issues with the long-running Battlestar Galactica campaign, lost players and gained them…why wasn’t this as much of a perceived issue before? Then it hit me: for the Hollow Earth Expedition game, the players only have one character.

To be able to explore other areas of the Galactica universe, all the players had two to three characters, each in their own circle of the rag-tag fleet. (In the abortive campaign prior to that, each had a fleet and a survivor on Caprica character…for the same reason.) One of the benefits of this “troupe-style play”, is that if a character isn’t present, they could easily be handwaved away as “on administrative duties”, or “somewhere on leave in the  fleet”, or I could concentrate on characters and situations that didn’t require all of the players to be present. I had an out.

File under “Duh!”

So how do you use this style of play, and what are the up and downsides? Let’s start with the downsides:

First, it shifts the focus away from one single character the player has. In the Battlestar Galactica campaign, for instance, one of the players was playing the Vice President of the Colonies. While this allowed the player to have high-level influence in the policies of the fleet his other characters did not, he wasn’t a combat guy. He didn’t investigate crimes or fly vipers. That mean he got a lot less time and focus as the other characters — a cop and a viper pilot — and wasn’t of as much interest to the player or the GM. But he was a great trapdoor to play when the other players weren’t present.

A codicil to that — the players may also take an interest in a different character than you anticipated, and push the plot or focus of the campaign in a different direction than the GM expected. This can be frustrating for the GM. If he ignores the B-string character, this can be frustrating for the player.

Secondly, if the various characters eventually have to interact, it can be problematic (or funny) to watch a player trying to effectively roleplay a scene between two of his personas. It can work, trust me, if you have a good player, and it can be a blast, even for the players on the sidelines for the scene; it can also be awkward as hell. We even had one player’s characters have to fight each other.

Third, you still have to explain away why the B characters aren’t wandering the dungeon with you. This is probably not as much an issue in a game that doesn’t have the players in a fixed location or vocation with each other, but if you’re on a dungeon crawl, or traveling as a tight group, B might suddenly be of use.

So now the upsides:

The GM and players can branch out and explore the world around them. An example: if the group were playing the Avengers in a superhero game and someone was Spiderman, you could focus on his crime-fighting in NYC, if there were key players missing that week. Or instead of world-shaking efforts, a few of the team might decide to aid another player in a side quest — finding a friend’s murderer, or looking for a shawarma restaurant.

Secondly, the players can switch it up from time to time and play something different to bust the group out of a rut. Maybe you’ve gotten a bit tired with your 12th level paladin, and playing that 4th level rogue sounds like fun that week… Maybe you can switch up genres a bit: maybe instead of playing a cargo ship crew running around the ‘Verse avoiding the Alliance, you are focused on helping a B-story character clear a neighborhood of a gang that has moved in on a neighborhood by the docks. It lets you get the characters out of their comfort zones — crap, my bad-ass fighter needs to schmooze with the upper crust as a date or escort for the team’s wizard at a Magician’s Guild meeting. Maybe the paladin suddenly has to engage in protecting a thief, engaged in a questionable side heist for a good cause (he hopes!)

Third, you can manage no shows much easier by swapping the stories you pursue with side quests.

But, as always, I could be full of crap…