Monday, September 30, 2013

Autopsy of a recent campaign

My last campaign turned into a megadungeon.
This autopsy is inspired by a recent discovery of a memory stick under the couch, filled with various versions, which I used to use for display purposes.
The map is a bit of a compromise, as it shows many levels and number of 
alterations, a product of spellcraft.  The odd green marks the unexplored.
It wasn't really meant to be a megadungeon, but just kind of drifted that way.  What was meant as a weak starter dungeon turned into a much longer adventure.  The party seemed less interested in various story stubs and quests offered to them, then "finishing" what they'd started.  Most likely in part a result of not needing to go looking for new adventures, my fault, and part a result of the limitations of an after work game, where everyone wanted as much action as possible.

The original scenario had them coming together has treasure hunters, a party of the moment put together in order to plunder an ancient treasury.  I was currently experimenting with a magic system which required wizards to kill other wizards to advance levels, compensating them with a bit more power at low levels.  The idea was to change the normal power arc which wizards enjoy in most campaigns,. where they're often close to worthless at low levels and then come to dominate combats.   Yeah, everyone who I explain this to goes "uh oh like Highlander then?"  which is a close enough explanation to go with.

Purple denotes underearth entrances and arch ways.  So that
set of purple dots is the jakes, but the lines on the bridge 
are arches. Green crosses are tree trunks. A black pixel is
usually a pillar, heavy rains make stoa popular.  
First was a half-elven mage, Nadia, her mixed blood a product of the revels at the local Lake Goddess temple.   A witch of the Norse path who required blood for her spells and could eat only raw flesh. She was currently apprenticed to an elderly wizard at court and feared that his death would be quickly followed her own as without his protection someone would be sure to challenge her to improve their own power. The royal court is a bloody place, filled with temperamental nobles and hotblooded fighters.   Now just off her wizard's tower, a decaying half ruined structure of great age at the center of the palace, was the old abandoned hall of the Mad King.   The Mad King being the centerpiece of an ancient legend of kin slaying and betrayal, which nearly exterminated the dynasty. The old hall was filled with enough ghosts that even the the holiest of clerics had given up trying to cleanse it and had long been replaced by a hall which was much more resplendent.   It was rumored that the king's treasury lay somewhere beneath it, if only one could find a way beyond the ghosts.

 Her friend and protector was a journeyman Smith, Tercius, who in this world is a wizard in his own right.  A class which has no need of mage blood to increase in power, but who had as a goal enough money to make his own way in the world.  His power was centered around fire, iron, and making.   His limitations were a pathological fear of water and the need for his hammer to spell cast.   His help in the plot would be needed to smuggle the other adventurers into the palace, despite his lawful good nature.

The ghosts of the Mad King's Court made the third member of the group a necessity.  Durzan, a young Celtic warrior, recently in from the Big Green.  His barbaric tattoos and ill manners won him few to no friends in the great city of the iron men. The Big Smoke is not always a friendly place to the wild men of the forest, who remind the lords that their peasants and servants were once free men. His value is priceless, as this swordsman has a charm which wards off ghosts, the shrunken head of his gr'gr'gr' grandfather, which he wears on a thing about his neck.   He claims the head speaks to him, telling him stories of the distant past, when the bronze-wielding Celts ruled the land and the Lady of the Lake was unfettered.

The fourth member of the party was an oft-drunken dwarven heretic, who has fled the Mountain Kingdom one step ahead of the Order, the religious police who enforce the orthodoxy. He lived a squalid, chaotic life in the slum known as Dwarftown, fearing to leave the sanctuary provided by the Red-Fisted Earl.  Handbills promising a reward for his arrest hung in the Dwarf Embassy and he did not have the money to bribe the king's emissaries.  His healing powers and knowledge of the underground will prove of value in the cellars of the old palace.

The last member was the fixer, the schemer who put together party.  An acid-footed mage of the Saahtakan or Babylonian path, he sought naked power to protect himself from his own master, an ill-tempered magician who refuses to explain just what happened to the last half dozen boys who were his apprentices.

Greed united them all.
Everybody got a page of back ground &
 some  little maps of their neighborhood.

This looks like a lot of work, but I have the city mapped already, so it  is just a matter of getting back stories down on paper. A fair amount of the NPCs & rumors are cut and paste.  As I've mentioned before, this city is something I did over a long period of time in small bits.  I know some people store up adventure modules, but I have a file cabinet full of those sorts of notes, and didn't use many of them.  Too much last minute tinkering is always required for such things. You know how it is, you do most of the plotting for an adventure while drawing the map. "Oh this is where the troll goes."  "Here is where a gnome sell potions."

Monday, September 16, 2013

Assorted Playing Aids

  I've been looking about quite bit on other blogs and throwing away ideas I was working on.  I just finished reading Bat In the Attic's outline for making a fantasy sandbox as well as Playing D&D w/ Porn Stars' version and realized while I really don't agree with either's methods, my particular method  of building a fantasy sandbox would really not be on any more or less help.  I've come to think that much of such writing is "here what works for myself," rather than actual, usable tips.   Personally I use a mix of the two methods and toss in dice rolls with an occasional creative enhancement aid (Bukowski's pal) for inspiration.   It's all just an attempt to pile up creativity ahead of time, against the approaching needs of a sandbox campaign.  That late night hour when they've roamed outside of bounds in an unexpected move.  I tend to fly by the seat of my pants sometimes.

So rather than bother to lay out my particular mix of randomness and system, I'm going to discuss  a few helpful techniques for playing in a sandbox.

Erasable cards.   I have a stack of plasticized cards I use to have private discussions with players.  I also use these cards to sketch floor plans, what someone can see while flying, what the outside of the castle looks like, the village layout, etc...   All those last minute floor plans that a sandbox endlessly demands.  Maybe they just took an odd turn.  Maybe they jumped down the garbage chute.  Maybe they decided to swim down the exit passage of the pool. (How many times can you pull the "the passage is too small" bit before some smart ass says "well I have a potion of water breathing and a dimunition spell.")  Maybe they just went invisible and eluded what you thought would be two days play of monsters and hit the edge of the mapped parts of your mega-dungeon.     Unless it's a fight, you might not bother to draw it out on the glass.  Then I take this stack of cards and use it to expand on my written materials, converting it into notes.  In the past, I used a notebook or even cheap newsprint, but the plastic cards were scavenged for free and use the same markers.

Erasable board or glass, ruled in one inch squares.   I know some people prefer to use die-cast walls and such props, but it takes less time to draw a line then it does to get out a set of walls.   Other people dispense with the grid entirely, but it's easier than measuring everything.   I used to game with a guy who had a truly large piece of tempered glass, which was often large enough for an evening of maps.  I even used to make dungeons which I knew would fit on it.  I'll openly admit this colors my map making. I long ago gave up orientating buildings anyway but neatly north and south. My dungeon passages connect neatly to an axis. Why?  I'm willing to sacrifice a minor aesthetic in order to be able to sketch it out fast.   As for people who say the figures and the map is a crutch, I say screw them, most people need a chess board to engage their minds.   Until I come into a cheap or free flat screen to mount beneath a glass coffee table, I'll keep using my grid.

Camera  One of those things I only started doing fairly recently, after I got a nice camera as a gift.   I don't print a lot of photos.  I don't obsessively photograph friends.  I do like to take my camera hiking, which originally was to take landscapes and such. We've all done it, most of our product is second rate and of no real worth, compared to ten minutes of google imaging.  Other than some experiments in sight lines, I didn't use these pictures at all as planned. What I did discover was completely different uses for my camera.  I found myself using it to take advantage of trail maps. Snap a picture, no need to have a map or a good memory.  I also found myself using it for birds, flowers, and trees. Not to keep pictures, as much as to try and expand my knowledge of what I'd seen.  So I could name the birds I'd seen, even when they're not color coded, i.e. red-winged, black birds; a blue heron; or a gold finch.  One of those skills you father or grandfather always just seemed to have, but which you don't unless you're an eagle scout.  Back to business though.  I've found a camera is also a good game aid.  It makes for that quick snap at the end of an evening, so you know where everyone was positioned.  It also works for those free form caverns you drew  or that orc lair in the ruined tower, because who knows when the party might decide to come back or hole up there again. They might very well decide that it's perfect place to take on their pursuers some time.  So a camera and a few well placed shots comes in handy.

The Big Screen  or at least a monitor.   I like throwing a map up on a screen to remind people where they are in a big dungeon.  I think this is valuable, especially when your'e playing with the inebriated, children, or with big breaks between sessions. I've even been known to rev up power point and some pirated fantasy art to set the mood, which turned out much better and a lot less intrusive than similar attempts to set the mood with music (we're old, half of us have hearing damage.)

Computer   Now I realize you all know the computer can be your friend or you wouldn't be reading this, but I've also noticed that a lot of people don't really work on the computer for producing materials.   Maybe it's the old school thing, maybe it's just I haven't come across the right blog yet.   Now I understand the pleasure that comes from creating by hand, just as you did thirty years ago.   That there is a certain pleasure to be derived from sitting with a sheet of graph or hex paper and your favorite pen, pens, or pencils.  That there is a joy in taking a break from technology and just jotting notes and sketches on a piece of paper.   That unless you're under the age of thirty or so, you're never going to quite feel the same tactile connection to sketching on a screen as you do on paper.  OK maybe it's not thirty, but I've never met an artist who was completely comfortable with electronic sketch pads over thirty.  Yet scanning your work in afterwards simply isn't going to cut it. You're missing a lot of really sweet tricks by not using your computer in a better way.

Which is basically a long way around to laying out the next few articles i intend to write here, call it a bit of a computer tutorial for sandboxing.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Day 10, 11, 12, 13, & 14

Craziest Thing I've seen Happen
     So many crazy things  A legless wizard using a fat dwarf as a airborne mobile missile platform.   A dwarf on a mechanical sandship driving it over a cliff into a purple worm.  A gnome with a love for masquerading as a female ogre.  A wizard performing his spells, with his arms operated on two sticks by a halfling standing underneath him like Frank Oz with Grover.   Hmmm , all the most comical things seem to involve short people.

Favorite Adventure.   I went into this under game world.

Dungeon Type
  I like city adventures.   Sewers especially, yet they always link up.  Although, I do like a lost jungle temple or a nice set of scattered islands filled with encounter areas.  The usually assortment of hermits, some mad, some not, witches, and ruined towers.

Favorite Trap/ Puzzle
     I once had copper rose bushes which grabbed those who tried to pick their flowers, despite the sign's warning. The third in a series of puzzles, each of which had a chalk warning sign responsible for the magic of the trap.  They kept lopping off the flowers, which just made things worse, until someone inadvertently washed the chalk warning off the wall.

Favorite NPC
    There are lot of types I use regularly.  The happy innkeeper, the street urchin with ties to the Thieves' Guild, the hooker with a heart of brass, the idiot paladin, and assorted hermits and witches.  Yet I think my favorite was my first, the ferryman.   I like a good ferryman, they always give the party the willies, even when they aren't crazy or dangerous.  Someone seems to always cut the rope.

As this pile on list shows, I'm beginning to regret the list thing.   It seems to derail what I really want to write.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Day 8 & 9

Favorite Character Played & Not Played.

I think one of the favorite characters I've ever played was for Justice Inc.   He was a little person with a pistol and a savvy knowledge of 1920s China, fast cars, and Mandarin. Zebulon P. Culpepper, and he always wore a white suit in honor of his Kentucky heritage.  It was the first time I'd ever tried my hand at the game, a pick up game one spring, played with a bunch of history majors. We only played the one the adventure, but I still remember the joy of it, as the other players were fast and knowledgeable., despite being new to the game system.   There wasn't the problem you have with many off-brand games were most of the people just aren't aware of the world you're trying to play.   The game went down well and there was good company, wine, and zeppelins.  What more does anyone really need for a fine evening out?

Not played?  I still remember spending an evening making up characters for Champions and then we had about one fight.  Only the guy who'd bought the game was a comic book reader, which made it hard on the rest of us.  My character was the Booger and in typical adolescent fashion had various snot powers which combined the swinging ability of spiderman and some rather disgusting attacks.  I think I even bothered to color in his mucus green costume.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Favorite Edition

I admit as I look through some of the arguments on editions, I'm a bit mystified, as I've almost always played house rules as much as anything else.

I prefer the second edition of the advanced rules.  After fighting it for years. I caved and had to admit I liked the books.  I liked the fact that they cleared up some of the worst language of the old spells.  I liked having the tables easily accessible.  I liked the expansions  I liked having the tech tables organized by era (despite the fact that I had a number of arguments with their pricing.)  I liked that they had a variety of magic systems to choose from.   I especially liked the character generation, because it made your character unique, without having to resort to the ever annoying multi-class.  Clerics who were actually different for different Gods.  Mages who had armor.  All without that awkwardness of the Unearthed Arcana.   Basically they gave you rules to make character classes of your own . Yes I know you made them before, but let's be honest, they were rarely balanced.  They were mostly just a bunch of cool powers you'd get and no real flaws.  I think these editions really made it easier for players to visualize their new character.

Now I admit the multitude was confusing at first.  Then I realized you didn't use it all at once.  You, as the DM,  picked what would be in the world.    It really breathed some air into the game.  It made magic unique again.

OK, I still didn't really change from simple combat.

Day 5 & 6

Favorite Dice?
 I still have some of those yellow four sideds, the ones which taught us all how well caltrops worked.  I still use them as they're the only ones of the 70s dice sets that still roll true.   They get dragged out when people make high levels as mages.   I have other dice I use more often.  A nice set of black ones I use when I'm a player. The fist full of six-sided I roll for fire balls, looted from a variety of board games. A fist full of 20 sided dice I use for those big fights.   A handful of eights so I can role hit dice.   Those odd colored ten sided ones out of some alternate version of D&D which I played exactly once.

Favorite Deity.
Long past are the days where I viewed the Deities and Demigods as a Monster Manual.   I tend to use the Norse Gods in most campaigns, although they're tempered through Joseph Campbell and James Frazer.   I often use a muddy Mystery cult of the Goddess.   Mithra pops up as do a variety of invented Gods, who doesn't like a one off quest against dreaming Cthulu or Monty the Ape God of Outer Burbank?

Favorite Gameworld

OK So Favorite Gameworld?

Well it has to be medieval fantasy.  I've liked some scifi worlds such as the arcologies of Paranoia, the mutant throngs of Gamma World, and the backyard Armageddon of the Morrow Project.  Yet medieval fantasy is the hands down winner.  I've dabbled with stone age tribes, Traveller,  and Asian campaigns.  I've played "real world" games of Dr Who, Justice Inc, Champions, Top Secret, and even Boot Hill.

Now I keep it vague, because it is vague.  I like sword sand armor, but not guns.  So let's call it medieval.  I like magic, which makes it fantasy.  Yet beyond that there is still a lot of variation.  I don't play Greyhawk, or the City State, Middle earth, the Forgotten Realms, or Krynn.   They just don't get me excited.

I like to make my own worlds.  They tend to be higher in magic.  Which means you meet wizards and clerics in the street, rather than there being seven wizards in the world.  I often allow for things like stone shape in construction, continual light spells, and the idea that fantastic architecture is explained away by magic.   Yet I don't always do it this way. I think my next campaign is going to be low magic.  

Yet my favorite?  I think my favorite game world would be My Tarotverse.

 This would be a series of universes, one for each card in the tarot deck.  A blow out of a campaign designed to go crazy with every wild variable possible.  It started out with a wilderness occupied with Norsemen.  Then it expanded into the worlds of Norse mythology.  Then they visited dead worlds, Native American worlds, Indian worlds, Egyptian worlds, Babylonian worlds,  Mechanoid worlds, the Burning Lands, the Floating Worlds, and even an Eden where they were driven forth by an angel with a flaming sword. The worlds were linked by gates, some one-way, often used for disposing of criminals, some two ways and used for trade.  Sometimes civilizations spanned multiple worlds, other times they were trapped in by fearsome monsters.  Time worked differently.  Magic worked differently.  Different races ruled and were enslaved.  Maps were found and lost.  Characters died, only to be resurrected, reincarnated in odd forms, and replaced by odder races.   Other methods of travel were discovered to supplement the gates decks of magical cards, ships which sailed on sunless seas between the worlds, strange herbs which transported one into other worlds.   Gods fell, seas boiled, and they always fled before the storm.

    When it was over, well I was wearied with world flipping, with odd races and chaos.  So the next world was more mundane, an experiment in other things.  That is the things about medieval fantasy, it's not limited at all.  You can play a game of courtiers or merchants. You can go to war or run an inn.  It's a loose frame work that is really only bounded by it's lack of firearms (although I've played those as well) and the existence of magic. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Favorite Playable Class

  Day three and I'm beginning to see the chore of such things.

I like playing something I haven't played before or at least played recently.  Yes we all know the woman who only plays elven mages or the guy who only plays dwarven fighters.   The people who always want dice systems which allow them to arrange their stats, so their inevitably ugly character can be the same thing they were last time.  Yet I prefer to let the dice speak to me.  I like letting those first four roles decide my fate for one of the primary classes.  I feel the compulsion to choose the rarest thing possible if I qualify (except the Assassin.)

That said, I do have a fondness for Rangers, in the first edition AD&D rules.  Let's be truthful,  you're almost happy when the Paladin dies, because it frees you from such a restrictive role.  The monk is a chore to keep alive in a low level games, although his poverty is refreshing after too much gold greed and at high levels is extremely fun, like any of the rare classes.  The Druid is pretty cool, but always a step behind in a plant sterile dungeon craw.  The Assassin is just stupid outside of a city. The Bard is a pleasant change.

Yet the Ranger?  I think everyone is happy when they get to be a Ranger.  Just enough magic and special powers to make your fighter special.  Maybe it's a Tolkien thing, you just feel cooler as a Ranger.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Favorite playable race.

     Favorite race?   Humans.  Call me a heretic, but I like a nice vanilla, as it goes with anything.

 Most people seem to pick elves for the infravision or to be multi-classed, but I don't feel the need to tie myself to Tolkien's Pentagenea.    I think that if you're going to play an elf, you need to be an elf.  You need to consider that your long life makes all your friends just pets in your world.  You can be fond of them, but they're bound to die anyways.  Which always seems a bit out of place.  Half-elves?  They're just an excuse to get around restrictions.

Dwarves?  OK I love a good dwarf fighter, "You orc? Me kill," and who doesn't like a bit of gold greed on occasion.  Yet that gets weary.

Halflings?  Can't get excited about them.  They're always thieves is seems. If they aren't, you always kind of ask, so why a halfling?

Half-orc?  I find the half-orc a breath of fresh air.   However, in most campaigns it's bordering on playing a humanoid to play one.   Nobody ever likes you and it can be central to a campaign.  It's a bit weird being everyone's bad guy, but as mentioned refreshing.

Gnome?  I like the gnome, just because it's not from Tolkien.  You're sort of a dwarf, but magical.  I have fond memories of really playing an illusionist gnome once.

I've played the wilder strains, where everyone is a freak, yet eventually I come back to humans.

I feel the human by not being so defined allows the player to be most expansive. He's not defined so much by his race.  He's a slate upon which you can create anything, unconstrained.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

How I Started Playing D&D

I haven't been moved or had time to write much lately, so Maybe I'll try the 30 day challenge bit.

I guess I was likely fertile ground at age 12.  I'd read a lot of fantasy as a kid. I don't think I could pin down the exact book which got me started, but I remember having the young, hip, and pretty teacher (my Miss Landers, every boy has one at some point) read us the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in  third grade, a chapter each day.  I was a bit blown away and read the whole series and many others. The Hardy Boys and talking animal books were dead to me after that. The next year brought a different teacher, who gave extra credit for Newbery Medal books, which is still one of those things I should have thanked her for at some point before her name slipped out of my memory.  I might not remember her name, but I still remember Susan Cooper. Ursula Le Guin, and Lloyd Alexander, although I still have no idea how to pronounce Lloyd.  Two years later I'd worked my way through Lord of the Rings and had moved on to plundering the adult scifi/fantasy shelves of three different libraries.

Meanwhile, my brother and I had grown out of playing war outdoors or with army men indoors.  Avalon Hill was pretty popular around our house.  We had a subscription to the General for awhile and there was always something set up on a card table, half completed. 

Ultimately, I started playing because of my parents.  They'd picked up one of the earliest printings of the Basic Set, the one with the lizardman logo on the cover and the geomorphs inside.  It was the winter of 1978 and I was 12, which makes it likely the guy had sold him back stock or maybe they'd picked it up early in the year.    We always got at least one new game for Christmas, I think my parents were trying for something that I'd like as much as my brother liked war games.  Most likely there were points were they regretted this chance purchase later.  I have no idea what else I got that Christmas.  

My older brother read through the rules and by the day after Christmas we were playing with a bunch of house guests, muddling our way through his quick map, using army men as figures.   It kept us busy and the basics were mastered, we all controlled multiple men and rolled up more as they died. Much of the idea of the game was lost on us, like the Wisconsinites of old, we were mostly just playing a war game with magic.  One of my friends stopped by at some point, enough to be impressed and want to play.    My brother really only played a handful of times after that (years later), but never really got into the role playing or story part.  The house guests went home, some got their own copies and kept playing.  

I often think that was a pivotal moment.  Holmes' earliest version made it apparent the whole game was up to you.  There was no module to play or even that many rules.  By the time my friend bought his copy after Christmas, B-1 was included, although as I remember it, it was as if someone had erased the monsters from it and you put them in yourself.  Which was my first DM experience.  By the summer my other friends had bought later copies and we tried out store bought splendor with B-2, but it didn't measure up to the dungeons we'd been making ourselves.  The AD&D books trickled out, we added each one as we bought it. I bought Gamma World about that time as well and started buying the Dragon for pointers. Each new book meant we had to recalculate the rules again.

I think those early games, before Gygax's Advanced rule system came out set the tone for my friends and I.  We were pretty much self taught and were often wrong, but we were junior high kids with an obsession.   We devoted a lot of time to the game.  We were tireless in converting our friends.  We made elaborate dungeons.  We played all night. We played for days in a row. We experimented.   We made the world our own.