I just leafed through it and I liked what I saw! It makes me want to add an African-inspired section to my campaign right now.
I liked the art. The pieces fit together, had a unified style, made me want to play or meet those characters.
Remember, I didn’t read those 180 pages. But some of my impressions regarding the rules: standard six attributes but smaller modifiers: 3 → -2; 4–7 → -1; 14–17 → +1; 18 → +2. There are four cultures with half a page of background followed by a large number of interesting one-paragraph character backgrounds that grant you a number of skills. Skills go from 0–4. I’m not a big friend of skill systems, but it doesn’t bother me too much.
There are four classes: warriors (fighters) and three classes with magical abilities—griots (bards), marabouts (clerics) and ngangas (magic users).
The “fighters” have access to a very simple feat system. I’m no friend of the feats in D&D 3.5 or Adventure Conqueror King, but this system here only takes a single page and doesn’t constitute a feat tree and only concerns fighters. I think this works for me.
There are three kinds of “bard” songs (minor, great, ancient) and characters get access to the more powerful variants at 4th and at 7th level. I like the simplicity of the system. The effects of these songs persists for as long as they are being sung.
The “clerics” can invoke miracles (spells) from a variety of spheres. They are spontaneous casters with a certain number of miracles/day limit. Each sphere comes with a list of spells. Thus, by gaining access to more spheres they get more choice in spells. Their favorite sphere gets them a minor magical ability.
The power of “magic users” comes in the form of rituals and spells. Known rituals can be performed as long as the characters have the necessary time and resources (many cost money). Spells are “memorized” by creating little fetishes and “cast” by triggering them.
The various classes are an excellent demonstration of how to rewrite the standard descriptions to conjure up a different atmosphere and invoke the new setting.
There is a one-page quick reference after the rules section. Excellent idea.
There is a lot of material explaining how to run a sandbox campaign without just copying what he said in Red Tide and An Echo Resounding. Excellent!
Three pages on how to play—responsibility of players, responsibility of the referee, how to start the first session, this kind of stuff, short and succinct. Another three pages on typical pitfalls: how to use combat in your game, how to handle character death, how to handle investigative games, how to handle magic items, how to handle unfamiliarity with the setting. All of these are a great introduction to people unfamiliar with sandbox play, I think. Thinking back to my recent game mastering career and remembering the D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master Guide, I’d say that these pages here come with all the relevant advice that you need.
The domain game uses Might, Trouble and Treasure as the kingdom stats. In An Echo Resounding the three stats were Military, Social and Wealth. If you’re interested in a short overview of An Echo Resounding, check out my summary. The concepts are similar. These stats are used to resolve the kingdom turns. The game does not come with units, resources to build, mass combat and all the other things An Echo Resounding introduced.
As for creating adventures: the book comes with an empty map for a dungeon, a building, an estate, a shrine, a cave; it comes with tables for cults, magic user spells, non-player characters, cultures, names, adventure elements; domain game rules incl. building costs, henchmen, hirelings, magic items, treasures, monsters—all suitably themed! I think this is awesome. The book also comes with a lot of advice on how to go about creating adventures, how to think about the set (the place), the actors (denizens, non-player characters) and props (treasure, items), and how to put the three together. Skimming through this section, I found myself nodding along.
There is an index, which is something I appreciate. There’s also an annotated bibliography for fiction, history, mythology, religion and pictures. This should be useful for people like me with practically no experience with Africa.
All in all, I think this book would be an excellent book. With its 180 pages it looks much like a slightly expanded B/X D&D with an African theme. It has plenty of good advice and ideas for beginners and sandbox newbies. Personally, I think many games lack the succinct guidance a new referee needs. The D&D 3.5 DM’s guide didn’t have it. I don’t think my favorite variant of the game has it, either: Labyrinth Lord is quite bare bones. At the same time, Spears of Dawn is not simply a collection of house rules tacked onto B/X D&D. The infusion of the African setting into every paragraph and its strong focus on teaching the reader how to run a sandbox campaign sets it appart.
I highly recommend it. Then again, remember I haven’t read it in depth (and I probably won’t unless the campaign moves into an African direction).
What motivates a referee? I think positive feedback is a key element. I’m not just thinking of players thanking you for running the game or players saying that they like your style. What I really enjoy is players who get excited when they’re thinking of the next session, players who’re sad if they have to miss a session, players who tell other people about the funny things they did, the terrible things that happened. Player engagement is intoxicating, infectious.
DM Peter recently ended one of the campaigns I’m playing in, citing lack of player engagement. It’s a tricky subject: who is responsible for it, how do you measure it, how do you foster it? Here’s what has worked for me.
Alpha players are always at the forefront of everything. They edit the campaign wiki. They write a log. They never loose track of their character’s experience, wealth, equipment and encumbrance. Their characters have plans. Their characters have issues. If you get one or two of them, that’s great. I found that my games can take a lot of casual gamers, however. Not everybody needs to be an alpha players. Quiet people, hard working people, parents, people with little time between sessions are just as entertaining at the table. Realizing this has made it possible for me to enjoy more games. If I need more games to fill the time between sessions, I run more games or join more campaigns.
Session reports are a measurable by-product of our games. Long session reports that cast the events in a mythical light, provide more intimate glimpses of the characters, provide extra details and entertaining complications are great. There will always be players that don’t have the time to write such session reports and there will always be players that don’t have the time read such session reports. Preposterous, you might think. And yet, this thought will set you up for disappointment. If one person keeps a few notes on the back of their character sheet and can bring everybody back up to speed at the beginning of the next session, that works just as well. Realizing this, I have cut down on my session report writing. These days, I don’t write to entertain, I write to remember. A short list of events is all that is required. Now I no longer feel close to session writer burnout, I’m no longer disappointed by the disinterest of my fellow players.
Player contributions are an inspiration: I try to encourage players to contribute little elements to our fairly traditional game. Sometimes the personality traits of a player character turn out to be the personality traits of an entire culture. Sometimes the ambitions of a player can shape an arc of the campaign. Sometimes, however, none of the players seem to be willing to contribute anything other than playing their character. In this case, a referee might feel cornered into the role of the untiring entertainer, a thankless job of crafting adventures for unappreciative players. This can be deadly for a sandbox campaign. I have found two solutions to this problem in my campaign:
Addictive elements to game play. Yes, it’s mean. It’s called the variable ratio reinforcement schedule: a reinforcement schedule in which the number of responses necessary to produce reinforcement varies from trial to trial, according to Wikipedia. I feel that’s why unbalanced encounters are fun. There can be two or three sessions where practically no treasure is found and characters gain less than a hundred experience points each and other sessions where the major hoard is found and each character gets a thousand experience points or more. Knowing this puts some of them on edge. They want to make sure not to miss the one gold session that will pay off big time.
I hope these points help you adjust your expectations and help you increase player engagement in your campaigns.
I started looking around the Sine Nomine website and noticed Other Dust. A post-apocalyptic old school game? I’m thinking Mutant Future and Gamma World. Have you tried it? I just read the review on Grognardia. I guess I could justify the $19.90 price tag for the PDF as a sort of donation for the free Stars Without Number.
Then again, when will I ever have the time to play all of it? And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that I’d love to have all his products as hardcovers in my bookshelf.
Update: My review of Spears of the Dawn.
Recently, the question Whither the West Marches was asked over on the Hill Cantons blog. Interesting question!
To recap, a campaign using the West Marches model described on Ars Ludi had several interesting characteristics, as summarized on the Hill Cantons blog:
My Alder King campaign had started using D&D 3.5 using this model. Player characters advanced up to 9th level, some of them ending up with important positions in towns of the region. We played with a second generation of characters for a while and I still liked it. I no longer liked D&D 3.5, however, and so the campaign switched to the Solar System RPG. When that campaign ended, I started a campaign of Pendragon.
While it lasted, however, the Alder King campaign differed from the West Marches model mainly in that I had fewer players and that we had regular, scheduled sessions. These dates were set by me, not by the players. We had up to seven players at some points in time, but having all of them at the table was rare. In all that time, I felt that there was no regular plot, but I had inserted various modules I had bought here and there, so often the players might have felt that there was a regular plot.
Later, I started my campaign of the Five Winds. This time I have a group of eight players and there are almost always a few of them missing. Thus we’re doing fine with regular biweekly sessions and three to eight players each. The players are not scheduling sessions. In GM Florian’s campaign, same thing: players don’t schedule sessions. Instead, we have regular biweekly sessions. In DM Peter’s campaign, he announces his availability via mail and people sign up using Doodle. Again, that doesn’t feel like players actually scheduling sessions.
Thus, I think the key element I used from the West Marches model was sandbox play: exploring the wilderness, dungeon delving, no regular plot, players defined goals in game.
The Hill Cantons blog posts then goes on to say that the campaign also developed urban adventures. None of the four campaigns I mentioned did that. In my Five Winds campaign, for examples, the towns my players meet continue to be defined by three or four non-player characters and very little else. These characters provide quests, some evil doers or incompetents must be replaced every now and then. Town adventures make up at most a tenth of my campaign.
Similarly, sessions soon started to end outside of town—since I wasn’t running competing parties or at irregular schedules, this never was a problem. We just found lousy in-game excuses for missing or new characters in the party from session to session.
For a short while I was running two parties in the same starting town. It turned out that not ending every session in town wasn’t much of a problem. Flexible time keeping turned out to be the answer: whenever characters return to town, advance the time up to the point where the other party is.
In fact, the current Five Winds campaign soon moved to a travel based campaign: the party moved east, looking for one of the big cities of the campaign world, the city housing the school of chromatic wizards. They keep getting sidetracked by pirates, barrow mazes and the like…
I was reading Jim’s Threat Level and Masturbatory Dice Rolling which reminded me of something I once said to my players: “It’s called Dungeons and Dragons, not wanking with Alex.”
Back then I didn’t quite understand that we were having a systemic problem. I was running a D&D 3.5 game and these two players didn’t enjoy the threat level I usually enjoy. I’d rather die at the hands of a tough referee than live under the benevolent smile of a merciful game master.
This is the comment I left on Jim’s post, slightly edited:
I think the attitude that the game master is responsible for the players having fun at the table arose out of the fact that with newer editions of the game, the mechanical aspects of prep started to build up, and at the same time modules ended up very linear, and even if they were not obviously linear (like Red Hand of Doom) then the significant power increase from level to level and thus the increased difficulty of swerving off the planned track all led dungeon masters like me to believe that we were responsible for providing the right threat level.
It took some exposure to dungeon design, sandbox design, a return to threat levels chosen by players based on conventions (dungeon level) or information provided by the referee (rumors for the wilderness) before I understood that I could leave the decision about the threat level of the session up to the players. What a relief it was! Looking back, the technique is simple: increase player agency!
The games I like to run these days are easier to prepare for, they are easier to run, and thus all I need to remember is to provide adequate information the the players regarding the threat levels of locations or events. This will allow my players to pick the threat level they feel comfortable with – and I hope that these days I no longer feel tempted to insult my players.
When I read procedures like the ones Justin Alexander recently posted on his blog, I realize that my own procedures are super simple in comparison.
Here are the basics:
With this in place, players will usually learn about a new location from NPCs, decide to travel there, have one or two random encounters on the way providing side-quests, other plot-hooks and adding to the wilderness. After exploring the dungeon or doing whatever needs doing, the party will travel back, sometimes picking a different path for their way back in order to learn something about the area they’re in.
Thus the actual procedure at the gaming table is simple:
If your procedure is more complicated, I’d love to know what you do and why you do it. Maybe it’s something I could add to my own procedure!
Over on Hack & Slash, -C wrote a blog post called On How an Illusion Can Rob Your Game of Fun that reads like a manifesto. It belongs to a whole cross blog conversation that I haven’t really read up on. Maybe I will.
Basically, -C is ranting against a «quantum ogre» – a mythical encounter that happens no matter what. -C ends the blog post with the following:
In the comments, some people argue that the quantum ogre isn’t so bad. I disagree. Here’s why. The quantum ogre is only bad if the players have information that ought to help them evade it and they cannot. But in addition to that, having to make a choice without any information is also bad. Thus, we’re talking about two bad things.
An adventure involving the quantum ogre is bad because the players’ choices don’t matter: either they don’t have enough info to make a meaningful choice or the information they have is useless since the quantum ogre will show up no matter what they do. They have no agency – they have no capacity “to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” Either they cannot make a meaningful choice because they lack information, or they cannot impose their choice on the world because the quantum ogre shows up anyway.
Update: A comment by Trey on the «On How an Illusion Can Rob Your Game of Fun» blog post wanted to know about the differences between a single quantum ogre encounter and the use of random encounters. Both of them remove player agency and yet the sandbox proponents don’t decry random encounters. Why not?
I think there is a way to improve random encounters because the quantum ogre and random encounters exist in a continuum.
(The following assumes that players have some sort of information allowing them to make meaningful choices.)
The quantum oger is at the one end. No matter which way you turn, the oger encounter happens. Next to it, we find random encounter tables. No matter which way you turn, eventually you will meet an item from my precious list. Next to that, we find differing random encounter tables depending on the surrounding areas. No matter which way you turn, eventually you will meet an item from one of the appropriate regional lists. Finally, the last alternative I can think of is having no random encounters and only lairs placed on the map. No matter which way you turn, you will meet the appropriate item for this hex on my precious map.
What I’m trying to do is increase player agency:
I’m sure there are more variations. For my own games, I try do #3 and #4. Players get to pick the important encounters by choosing to explore the mountains where they need to fight a frost giant (#4). In addition to that, there are rumors about a white dragons (also #4 with partial information). What players don’t know is that the icy glacier environment also supports winter wolves (#3). In addition, the trolls are on a war path and thus I have added them to the random encounter list (this starts out as #2 but eventually moves to #3 as players learn about current events in the sandbox). This creates meaningful choices: If players don’t feel like fighting frost giants and white dragons, they can avoid the area.
Thus, I agree with Trey’s comment. Simply having a random encounter list is only marginally better than having a quantum ogre. Basically you’re just having more of them. The key is introducing ways for players to make meaningful choices and have those choices make a difference.
Update: Courtney has written more articles in his series on player agency. I recommend them all.
Update: More recommended articles I found by following links:
One unfortunate aspect of the increased privacy Google+ offers is that by allowing you to share your posts with certain circles only many interesting posts end up being undiscoverable by new readers and hard to link to – I linked them below but if you haven’t seen them before, chances are you’re not in the circles of the the two respective authors and thus you will not be able to read them.
In You ate the sandbox, Stuart Robertson wonders how people run their Sandbox games. He argues that if you don’t have things set down before play begins – if you improvise everything – then the decisions players make don’t have significance.
In the comments there is a whole lot of debate on the wording: Does that make decisions by players meaningless? Is this really how improvisation works? I’m with Zak Smith, I guess. He says “That’s why in true sandboxes the GM gives the PCs information about what’s in what direction, and this information can be used to inform the PCs decisions and avoid railroading.” He linked to two excellent blog posts on his blog. One is a huge Ontology for sandboxes – it provides a shared vocabulary for anybody wanting to talk about sandboxes: Chokers And Chandlers. (I think my own games mostly fall into the “Sandbox With Triggerable NPCs or Plot Events” category.) Anyway, this is a super awesome post. Read it, if you want to write about sandboxes. Using the terms suggested by Zak will make it easier to understand for your readers.
The other article Zak linked to is Conan Knew More About Cimmeria Than Howard Did. The most important part of that blog post is that one of the techniques to make a sandbox entertaining is to emphasize the tension between two opposing ideas: the gameworld is defined as the players explore it and the players need information in order to make meaningful decisions about which way to go. There is a lot for players to explore, but there is also a lot of information that allows players to make meaningful decisions.
The other Google+ post that got me thinking was Authored role-playing and so-called "story games" by John Allder Stephens. He cites some conflicting definitions of Story Games. I liked Graham Walmsley’s comment, It's not meant to mean anything. It's just a label for "The games that people on the Forge and Story Games tend to like".
My impression is that most people seem to agree that there is no significance beyond a personal preference in the term. There is an interesting discussion in the comments comparing Story Now and Story After. Story Now is where the story happens right now, at the table. Play focuses on conflicts that would make a good story. Random encounters are a hindrance to the story unless they are immediately relevant to the character’s struggles. Story After is where events happen at the table and as players look back, they see a story has emerged. People make decisions based on their character’s goals, based on the imagined world, and as they look back, what emerges is a tragic road to failure and death, or a heroic sacrifice, or victory over ones enemies, etc. The important part is that nobody planned this. It just so happened and surprised everybody. As Stuart Robertson says, “that’d be a fixed game!”
Here’s an example of how I see it. Assume the old school D&D party is encountering four dwarves in the wilderness – a random encounter. In a Story Now game, this only makes sense, if the dwarves are relevant to the characters and their issues. Is one of them a dwarf? A fugitive running away from his obligations? Are these scouts that are trying to return a rebel son to his father? In a Story After game, the dwarves may have totally unrelated goals. They’re here to set up a copper mine. This adds a potential mine to the map. Do the players want to help or hinder this endeavor? It’s just another plot hook. Looking back, players might say, remember those four dwarves and their copper mine? Funny how that made us visit the dwarven king in the western mountains and break the sleeping enchantment… Story emerges later.
I think I prefer Story After games. I feel they encourage perpetual play. The campaign grows and turns and creeps and tumbles forward, the world expands, characters come and go… A game that is focused on the drama of a particular set of characters and their issues is basically over when those issues are resolved. I guess I’ll see for myself soon enough as I’m switching my D&D 3.5 game to Solar System RPG where characters have keys and get experience points when they hit those keys. Perhaps characters can keep switching keys and the campaign has the potential of going on in perpetuity. My suspicion is, however, that once those keys are resolved the campaign will automatically begin coming to a close.
Die Fischköpfe sind Sklaventreiber im Nordwesten. Die fliegenden Affen im Norden brauchten mal Hilfe gegen die Fischköpfe. Die Froschmänner im Nordosten wurden von den Soldaten des Zauberers nieder gemacht. Nördlich von dort steht der Orcus Tempel. Im Süden hat es Goldaugenkobolde, Schwarzklauenechsen, Satyre, eine Sumpfhexe, eine befreite Zwergenfeste, ein Zwergendorf mit Lammasu, eine Höhle mit Teufeln, eine versunkene Pyramide mit dem halb lebendigen Leichnam der Tiamat, einen Elfenturm mit Greifen, im Westen mehr Elfen, Hügelriesen, Trolle, unter dem Wald eine riesiger Leichnam eines Dämons, irgendwo hat es einen blauen, einen roten und einen weißen Drachen. Dahinter noch mehr Goblinstämme und so weiter.
Wohin man geht findet man mehr Völker, mehr Probleme, mehr Abenteuer. Gibt es einen Punkt, an dem es einfach zu viel wird? Meistens versuche ich die Liste der offenen Plots auf sieben zu beschränken. Wenn die Spieler aber das Risiko scheuen und alle Probleme offen lassen, was soll ich dann tun? Keine neuen Ideen bringen bis das alte Zeug gelöst wurde?
Ich glaube, dass im positiven Sinne viele “Fraktionen” einfach für eine lebendige Welt stehen. Die Spieler können wählen, wo sie sich einmischen, und dort auch wirklich etwas bewirken. Manchmal, wenn die Spieler zu chaotisch werden, kann auch eine der Fraktionen sehr stark werden, so dass man ein mittelfristiges Ziel hat. Nach zwei Jahren kam es so zur grossen Schlacht mit den Echsen. Im Moment sieht es so aus, wie wenn die Trolle wieder eine ähnliche Bedrohung werden. Reicht das, um die Aufmerksamkeit zu bündeln?
Im negativen kann das natürlich die Folge haben, dass die Spieler zuviele Töpfe am kochen haben – und keinen davon auslöffeln wollen (oder es keinen offensichtlichen und einfachen Weg gibt, so dass man lieber weiter wandert und neue Fraktionen und Abenteuer entdeckt).
Selber versuche ich im Moment die Spieler darin zu unterstützen, im Spiel zu bestimmen, wie sich alles weiter entwickelt. Werden die Feuerriesen mehrmals besucht, werden diese wichtiger. Werden die Kuo Toa ignoriert, werden sie unwichtiger (ausser ich brauche mal einen externen Feind, dann kann ich auf alle Elemente zurück greifen).
Von den aktuellen Spielern hat im Moment halt keiner ein starkes Charakterziel – vielleicht sollte ich mal eine Umfrage machen? Eigentlich eine gute Idee… mache ich gleich mal.
Ein Spieler meinte dazu, dass mehr Fraktionen dazu führen, dass die Welt überbevölkert wirkt – insbesondere weil sich an den Konflikten nichts ändert, wen die Spieler nicht zugegen sind. Ich bin natürlich auch zu faul für eine Weltsimulation. Ich baue nur dort weiter, wo das Spiel auch stattfindet. Vielleicht sollte ich mich mal dazu durchringen, ein paar zukünftige Ereignisse zu notieren, damit sich die Welt auch ohne das Zutun der Gruppe ändert.
The following developed out of a discussion on Google Reader regarding Rob Conley’s How to manage a sandbox campaign: The Box of Stuff. A friend started the discussion by saying more or less “I miss techniques that can help a GM improvise – except for random tables which have been discussed a lot. What other tools are there?” My reply turned into the following list of lists.
Random encounter tables have been discussed before. More generically, I prefer to organize my “stuff” in the form of lists. Keep these on index cards if you like. I keep meaning to do that, but I’m too lazy so all of this just ends up on pages upon pages in my little campaign notebooks or on my campaign wikis.
Here are the kinds of lists I keep. Usually these act as todo lists, not as tables to roll on.
Also, watch a lot of cheap movies and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy books.