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This page lists the most recent journal entries related to role-playing games (RPG). There are some more pages on the related German page (Rollenspiele).
Yesterday I ran a game for eight players (I usually cap at six). We had already established that this was going to be a raid on a pirate fortress. I knew that it was going to have 80 elves ready to fight, 80 elves sleeping (all 1st level), a 9th and a 7th level elf, and a red dragon. The party allied itself with some commando elves and so the attacking force consisted of eight player characters and their eight henchmen with levels between 1 and 7 as well as the command elves, six 6th level elves and eighteen ordinary 1st level elves; forty characters in all. I handed out little index cards with the stats of the elven commando leaders and their henchmen. Three hours later it was all over, most of the pirates slain, the dragon dead, the enemy leader killed, her second in command take prisoner, the dragon hoard secured and the fortress being towed to the players’ domain. (This is a big mashup campaign using Spelljammer ships and fortresses, and An Echo Resounding for domain level play.)
It was a very unusual adventure, but I like the change in pace!
The fortress was structured as a series of encounters with a mini map I kept behind the screen, usually with ten elves, sometimes with a leader of level 1d6+1; sometimes with more elves about to arrive. Good use was made of hold portal to prevent elves from joining up and good use was made of silence and sleep to surprise enemies and incapacitate a dozen foes in the surprise round, haste was used to quickly position archers and casters, sneaky thieves were used to scout ahead and best prepare for assaults, and to avoid tricky hallways with enemy archers hiding, several lightning bolts were used to kill the dragon before it could join the elven sorceress, they survived her cloudkill with minimal losses and managed to dispel it the next round…
It was a bloodbath.
For ease of reference and consistent spell selection of both the allied commando elves and the defending elf pirates, I used a technique I described previously: my spell book notation lists the spell-book of the top elf or magic-user with spell level and spell name, and a third column with the character level at which this spell is usually picked. This helps me run a lot of spell casters. This list would begin as follows, for example:
|Spell Level||Character Level||Spell Name||Notes|
|1||2||shield||AC 4, AC 2 vs. missiles|
|2||4||detect invisibility||5 rd./level|
|4||7||polymorph||AC 0 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d10 MV 240|
|4||8||dimension door||360 ft. or 120 m|
|5||9||cloud kill||⌀ 30 ft., MV 6|
The most important skill of all is a sort of military “go! go! go!” efficiency at the table, however. No questions about who rolls initiative. Roll all the dice – have d20s and damage dice of matching colors and have all the colors assigned to your dudes and roll them all at once. All enemy elves, regardless of level, had AC 4. When your turn comes up, just tell me “I hit three times, damage is 4, 5, 2.” That’s the plan, anyway. Also, pick a leader who tells me where the party goes. Which stairs do you pick? Quietly or quickly? When the fight is on, just keep pushing. When the fight is over, let players talk, laugh, investigate, debate.
The picture shows the kind of notes I had prepared ahead of time. As you can see these are crude sketches of the area and enemy positions. Most enemies were all elves with a single magic missile memorized. If the party won initiative, it was usually over in a few seconds.
As you can see on the little fold-out flow-chart on the left, the encounters weren’t all arranged linearly. My main idea was this:
It worked for me!
In the final analysis, it was a lot easier than I expected. Was it because the commando elves were too strong? Was it because the party had four extra players I had not expected? (Two of them are new players from my Sunday campaign and another two players are not regular players so I wasn’t counting on them.) Oh well, I think it’s only fair to not adjust difficulty levels on the fly.
These days I read a lot less books than I used to. I read too much blogs on the topic of role-playing games, too much time spent on Google+, also on the topic of role-playing games, I skim this role-playing book and that PDF, and since I’m mostly interested in the Old School Renaissance of role-playing games—namely D&D from the nineteen eighties—I also feel like I ought to like the books recommended by one of the founding fathers of D&D, Gary Gygax in his Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you’re interested, you should check out the articles in Martin Ralya’s blog tagged Reading Appendix N.
These books are weird. Compared with the The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire or Malazan Book of the Fallen, these older books are short. There are sometimes short stories, collection of short stories, novellas, or little paperback books. All of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian fit into two books of typical size for these fantasy series.
A while back, I remembered how eagerly I read all those Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley and I decided to find them all second hand, in German, on Amazon, and buy them for Claudia. Every now and the she reads one of them, interspersed with some Steven Erickson and George R. R. Martin. We start talking and comparing. There are two aspects I like about these books:
Tolkien may have started this dreadful fashion of telling multiple stories at once. But in his case, at least each segment was long, very long. When I read George R. R. Martin, I feel like the author is suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Is every little segment ending on a cliff hanger? When I start noticing the literary devices, when I start to see the man behind the curtain, it doesn’t really work anymore. It starts to bore me. I start noticing that—like in Zeno’s paradox about Achilles being unable to overtake the turtle—as the number of segments increase, the time slot available decreases. As more stories are told in parallel, less actually happens. Plot is reduced to flashes and still images.
I am exaggerating, of course. In comparison with older books, however, I start to appreciate a tight plot, a unified vision, a drive forward. All the Conan stories stand on their own. They can be arranged in some sort of chronological order, but that’s not the important part. Similarly, the Darkover books can be read in any order. You get the occasional reward for regular readers. Older stories are referred to, but understanding this is strictly optional.
I was once again reminded of this when I read The Walrus and the Warwolf. It was published in Paizo’s Planet Stories line (now discontinued). I liked it very much. The book itself wasn’t short, but the chapters were short. The characterizations were short. Things happened. I felt that it incorporated not the best of literature, of language, of fancy words and synonyms and antonyms but it incorporated what is best in story telling. Keeping things short. Just enough words to let the reader’s imagination embellish it all without ever taking too long to read.
I’m hoping that I’ll like the other volumes in Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. I’ve ordered many of the volumes second hand, via Amazon. I also ordered the four books that got translated into German. Perhaps Claudia will enjoy them as well.
Urban campaigns don’t have the easy execution of traditional dungeon crawls but they’re not an ineffable mystery, either. If I were in your shoes, here’s what I would do.
Pick a city. For optimum simplicity I’d pick an old, rambling, not-entirely-coherent city from fantasy fiction that you’re already familiar with. Lankhmar is a perfect example. Then change the name and just keep the feel and flavor; you don’t want to burden yourself with the difficulty of matching the details to the fiction. You just want something that can give you an idea of what the city feels like and provide you with tropes you can use when you need fast flavor.
Pick a neighborhood in the city. A shabby slum with leavening of crime bosses, corrupt officials, dubious priests, and suspicious foreigners is a good choice. Explain to the players that for the first few sessions you’re just going to be concentrating on activities in that neighborhood so you can keep your NPC roster and local activities manageable. The PCs aren’t trapped in there, but they shouldn’t expect local events to spill over into the wider city until you’ve had more time to get comfortable with the campaign.
Do a quick cut at a couple of opposing power structures: “Criminal Gangs” and “Local Officials”, for example. You can create more of these power structures as they become relevant in play. You put one person at the top of the structure- the biggest local gang boss or the local watch captain, for example. Beneath them you put two lesser figures, like smaller gang bosses or patrol lieutenants. And beneath them, you put four street-level NPCs that the PCs might ordinarily interact with, like typical gang members or local watchmen. At this stage you just give each of them a name, a distinguishing characteristic, and a rivalry/feud/friendship/debt for somebody else, either in the same structure or a different one. These relationships are important because they’re cheap and easy plot fuel when you need to explain why one guy is trying to get another guy killed, or why NPC X is willing to get help for NPC Y.
Now go to the one-page dungeon repository and start pulling maps that you could plausibly reskin into: Fortified Estates, Slum Warrens, Infested Sewers, Long-Buried City Ruins, Haunted Shrines, and other suitable urban areas. When you reskin these maps, just turn the humanoids into local citizens or denizens and drop any of the animals or magical beasts that wouldn’t be appropriate for the area- or turn them into human guards or the like if that’s appropriate. What you need from these one-page dungeons are just references- you can turn subterranean passageways into cramped alleyways and cavern rooms into tenement apartments.
Once you have these ingredients- power structures with NPCs and maps that you can reskin into interesting places- you just pick a conflict between NPCs and make that the evening’s adventure. Somebody wants something stolen, somebody killed, somebody protected, somebody rescued, something sabotaged…. Put it or them into a map, let the PCs negotiate with the locals on their way through, and then let their actions and success/failure shape the local conflicts and NPC attitudes toward them.
As a side note, don’t worry about mapping the actual city or neighborhood. Grab something online if it looks nice, but in actual play most PCs are only ever going to care about their immediate surroundings, which you can fake with a one-page dungeon map that you treat as roads/courtyards/buildings.
– Kevin Crawford
The question was asked multiple times and he got somewhat more comments here and here. I’m currently running The Wererats of Relfren by Grant Boucher and William Kurt Wenz, from Dungeon #14, p. 48–62. I’ve removed the silly and replaced the important people and locations with things from the starting village of my own campaign. It has been working very well until now!
A problem I often have is spell books. What spells are in those books? Which spells has the magic user memorized? What about his apprentices and friends?
Here’s my solution to this dilemma:
This works with my conservative interpretation of spell books (but does not depend on it) and it gives every group of magic users a distinct flavor.
Recently I was wondering how to write it down, however. I used to just write down the master spell book. That slows me down when figuring out which spells lower level casters know. Here’s how I wrote it down for my neogi deathspider spelljamming mages (these have a level of 1d8). The important part is the second column. I also like to include alternative spell names in order to add flavor.
|Spell Level||Caster Level||Spell Name||Traditional Name|
|1||1||Power over lesser minds||charm person|
|1||2||Power of a merchant’s greed||detect magic|
|1||7||Mind blasting cattle brains||sleep|
|2||3||Listening to the chatter of idle brains||ESP|
|2||4||Bending perception||phantasmal force|
|2||8||Unity with our arachnid ancestors||web|
|3||5||Blasting of rebellious cattle||lightning bolt|
|3||6||All seeing eye of the overlord||clairvoyance|
|4||7||Bending the will of all creatures||charm monster|
|4||8||Blessing of chaos eternal||confusion|
(I’m not sure, perhaps it would make more sense to sort this table by the second column?)
Two threads I’ve been reading over the last weeks. Every now and then it’s good to be reminded of good practices.
Advice on building a megadungeon, and a campaign around it by Benoist Poiré (G+). The author provides examples, discusses benefits and drawbacks, technique – and then he goes about implementing them, designing a megadungeon as you read along.
S is for Sandbox by Raven Crow King. The author discusses the things you need to prepare and the things you should not prepare. Key phrases that he repeats a few times:
The series then moves to the design of an adventure site and I really like how he makes sure that the dungeon has replay value. In the first dungeon, for example, he hides some treasure that is very hard to find and says: “This area will be hard to discover without additional information, and a map in another adventure site will indicate where to look.”
It’s a bit wordier than my humble Swiss Referee Style Manual but still far shorter than some of the advice books out there. I just looked at my GM Advice folder and found Gamemastering by Brian Jamison, 330 pages. (Hm, the site gamemastering.info seems to be down; what happened?)
A while ago I was wondering about randomly determining class and buying equipment for my campaign. I’m using the Labyrinth Lord rules, but when it came to the equipment list, I decided to go use the much simpler Moldvay list with the extremely cheap plate armor (60 gold).
Classes cleric 195 fighter 182 magic-user 177 elf 147 dwarf 136 halfling 96 thief 67 total 1000 Property backpack 1000 iron rations (1 week) 1000 sling 753 pouch of stones (2) 736 long sword 468 chain mail 362 shield 356 dagger (2) 350 leather armor 293 dagger 224 mace 195 spear 137 plate mail 126 silver dagger 123 hand axe (2) 87 pole arm 73 battle axe 71 short bow 32 hand axe 27 pouch of stones 17 quiver of arrows 16 quiver of arrows (2) 16 helmet 4 two handed sword 3
The web application that implements these algorithms will now also generate 50 characters in plain text format (useful for pre-generated characters and non-player parties?) and it will also report some numbers for 1000 randomly generated characters. You can find the output in the sidebar.
The question I’m most interested in is this: How to tweak my equipment buying algorithm in order to generate more natural numbers?
I’ve tweaked my character selection algorithm a bit in response to these numbers and expect to tweak the equipment buying process in a similar vein. For example, since I use Death & Dismemberment tables: If you have very few hit-points and poor armor, buying a helmet might be more important than it is right now! In addition to that, I wonder why my players don’t buy enough slings. The algorithm apparently leads to long swords being very popular. No love for short swords?
I should read through a few pages of random characters to see whether I see any unusual choices made. Did you spot anything strange?
Update: thinking about helmets again—I think that perhaps this reflects how helmets are bought at our table. Practically nobody buys a helmet unless they have money to waste. The current algorithm only buys a helmet for 1 in 216: those who got 180 starting gold. 20 goes for the rations and the backpack, that leaves 160 gold, half of that is for armor (80 gold), which is enough for plate armor (60 gold), shield (10 gold) and a helmet (10). I think that’s ok. I won’t be changing this after all.
Also, lanterns. Practically everybody buys a lantern. I know my characters usually do. I think I’ll leave it as it is.
Recently Mike Evans asked about setting books on Google+. Here’s what I wrote:
I found Rob Conley’s Points of Light 1&2 to be short and concise setting books. They contain regional maps with a key; most things get a paragraph or two. NPCs get name, class, level. It’s very similar to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy but shorter. I have used both at the table and have been very happy. There are free examples available online: Lenap (which is what I got started with) and Southland.
Rob Conley’s Majestic Wilderlands has more house rules, classes and the like which I don’t care for and unusable small maps. This is why I haven’t used it. I usually find that browsing the blogs and reading books gives me cool ideas and make me want to add stuff to the campaign. These things don’t need to be in a setting book.
I’ve used the Forgotten Realms book for D&D 3 as a player to help me write a backstory because I felt the DM enjoyed this kind of thing. The setting book provided names and places galore, so it was very useful to me. As I suspected, however, the backstory itself turned out not to be very useful at the table. This is why the kind of games I like to run don’t need this sort of setting book (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Golarion, Glorantha).
Generally speaking I need much less religion, history and culture background than is usually offered by the big setting books. When I ran the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, for example, I never referred to the Golarion campaign setting book once. Not once! That’s how useless it was at the table. I think it’s useful for people wanting to write interesting backstories to their well-travelled characters, it’s useful to authors wanting to write adventures set in Golarion, it’s useful for the community as a reference point when talking about the game they love. It’s just not as useful at the table.
A while ago Harald posted on Google+ and wasn’t too sure about the system. We had talked about the Solar System RPG before and so I asked him what had made him change his mind. After all, he had done the German translation of the system. Harald turned the question around and asked me instead: Looking back at the game I ran from character generation to transcendence, what had worked well and what had not?
I want to preserve what I said back then on my blog instead of loosing it in the depths of Google+:
Without thinking about it too long, it seems to me that the system is not quirky enough for me. If the rules are too simple, to unified, then results end up being predictable. With results I’m referring to the game experience at the table. With D&D and other traditional systems, it’s hard to figure out how your game play will change. There are weird spells, weird monsters, all of them with little extra rules that cover their specialty. In their totality, the systems are not rules-light, even if some of them such as the old school D&D variants have simple character generation.
I think this is also related to Changing Gameplay Over Time.
I don’t have much D&D 4E experience, but I’ve seen people complain online about the perfect progression of character’s abilities and monster’s abilities. Old versions had asymmetries over time such as attack bonuses growing faster than armor class, save or die effects eventually dominating hit points.
Furthermore, non-quirkiness promotes abstraction. Abstract combat, abstract conflict resolution, and I’m wondering whether as a gamer, I might prefer more grounding. I’ve heard the same argument from other people, too. Sometimes it is also discussed under the label of Dissociated Mechanics. I end up not liking the abstraction of chess and prefer the speculations at the table that come with such questions as “what do you see when invisible people walk through water” or “can the fire reach me around the corner?” If you have quirky rules such as how fireballs work, then you can draw conclusions as to what happens if obstacles block the fireball’s path and use them in play. If the system is very abstract, then we roll first and interpret or explain the result afterwards.
The end result, therefore, is that the game felt a bit blander than before. The story felt like epic high level D&D without all the pain that high level D&D 3.5 would add, but the actual game experience felt blander than the simple Labyrinth Lord games I like to run.
Today we played our second session of Apocalypse World. I think I like it. There were many things about the game I suspected I would not like:
I liked the barter system and the way successes are described. Essentially you can have partial successes and full successes for every “move"—and many of the move descriptions also have a list of four or more items with a partial success meaning “pick one” and a full success meaning “pick three” from the list. That’s awesome.
I think our Indie game night will play Apocalypse World for another one or two sessions before switching to something new. I’m not sure I’d want to play it again, but I’m interested in playing Dungeon World, now.
Today we played My Life With Master in our biweekly Monday system experiments group. I liked it! Things I noticed:
A nice game for one-shot sessions! We created the master, our characters, and ran the game in a three hour session.
I had recently heard about it on Canon Puncture episode 101 featuring My Life With Master. What we played matched what I heard on the podcast. Well done. 😊