The most amazing thing about Dungeon Crawl Classics is it’s community… and two years in, that community has only grown. It seems like every couple months a new zine is being published or a new third-party adventure is being announced or released. My wallet may not love it, but my games do.
One the newest is “Dungeon Lord” and it really hearkens back to the old days when zines were printed by hand, the art and layout were raw and there wasn’t the polished look of a magazine with every publication.
The second issue has just been released and I am anxiously awaiting it’s arrival. In the meantime, they have the first issue still available… re-released as a reprint of the original one which premiered at the Alberquerque Zine Fest… now geared up for play with DCCRPG.
The biggest chunk of this zine, which weighs in at a respectable 24 pages is a level 1-2 DCCRPG dungeon crawl titled “The Caves of the Sacred Seven” and it’s awesome. If you like cavemen, lizard men, mirror dragons and primordial slime, then this adventure is for you. You could plop this down on the Purple Planet, deep in the Shudder Mountains or right up wherever you were “Frozen in Time” and not blink an eye.
It’s also chock-full of awesome in other, little ways: a random elevation table, a blank map you can use and fill-in on the fly, ash spirits, spine rats, mirror dragons, slime yeti’s… there is literally, something for everyone. Also included is another full dungeon titled “The Tomb of Zarfulgar the Lost” which takes the barebones approach and describes the rooms and let’s the GM fill in the blanks.
24 pages of DCC-style goodness for $6? Yes, please!
QUICK REMINDER: If you are new to DCC or have not heard, Goodman Games has a great Kickstarter that is reprinting their one and only rulebook that is ending soon! Check it out today!
While not new to the gaming scene, Campaign Websites, commonly called Campaign Wikis, are electronic resources used to organize and record the details of your tabletop RPG. These aren’t sites you use to play a game, necessarily, but are used to enhance and inform your tabletop game. This is regardless of whether you play that game on a virtual table or a physical one.
Some of these are well known, and have been around for years, while other tools are new to the scene.
Back in 2001, we commonly used Yahoo Groups as a searchable forum for posts, with file storage space and other handy utilities for running a campaign. Since then, more and more specialized tools and sites have emerged to assist the player with their campaign. I recall hearing about Obsidian Portal years ago, and thanks to it’s kickstarter success, has kicked off with a new a professional look and added functionality and features. Also out there are sites like Epic Words, and Google Sites, with templates specific to certain types of campaigns.
Last year I ran a game off of a Google Sites page (Paizo’s Reign of Winter), with positives and negatives. I’ll get into some of those, but also list some functions that you should be aware exist in these sorts of pages and services, as well as a few pitfalls.
GAME JOURNAL – Every Site has a forum or system where posts can be made documenting the history of the game. Not all sites have a system that is easily searchable. Games, especially long running and high level games, tend to have a lot of data. Longer games can have numerous characters and epic stories. Locations, NPC’s, items of note, and other facts can be lost with the passing of time. While summaries are helpful, unless they are easily searchable, they be useless for rebuilding stories or facts related to specific items or individuals. Obsidian Portal allows for these to be listed prominently, with pages capable of being rearranged by the play date. Added functionality includes allowing for only certain players to view certain posts, adding GM notes regarding the session that only the GM can see, and selecting who is notified of updates to the page. Google sites allows for pages and posts to be made freely, but are not as fine tuned as to how these appear, requiring more fiddling to get things to appear as you’d like them to.
Obsidian Portal, and perhaps other sites as well, allow linking from one page to another Wiki that can be repeatedly updated. Accordingly, a diligent GM or poster can continue to update either their character or the NPC entry or item entry for a page, linking that data and consolidating the narrative. Embedding of images and other media files is an added feature.
INVENTORY LOG – Inventory management, shared resource tracking, and other minutia can be important for a story, especially if you like that type of a game where the details matter. Shared ability to access those details and perhaps modify them can be important. Google Sites has a nice feature for tracking items, but it can definitely be tedious to enter it all. Obsidian allows a character sheet to be updated, and of course any page could have any listed data you wanted to, but nothing special seems to exist to allow for detailed tracking.
Anecdotally, I recall the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth requiring a trek through icy mountains. An avalanche forced us to lose several mules, and our detail oriented rogue had our survival gear written on individual notecards for each mule. While this level of detail can be irritating to some, the player loved the nitty-gritty and was delighted to have it pan out as relevant and somewhat helpful (as the DM was ready to totally screw us over).
CALENDAR – This is really a must-have for many groups, especially mine. I’m not sure if your situation is different, but I don’t know anyone who has a 9 to 5 job Monday through Friday anymore. Accordingly, our weekly game alternates between a group of regulars and a steady group of one shot or two shot players that jump in and out as necessary. A well-kept calendar is a treat. Google Calendar is used by many, though I believe it does require a google account, which pretty much includes everyone anywhere. Obsidian Portal has a calendar as well, and sends emails at the direction of the event lister, with confirmation buttons sent for attendees at intervals directed upon creation. Note that this a pay-only feature for Obsidian Portal users.
CHARACTER PAGES – While these are available on all sites, I would say that they are important, but manage to universally be difficult to use. Ideally, a player would track his own character, take a picture of the sheet, and post it to the site, which is theoretically possible with most sites out there. More often, there is an artificial character sheet generator that is not used outside of the page itself, that requires meticulous data entry. Obsidian Portal’s character sheet is fan-created, and is a bit buggy. Save early and save often as you enter data into the odd fields available to you. Google sites uses a spreadsheet, which has its own pros and cons. No less than awkward method of entry really exists. Character pages are important, however. Many times NPC or PC stat’s need to be checked, or a player leaves a sheet behind. It gives the GM a chance to see how players are developing without obviously or surreptitiously looking over character sheets, and gauge challenges accordingly. At its most cynical, it allows transparency that discourages cheating and catches faulty or erroneous builds that might misinterpret or improperly exploit rules.
FORUMS – Good in-character and out of character forums are important. This was perhaps Google Site’s biggest failing and not because they didn’t allow the ability to create as many forums as you wanted. The problem commonly encountered here was the ‘most recent post first’ posting style that was, inexplicably, unchangeable. Accordingly, if you wanted to read the flow of events, you had to read from the bottom to the top. While threaded, it seemed that frustration and cross talk was constant, and I could never really get over it.
Back in the Living Greyhawk days, a player created a fictional Tavern called “The Goose Nest” located in the Gran March, in which we posted our various living campaign PC’s. The characters were able to interact in a way that could never have consistently happened in face-to-face gaming due to the way we interacted with different folks from different locations, as well as characters being separated by level to such a degree they could never adventure together. The original player occasionally would put a plot device in to facilitate conversation.
Of course, out-of-character play is just as important for planning purposes, discussion of facts that might just take too long or be too convoluted to be carried out in character, and also for just sharing information like cat videos and recipes. Logistics, who’s bringing soda, and other critical issues of gaming life need a common forum.
IMAGES & MAPS – All systems appear to have a raw upload capacity for images, though an image bank is not exactly what is contemplated by any system. Having access to town an area maps, however, can cut down on a lot of confusion, and images (especially embedded images within, say, an NPC’s character stat block) can really bring together the way a PC or NPC is perceived.
COSTS – Google Sites – Free; Obsidian Portal – Basic = Free, Premium $39.99/yr. (GM only req’d). Epic Words = $12/yr
Lots of the functions for these three sites are the same. The key difference is one of quality, and as with most discussions of quality, the value is in the eye of the beholder. I will say that Google Sites is free, and so you can’t complain about the amazing value they convey there. They have all the key areas covered, many in a way that you probably already have the systems at work in your day-to-day. The downside there is that the programming, navigation, and functionality can be frustrating and difficult, with weird glitches occurring somewhat regularly. The database is largely very flexible, but all images and information will have to be entered by the user and managed at their peril.
I, admittedly, do not have an Epic Words account. My tinkering with it have shown it to be less finished than Obsidian Portal, but at an understandably lower price. From what I’ve seen, the quality of what’s available wouldn’t create a strong urge to forego the free service of Google.
Obsidian Portal is pricey. I can swing $40/year, and have done so as an experiment, but that price may make many GM’s eyes water a bit for something they can duplicate or just do without. For those willing to send $4/month, it’s by far the most user friendly. WIth an image bank of backgrounds, ability to change names, headings, colors and images, it doesn’t get much easier. People with the time, knowledge and inclination may find other sites bend to their will easier, but for those who want to get it done, OP is pretty hard to beat. I remain unimpressed with the character sheet options, which is a universal failing for these types of sites, but have enjoyed being able to easily surf the site without multiple glitches or misplacements of my data.
THE UNIVERSAL CATCH
As with all things in gaming, it all comes down to time. These sites are handy, but only if you keep them up to date, and only if they are used. In a longer campaign, players and the GM themselves may wish to access the wiki to see what a certain NPC’s name was, or what the story was in regard to a particular event. But someone has to enter that data, and one would hope that at some point the players or others would read it.
Many hands make the work light. In my Reign of Winter campaign, a player took on the inventory management, which was detailed and voluminous. He later undertook a series of published journals, written in character, which was truly magnificent. Eventually, the toll of such work caused him to get behind, then to stop entirely, leaving the final ten entries unfinished.
In my current campaign, playing catch-up has eaten up many hours of my time, but occasionally has been worth it for the sheer volume of information management. Some players have been reluctant to participate, but I think those who have appreciate the information that’s posted there, and certainly enjoy the development of plot and story during longer breaks in the campaign where scheduling becomes a problem.
It’s something that a GM has to own, and to evaluate whether they have the time (and indeed the need) to follow-up with it. Further, the GM and his players should discuss whether it is in fact desirable or necessary to pursue, either in whole or in part. I, however, think that for longer games, the necessity of such a bookkeeping device is increasingly required to maintain the quality of game I like to play, that being one with numerous rich NPC personages, mysterious items, places, maps, handouts, logs, journal entries, and locales that are best understood when capable of being reviewed at the player’s leisure.
All of these are either free, or have a temporary free option. Try one on for size and see if it might not help your next campaign.
I made my regular trip to our outstanding Friendly Local Gaming Store the Wyvern’s Tale on Friday, when a little display caught my eye. There was a small box of games the size of a pack of gum, eight in total, with various themes and play mechanics. The marketing is clever as each game has a 3-letter title, and the dimensions really are about the size of a 5-stick pack of Juicy Fruit, Big Red, or Spearmint gum. I snapped them all up immediately, as they all looked pretty appealing and it was hard to tell exactly what they were about, given the limited amount of space on the box. They make good use of it though as each box tells you how many players can play, the skill level (1 casual, 2 intermediate, or 3 challenging), and how much time is required for an average game (usually 10-30 minutes). Originally a kickstarter, this was one gaming project that flew under my radar. I’m glad they made their goal!
Each game includes a number of cards about the size of a stick of gum, and some compact instructions. The mechanics they use vary widely, and show some serious creative design. Wisely, the instructions point you to instructional videos to show you how to play each game fairly quickly. We haven’t had a chance to play them all yet, but I would encourage you to check out SHH, which challenges players to cooperatively spell out words using all the letters in the alphabet only once! A perfect score is 26! The cards are really quite attractive and illustrate each letter with a picture of something that starts with the word (D for Dog, U for Umbrella etc.).
HUE uses multi-colored cards to create fields of color that players try and connect to form continuous areas of that color. The last card in your hand is your score card, and you only count up the fields of color that are on that last card. Play may include covering one third of a card previously played, allowing for a good deal of strategy for this one. Not to mention you have to save a card that has the colors you want in order to score at the end!
FLY is a dexterity game that is pretty unique. the cards are arranged next to each other to form a gingham table cloth like a classic picnic. On the “table” are several flies that have symbols and colors on their back. Players take turns dropping the swatter card from a height determined by putting the sky card in the end of the game box. If you completely cover the fly with your swatter, you keep that card and try to form sets of three of the same color or symbol.
LIE is basically liars dice, but the unique twist is there is a die on either end of the card. When you are dealt your hand, you can choose which end to use at the beginning of the betting phase. This allows you to either stack your hand with a lot of a certain number, or pick various numbers to have a variety.
We haven’t tried the more challenging games of TAJ and GEM, which involve bidding and quite a bit of strategy. TKO is a really cool 2 player boxing game, and BUS uses the unique card dimensions as roads to form a city in which you pick up passengers on your bus. All of these games are fantastically creative and demonstrate a wide variety of skills and mechanics. I would recommend checking out the videos to see which ones appeal to you.
These games pack a whole lot of fun into a small package. If you are looking for compact games you can pack for your con bag and play in line while waiting for a panel or game to open up, these would be excellent candidates. Similarly, you can throw them in a purse or pocket and break them out at a bar or restaurant while waiting for other friends to show up, or as a quick game before everyone arrives for a weekly game night. Each game sells for $6, and the website will sell the whole collection as well as a carrying case for $50. Highly recommended.
My first exposure to horror role-playing was a write-up in Dragon Magazine back in the early 90’s. The review was for Chaosium’s newest edition of Call of Cthulhu. The author described characters “having the life-span of gnats” which I found intriguing, so I learned about Lovecraft in a sort of backwards kind of way. Call of Cthulhu first, then the books.
Running my first game was surprisingly successful, but that had almost nothing to do with me. We were in my friend’s old decrepit house in a bad part of town. It was midnight, his folks nowhere to be seen, and the place was known to have rats that would occasionally make an appearance in the wee hours. It was a good place to try our first horror RPG, though we had more to worry about from real life threats than from Nyarlathotep.
Some players were into the historical element of Cthulhu, set in the 1920’s, and some into the general adventure, but all in a way that was no more engaged than any other RPG, meaning there was chatter, snacking, and thumbing through magazines mixed in with our gaming. As a clawing came from the other side of a boarded up window in our game, I reached down and scratched at the bottom of the table, so that my players couldn’t see what I was doing, but heard the noise. Suddenly, everyone was alert, and nervous! Magazines were set aside, snacks back on the table. One player started sweating. Steve went to check the locks on the door. I was amazed at how that focused the game and brought suspense to the table. The game was a success, and largely because of this small thing that made the game more present.
I cannot claim to be a master of horror role-playing, and would love to see the input of our fans on this particular issue, but I have learned to pick up a few things since those first days
- Know your rules or be prepared to fake it – Nothing will limit the impact of a creepy situation like stopping the momentum and looking up the rules of the game, or fumbling documents and stats. It’s just good storytelling to be able to keep the game flowing. Any time the players can separate themselves from the events or what’s going on with their character, you lose the feel that is so important to the success of this specific genre of game. Better to take your best guess and roll with it.
- Know your adventure – This goes somewhat to fumbling, but players in a horror game will go in directions you probably won’t see coming because in some ways, many horror stories have been considered by players before, and a pragmatic, unheroic response to those scenarios might be the one the player chooses. Characters in these games are often everyday kinds of people, and everyday people aren’t heroic all the time. Knowing your adventure will help you to be able to respond more freely and improvise more quickly when players go in unexpected directions.
- Props – Any Call of Cthulhu fan will know that props are key items that are really emphasized in a number of Chaosium materials, like their award winning Horror on the Orient Express box set.. These are part of breaking the wall and bringing the characters and players into the world of the horrific events. But, moreover, these games are usually not combat games. These are games that reward thinking, deduction, and observation. The combat character, if there even is one, is usually the dead weight. Props allow the player to focus on details, and enjoy the gathering of information beyond the rolling of dice to determine success or failure.
- Access the senses – Many games can rely on the verbal imagery to convey the message and be enjoyed, but in eliciting a more visceral response to a game, deviating from the expected can place that player on the edge of their seat. My simple example of the unexplained scratching noises is one, but using lighting effects (like lighting your room with just a candle for parts of your story where the characters travel in darkness), or apps with sound effects such as Syrinscape might bring a new level of engagement to your game. By way of a great example, our GM played this for us when we tried out Fantasy Flight’s End of the World system. I have never been more haunted and focused than after hearing this message.
- Music – Good music can really shift the feeling in a game, especially if coordinated well. It may be necessary to groom your playlists. I’ve been using a playlist from Spotify, wherein some particularly good Lovecraftian mixes, but a ‘Creepy’ play list might be just what the doctor ordered for your highly creepy campaigns.
- Go with what creeps you out – I know what makes my skin crawl. I try to access that part of my mind when running these games, then leak bits and pieces. Not everything has to make sense or be explained, but avoid contradictions or red herrings. Little things can be the most haunting: Exploring the suspects home to find a personal item from the investigator’s bedroom or a lock of their hair; a glimpse of someone watching the investigator and the discovery of a lengthy surveillance (cigarette butts in the yard, photographs, etc.); dead animals appearing in their yard inexplicably; phone calls with quiet breathing on the other end.
- Less is more: A great GM once said “Things are always scarier when you keep them behind the curtain, just giving a little peek or a hint as to what lies beyond. Show them the monster in the light of day, and it’s just a guy in a rubber suit.” You’re always better to keep things out of the direct line of sight if at all possible. If at the last moment they have to see the guy in the suit to wrap it up, so be it, but if your players are finally relieved to see Cthulhu’s face, then it’s Mission Accomplished as a GM..
Finally, realize that horror role playing is not for every type of group. It may not be the kind of game you can play with your dungeon crawling axe-potato group of murder hobos. But, with the right group, you can access all that is rewarding about the horror genre. While these tips are helpful, there are probably numerous tips our readers could share, or great stories to be told. I invite those of you who do to share them with us, and let us know what keeps you up at night from your favorite horror RPG.