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Converting 1e old school adventures to DCCRPG

July 2, 2013 Comments off
From Dungeons of Dread

From Dungeons of Dread

With the re-release of so much classic material from Wizards of the Coast like Dungeons of Dread S1-S4 and Against the Slave Lords A0-A4, as well as all the PDFs on DnDclassics.com it has never been easier to try your hand at classic adventures that helped establish the game and the hobby. My one issue with playing the classics is having to deal with all the quirks of 1e AD&D. I’d rather not have to deal with separate saves for Petrification, Spells, Wands, etc., descending AC, THAC0, and the like. It is no secret I’m a big fan of Dungeon Crawl Classics, which I feel combines the best of old school style with the benefit of picking and choosing the best mechanics of all the versions of D&D from the past 40 years.

My current mission is to convert S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth for DCC levels 4-5. I listened to the recent Spellburn Podcast (which you should definitely check out if you like DCC) and they mentioned that roughly 1 DCC level equals about 2 AD&D levels. Thus, with the original adventure for character levels 6-10, I think it should be a good match. My plan is to have the players start at 4th level, then level up to 5th when (if?) they reach the lower caverns. I also plan on having them start out with one +1 and one +2 item. Whether that item is a weapon/staff or armor is up to the player.

I can’t wait to use the very cool magic item creation tables in DCC for both wizard staffs and magic swords. To quote from the DCC RPG book for those unfamiliar, “There is no such thing as a ‘generic’ magic item. All magic items are unique.” When creating a magic item, you roll on a bunch of tables to determine its intelligence, alignment, motivations, banes, and special powers! I’ll also encourage the players to name their weapons and either create or roll back-stories (yes, there is a table for that) as to how they were created and previous owners, etc.

Here is a sample sword: Neutral Long Sword +2, Int 11, Empathic, 3 banes (Serpent – festering wound +1d6 dmg, +1d4 dmg next round, Undead – +1 Crit threat range, Giant – Unerring throw, can be thrown 60′, returns to hand, regular melee dmg) , Special purposes – bring balance to a specific place – Live alone as a warrior-hermit, sheds light 20′ at-will, detects gems within 30′. Now THAT is a magic sword!

I think most monster and save conversion will be fairly easy. For converting descending ACs to ascending, I plan on subtracting 20 from the current AC and making the result positive, i.e. AC 4 becomes AC 16 (4-20= -16). Most saves seem somewhat arbitrary in AD&D (Ah yes, a rockslide. Save vs…..SPELL!?!) So for those I’ll just use what has become common practice in 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e: Poison vs. Fortitude, Charm/Sleep vs. Will, Lightening/Fire vs. Reflex.

I can’t imagine how this was a tournament module, as the scope just seems daunting to try and accomplish in even an all-day session. For publication, Gary added a very detailed and sprawling wilderness section that was not included at the original Con version, but even still, he does advise this will “likely take several gaming sessions.” It will be a few weeks before we gather our band of treasure seekers and take a delve. Be sure and check back to see how it went!

Categories: Adventure, DCCRPG, DnD, Epic, Lore, Retro, RPGs, Tips

The Art of Fail – What to do when games go bad

May 28, 2013 Comments off

Roper_for_Total_Party_Kill_by_GreenAirplane

Occasionally, a game takes a turn for the worst.

A few months ago, I ran a session of “Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk” for a group, and in the module the Deck of Many Things makes an appearance. The Deck has a reputation for danger, dealing fortune and misfortune indiscriminately, but it’s one of those items that my group has come to eagerly anticipate in a long campaign. Five draws later, we had two characters in the Donjon (trapped in an otherworldly prison) and one character in the Void (reduced to a mindless automaton). Needless to say, it threw a monkey-wrench into our game, and was discouraging to a few players.

Donjon

That’s one type of problem, and we fixed it. I’ll go into how in a minute.

It comes to mind this week because we recently had an incident in our Pathfinder Skull & Shackles game that put us in a similar bind. Our unoptimized party staggered into an encounter grossly underestimating the power and skill of our adversaries, and coupled with some cold dice and optimized villains (common in a Paizo product at higher levels), we were nearly killed to a man. Fortunately we stopped the action due to the late hour, and talked about what needed to happen next. Unfortunately, however, some of the votes as to what needed to happen next were to throw in the towel on the entire campaign.

That’s a different type of problem, and an infinitely more complex one. Perhaps most frustratingly, our issue in Skull & Shackles seems to be that our characters, despite our best efforts, are either not optimized enough to face the anticipated challenges of the modules, or our method of playing them does not rise to the anticipated levels of skill anticipated by the module designer. An architectural problem like that takes some work, but that’s not the only problem.

Long campaigns have a number of difficulties associated with them. I’ve never finished a Pathfinder Adventure Path in less than a year, with one of them lasting over 3 years, and that’s a long time to do anything. There is potential for burnout on your character, on the campaign itself, and sometimes your group. High Level play has a slew of issues that are problematic. So what to do? GM’s and Players both play a role in sorting these things out, but each issue lends itself to different solutions. Let’s take a look issue by issue.

Multiple Character Death

This is sure to put a damper on your campaign fun: Two or Three of your beloved heroes die (maybe permanently) meaning your champions are severely humbled, or maybe your entire cast and party dynamic are rewritten. Both player and GM have a role to play here. Players need to evaluate first whether raise dead / resurrection is the route to go, or if there is a persuasive reason to bring in another character. Death during play is definitely a part of the life of an adventurer, and is part of the process of paying your dues. However, if you can bring in a character that adds to the story or brings balance to the party, and the change isn’t disruptive to play, gauge whether this is your moment. If you don’t have a choice in the matter, is there a way to make a new character that complements the old? Is there an NPC already encountered that would make a fun PC? While there’s little you can do if resurrection or raise dead aren’t on the table, conspire with your GM a little to see what other solutions might be possible that would make for an interesting return or cunning plot development.

In the end, more power lies in the GM’s hands where deaths are concerned. If you’ve killed half the party, either someone got incredibly (un)lucky, or you’ve misgauged the power of your encounters relative to your group. While bad decisions on the player’s part certainly merits the occasional ass-whooping, there is the enjoyability and continued longevity of the campaign to consider. As things turn towards TPK in a long term campaign, the GM’s Toolkit includes pulling back on the optimized use of some abilities: tossing a magic missile when a fireball may dish out 10d6 of campaign ending fury, commanding a charmed PC to attack an ally knowing full well he’ll get that badly needed second save, opting for subdual damage. etc. If it’s too late for that, a dropped PC can be raised or healed by the villains to extract information, letting the play continue and granting an opportunity for the PC’s to salvage the situation.

If there’s no room for resurrection, there’s the occasional wish or divine intervention, opportunities for which might be accrued during play over time to be used at just the right moment. In the case of our Deck of Many Things debacle, we actually played a session where a team of specialists went to free the souls of the trapped card-drawers, making for a fun offbeat extraplanar session that gave players a chance to mix it up with a different PC for 8 hours, and fun was had by all. The nice thing about a fantasy setting is that nothing is impossible with the right factors. A quest to get the item that will allow a resurrection is one good idea away, and may make for an interesting adventure in itself.

Character Burnout

You’ve been playing this damn cleric for 79 sessions and if you cast one more Cure Light Wounds spell you’re going to eat your rulebook. While largely a player problem, this is something your GM can help with, too.

Good character design should help to eliminate the onset of ‘Character Fatigue’ – Motivation, Backstory, Goal Setting all give you a roundness that should transcend function. However, especially with support characters, your most effective routines may be the least interesting. Check with your party and see if there can be some give in how roles are played out. Sometimes a few wands or scrolls can free up spell slots to let you take on the role you’re looking for. Depending on your level, there may be time to multi-class, changing you into the character you want to be.

A GM can help this situation a couple different ways. Work with the player to see what they want out of the game, and shape it to meet their needs. Indulge some of their campaign goals, or thrust them into situations where they are in the spotlight, creating unique opportunities.

Character retirement is always an option, and the GM should be able to create an opportunity to phase out one character while creating a compelling reason to feel attached or trusting towards the new PC (or maybe not so trusting, if your game is a little more sinister).

Campaign Burnout

In any adventure path or long running campaign, this danger is one of the most prevalent. Time passes in game and in real life, and the theme of a certain game can grow tired. Individual modules in a series can linger over frustrating details or hair-pulling monotony in many instances, or just a series of frustrations that make continued play feel unrewarding.

Players can attempt to turn the adventure in a way that is more pleasing to them, but this has very limited utility if the GM is not on board. GM’s, of course, have significant influence on this issue, and need to use their discretion to manipulate the campaign to meet the needs of the players. Ideally, this is done without overly telegraphing the modifications. However, if a particular dungeon crawl is literally crawling then removing or hand-waving a few encounters that don’t progress the plot will not usually be lamented by your frustrated players, obvious or not. Sometimes introduction of another element, such as a rival adventuring party, or some sort of internal dispute amongst your antagonists, can create an interesting way of clearing obstacles or adversaries in the path of your party and get them to the epic finale or wherever they may be heading while creating tension in the process.

I have very rarely had a party complain that something is too easy, but make things too difficult and they’ll tell you. There’s a fine line between challenge and frustration and the GM needs to make sure that the party feels like heroes most of the time and that the story keeps moving. Published scenarios should be used as suggestions, and as soon as the party gets bogged down in them, hustle to the next scene change, or take a pleasant detour into something you know they’ll like, to give them the fresh air they’ll need for another dive into peril.

Group Burnout

This is bad. If you’ve been playing with the gamers at this campaign for a while, either something outside of the game is interfering with the way friends play together, or worse, the way the game is getting played is making people rub each other the wrong way. Sometimes sitting down to an extended campaign can create a meeting of people that don’t know each other that well, and force them to meet repeatedly for 4 hours a week for years. While it is my belief that gaming can bring many types of people together (that being one of the things that is amazing about it), it sometimes does bring people together that just can’t click.

Players need to try to work out differences between each other, communicating their frustrations. Sometimes this is best done through a third party that can play peacekeeper and keep things from getting too confrontational during a session. The GM holds some responsibility to keep the peace and play referee, but sometimes your GM might be your problem.

With any relationship, communication is key, and identifying the grievance clearly and getting it behind you should be your first step. But, if you’ve aired your grievance and the other party can’t or won’t change their ways, make your excuses and cut bait. Don’t sit frustrated or mopey at a table and poison everyone else’s good time. If everyone shares the frustration regarding the single player, GM’s got to be the one to man up and diplomatically give the guy a last chance to shape up or ship out. The Jackass Rule states, “If one person calls you a jackass, ignore them. If ten people call you a jackass, get a saddle”.

If you’re the problem, don’t get defensive. Review your Gaming Ten Commandments. Take it on faith that you are representing yourself in a way that is making you come off negatively, and proceed with awareness that this is what your fellow player or players think, knowing you need to control yourself. You are not the first socially awkward gamer. I promise.

High-Level Play Sucks

Yes. Yes, it does. That doesn’t mean it has to, but you are going to find a lot of frustrations in high level play if you are not ready for it. First, you need to know your character and how it works. Secondly, you’re going to need to spend some time prepping for each game to make sure you know what you’re doing and how to do it. Third, you’re going to need to mark your pages or bookmark your pdf’s for common complex rules issues you know you’re going to run into: if you have an ability that grapples opponents, get your grapple rules ready, marked and reviewed; be familiar with the conditions you impose through your spells and know what spells your going to cast; if you have equipment purchases you want made, email the GM ahead of time to let them know what you want and update your character sheet as soon as you get the okay; get any sorts of buffs or powers outlined. In general, know how to play the game you’re playing and if you don’t know, read the rules.

GM’s suffer greatly under the yoke of high level play. You’re responsible for everything, and theoretically need to know what the players can do as well as all your monsters, traps, and so on. It’s a heavy burden, but one you can bear with the right prep and the right attitude. First, read your printed material if you’re using a module. Paizo has good message boards regarding it’s published material and they might address errata or other questions other GM’s might have had with your specific module. Look up strange powers in the bestiary and make sure you know how things work on your side of the screen.

Since you’re dealing with the same players over and over, it also would pay to read over the classes they’re bringing to the table if there is something they’re doing that confuses you. Sometimes you’ll find they’re mixed up about something and it may speed up game play if you both know how the power is supposed to function.

However, if you get down to the wire and are playing and you hit a complex rules snag, and you’re getting player burnout due to high-level play rules? Dump it. Make a call, and err on the side of player success: They will bitch to high heaven in you kill them through some sort of blown rules call, but few will make a peep at an error in their favor. Ties go to the runner. This works because it makes for a better story when the good guys win, and keeping play moving at high levels is key.

What Else?

There are plenty of other frustrations that can kill a campaign, but GM’s and Players alike need to maintain the polestar of Commandment 10 – Thou Shalt Have Fun. Make sure your fellow gamers are having fun with the campaign and that you’re not having fun at their expense. GM’s, make sure your players are enjoying themselves rather than maintaining the rubric of the module at the expense of their enjoyment. And finally, if worst comes to worst, find a good stopping point, set the module aside for a while, and pull out an old favorite or something new and give it a spin around the block for a while. If you come back to it, great. If you don’t, then at least you’re having a good time moving on to the next adventure.

We won D&D

April 13, 2012 3 comments

I forgot to mention we totally killed Tiamat the other day. I got a little too excited about DCCRPG. I’ve been playing the Scales of War 4e adventure path for about two years now, and on Monday we completed it. PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD. The last module was an assault on Tiamat’s fortress, complete with slaying pregnant brood mother dragons on our quest to confront her in her scrying chamber.

At this point we had been through 20 levels together. We started at 10th, and playing consistently almost every week, it still took us more than two years to reach level 30. After the final battle we talked about all the characters and climactic and memorable battles we had throughout the campaign. Unfortunately, I felt the actual battle with Tiamat wasn’t one of them. This was no fault of our excellent DM, but mostly the fault of epic play being ridiculous. By the time we reached 30th level, we were so powerful it was pretty much impossible to threaten us. Many of us had chosen powers that would allow us to come back if we were dropped to zero hit-points. I don’t think any of us had to use them. Ever.

Don’t get me wrong, we had some great times. Honestly, I probably built it up too much in my head. Despite that, there are some questions that remain: Previously, Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon, Lord of Justice and everything Good, had been slain. Luckily, we were traveling with this girl, that happened to be his phylactery/horcrux, so we were able to resurrect Bahamut. What prevents Tiamat from having something similar, and furthermore, wouldn’t she need to come back to preserve the balance? There was a bit of box text explaining how greed had been extinguished from the world, but if that was true, wouldn’t the world turn in to some hippy-dippy commune? I mean, a lot of greed is bad, but it can be a motivator, and is certainly an agent of change. It seemed a bit anti-climactic, at what should have been the most climactic event ever. Also, there was this big concern when Bahamut was slain that the balance of power was all out of wack. No mention of that when we defeated the Queen of Darkness. At the same time, how do you wrap up a muli-year campaign and make it a satisfying ending? Here is what I would have done:

“With the final head taking it’s last shuddering breath, the massive five-headed form of the Goddess of Greed collapses. In a shimmer of black fire, the huge carcass burned away to reveal the crumpled form of a bruised and bloodied raven-haired woman. In a shimmer of radiance, Bahamut, in the form of a wizened old man in white robes steps through one of the scrying portals. He smiles kindly at the heroes as he stoops to pick up the battered form of Tiamat. ‘Dear, dear sister. We can finally be together again.’

In a blinding prismatic flash of color, the forms merge and grow into a dragon that looks as if it was made of starlight, it’s skin a swirling mass of ever-shifting colors. ‘I am Io, the beginning, the end, the all. You have done well in reuniting my spirit. I shall guard the balance of creation henceforth. If you wish, you may join me at my side as my exarchs. Thank you for what you have done. You have earned a well deserved rest. However, there is much to be done to maintain the balance. Will you join me?”

Bam. Epic.

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Epic Tags: ,

Balancing Epic Scales

February 21, 2012 3 comments

http://images.wikia.com/dragons/images/9/9a/Tiamat.pngLast night was another Scales of War session. We’re wrapping up the penultimate module, and while we started at level 10, getting to level 28 has taken more than 2 years of pretty regular gaming. Monte’s recent article and the Weem’s recent post were perfectly timed, as I had them fresh on the brain while playing last night.

As I’ve mentioned here before, playing Epic 4e takes not only an Epic GM, but Epic players who know their PCs cold. Most of our character sheets are somewhere in the range of 10-14 pages, and we don’t even currently have a wizard in the party. That spell book eats paper like no other type of character. There are a number of challenges when playing at high levels for both the DM and PCs.

One of the main ones is encounter balance. It is extremely hard to challenge a well-built epic party. At the beginning of the session last night, we had to figure out if we had just completed an extended rest last session, because several of the party members weren’t down any surges, and weren’t hurt. Not a scratch. Turns out we had been through at least one fight, as some of the guys had used surges, but with the ability to slough off even the most debilitating effects and defenses in the mid to high 40s (my warlord has a fortitude of 53), its very difficult to challenge the party. In the module we are currently playing we encountered an ancient black dragon… as a wandering monster. In a regular game that would be the ultimate encounter and any of the party would be lucky to survive. Using party synergies and team work developed over the last few years of play, we spanked him like a misbehaving wyrmling.

A lot of great ways to counter this and make it challenging using 4e mechanics are detailed in Sly Flourish’s Running Epic Tier D&D Games. One of the best points in there, and one used to great effect in the last fight of the evening, is that big enemies should have auras of vulnerability. Some of the minions were only  doing 10 damage a hit, which at epic level is next to nothing, but then when we stepped up to the big bad, and were vulnerable 25 fire, suddenly the minions were doing 35 a hit; Not insignificant, even at level 28.

We are approaching the ultimate battle with Tiamat herself. It looks to be the very epitome of epic play for 4e. Of course, once we defeat her (and we *will* defeat her), won’t the balance of good and evil be thrown out of wack and cause a dragonlance-like cataclysm? We’ll see.

In the end though, I think I was hoping for something more. Sure, we’re rolling a big pile of dice for any major attack, and my head-math skills have improved appreciably because of it, but shouldn’t our near god-like heroes be something more than just bigger numbers? We’ve got enough feats to allow us to break every rule in the book (Flanking? No I don’t grant combat advantage. Oh he’s got cover? Great! I’m more accurate if they have cover than not.) So why have those puny ‘mortal’ rules at all? I think the Weem has got the right idea. If you stick with it long enough, your hero should ascend to the heights of a pantheon, and when he does, a lot more than the size of the numbers should change.

Categories: 4e, 5e, Adventure, DnD, Epic, RPGs, Tips

Foreshadowing and Storytelling – Going Epic – 4 of 4

January 30, 2012 Comments off

So now, we’ve got all the pieces in play:  We’ve got well-rounded characters and well-rounded villains; we’ve got a series of goals for villains and players alike that intersect at all appropriate points while incorporating other PC’s; we’ve got these coming together in a story arc that melts seamlessly into a series of diverse adventures that take the party members from peons to legends; finally, along the way, we’ve made sure that the villain and his lieutenants will have survived long enough and been sufficiently nasty to warrant true and epic hatred.  A few tips for laying out the path and coming to a close, and we’ll have built a game that can be truly called epic. It comes down to Storytelling (which is the subtle art of distributing information in a way that is pleasing to others, by my definition).

Perhaps one of the biggest temptations for myself in telling my epic campaign story was to tip my hand. Many of you may have players that seem to bull’s-eye your plot twists and turns before they’re even out of your mouth. Other players might require neon signs and a leaflet to figure out what’s going on in your campaign… in the end, I offer:

CAST A SHADOW

(but don’t be afraid of the dark)

This is what your 9th grade English teacher was talking about when she was talking about foreshadowing. Leaving appropriate hints as to what’s going on is necessary for your player’s enjoyment of the game.  While you don’t want to spoil any major plot twists, you’ll find that a sudden about-face or surprise ending is only effective if it is consistent with character (per Part 2 and Part 3 of these articles) and something that the players at least had a chance of guessing at.

No one reads a mystery novel that doesn’t at least give some clues as to who done it, even if those are all red herrings.  Trickling these out over time allows the characters to feel like they’re making progress, and that the story is evolving around them.  Dump too much info on them at once (often at the end) and you may find they don’t understand or even care what you’re trying to tell them about.

You may be blessed with players who are so invested in your story as to predict any plot twist you throw at them. Planting minor seeds that may seem meaningless at the time due to their context will allow you as a GM to gloat a bit, but also act as a reference point to your players that your clever conclusion was long time in the coming. In the end, I say “Don’t be afraid of the dark,” because sometimes with clever players or a very simple plot, you may need to throw in a few red herrings or limit a little more information to keep the mystery alive. Players are good at blurting out suspicions, but if you can keep your poker face, they’ll doubt themselves enough to remain in suspense. Make ample use of the phrases like “Interesting theory” “You think so?” and “Uh… what are you talking about?”

Shake your head and smirk. They hate that.

I’ll admit, that sometimes your players will think up ideas that will blow you away. Their story is so much better than yours, and is so much more compelling you wish you had thought of it. My advice is steal it and claim it as your own.  They’ll feel so great about figuring it all out, they’ll never notice your frantic scribbling. Careful though, if you’ve built your game properly, there may be too much reconciliation to achieve to maintain logical consistency. Steal plots with extreme caution.

And finally…

WHEN YOU GET TO THE END, STOP.

When that well nurtured final villain falls at the hand of the heroes, describe their death throes and the general awesomeness of the characters, perhaps throw in an epilogue, and then stop.  Copy or print final versions of all the characters, put them in a binder with your notes, and put it on the shelf.  The following week, play a board game or try a different system, and let the story rest.  Then, if your players just won’t leave you alone, ponder at your leisure whether a mini-arc would be justified to take the characters out of retirement.  Such a mini-arc would have all the principles above, but would consist of a short and sweet adventure with new separate closure.   While not an epic victory, it does keep goals set for both player and GM, and gives you a definite end point to shelve the campaign again.  Come back as often as you need to, but maintain closure as a goal and a satisfying victory as a reward for a game well played.

These tips are far from rocket surgery, but represent lessons I’ve learned from games I ran when I was a kid to games I run now.  More than anything, however, remember that while sometimes an ending can mean saying goodbye to a loved character or dynamic, a story without an ending isn’t much of a story, and there is always that next story just waiting to be told, right around the corner.

I hope you enjoyed our series on the elements of building a truly epic campaign. We’ll put this one on the shelf for now, but we may bring it out of retirement if need be. Here are the links to the previous installments:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Going Epic – 3 of 4

January 27, 2012 1 comment

So yesterday we talked about building history with characters to establish a series of memorable encounters with the antagonists that would fundamentally create a story line.  We further talked about how creating goals for heroes and villains helped to guide the characters and the storyteller with the things they’ve brought to life.  This all pushes us closer to the goal of the epic campaign story.  But how do we take those villains off the page and make them truly memorable.

I have a bit of a knack for creating real bastards as antagonists.  However, the primary villain in the scenario I’ve run are seldom as loathed as the lieutenants and foot-soldiers of the primary antagonist.  And there is nothing more satisfying than to watch your players express genuine rage at a character that might have just been a simple encounter at one point but has grown to something more… in some cases, much more.

In Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords series, the party that I mentioned Tuesday encountered Gogmurt, the goblin druid. After a brief combat, Gogmurt made a bargain with the party to assist them if they would let him go, and almost immediately betrayed them, leading them into an ambush and flying away in the form of a bird. Did the party let it go?  Of course not.  Every spare moment between adventures, they were searching for Gogmurt.  Seeing this excitement over him, Gogmurt proceeded to use his druidic powers to evade capture (which, as it turns out, are amazing for such a purpose).

I knew I had succeeded in creating a true villain for the party when one member of the group said, “I’m not sure how this world saving thing will turn out, but I’m going to kill Gogmurt before this is all over.”  He had surpassed the primary villain in terms of enmity.  But here’s why… it’s an application of Rule #3

NURTURE YOUR VILLAINS

A good villain has some complexity to them.  Few vie for world domination  and can actually back up that play, so I feel like it’s important to take the goals we established for our villains previously, and get inside the mind of your antagonist to build what their response to their own wants and needs are.  Then, throw in a dash of menace, cunning, or just plain evil, and you have a great start for an epic villain.  Normally, once these goals are applied, a heartless twist is all it takes to push the villain from a faceless minion to an enemy of epic proportions.

Want to get their attention fast?  Have your underling kill the party’s horses, murder a few innocents, poison a well, or spit in their porridge.  You’ll be surprised how personally they take it, especially after he gets away a few times.  Taking down one of these sorts of villains can make a great benchmark or mini-goal and sate the players’ appetite for destruction before the endgame.  Just remember to make whatever actions the villain takes very personal to the PC’s.  Not just trying to kill them (anyone can do that)… we want a villain that is trying to get under their skin.

In all this, something I like to do is to keep in mind that most people don’t believe themselves to be evil.  Gogmurt presented himself in the end of our campaign to be a creature defending his home and its clan, and after being killed, the party’s executioner showed some remorse .  Shades of grey make for good roleplaying opportunities as creatures and classes of various backgrounds try to reconcile their broad conceptions of morality.

But perhaps, more importantly, these villains get to tell their story, and we start to see the adventure more like a movie than a game.  We have a glimpse of the cut scenes that reveal the villain’s motivation, and more than a game gets played, a story is told.

Next week, The Journey – Getting from epic construction to epic delivery

Part One

Part Two

Going Epic – Keys to building, playing, and concluding the epic story

January 25, 2012 5 comments

I’ve been gaming for decades now, and though I’ve seen the beginning of many campaigns in that time, I’ve seen very few endings.

As gamers, the start of a new campaign, regardless of system, always holds so much promise, and as GMs, we often plan an adventure or two ahead, with maybe some vague notions for the long term.  A good game is often continued at the behest of the players even after the first story arc is complete, and in my experience, campaigns tend to peter out more than closing in an epic finale.  I think it’s a misstep to approach it that way, and I have some thoughts about campaign planning that might address how to avoid anticlimax.  This week, we’re going to talk about Epic Beginnings, Endings, and getting from one to the other.

This issue is on my mind because a few weeks ago, we finished Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, which we started playing on a weekly basis in early 2008 with both novice and experienced players.  We started with PFRPG’s Alpha playtest rules and ended with the finalized version of the PFRPG.  While we took some time off here and there for different side-games, we played pretty regularly for the past few years, and went through 6 modules in that series, taking the heroes from 1st level goblin killers to 15th level giant-slaying saviors of the free world.

For about half of our players, it was the first time they had a character over 10th level, and certainly the first time they had played a character from 1st straight through to 15th. I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand the number of characters I’ve played straight from 1st to 15th or higher, and for many of our group, it may be the closest they get for a while.

But more than that, as we shelve the campaign with no immediate plans to pick up and run with these characters again, it’s a rare moment of closure in an epic story arc.  So, how do we get to this Epic Finale?  Well, turns out it starts at the beginning.

Beginnings, as it turns out, are easy.  We have different expectations in what makes a good beginning, but the origin story allows us to build without a sense of continuity or history, and there is nowhere to go but up.  Usually at lower levels, game balance and play speed are less of a factor than with higher level play.  As you move towards higher level play, combats can grow in both complexity and duration, and both players and characters can wind up overburdened.

A little planning goes a long way to developing a memorable conclusion to your epic adventure arc, and keep things from stopping short or going beyond the natural life span of the game.  So, our first tip is:

BUILD YOUR ARC (Noah’s Rule)

Okay, so maybe Noah built a different type of ‘Arc’ but the principal remains key: Every epic campaign should have a beginning, middle and end planned from the outset.   A little structure goes a long way in keeping character motivations logical and consistent.  Some folks prefer things to flow more organically, but even a very loose framework with established goals for both GM’s and players will gently urge both towards an epic conclusion and not a meandering whimper.

I’ve played and run in plenty of games where the course of the campaign was mostly influenced by whatever the GM picked up at his FLGS that weekend.  That can still work, as long as you’re careful to integrate personalized connections with the module/scenario, and work in Arc related content in between non sequitur adventures.

With a solid yet adaptable framework in place, you have a pole star to guide your ship by, allowing you to step into the shoes of that villain when your players inevitably trash his well laid plans.  Keeping a logically consistent and flowing story arc will tell a better tale for your players and make your experience truly epic.

Tomorrow, we’ll dig deeper into that idea.  We’d like to hear your thoughts/tips/ideas about what makes a good start for a campaign, and how you build it to last.

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Epic, Lore, Paizo, Pathfinder, RPGs, Tips

4e Extreme – Multiple Epic Solos

January 17, 2012 4 comments

Dispater, courtesy of Troll and Toad

Last night was the last session of my reign as DM for the Scales of War adventure path. We’re rotating every module, which let’s everyone play and not succumb to DM burnout. Epic DMing is certainly a challenge as PCs are so powerful it can be difficult to even threaten them, let alone get close to killing them.

We were approaching the final battle of my module. The four PCs were 26th level and were galavanting all over Bahamut’s temple, clearing out the infestation of devils and trying to find a way to resurrect the slain god. Fairly epic stuff. The party steam-rolled several encounters, but made the mistake of not taking a short rest before they stumbled upon Dispater, one of the Arch-Devils of the nine hells. They cleverly sealed him back in Bahamut’s Vault, but he warned them he would be back.

The party proceeded to the bridge of Al-Sihal, where the the Archangel Zachariel was guarding the entrance to heaven from the mithral dragon Dakranad who wanted to assume Bahamut’s old throne and end the struggle with Tiamat. The PCs were guarding Amyria, a deva who was essentially Bahamut’s horcrux. They needed to defeat the dragon and take the lifespark Dakranad took from Moradin’s forge, and send Amyria into the great beyond with lifespark in hand. OK! Now we’re epic!

The battle was going pretty well for the PCs, as epic party’s tend to ruin solos without much trouble, when guess who showed up to snatch Amyria and take the divine throne for himself? Dispater! Bookending the party between two solos (three really, but Zachariel was neutral as long as you stayed away from him) on a bridge made for an awesome encounter. Had I pressed the issue and had Zachariel jump in, the party would have been in real trouble, but as it was the encounter was awesome enough. Not only that, the party used Zachariel as they slid their enemies close enough that he attacked them. At one point he banished Dispater to a pocket dimension of an acid rain-soaked island. Awesome stuff!

In the end, the party was victorious, and Bahamut was resurrected. Now I get to put my PC hat back on, and try a 27th level warlord! He’s healing two PCs per inspiring word at healing surge + 6d6! The next DM in rotation advised us that we’re going to need it!

If you’re looking to challenge an Epic party, throw the XP budget out the window. See what they *can’t* survive. I haven’t found anything yet. Two solos makes for a fun night!

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Epic, RPGs, Tips Tags:

Talking Your Way Out… Fun? Skills before Kills

January 3, 2012 3 comments

The party has bashed and exploded all the contructs and guardians standing in their way. They chopped off all the heads of the hydra, sent the storm titan back from whence he came, and now it comes to this. The epic champions stare face to face with an aspect of Moradin in the secret soulforge, flanked on either side by massive clockwork juggernauts.

The illusionist starts pulsing with rainbows of energy, the half-orc fighter tests the edge on his legendary great-axe, the barbarian hefts his might maul, and… And?

The artificer convinces the aspect that we’re all on the same side here and none of this violence is really necessary. The aspect agrees and sends you on your way with a bit of advice on where to continue the quest.

While I agree that RPGs should be about options and not just an endless murder-fest, I feel like sometimes talking your way out of fights gets more praise than it should. After the party “defeats” an encounter in this fashion, it can be a refreshing change of pace if you’ve been slogging through endless fights (which can be commonplace in the epic tier) but it doesn’t generally make for the same sense of accomplishment as standing atop a pile of defeated foes.

Last night we had an experience much like the one detailed above in our epic Scales of War campaign. In retrospect, I should have used the tried-and-true comic trope of having the good guys fight the other good guys to a bloody draw before they can convince each other they are on the same side. This probably depends on the group but I’ve found that same players are reluctant to call off combat once those initiative dice hit the mat. Overall, it left me with a bit of a “meh” feeling.

What are your feelings on talking your way out of a fight? Refreshing change of pace? Anti-climactic? Let us know in the comments below!

Epic! – Not Meek or Casual… EPIC

November 29, 2011 Comments off

Courtesy of WotC - Legacy of Io

A fascinating discussion was started over at critical hits over the holiday weekend. Mike Shea, who literally wrote the book on epic play, laments that scaling challenging encounters is much more difficult at the epic tier than it is in heroic. Having just completed another awesome session of my Scales of War campaign, I can understand the concern, but feel it should be looked at in a different light.

Consider the hours and dedication it takes to get a character from level 1 to level 30. Players even entering the epic tier are not going to be casual or new players. If you have the dedication to play at the epic level, its because kobolds, goblins, and orcs have lost their appeal. In our last session of scales of war campaign, we fought a living typhoon elemental that had the seals of three gods on its chest, in the middle of an ocean floor, while the ocean was held back by the typhoon. In the incredible battle that ensued we used party synergies and effective tactics to whittle down the more than 1400 HP beast, smash him open, grab the Arrow of Fate – an artifact that is a piece of Io, the dragon super-god that split into Bahamut and Tiamat at the dawn of time, just before the walls of the sea came crashing down around us. EPIC!

Will battles take longer at level 25 than at level 5? Almost without exception; but that is as it should be. Will it take more prep-time, flexibility, and skills from the DM? Naturally. An epic game needs an epic DM. I recently DMed a low-epic level module that was not properly scaled for our party. The PCs were walking all over every challenge. Some of it was good luck, a lot of it was character optimization, but in the end I feel it falls to the DM to bump up those stats, recharge that encounter power, and add an extra damage die or two. If you’re not up for the challenge for your weekly game, and feel like you have dedicated all the prep time you possibly can, have an awesome time in heroic. In my other group we limited both the dwarven clan, and we plan on limiting the pirates to level 10. Its fun, and not overly-taxing. There may come a time when you as a player, or as a DM want something more. At that point you can join me and my epic-brethren in the Astral Sea. Look for us on the most dangerous planes, in the deadliest locations. We’ll be the ones challenging the gods for rule over all creation!

Categories: 4e, DnD, Epic, RPGs, Tips Tags: , , ,