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The Value of Unplugging

October 10, 2016 Comments off

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So after observing that our kids fight constantly when exposed to a lot of TV and Video games, we decided (okay, my wife decided) there’d be no electronics during the week (with a few very specific exceptions) during the regular school year.

Harsh.

I was waiting for the kids to drive her nuts, and for everyone to then drive me nuts, and for that rule to be abolished and things to go back to normal.  To my surprise, after a day or two there were few complaints. The kids starting fighting less, and started actually “doing” more.  They slept better, got more exercise, and generally seemed less cranky. And best of all, we started spending more time together, with them taking an interest in RPG’s and Board games.

If you’re reading this and you’re a millennial tabletop gamer, I salute you.  The discretion to play role-playing games or board games when you’ve grown up with a plethora of media options was an unlikely one; streaming video, various video game platforms with multiplayer functionality, not to mention cell phone games and apps… it took a lot for you to even care enough to try to play a role-playing or board game where humans had to assemble in person around a table after learning rather complex rules.  If you’re older, you may understand that in the 80’s, when G.I. Joe went off the air for the day at 4:30, there was only the news and later Miami Vice or the A-Team to look forward to.  That downtime needed to be filled with something that wasn’t TV, and there was a limit to how much ATARI you could play before ragequitting.

Hence, in my day, tabletop role-playing games, board games , and war games were what we turned to.  And of course, books, sports, etc.  But on your basic rainy day or evening, we poured over the books and made characters or pulled out Talisman or O.G.R.E and had at it. Unwittingly, my wife has re-created that experience for my kids, and now they’re looking with renewed interest at my hobbies as a way to pass some enjoyable time.

I previously blogged about how my son showed some enjoyment from playing Dungeons & Dragons, but since he’s not quite old enough to be literate, he’s not catapulted into it like I had hoped.  My older daughter is a voracious reader, however, and after finishing Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle books, she’s showing a lot more appreciation for the concepts in fantasy RPG gaming than she ever has previously.

Both, as it turns out, love painting miniatures.

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I’ve had to set some restrictions to make sure they don’t paint things I have plans for, and not everything is a gem, but some are actually quite good, from both the younger one and the older.

Moreover, they’ve both become eager players of board games.  We’ve finally been able to start working through my massive collection of board games, half of which have stayed in the shrink-wrap due to the difficulty finding time with other gamers when we’ve got an RPG schedule that doesn’t allow the time.  Exposure to some of the board games like Wizards of the Coast’s Temple of Elemental Evil has got her interested in a more RPG-like experience.  It’s helpful her friends have read the same books and also enjoy painting miniatures as well (enough to shop for their own figures on reapermini.com).  For better or worse, we may just have a tween girls gaming group in the making.  You can bet I’ll blog about that, should it happen.

The time we’ve spent together has been fun for all of us, and we’re talking and sharing and growing closer as a family when this is going on, which is contrary to the quietude of zoning out in a show or game that doesn’t invite the distraction of conversation.  Of course, you don’t have to unplug to share this time, but you may just find that there’s peace that comes with cutting out those unhealthy distractions and getting back to a simpler time before Netflix.

I got on today to write board game reviews from the new games we have been playing, but realized this was maybe the more important part of the story.  Next week and for hopefully weeks to come, I’ll be sharing more of what we’re playing and how it works with younger players as well.

Campaign Websites – Are they right for you?

November 2, 2015 Comments off

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.

COMMON FEATURES:

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

SUMMARY

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.

Wonderfully Horrible – How to Run Horror RPG

September 14, 2015 1 comment

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Categories: Adventure, Games, Lore

Princes of the Apocalypse Review PLUS Converting the Temple of Elemental Evil: T1 – The Village of Hommlet to 5th Edition

May 11, 2015 3 comments

First, let’s talk about Princes of the Apocalypse:

I picked up Princes of the Apocalypse a few weeks ago, after we had completed the Hommlet section of Temple of Elemental Evil.  In case you weren’t aware, Princes of the Apocalypse is 5th Edition’s campaign for this year, and is not a reboot of the classic module, but derives core ideas and starts a series of entirely new adventures.  They’ve done good work in not respawning the old story, but creating a new story with continuity to the old.

The philosophy is that Elemental Evil is something that transcends existence, touching down on various worlds through sheer force of will, infecting different communities with its blight.  Ergo, Greyhawk is one of the first places to suffer its wrath, but this time it has found the Forgotten Realms.   I can buy that, despite my intense love for  Greyhawk .

Fortunately, they have a simple and clever conversion guide showing how to place the new events of the Princes of the Apocalypse in Greyhawk, Eberron, Athas, and other worlds.  They translate factions to local entities, making the Harpers equate to the Circle of Eight, the Zhentarim to the Greyhawk Thieves Guild, and so on.

I love the old Temple of Elemental Evil, but as my group stares down the barrel of its 300 room dungeon, I am reminded now that my love is rooted in nostalgia that newer players will likely not appreciate.  Accordingly, it is perhaps necessary for a more modern take on game design be applied to a new module.  The designers nod to the old module, directing you how to get a copy and advising the ease of conversion (which is somewhat true).  I think they have narrowly avoided angering grognards and new players alike by pumping out a spruced up but changed Hommlet and Temple.  They’re not imitating the past, they’re building on it, depriving us curmudgeons of an opportunity to bitch about how they messed everything up in the reboot. So, well played, sirs.

Princes of the Apocalypse contains several new regional settings, great maps, and a story that crosses boundaries, suggesting a unifying element to Elemental Evil.   The remainder of the book contains items make this a must-have for those converting the old Temple.

First, there are several stat blocks for elemental priests and acolytes.  These are kept in a separate section of the book, and are easy to reference.  This is going to save you a fair bit of time when going through the various sects, with stats for elemental creatures as well that are completely new, but add nicely to the campaign world.  Temple of Elemental Evil suffered from a problem of having somewhat limited options (Monster Manual I) for filling the monster hotel.  Choice replacement may spice things up a bit in making your conversion, so I recommend you look at what’s here.

Secondly, Spells, many of which are fairly classic, are found in this book.  I did not pick up the Tyranny of the Dragon Queen, and I’m starting to worry that key and classic spells are going to start to appear in the back of numerous $50+ books, pushing players to collect them for  just a section of the book.  That may be the new way, unless they can be found elsewhere on a legitimate basis.  It’s not a good way to collect information, but I anticipate increasing web resources to fill that gap.

Third, Magic items are found in the book with details on several weapons of great power (artifacts) which I am going to place into my game in key places. Other more miscellaneous magic items also exist, fleshing out the DMG’s selection and providing thematically entertaining tools that keep the mystery of magic items alive.

For those reasons, I would recommend checking it out.  It’s good in it’s own right, and is  a truly epic campaign (taking the players up to 15th level).  I think that you’ll want to have it if you’re doing the old Temple, and see what you want to bring to it or change.

CONVERTING T1- THE VILLAGE OF HOMMLET

We’ve just finished this part of the module, so I can place the conversion material here now.  NOTE THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD so anyone getting ready to play the old T1: Village of Hommlet should stop reading now.  Below are a complete list of monsters found in the Moathouse and their page number in the Monster Manual. Some are quite obvious, but others not so much. I found these to most closely match the original intention and play of the first mod, and the challenge seemed spot-on.

  • Brigands p. 343
  • Bugbear p. 33
  • Crayfish, Giant  = (as Giant Scorpion p. 327 but no sting attack)
  • Frogs, Giant (Large) = Giant Toad p.329
  • Frogs, Giant (Small) = Giant Frogs 325
  • Ghouls p.148
  • Gnoll p.163
  • Green Slime DMG p.105 (it’s a hazard now)
  • Guardsman = Guard p.347
  • Lareth the Beautiful = See below
  • Leader = Berserker p.344
  • Lieutenant = Bandit Captain p. 344
  • Lizard, Giant = p.326 but add 2 to AC because of magic shield in its belly. Stupid, but true to form.
  • Ogre p.237
  • Rats, Giant p. 327
  • Sergeant = Thug p.350
  • Snake, Giant p327
  • Spider, Huge p.328
  • Tick, Giant = See below
  • Zombie p 316


Giant Tick

Reaper’s Giant Tick

Medium Beast, unaligned

AC 16, HP 22, Speed: 20′ Climb 20′

Str 14 Dex 8 Con 16 Int 2 Wis  8 Cha 6

Senses: Darkvision 60ft , Passive Perception 9

Languages — None

Challenge 1/4 (50XP)

SA: Blood Drain Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft, one reature. Hit: 1d6+2 piercing damage, and attaches to target.  While attached, Giant Tick doesn’t attack, each round target loses 1d6+2 for bloodloss.

Giant Tick can detach itself by spending 5 feet of its movement.  Drops off after draining 15 hp.  DC 14 Str check to remove)


Lareth the Beautiful

Medium Humanoid (Drow Elf)

Lareth the Beautiful

Level 5 ClericProficiency bonus +3

AC 21 HP 55 Speed: 25′

Senses: Darkvision 120′

Special Abilities – Sunlight Sensitivity, Channel Divinity (Trickery), Divine Spellcasting, Blessing of the Trickster, Invoke Duplicity

Str 18 (Save +4)

Dex 17 (Save +3)

Con 16 (Save +3)

Int 14 (Save +2)

Wis 18 (Save +7)

Chr 18 (Save +7)

Skills: Deception +7, Insight +7, Persuasion +7, Sleight of Hand +6

Abilities: Dancing Lights 1/day; Darkness 1/day

Attacks:

Staff of Striking [DMG p. 203] (+10 to hit, 1d6+7 plus 1d6 per charge expended)

Inventory – Plate Mail +1, Shield, Staff of Striking, Silver Holy Symbol, etc

Spells (DC 15)

Cantrips –  Guidance, Resistance, Sacred Flame, Thaumaturgy,

Level 1 –Bane, Charm person, Disguise Self, Healing Word, Inflict Wounds

Level 2 – Blindness, Hold Person, Silence

Level 3 –Animate Dead, Bestow Curse, Mirror Image, Pass without trace

Resurrection Revisited

April 6, 2015 Comments off

Avalynethelifegiver1988The Easter season is a time that rebirth is on our minds, with the backdrop of the story of the Resurrection prominent for many, and the revitalization Spring brings.

It made me think about the role of resurrection and ‘raise dead‘ in fantasy role playing. Most systems have something of this sort at some level of play, and conquering death is one of the big fantasies we have in reality and fiction. That said, as an element of a gaming setting, it’s a complete game changer.  And here’s the thing: It is horrible.

Resurrection ruins games.  It ruins good story-telling. It cheapens heroism, belittles triumphs, and obliterates drama. It destroys the impact and gravity of the greatest story telling device there is: Death.  Without death, there is no finality, no consequences to any event that can’t be unmade or recycled.  Heroes need not live up to a higher standard where they might just prevail by way of a Holy Mulligan. It’s a softening of the game world that detracts from the story, and thereby detracts from the game itself.

We finished up Paizo’s Reign of Winter adventure path this past year. After we hit the midway point of the series,  it became apparent that the presence of raise dead and resurrection was quickly arrived at as the easy remedy for character death. A shoulder shrug followed by a quick calculation of how many diamonds it would deplete from the party stores was all the drama that such an event as character death added.  It was a failure of the system if not myself, the storyteller.  Death had lost its finality, and the threat of death was greatly offset by the players calling my bluff of a TPK, which I theoretically wouldn’t let happen (though I would, with some caveats that I went into last year in my article “The Art of Fail“) . That is a problem.

Outside of a softening of the consequences, it is problematic from a general story telling perspective.  How can the loss of life of villagers in a goblin raid remain poignant when someone can walk up and raise the victims?  Why stop there?  Why not raise random people of historical note?  The King murdered?  Bring ’em back?  It only takes 10 minutes in some of these systems, so he might not even be missed!   It cheapens the value of life and the story telling dynamic, and creates numerous plot holes that are hard to work around without clumsy artifice on the part of the GM.

And you shouldn’t do that!  Resurrection and Raise Dead should be rare, almost wish-like events that are costly.  Costly, painful rituals for a loved friend and companion, like we see in Conan the Barbarian.  Some of these costs are built in, but if it’s just money, it’s a pittance (get a character to sacrifice their most powerful magic item and you’ll see them weep openly).  Promises should be required to raise the dead.  Oaths. Blood sacrifice.

Some of you might have played under old rules in OD&D that indicated that an elf could not be resurrected.  We did, back in 1997, and when a elven ranger died at the hands of a certain Troll  in the Temple of Elemental Evil, we all realized that he was DEAD DEAD, and it sobered the players that evening.  When not long after, a paladin of St. Cuthbert was mostly devoured by rats, the drama of her resurrection was a story in itself; an epic race to the nearest city that had a priest of sufficient level to raise her, a debt undertaken, oaths sworn, and a battle with a cult of Iuzian priests fighting to interrupt the ritual.  The resurrection became a story in itself, and carried weight.

It’s a hard choice to ditch resurrection or deny its availability to players.  They will hate you for it, so you had better telegraph those decisions early on before it becomes a resource they anticipate. When the playing field is clear before hand, few have reason to complain (especially where the challenges are freely taken and understood).  Games that let you know that they plan on killing you can be strangely refreshing, like Paranoia (giving you six clones is a good indicator of the cheapness of human life) or Dungeon Crawl Classics, where the 0-level funnel has you generate 3 to 4 peasants who try to try to survive a normal first level adventure (protip: your most unworthy character will always be the sole survivor).  While seemingly depressing, the result is a certain lack of attachment for more lighthearted games, which is surprisingly welcome.  Alternately, for more serious games, a grim determination and earnest concern for other characters becomes more pressing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to this approach is when it takes effect, and a favorite character is gone without the realistic possibility of a remedy.  Sometimes, this can be a game-ending or campaign-ending event, especially if more than one character bites the bullet.  My advice is to play through it and see if you can’t come out on the other side.  That said, you know your players.  The point, is to have fun (Commandment #10) so as long as folks are having a good time, it’s worth it, but remember you may have missed an opportunity for players and characters to grow a little, which could lead to even better results.

Try it on, or say you’re going to, and see how it changes your player’s play-style.  You might just be surprised what the fear of death will do for your next game.

Back to the Classics: Returning to the Temple of Elemental Evil

February 8, 2015 6 comments

The Temple

When I realized the 5th Edition was built with a mind to accommodate classic concepts, I started thinking what I do when any edition of D&D comes out…. TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL.

I love this module, LOVE IT.  When I was a kid I played it three times, read it cover to cover, and played it a few more times over the intervening years. I ran it for a group in college, and some variation of those characters and that group for 15 years.  It, like the other classics of D&D (Slave Lords, Giants, and Demonweb Pits, to  name a few) are amazing, iconic stories that are world defining.  When I realized that quite a number of our local grognards had somehow missed the opportunity to play this classic, I knew it was time to see what 5th Edition Temple looked like.

Conversion to a new system is always a crap shoot.  There is always a temptation to convert straight over from the original, without considering the change in difficulty from older editions of the game to the new.  Right now I’m in the early conversion stages (having converted over the Village of Homlett) with a tentative readiness to recalibrate everything after the first TPK. The problem for me is that 5th Edition is so new, and my experience with it so limited (Beginner Box and a couple of Adventurer’s League mods) that am not sure how powerful I can anticipate the players will be.  I know that in the Beginner Box, they took on and defeated a monster or two that I would never have thought possible at that level in any other edition.  5th Edition has a way of letting half the party get knocked to negatives in any combat but suddenly be all up and triumphant by the end.  It’s really confusing to plan around for a conversion and CR’s seem almost irrelevant.  So far, I’m doing a straight conversion to what’s in the monster manual and waiting to see what happens.  I anticipate things are going to become unhinged when they walk into their first room full of bugbears, as apparently 5E thinks very highly of bugbears.  Very highly.  But Temple was tough, and characters died. And that’s something that’s been missing from games for me lately… I’m a little worried death won’t even be a concern in 5th edition, but the Temple always seems to come through in that department, so for now I’m relaxing and seeing what happens.

There are a number of encounters that I look forward to running that genuinely kicked the crap out of my characters every time we went through them, and I’m sure the first encounter most people remember from this series is the most deadly.  I remember our cleric casting his two healing spells and limping back to town and sleeping for three days . Strange though it may sound, it’s exactly that kind of experience I want my players to have…  Not the hopeless slaughter but the challenge and the peril and the overcoming of incredible obstacles.  I want them to never think about a giant tick as being something to sneeze at.  I want them to start carving up the bellies of each monster they find in the hope that there is hidden loot inside.  I want the citizens of Homlett to come alive and become single name icons for a type of character or personality trait (‘Stop being such an Elmo’). Some of the oddball characters that can rise to the fore in a game like this can be surprising.  A few bad guys became good guys in our campaign, and a few good guys became bad guys in others.  Some nobodies became demi-gods (Gwyneth Lilburne, the Silver Stitch; Black Jay, the Patron Saint of Gnollish worship of St. Cuthbert….. yeah, that). I want it to breathe for them the way it breathes for me.

The thing about Temple of Elemental Evil is it is largely a sandbox.  After playing Paizo’s adventure paths for years, it’s refreshing to play a sandbox game where you can really open up options to the players.  I was surprised and amused when one player expressed slight concern that it was ‘too sandboxy’.  I was puzzled that it could be a downside, but I think that kind of freedom can be a little daunting when you’re not used to it.  I think after getting  a taste of it, people are going to wonder why they ever did it any other way.

However, I will say that I have a few fears and reservations.  Going back over the module and reading the campy box text about seeking fame and fortune, I noticed that a lot of the memories that were in this mod were placed there by great GM’s and great players.  Many towns folk are just named ‘Farmer’ and ‘Wainright’.  Much of the rich story has been added in my brain, and the justifications elaborated on to the point where memory greatly surpasses the actual published text.  What if you can’t go home again? What if you can’t go back to Homlett? There’s a legitimate fear there, that maybe this module doesn’t stand up to the test of time, that others might not appreciate it for what it is.  Maybe my low standards and youthful enthusiasm made up for a lot of shortcomings that my older self won’t enjoy.  My feeling is it will prove itself, but there is that fear.

The Good Ol’ Moathouse

Wizard’s announcement that the Temple of Elemental Evil was going to be a feature of this season’s campaign theme strikes me both as a sign of the merits of this series and also as a maybe an unwelcome travelling companion on this journey.  If they redo it, what will it be like?  Will it distract from, enhance, mitigate or overdevelop elements of my story, the old module, the known universe?  Will it be set in my beloved Greyhawk? What will it do?

Temple has been a known quantity for over 20 years.  Changing the mythos tempts fate.  Maybe they do it right, maybe not.  My understanding is that the new material is different than the Temple itelf  Maybe that falls in line… complimenting, not changing.

While this blog post is about the why of starting up Temple, future ones will be the how.  Look back for conversion tips from the Village of Homlett under the category Elemental Evil.  I’d post more now but Wednesday, we head for the Moathouse!

Star Wars – The Bounty Hunter Code

November 3, 2014 2 comments

BHC I’m a big fan of both Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion, but I have to admit, I’m a bit surprised the sourcebook for the Colonist career came out before the Bounty Hunter. As I was perusing the fantasy/sci-fi section of a bookstore, the Bounty Hunter Code caught my eye. I’ve read a few Star Wars novels, and outside the Timothy Zahn Thrawn trilogy, they are generally not great. Despite this, I picked it up and flipped through it, and low and behold, it is a treasure trove of easily adaptable equipment, mission ideas, and could be a great basis for an ongoing game at an FLGS.

The book is supposed to be a manual that has passed around the bounty hunter community, as such it has “notes” in the margins in different handwriting that provide additional insight on some of the points made in the book. Boba Fett is prominent among them, as well as Greedo, Dengar, Bossk, as well as General Solo once the handbook was seized by the rebels with Slave I orbiting Tatooine. It has full color illustrations and a ragged edge to the pages that gives it a well-worn feel. Apparently there is a special edition that has a case and a Kamino saber dart, but its a lot more money for not a lot more actual product.

Screen shot 2014-11-03 at 11.52.46 AMThere is a wealth of information in here for the Edge game is how it breaks down how to become a bounty hunter, what rules the guild specifies, and the details of how one would find a bounty and how much it would be, depending on the crime. There are also lots of details about what permits and documents the Empire would require, Imperial bounties through the Imperial Office of Criminal Investigation, as well as corporate sector and underworld bounties. It goes into the history of bounty hunting in the galaxy, selection, evaluation, preparation and implementation of a bounty. Further sections detail tactics, equipment and survival techniques, as well as the advantages of being a guild member, rather than an independent hunter.

It could work extremely well for an ongoing, public or living campaign thanks to the concept of a Guild Contractor selecting a hunter for a particular bounty. Also the resources of such a huge organization could provide specialized equipment for the mission (for a price), and the natural progression of more successful hunters being assigned higher profile jobs.

This book can be of great benefit to both Bounty Hunter players, and GMs who want some fuel for some bounty hunter missions, or are looking for some more flavor for their existing Edge campaigns. I’ve got some games to plan!